The Dreamy Candidate With the Swoon Vote

Sen. Barack Obama, in New Hampshire earlier this week, was greeted by enthusiastic crowds. You might say voters have a political
Sen. Barack Obama, in New Hampshire earlier this week, was greeted by enthusiastic crowds. You might say voters have a political "crush" on the Illinois Democrat. (By Jodi Hilton -- Getty Images)
By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 14, 2006

It is sometimes called a bubble or a boomlet or a bandwagon. A new political figure arrives on the national stage and audiences swoon. Suddenly, mysteriously, and without anybody knowing much about him, he is The One, the next hot thing, eclipsing all other presidential wannabes.

(Until he isn't anymore.)

This bubble is not love -- as anyone who was ever 15 years old can testify. This bubble is infatuation. Political infatuation. Presidential contenders can be the subject of crushes just as surely as that new kid in high school, and in both cases it's what you don't know about the person that forms much of the appeal.

Speaking of which, there's this transfer student we've been eyeing in Miss Fischer's P.E. class. Name's Barack or something. Big dark eyes, great cheekbones. From Illinois. Don't know much about him, but, boy, is he dreamy.

* * *

When Sen. Barack Obama descended on New Hampshire earlier this week, the crowds were rapturous. The Illinois Democrat was compared to JFK and Elvis, and one woman told Slate, "I'm not comparing him to Jesus Christ, but . . . " All of this necessitated some comment from Obama about what he calls the "hype" surrounding him.

"People are very hungry for something new," he said. "I think to some degree I'm a stand-in for that desire."

Oh, no, baby, this is for real.

This was a statement at once self-deprecating and astute, pointing to a potential source of trouble for the senator should he heed the calls of many panting Democrats and run for president. Because the truth is, Obama, like many objects of political desire before him (including Howard Dean and Wesley Clark) is in great part beloved for what people imagine about him, rather than what they know.

A few years ago, some political scientists studied this phenomenon. Jon Krosnick, a Stanford University professor, says he and others looked at nearly 25 years of electoral surveys. They found that, despite the widespread notion that voters are predisposed to dislike politicians, voters are instead inclined toward good feelings when presented with a candidate they know nothing about.

"When people have no information, they are hopeful and optimistic that this is the knight in shining armor they've been waiting for to rescue the American political system," Krosnick says.

Some of this is fueled by a basic optimism, Kronick says, and some of this is fueled by dissatisfaction with the rest of the field of candidates, according to Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego.

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