The Dreamy Candidate With the Swoon Vote

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.

"When there's a bandwagon for a new person, it's always got something to do with disaffection with the people who are already there," Popkin says. "You don't get a boom like this when people are happy."

(By "people who are already there," insert Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton. Everybody knows Hillary. Voters carry strong impressions of the New York senator, for better and for worse. )

If initial good feelings are backed up by positive impressions (a deep voice, great speechifying, youthful good looks), a lovefest can steamroll. First impressions tend to carry greater weight than later ones, so a good first impression is powerful. And if all you know is the good, it's easy to make the leap that there is no bad. And, as with romantic crushes, idealization blossoms. "Low information infatuation," Popkin calls it, the phenomenon that takes place before a first date, when you've spoken to a potential love interest on the phone, and "you know just enough to imagine everything else is the way you want it." He's the sort of guy who's great with babies and plays rugby.

In his book, "The Reasoning Voter," Popkin went so far as to quote the French novelist Stendhal on love in the context of how voters think: "Realities model themselves enthusiastically on one's desires."

Crushes are as much about the crusher as the crushee. Crushes are dangerous. By their very nature, they're intense and fleeting. Sometimes, you find out something disappointing about the object -- the dealbreaker, say he picks his nose -- and the whole house of cards collapses. In the political landscape, crushes can't last long under the scrutiny of the national stage. Already, questions have begun to arise about Obama's dealings with a donor named Antoin "Tony" Rezko.

The other team weighs in. Republicans have been suggesting that with Obama, there's no there there. He's the "Rorschach Candidate," writes conservative commentator John Podhoretz. He's "a blank canvas," said Republican consultant Ed Rogers. Are you sure he can support you?

Of course, a crush can also turn into love of the long-term, stable sort. Sober. Honest. Not the kind they write about in romance novels, but the sort that causes people to mate for life.

And vote.

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