Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam has run a lot of television commercials this year; it’s one of the reasons he is perceived as the front runner in the Republican gubernatorial primary. But the best ad he has run is his latest and it may hold the key to the election.
In the ad, David Wright talks about Haslam coming to his popular cafeteria to work the line when he was running for mayor and offers a testimonial. It’s genuine, folksy, and it’s David being David. (I can smell the meat loaf.) At the end of the commercial he stands looking at the camera and says: “I just like him.”
Us political reporters and writers often get bogged down in this issue or that issue or debates or polls or fund-raising and all the things that make up an election campaign. Candidate responses on a variety of issues, especially those dear to special-interest groups, are thought to be vitally important. And I guess they are. In between times we are just on the lookout for gaffes, funny youtubes or macaca moments.
But what is often overlooked is the sheer likability of a candidate. It is certainly a key component of local electoral steamrollers like Jimmy Duncan, Jamie Woodson, and Tim Burchett.
Bill Haslam is rich, successful, and good-looking. He has a beautiful wife and three great children. But I like him anyway. Go figure.
In 1994 a lot of Republicans would have joined Democrats in electing the popular Congressman Jim Cooper to the U.S. Senate. He was center right, a good candidate, and a good possibility to keep Al Gore’s seat for the Democrats. Then along came Fred Thompson. Thompson won going away and it wasn’t because of his erudite exposition of the issues. People just really liked him.
Some people have the ability to connect with the masses. They “pop,” as they say in the radio business. They are able to project a genuineness at the retail level. (And boy, if you can fake that, you’ve got it made, goes the old joke.) When I had a radio show on WNOX following Hal Hill’s morning show, Hill was unfailingly kind and helpful to the new guy. He told me you have to open up to your listeners, if you want them to trust you, you have to trust them. Share your life, your hopes, your dreams and invite them along for the ride. It was good advice. But it didn’t work for me because I would have preferred to open a vein in my wrist and drip blood into the console first.
It is in many ways an indefinable thing, the capacity to get people who don’t know you to like you and trust you. Who are people drawn to, Sarah Palin or Mitt Romney? Sandra Bullock or Angelina Jolie. Julia Roberts or (insert any blond hussy here).
Zach Wamp is a live wire. His energy is boundless. He can work a room and a crowd as well as I’ve ever seen it done. He comes across your television as intense. Hot. The Energizer Bunny. But do you like him? I dunno.
Media guru Marshall McLuhan observed that television is a “cool” medium that is not kind to “hot,” intense, and passionate people. It was the cool Barack Obama who captured America, not the strident Hillary or the hectoring McCain.
Tennessee faces a lot of challenges. But then, Tennessee has always faced a lot of challenges. Our elections for governor are usually about buying a pig in a poke. Because we don’t elect anyone in state government statewide except the governor, we never have a track record in state government as a guide. We elect mayors, congressmen, legislators, and the occasional dentist. You rarely know what you are going to get. Ned McWherter was the only governor in memory who had a clue how state government worked when he was elected.
Very often it comes down to voting for someone just because you like them.
In this gubernatorial election year, Bill Haslam appears to me to be winning the likability sweepstakes. And given that he has all the money in the world to keep his and David Wright’s pretty faces in front of the public until election day, he ought to do very well indeed.