Twelve things every candidate needs in order to become President

Becoming President of the United States is perhaps the hardest job in politics. One of the great myths of American political culture is that anyone can become President. In reality though this privilege is reserved for a tiny minority. Out of every generation very few get a realistic chance of even running for the position. Those that do have to put up with over a year of round the clock campaigning and relentless press scrutiny. Lots of different people are hoping to run for the top job in 2012, so what then are the qualities that help make one candidate more successful than another?

1) Money

Running for President is an increasingly expensive business so the more money you have the better. I estimate that you’d need a minimum of 200 million dollars to become a realistic candidate, and nearer 500 million to actually win. The fact that it takes half a billion dollars to run for office these days suggests to me that there is something seriously wrong with the democratic process. Most of this money goes on expensive TV advertising that is unrelentingly negative in tone, which doesn’t help matters either.

2) The right team

A candidate needs a team of people that they can trust. This is usually made up of campaign managers, speechwriters, advertising gurus and pollsters. Not to mention a solid Vice-President candidate who will help gain crucial votes, while hopefully not doing anything too embarrassing. All of these should be carefully hand picked by the candidate and their closest advisors. They in turn will select the right people to work under them. A good campaign team should be like a well oiled machine with everybody working towards a common goal. If you pick the wrong people or they can’t work well together then the campaign is doomed before it begins.

3) Name recognition

Simply, do people know who you are? Name recognition is an increasingly important factor in elections as evidence suggests that voters a lot of the time vote for the candidate they’ve heard of, rather than the best person for the job. Name recognition takes a long time to build up and it must happen in a positive way. If you murder someone then you’d get name recognition but I doubt it would help you get elected. Celebrities often come with built-in name recognition from their regular careers, which is why some of them go on to run for office. For instance, former California Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

4) Momentum

In politics momentum is crucial. It often doesn’t matter if you’re ahead or behind in the polls but whether the momentum is on your side. Obama won in 2008, partly because all of the political momentum was behind him, rather than McCain.

5) Press support

The more of this the better, although it can sometimes be a hinderance too. The evidence of whether the press shapes people’s opinions, or people’s opinions shape the press is inconclusive at best. However the press can destroy candidates without meaning too by helping to build up absurdly high expectations of their abilities. Being picked as the front-runner by the press can sometimes be a curse as well as a blessing as people are then surprised if your performance fails to meet their expectations. The press are then usually quite quick at transferring their allegiance to another candidate.

6) The right life story

Pop Idol isn’t just a singing contest, it’s a soap opera where the contestants parade their life stories in front of us for our approval. Much the same thing happens in modern politics. Ideally a candidate should have a life story that chimes with the fabled American Dream. Born with a relatively humble background, they achieve career success in a particular field through their own hard work. It helps if they’ve overcome some sort of personal tragedy to do this. They should also have acquired along the way a spouse and one or two children, as that helps reinforce their reputation for family values. A few pets don’t go amiss either. Needless to say, paying at least lip-service to some sort of Christian belief is absolutely vital.

7) A vision

Candidates aren’t just selling themselves, they’re selling a vision of reality that the public can buy into by voting for them. Many people voted for Obama because they really thought he was offering hope and change for the future. As a famous journalist once noted, “It’s easier to sell people dreams than complicated fiscal policies”.

8 ) Luck

As they say in the Baltimore police Homicide Division, “It’s good to be good, it’s better to be lucky”. You should never underestimate the role luck plays in any campaign. Napoleon favoured generals who were lucky, and it’s the same with politicians. They’re always at the mercy of events and the world around them. The smallest thing can sometimes mean the difference between victory and defeat. 

9) A thick skin

The more a candidate is in the media, the more likely it is that they will be attacked. Many politicians would do or say pretty much anything to be elected so it’s vital that a successful candidate has a thick skin. Over the course of the average campaign the public and the press will accuse them of almost every crime under the sun. The rise of the internet and the anonymity that it offers doesn’t help matters either.

10) Endorsements

It’s not enough just to want to be President, others must want you to be President as well. As a result you’ll need endorsements from the press, celebrities and the political establishment. If you can get them to say nice things about you in an advert then that’s even better.

11) The ability to look good on TV

As Nixon once found to his cost, TV is now the name of the game. People are increasingly using the internet, but the ability to look good on TV is still hugely important when running for President. As a result candidates wearing make-up is now the norm, while many also have voice coaching to help them appeal to different audiences.

12) Likability

At the end of the day candidates have to have charm and the crucial likability factor. Almost all of the other things on this list can be bought, or perfected through training, but this one is something that you either have or you don’t.

Of course very few candidates will have all of these things on their side and even those that do are not guaranteed to be elected.

About matthewashton

I'm a Politics Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. I specialise in the fields of American, British and media politics.
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3 Responses to Twelve things every candidate needs in order to become President

  1. And unfortunately in today’s America, you shouldn’t be an atheist.
    I have been visiting the US since 195 and I love the country a lot, but I am sad to see that it is ever becoming more religious, especially in the public sphere.

    • I find it bizarre that a belief in God is the only absolute requirement for the Presidency these days. We’ve had divorced Presidents (Reagan) and Presidents who have had multiple affairs (Clinton) but if a President stood up and said that they were an atheist then they’d automatically lose a huge proportion of the vote.

  2. Pingback: Jon Huntsman and the Presidency in 2012 | Dr Matthew Ashton's Politics Blog

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