FEATURE9 April 2015

Personality is everything: can the geek win the election?


In her book, Quiet, Susan Cain argues that society is in the grip of a culture of personality with everyone under pressure to conform to what she terms the “extrovert ideal”.

Certainly the current election campaign and the media coverage of it would have us believe that we now live in a presidential rather than a parliamentary democracy, with charismatic leadership paramount. Ed Miliband is portrayed as an electoral liability, too geeky and too introverted to win, constantly urged to “be more normal”.

But just how far is Ed Miliband from the voters’ idea of the ideal Prime Minister? And, come to that, just how close is David Cameron? We decided to find out.

In our commercial brand work we distinguish between brand character and brand personality.

Brand Character: this is the evaluation of brand strength on rational, System2, aspects of belief such as trust, reliability and affinity, measured on traditional scales. A high score is always good.

Brand Personality: here respondents position brands between alternative statements of personality, each of which is positive – so there is no good or bad, just different. For example, masculine against feminine, youthful against mature and so on. Then they position their ideal brand on the same measures. A distinct profile that closely matches the stated ideal is the aim.

So how did our leaders fare?

On the human virtues of trust, fairness, honesty and affinity there is little to choose between the two leaders. Being politicians both are damaged brands; on these measures both consistently receive top 2 box (out of 5 ) scores from just one in three voters.

On values around competence – effective, strong, good in a crisis etc. – David Cameron opens up a clear lead. It is not that Cameron sets the world alight on these measures, but that Miliband scores woefully. Of course these are attributes where a decent incumbent has an inbuilt advantage over a challenger with no opportunity to prove themselves.

So what of personality? Surely the more confident Cameron will be much closer to the Prime Ministerial ideal than introverted Ed. Not so. The two are very different but equally distant from the ideal.

It seems that the appeal of the charismatic leader may indeed be a myth. Rather voters seek a leader who is plain speaking and down-to-earth, principled rather than pragmatic. And they want someone who really is a leader – decisive more than thoughtful, authoritative more than persuasive and assertive rather than collaborative.

But they value care and compassion over courage and objectivity. And wisdom, experience and maturity over confidence, innovation and youth.

Surprisingly, there is little to choose between the two leaders in terms of how well they fit this ideal vision of a Prime Minister.

If a perfect fit with the ideal is scored as 100 David Cameron stands at 81, Ed Miliband at 78.
Miliband does indeed trail on the “harder” values: he is seen as thoughtful rather than decisive, collaborative not assertive, inexperienced and youthful and loses a lot of ground to Cameron on these measures. But Cameron has critical weaknesses. He is seen as too smooth by half – he has too much confidence and is certainly neither plain speaking nor down to earth.

Of the two Cameron is the leader whose personality most closely matches the ideal for 41% of voters and Miliband for 38%. Intriguingly, though, Miliband has a massive 16 point lead amongst undecided voters – scoring 40% against Cameron’s 24%.

So Ed Miliband’s challenge is not to “be more normal”, rather it is to convince voters of his competence, while David Cameron needs to tone down the charm and self-confidence and acquire a few rough edges.

Tom Simpson is managing director of Simpson Carpenter