As we step into the hurricane of the 2020 presidential election cycle, Dr. Peter A. Wish joins us to talk about his new book, The Candidate’s 7 Deadly Sins. Dr. Wish is a seasoned psychologist who formerly wrote a syndicated column for The Boston Globe, hosted Psychologically Speaking on CBS Radio, and has appeared on The Today Show, Good Morning America, and Nightline, in addition to winning the prestigious National Media Award from the American Psychological Foundation. He also served on Mitt Romney’s 2012 national presidential finance committee and has advised Democrats and Republican candidates alike, and state, Congressional, and Senatorial campaigns.
In this episode, Dr. Wish breaks down how candidates succeed–spoiler alert, it’s by creating an emotional connection with voters–what that looks like, and why it works. While this book is geared toward campaign managers, I found Dr. Wish’s insights fascinating from a voter’s perspective and I think you will too.
Nikki Van Noy: Dr. Wish, thank you so much for joining us today.
Dr. Peter A. Wish: You’re welcome.
Nikki Van Noy: We’re here today to discuss your new book, The Candidate’s Seven Deadly Sins: Using Emotional Optics to Turn Political Vices into Virtues, which is fascinating to discuss at this particular moment in time.
Dr. Peter A. Wish: Politics is so partisan today. I mean, it’s not like everybody’s lining up on the battlefield and one on one end, and one on the other end, and they’re ready to kill each other. What I hope to do is to show candidates how to better emotionally connect with the voter. Voters basically vote with their gut and not their brain and voting and decision making are emotional.
You can feed people all the facts in the world but when it comes down to it, all of our decisions are emotionally based, and some of them are hardwired into us for survival purposes. Then others are choices we make, we think, due to free will but a lot of it is still inborn and cultural is an overlay to it, that adds to it.
Nikki Van Noy: As a voter, I couldn’t agree with you more. Tell me a little bit about your background and what led you to this point to write this book?
Dr. Peter A. Wish: Well, I’m a psychologist by training. I practiced for many years in Boston and I practiced with individuals, couples, and family therapy. But I also had an interest in politics and on occasion, I would be called upon to counsel different political candidates on how to present better, how to increase their likeability, how to make a better connection, because voting is an emotional choice that people make, it’s very similar to making a commitment as you would make in any relationship.
I had to teach candidates how to reach out and touch their audience in a way that resonated and left the audience, i.e., the voter, with a feeling, “This person really cares about me. This person really understands me.” Once a candidate is able to do that and make that emotional bond, then it’s much more likely that a relationship of trust will be established and will secure the vote.
Nikki Van Noy: What a fascinating perspective to come from and I’m so intrigued because this is something that I have felt and heard in discussions with friends, which obviously is a small and specific sample size. But in 2008, it felt like people really were voting for emotional reasons and they were impassioned and wanted to cast their vote, versus in 2016 for example, it felt more like voting against someone than feeling that impassioned, emotional engagement and voting from that place, which is such a different feeling.
Dr. Peter A. Wish: Well, if you look at what’s happened over the last few years with all the changes in society and the loss of manufacturing jobs, we have a whole culture out there of disenfranchised, disenchanted, unhappy, displaced Americans who are worried about sending their kids to college. “Where is my next paycheck coming from?” The DC apparatus, the traditional candidates were certainly not addressing those people’s needs.
They were looking for somebody to be their champion and they wanted somebody to ride in like Robin Hood and drain that swamp and speak to their needs. Donald Trump was their perfect candidate because he stirred up their emotions and made them feel heard and related to, and he presented himself as an emotionally based candidate, which he was, regardless of whether you believe in his policies or not or like him or not.
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, was a very dispassionate, fact-based 10 point plan type of person and she certainly knows her policy cold but she didn’t resonate and people didn’t feel heard. So, surprise surprise, we end up with Donald Trump pulling an inside straight in the Midwest and getting the electoral college. For a guy who started out with totally lottery-like odds of winning, not only the nomination but the presidency, he ended up being elected.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah. Talk to me a little bit about, in your experience, do you think that this is something that most candidates get? That they have to make that emotional connection or is their attention misdirected?
Dr. Peter A. Wish: This is partly why I wrote the book. No, I don’t think they have the emotional intelligence to understand that. I traveled with the Romney Campaign in 2012 on their presidential finance team and in the course of being around the inside of that campaign, I saw all the campaign emotional malpractice that went on.
You had a very fine, distinguished, experienced, moral, and ethical candidate who had all the qualities and abilities to be president but never revealed himself to the American public till well after the presidential campaign was over. Whatever I recommended to the campaign, Mitt was still branded as this out of touch, stiff, wooden plutocrat who couldn’t relate to real people.
Unfortunately, the campaign reinforced that branding by all the different gaffs that were committed by the candidate. I tried desperately to say that they needed to humanize him more and to show the public the real Mitt, what I call the inner Mitt, the person who was a champion of the little guy, the person who really donated large sums of money, and helped people in charities and so forth, but the campaign–and this is partly because of his Mormonism, which preaches basically that you don’t brag about your good deeds, you don’t tell people about yourself–they basically hid out and protected Mitt from showing any of these things.
The strategist of that campaign felt that the policy was more important than the person. I said to myself, “Something’s wrong here,” and election night, in Boston, when I was with the campaign team, I said to myself, “Am I the only one that knows that he’s in trouble here because he hasn’t made that emotional connection with the country. He hasn’t and Obama has,” and even though the internal polling said that Romney was going to win this election, I had serious doubts because I said to myself, “He just hasn’t made that connection. People don’t feel he understands somebody like them.”
There is a postmortem event that happens every year at the Harvard School of Public Policy and that was exactly what happened. He wasn’t likable and the number one trait that was shown was that he didn’t understand somebody like them. That’s how people felt. I said, “I’ve got to be able to write a book on this,” and I waited and waited and finally I said to myself, “I’ve got to have a framework,” and so I said, “Listen, all the sins that were committed by this campaign,” I said, “That’s it.”
I formulated it as the seven deadly basic campaign sins that politicians commit and I started to sit down and it took me eight years, after the fact, now. It took me a while to crystalize this and to get up the energy to really write the book. It took me about three years, that’s how it all came about is out of the Romney campaign and seeing what was done and what wasn’t done.
Nikki Van Noy: I would say, your timing was just right to get it out there. I want to get into these seven deadly sins but one thing I do want to ask you, the way you explained Romney in particular, makes perfect sense that the lens of his faith sort of went against this idea of emotional campaigning which you’re talking about.
What do you think it is for other candidates that gets in the way? I mean, they are human, so this idea of human connection makes a lot of logical sense.
Dr. Peter A. Wish: Well, a lot of them are very qualified and capable but they lack a certain amount of insight into themselves and many of them lack an emotional intelligence or awareness of who they’re talking to, what’s going on around them, who they need to relate to, and how they need to relate to them.
It’s not rocket science–they can learn this. It’s just that they have to be willing to. When I used to ask campaign strategists what was important to them and for their candidate, they would say to me things like, “Money is the most important thing and grassroots is important and knocking on doors is important,” but nobody would mention the emotional connection.
They’d go on the stump and they’d give the same tired boring speech one after the next or tell the same tired jokes and go from one event to the other, but they never connected personally with the voter. If you see politicians who are successful, they really stop, they focus, they notice, they talk, and they relate.
Once that bond is made, there is a hormone that’s released call oxytocin. Once that’s released, that creates a bond between the candidate and the voter. It’s even hormonal in some ways when you arouse the emotions of the voter and allow them to connect to you. You can even sync up your brain waves. I mean, all these studies that I have in my book on the latest in neuroscience show that candidates, if they’re taught specific ways of talking and acting and using what I call emotional optics–the way they talk, the way they walk, the way they hold themselves–these are all very important kinds of qualities that candidates need to learn to develop in order to make that emotional connection.
When voters are looking or just trying to decide who they’re going to vote for, number one, “The candidate likes me,” the person has got to know that. They have got to know the candidate understands me, most importantly. Number three, “I trust this candidate.” Those three ingredients are critical and so that is the goal. This can all be done through certain emotional optics. Your first impression, your nonverbal cues, your facial cues, your appearance, your word choices, some of those major elements make voters either like you, feel understood by you, or distrust you.
Ultimately, they want to know, are you a friend or are you a foe? It’s just as simple as that and all based on survival instincts.
Trust and Commitment
Nikki Van Noy: It makes so much sense with your background that you would be able to come to this because as you were talking, I was thinking, “Wow, there is a complete overlap between this and what draws us to people and the reactions that are triggered in intimate relationships.”
Dr. Peter A. Wish: That’s correct. Voting is a relationship like any other relationship. It’s based on trust and commitment. Once they trust you, they can make the commitment and that translates into a vote. I sort of broke it down into what I call the qualities of strength and warmth. When candidates fail to project the strength or warmth, they either look uninformed, they seem weak or incompetent and they don’t come across as personal, they come across as unlikeable. Gallop did a poll a few years ago where they looked at all the presidential elections from 1960 to the present and they tried to tease out the number one factor that differentiated between those who won and those who lost.
The number one trait was likability, and I know that in the 2016 campaign, we basically had two unlikeable candidates. Which is hard to believe but people voted for the least unlikeable, okay? Then they become the most likable, which is sort of ironic.
Nikki Van Noy: A very accurate assessment I would say it is the most basic form right there.
Dr. Peter A. Wish: There’s a lot of psychology involved and these sins the candidates have versus their strength virtues are really what it comes down to. I tried to sit down and identify these what I call deadly sins, and I said, “Well, once I identify those, I’ll have a better chance of showing candidates how to turn those sins into virtues.”
Now, not all candidates have all the sins or virtues. I mean, some candidates are great at certain aspects of campaigning and relating to voters and others are not, and so some will be somewhere along the continuum, they may have one trait that they want to improve on or all seven. My goal with candidates is I do an assessment, an audit, and I assess everything from inside to humility and look at their background and try to see where they’re coming from and what their weaknesses are, and sort of tease out what I would call the strength and warmth virtues and go from there. I came up with these seven deadly sins.
Seven Deadly Sins
Nikki Van Noy: Let’s quickly, I know I’m asking you to break big ideas down into kind of a sound bite, but can you run us through those seven deadly sins?
Dr. Peter A. Wish: Sure, I think the one I put at the top and I try to order them in the book in order of importance, candidates can’t be pessimistic. That’s a sin and the virtue would be optimism. Optimism is built-in, it’s hard-wired into our system, we are by nature optimistic. When candidates present themselves negatively or everything they say is negative, it turns people off and there’s no connection made.
But if you’re optimistic and you offer hope and tell people there’ll be a better tomorrow and, “This is how I’m going to do this,” that plays right into their survival needs. “This person understands me, they’re going to make my life better.” Connection right there.
An example–I don’t know if the listeners remember president Jimmy Carter, but he had a famous a Malay speech in ‘79 where he basically told the American people that there was a crisis of confidence and presented it as a real downer with no forward-looking way to get out of it. On the other hand, Ronald Reagan’s slogan was ‘It’s morning again in America’ so as a candidate you’ve got to be optimistic.
The second deadly sin is tentativeness and the virtue would be decisive. If you’re a flip-flopper, if you would change your positions on things, you are going to be largely seen as tentative, insecure, unsure of your position, and we had John Carey when he ran for president flip-flopping on several issues. John F. Kennedy when he did his moon shot, addressed the Congress in May of ’61 and his comments were, “Now is the time to take longer strides. It is time for a great new American enterprise. Time for the nation to be leading its role in space and achievements” and it was very forward-looking and very decisive. So, decisiveness implies strength, confidence and really clear-headed leadership as far as I am concerned.
My third sin would be being reactive versus being deliberate. Reactive is approaching a situation and not knowing what you’re going to say or what you’re going to do and acting improperly in that situation. That would be an example of a gaff. There was a situation with President George H.W. Bush where he did a town hall and checked his watch during the town hall and that was sort of the kiss of death. This was televised nationally and people saw him as reactive. “This is boring, and I don’t want to be here,” and wow, he lost the audience right there.
As opposed to Bill Clinton, who was very deliberate in the way he approached questioners during that town hall debate and the way he related to the people. So, it is important to be very deliberate in the way you approach your policies and the way you present yourself.
Number four would be don’t be what I call canned. Be authentic. Everybody is looking for authenticity today. Everybody wants the real deal and especially the millennials and dot comers, they can smell inauthenticity a mile away. You know we have Bernie Sanders who people consider authentic. He doesn’t change his look, he says the same thing, he says, “If you are with me, then take the ride with me. If you’re not, that’s okay.”
I mean we had Beto O’Rourke who dropped out of the race, who traveled the country and did these videos of himself in the dentist chair. Anybody who is willing to show his molars in a dentist chair is certainly not going to have any skeletons in his closet.
So former President Barack Obama, you know, he’s a warm guy. He jokes and is affectionate in his relationship with his daughters and his wife and that’s authentic.
Authenticity shows voters basically you’re relatable, you’re trustworthy, and you’re likable, and when candidates default to saying the same thing over and over and over again, then they’re canned. They got a canned program.
Another sin would be being too cerebral as opposed to being empathic. Think of candidates who obsess over their policy plans, which is very boring, versus candidates who tell stories. Storytelling is a big part of my book, learning how to tell an engageable and relatable story. Empathic candidates show voters that they care about everyday Americans. That they can relate to them, that they feel for them, that they understand them. I have a lot of examples in the book of this and then specific ways that candidates can learn how to be more empathic.
Number six would be don’t be arrogant and the virtue would be humble. You know, we know arrogance. I mean we’ve had enough of it in politics. There are examples where Al Gore ran for president and he debated George W. Bush and during the debate, he was doing all kinds of what I call non-verbal emotional optics. The eye rolls, the sighs, every time Bush opened his mouth, versus Bush’s folksy affability. Voters want a candidate that’s going to share the credit with them and not somebody who just wants to pump themselves up and not share credit. We have an arrogant president, but he seems to get away with it because he delivers on it, but still, I wouldn’t recommend it to candidates.
I think people are turned off by arrogance and self-importance and they really want to see somebody who’s humble and has a degree of humility.
My last sin would be being rigid versus being agile. You know when candidates get stuck on a tough question like a deer caught in the headlights, that’s rigid. When they can think on their feet, that’s agile, and they are able to appeal to a wide range of audiences. When they get stuck on a policy position–President Trump was stuck on building this wall and he wasn’t going to bend. Other candidates are stuck on other issues and a lot of times things don’t get done because they can’t flex and there are other ways of approaching things. They say politics is the art of compromise and compromise is being agile and being able to shift positions and come across the aisle.
Reagan was an expert at that, he didn’t always get what he wanted but he was able to work with Tip O’Neil, the speaker of the house, and they passed legislation that would work for the American people and had everybody’s interest at heart. So those are basically the seven sins and virtues.
Nikki Van Noy: Obviously, just like there are no perfect people, there are no perfect candidates but with all of these sins in mind and then their counterpart, the asset, does anyone come to mind either past or present who has done a good job of personifying the positive elements of all of these sins?
Dr. Peter A. Wish: Well, I think you have several people. Regardless of their policies or how well they did or their legacies, I think you have people like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, who personified the ability to be likable and to relate to people, to have a sense of humor, to want to do the best for the American public, to be optimistic, to be uplifting. Ultimately, voters are going to choose the candidate they like, the one they trust, the one they feel understands them.
I think both of those candidates were able to make an emotional connection with the public. I think Obama was in some ways also able to make a good connection with people. They liked him. He related to the average American and again, regardless of whether you agree politically, we are not talking about policy, we are talking about a person, and sometimes people are willing to overlook the differences in policy, if they can really trust a candidate, to believe that they want the best for them.
They will cross over and vote for somebody that they normally might not have. Today we are pretty tribal and so it is not happening as much, but you do have a large body of swing voters, these non-party political affiliations where people have not chosen. So it’s critical that if a candidate wants to grab some of that share then the more likable they become the better the chance that those people will say, “Hey, I could vote for this person.”
Nikki Van Noy: I feel like you would be so fascinating to sit in a room with and watch some of these debates alongside to hear your commentary.
Dr. Peter A. Wish: Well, I have been to many of the presidential debates. I did with the Romney team and there were many times where I was backstage and saying, “Do this and don’t do that, walk, look this way and say this,” always coaching, sort of myself to myself, but candidates can learn if they’re willing to learn.
Unfortunately, there are many candidates who basically think they know better than anybody else and candidates are often very successful people in other forms of life. They come into running for political office and they’re used to running the show and having everybody at their beck and call and do what they say. That’s really going to get them in trouble because they need to have people around them that are honest and tell them the truth about where they step out and don’t do the right thing, and they have to be willing to listen to learn the emotional optics, which will then help them make a better connection and increase their likability index.
Nikki Van Noy: That sounds to me like deadly sins number six and seven right there, arrogance and rigidity.
Dr. Peter A. Wish: Yeah, it is.
Nikki Van Noy: So as we are coming into high political season right now, what are you noticing out there? Are there any candidates on either side who you are seeing either a lot of sins from or a lot of really important opposites of those?
Dr. Peter A. Wish: Well, you know gaffing is a sin and Joe Biden, as Dana Milbank from the New York Times called the Lamborghini of political gaffes. I mean he’s incredible, and it is not mean spirited, it is just who he is. He just does some unbelievable gaffing and so I would say that he really needs to learn more awareness of where he is and he needs some mindfulness training.
Nikki Van Noy: Although, perhaps there is some authenticity there.
Dr. Peter A. Wish: Well there is but every candidate sins at one time or another but for the most part when they get to this level, they’ve been able to work a connection with the people. When they have a following, it doesn’t mean that they can’t improve their connection through coaching. They probably can, but you see many candidates out there trying to force authenticity.
You have somebody like Elizabeth Warren who tried to get in on the authenticity gig when she had a beer in her kitchen with her husband. She had to throw that in to make sure it got tweeted out.
So, there are people that think they should be doing something when in actuality it doesn’t really make them look as good as they could. You have to pick apart each candidate to assess their warmth and strength virtues in their sins and then try to come up with some analysis for each candidate.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah this might sound like the same question asked in a different way but I am curious, just on a gut level, if there is anyone who strikes you as particularly promising right now who’s pinging that emotionality.
Dr. Peter A. Wish: Well Trump always, he drives on emotion. That’s what he does in all his rallies, he plugs right into the gut of the voter. He is really a master at creating that connection and making people feel that he really understands them. Regardless of the theatrics and regardless of all the vitriol and all and all the swamping the monitors with foul language and boorish behavior and everything else that he throws in the mix, he understands this, and I think that comes from his days in reality television.
I think it comes from the fact that he isa salesman and he knows how to sell people. I would say that he’s in some ways mastered it. I would like to see him be a lot more humble. I think he could stop tweeting and that would help him a lot, but he is not going to listen to me.
Nikki Van Noy: I think you are in good company.
Dr. Peter A. Wish: I don’t think he listens to anybody. Yeah, I don’t think he listens to any people, but he’s got a gut instinct that knows how to relate to people.
You have Pete Buttigieg and he’s out there and he relates pretty well to people. He’s got a nice folksy style to him and he does pretty well. Amy Klobuchar, she’s okay. She’s got a folksy Midwestern-type approach to things and she is able to present herself in a way that people listen and feel heard.
Your presidential campaigns today are filled with some people who do have some ability to create that connection.
Nikki Van Noy: You are fascinating to talk to, especially right now, really this is such interesting stuff and obviously this book is geared towards those who are working on campaigns, but I have to say as someone who has nothing to do with campaigns, just your average joe voter, I think I will start looking at things through a bit of a different lens now, or at least more awareness.
Dr. Peter A. Wish: I wrote the book for candidates and for strategists and so forth but the public can read it and I think that they would enjoy it and read about different campaigns and case studies of famous politicians and what they did right and what they did wrong and where they gaffed and where they lost and why some won. The book, even though it is not a technical book, it’s a book that is basically written I think in an enjoyable way.
I didn’t overload it with neuroscience, even though I incorporate that and I didn’t overload it with cognitive and social psychology but it is written so that anybody can read it.
Nikki Van Noy: The psychology of it is very interesting though. This has never occurred to me before talking to you, but it makes sense that some of our basic neuropsychology and survival instincts are tied up in this because our survival is tied to our president, our survival and success in a lot of ways.
Dr. Peter A. Wish: That’s right and it is all tied into our needs and whether we get our needs met. If your needs are to have health insurance, well you are going to be connected hopefully to a candidate that you feel is going to provide that security blanket for you. If you are tied to needing to send your kids to college you are going to be tied to a person who is maybe offering that, or you feel more secure when you are not going to lose your job. Or here is a basic candidate who is tough on foreign policy and you feel more secure there. So, everything is related to your sense of security and survival.
Nikki Van Noy: Such interesting stuff. Thank you so much for joining us today Dr. Wish. Again, fascinating. The book is The Candidate’s Seven Deadly Sins. Outside of the book, where else can listeners find you?