Winning the first season of American Idol in 2002, Kelly seemed like a novelty – just a step above a one-hit wonder and just another step away from doing VH1 specials for the rest of her life.
Although the product of industries ruled by youth and fleeting fame (music and reality TV respectively), Kelly remains the top dog among her fellow Idol alum – remaining more popular than any of her cohorts, even those from much more popular years. Even 10 years later, she’s (ahem) stronger than ever.
Even though her successors have been prettier, more accomplished, and more talented, Kelly is more likeable than any of them. (She’s so likeable I feel uncomfortable referring to her as “Clarkson” on second reference.) Girls like her because it’s so easy to see themselves in her. Boys like her because of her superlative girl next door appeal; when she tells you that her life would suck without you, you know that she means it. (If Katy Perry told you that, you’d assume she was lying.)
As in popular music, likeability is often the key to a politician’s success.
Voters respond to leaders who seem to be in touch with their everyday struggles and hopes – hence so much is made of candidates with a “Bubba gap.” A likeable politician is one who seems like he’d be fun to watch a basketball game with. Likeability leads to trust, which leads to votes.
Likeability is not the same as charisma. A candidate with charisma can inspire and elevate, but can also turn people off if he seems insincere or manipulative. Barack Obama is charismatic, but not very likeable. George W. Bush was likeable, but not the most charismatic speaker. Some rare politicians are both charismatic and likeable (Ronald Reagan) while some are neither (Harry Reid).
Dwight Eisenhower understood likeability so well he made it his entire campaign!
(Though of course I don’t think this particular tactic would work in the current political climate.)
Unsuccessful attempts to seem likeable can backfire and then compound the problem by making a candidate seem insincere. John Kerry windsurfed to look cool, but the stunt became fodder for late-night wisecracks, his opponent’s attack ads, and political humor years after he’d lost the election.
Likeability is probably less important to party faithful and political ideologues, but critical for winning over moderates, particularly in races where the two candidates seem indistinguishable politically. This can be a struggle for some in Utah, who seem to do better with convention-goers than the general population (ie Tim Bridgewater).
Likeability is a key reason why politicians need to tread carefully when attacking their opponents. This is an obstacle challengers frequently face in beating incumbents: even when those attacks are perfectly justified, hostility is an unlikeable quality.
The same is true in political discourse: Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart seem like they’d be fun to take with on a cross-country road trip. Ann Coulter and Bill Maher seem like they’d be unpleasant to share a cab ride with.
Likeability doesn’t guarantee that you’ll win (Bob Dole), but it’s certainly an asset. You want voters to think that life would suck without you.