The Cool Guy Theory: Obama Wins?

Washington Matters

The Cool Guy Theory: Obama Wins?

Who will win this extraordinary presidential election? Why, the cool guy, of course. This predictor of  victory in November was first advanced by my former editor and colleague Ciro Scotti, now assistant managing editor at BusinessWeek. It may sound exotic, but it has proven to be a surprisingly accurate barometer of election outcomes.

Think about it. Who was the cool guy when Kennedy beat Nixon in 1960? Long, tall cowboy Ronald Reagan versus the hapless Jimmy Carter in '80? The minute Mike Dukakis put on that helmet and gave the thumbs-up from the tank cockpit in 1988, he put the Democrats on the last train to Dorksville. Bill Clinton and his saxophone defined bad-boy cool for two terms in office. The stiff, monotoned John Kerry, who didn't help his cool quotient by being photographed wind surfing, did a mini-Dukakis by donning woodsman's gear as he went a-hunting to Ohio -- begging the question, who's cooler, Elmer Fudd or Bugs Bunny?

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All year long, there's been no question about the cool guy in this election. You can't get much cooler than Barack Obama, who has attained a rock-star celebrity, drawing huge, enthusiastic crowds from Denver to Berlin -- two pretty cool cities. Yes, John McCain has the edgy swagger of a maverick and tough guy, deeply rooted in his heroic ordeal as a POW in Hanoi. And he was rebel-cool when he was young. But his age and recent caution (no more long, unguarded chats with reporters on the Straight Talk Express) push the cool meter way down. GOP standard bearer and World War II hero Bob Dole had a similar profile in '96, and he lost in a landslide to the Elvis of modern politics, Clinton.

Race over? Wait! Here's the twist that has made this election one for the ages: McCain's choice of Sarah Palin to be his running mate. It may infuriate Democrats and some women voters, who consider Palin's choice an insult to serious policymaking. But in a matter of weeks, the moose-hunting hockey mom from Alaska has achieved instant political stardom that has made Hillary Clinton's earnest, methodical, policy-laden quest for the presidency seem, well, downright dorky. Palin may equate foreign affairs with being able to see Russia from her house, but the ex-beauty queen and TV sportscaster doesn't snort when she laughs, like Hillary. And who's cooler in popular culture these days than SNL alumnus and comedian Tina Fey, who does Sarah Palin better than Sarah Palin?


Figuring out cool may seem trivial, especially when set against the mounting economic and financial crises that are now demanding answers from the candidates. And it's clearly transient. What's cool in the present often becomes very uncool in the future, like bell bottoms and Ross Perot. (And remember, Perot managed to slip from way cool to so uncool as to be just on this side of crackpot during the same election. Democrats are clearly praying for a similar transformation in Palin in five short weeks.) But don't underestimate the cool factor in deciding who occupies the White House. Look at how McCain and Palin are trying, and succeeding, in turning what once was the very defintition of square -- small towns and rural life -- into the cool last vestige of American adventurism and daring. And Republicans are launching a direct attack on Obama's cool by trying to tar him as out of touch and even elite.

Cool matters in public life and can be an important attribute of leadership. General George Washington worked hard at becoming quite the dancer, and loved to impress the ladies with his high steps. His own Cabinet may have thought he was a backwoods buffoon, but Abraham Lincoln kept the room in stitches -- and the nation's spirits up during the Civil War -- with his cool gift for sly, edgy humor. Teddy Roosevelt posing with big game and a rifle? Jaunty FDR using the radio to help America stare down fear? These were cool guys. Cool guys win.