Mass Messaging vs. Deal-making
There are really two types of political skill: the ability to shape public opinion (mass messaging), and the ability to win over small groups of essential stakeholders, sometimes on a one-on-one basis (deal-making).
Mass messaging is persuasion at scale. Politicians seek to bring the public around to their way of thinking by making speeches, strategically engaging with news outlets, and more recently, by maintaining a presence on social media.
Deal-making, on the other hand, might be trying to talk a persuadable member of Congress into casting an essential vote. Or it might be meeting with prospective donors, or with a visiting head of state. In short, deal-making is about securing the cooperation of others who hold power.
I wanted to know what the distribution of these skills was like among U.S. Presidents. As an avid reader of history, I came into this project with some very definite preconceptions about different presidents, so I was looking forward to seeing whether they would survive an encounter with the data.
How I Quantified Political Skill
C-SPAN is a public affairs channel that’s best known for broadcasting congressional proceedings. Every year since 2000, C-SPAN has conducted a survey of historians, in which each participant is asked to give a 1-10 score across several dimensions for each president. These responses, in aggregate, determine what score a president will be assigned for a particular category, as well as how different presidents are ranked relative to one another.
For the purposes of quantifying each president’s levels of skill at mass messaging and deal-making, I found two categories that I thought were good proxies.
- “Public Persuasion” – The name of this category is basically a synonym for “mass messaging.” They’re even both alliterative.
- “Relations with Congress” – This one is more of a stretch, but there’s an argument to be made for using a president’s score in this category as a stand-in for deal-making ability. For one, the authors of the survey seem to consider a president’s relationship with Congress a key component of that president’s performance, even if there are always other variables at work. Secondly, the anecdotal evidence seems to support the view that some presidents were exceptionally skilled at securing buy-in from Congress, and that others were less so.
Ultimately, this is survey data, so what you’re really seeing in here is a cross-section of contemporary historical thought, but that seems like a worthwhile thing to investigate.
Clearly public persuasion scores are correlated with congressional relations scores, to an even greater extent than I would have predicted. My prior assumption was that some common traits underlay both competencies (extroversion, psychological astuteness, etc.) but that they were largely independent of each other.
The president who ranked first in relations with Congress was entirely predictable: Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson has been called a “political genius” and the “Master of the Senate” by one Pullitzer Prize-winning biographer. If these data are to be believed, that view is well within the historical mainstream.
Johnson was somewhat unusual in that his legislative brilliance didn’t translate to public adoration*, which I think lends credence to the view that what we think of as political skill is actually two (only partly overlapping) skills.
The president who might be considered Johnson’s inverse is John F. Kennedy. Where Johnson scores above average in public persuasion and second-to-none in relations with Congress, JFK scores above average in relations with Congress and narrowly misses ranking among the top five in public persuasion.
As interesting as this survey is, it’s hard to say whether it actually measures presidential performance, or whether it just measures the way historians measure presidential performance.
I haven’t scraped the other category pages yet, but one thing I can tell from first glance is that the lists have an odd consistency, especially with the respect to most highly rated presidents. It seems weird that the same three guys would hold the top three spots for virtually every category, which leads me to believe that participants are falling prey to some sort of halo effect.
Another issue is that a couple of relevant variables are interconnected and would tend to mediate any relationship that exists between public persuasion and congressional relationship scores:
- Having a productive relationship with Congress depends in part on whether the president can marshal public support behind a legislative agenda.
- Having an impressive legislative record is generally a good way to garner and maintain public support. This requires that the president have a productive relationship with Congress.
In writing a follow-up post, I might try and find some “harder” data, such as the number of bills each president actually signed into law, as well as some consideration of their significance. Also, I wonder how much of an administration’s legislative success can be attributed to the era in which it occurred. A lot, I would bet.
I find this topic really interesting, and would like to informally open-source this project a little bit. If you have any thoughts or suggestions, get in touch. I’m open to good ideas and am willing to give you credit if I use any of yours.
In particular, are there any interesting cases of surveys of experts being analyzed and maybe used to make inferences? Maybe I’ll finally get around to reading The Wisdom of Crowds.
There’s probably a lot more I could do with this data. Are there any questions you would like me to answer in a future post? Does anything here make you feel curious? You can let me know by commenting below or emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I’m aware of his landslide victory in 1964. Still, people clearly don’t have the same sort of nostalgia for him that they do for, say, Kennedy or Reagan. You could argue that that’s because of Vietnam, but perhaps a more charismatic president would have been more robust to public backlash, and would have fared better in the public imagination.
Interestingly, Johnson is said to have been a lively, entertaining speaker in certain contexts (in small, private groups, early 20th century political rallies, etc.) . The historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, a Johnson aide who later assisted the former president in writing his memoirs, has observed that Johnson’s desire to seem “presidential” sometimes led him to speak and write in an unnatural, overly formal manner. As a result, many of his speeches as president were just boring.