Clara Bow was Hollywood’s original starlet with “It”, that undefinable quality that made people immediately like her. Politicians who lack “it” (e.g., Mitt Romney) have a hard time getting elected, no matter how much money they spend and how much policy detail they master. Politicians who have “it” (e.g., Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan) in contrast are lifted by their likeability among voters, so much so that they can for example be returned to office even in rough economic times.

People who don’t understand politics often respond to an enemy politician’s likeability by screeching “Well, voters won’t like him/her once they find out that (insert long indictment of the politician’s policy record here)”. But what arch-liberals learned to their great pain during Reagan’s Presidency and arch-conservatives are learning during President Obama’s is that blistering attacks of this sort tend to boomerang. The attacker’s fellow partisans may love it, but swing voters react by feeling protective of the politician, i.e., “who’s that nasty person beating up on someone I really like?”

Of the Republicans who might run for President in 2016, who’s got “it”?: Chris Christie. His performance on Letterman, which left his host in stitches, was about a good as you will see (The doughnut, and his beautifully delivered explanation for it, were particularly masterful). He comes across in a way that Romney never did: As a regular, accessible and unpretentious person with whom many people would be happy to have a beer. And being fat helps: Americans have historically liked hefty presidents and they probably like them more now that obesity is prevalent and they enjoy comparison points that don’t make them feel bad about their own waistline.

About 40% of Americans are going to vote Republican in 2016 no matter what, and a similar proportion will vote Democratic no matter what. The rest of the voting population may well be swayed by something no more complicated than a sense that they “just kinda like him/her for some reason”. That isn’t what a policy wonk wants to believe, but that doesn’t make it untrue. Christie’s got “it” and that means he has a real shot at the top job if he wants it. And for the same reason, GOP proposals to split the electoral college vote in Virginia and Pennsylvania by district are self-defeating because Christie’s the kind of likeable candidate who could put those states back in the R column.

2016 is a long, long way off, but I’m keeping my eye on the big fella from Jersey.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor at Stanford University. @KeithNHumphreys