It was, with Election Day now just two months away, a startling concession.

Republican Party spokesman David Sorensen essentially bestowed the 2014 Good Guy award on U.S. Rep Mike Michaud on Wednesday, responding to a political action committee TV ad supporting Democrat Michaud’s quest to unseat Gov. Paul LePage.

“If this were a contest for the most unobjectionable personality,” Sorensen wrote in an email blast, “then certainly Rep. Michaud would have a strong argument.”

He continued, “But this race is a contest for who has the best ideas and the best record of results, and in that metric, Gov. LePage wins in a landslide.”

We could – and likely will – spend from now until November debating whether LePage in fact has the “best ideas” and “best record of results” when it comes to who should occupy the Blaine House for the next four years.

But Sorensen’s backhanded praise of Michaud, intentional or not, underscores two very different dynamics as the campaign season shifts into overdrive:

For Michaud, this race increasingly centers on what type of person Maine needs in a chief executive.

For LePage, personality is the last thing we should be thinking about. Issues – and only issues – are the yardstick by which Camp LePage says we should measure the best man for the job.

“I’m like all of you because I like Mike,” said former President Bill Clinton, repeating the phrase on a sea of placards (they doubled as fans) during Tuesday evening’s sweltering pep rally for Michaud at the Portland Expo.

Echoing the same theme, Michaud told the cheering crowd of 1,600 supporters, “It’s more than our values and vision that divides Gov. LePage and me. It’s also our temperament, our leadership style. It’s a fact that I’m committed to bringing people together when he is committed to dividing us apart.”

Contrast this with the ads now being broadcast by the Republican Governors Association, in which LePage’s four years of government-by-insult are airbrushed into euphemisms like “one of a kind” and “not like anybody else.”

So which is it? Do we choose our elected officials based on our gut feeling for what kind of people they are? Or is that the soft stuff, secondary to what candidates say they’ll do to energize the economy, enhance education, invest in infrastructure and the many other pledges that punctuate a political campaign?

Countless political and behavioral psychologists have probed that question over the decades.

One, Princeton University professor of psychology Alex Todorov, has found that the outcome of a political race can be correctly determined 70 percent of the time simply by tabulating the first impressions people have of a candidate’s face. (Imagine, a campaign in which no one opens his or her mouth. What a concept!)

Todorov said in an email Thursday that the personality-versus-positions preference depends in large part on the particular voter.

“Generally, the research suggests that voters not invested in politics (with little political knowledge) are heavily influenced by first impressions or appearances,” he wrote. “Politically informed voters are those who are likely to engage in more systematic consideration of the candidates’ positions.”

That, in itself, is not surprising. But in a race where both LePage’s and Michaud’s bases appear already dug in for the duration (much to the frustration of independent Eliot Cutler), most of the battle heading into the home stretch will be over that shrinking number of voters who are truly undecided – either because they haven’t been paying attention, or they routinely tune out the chatter and simply vote with their gut come Election Day.

Those folks, the last to engage in a political slugfest that’s already been in full swing for weeks if not months, are by definition less politically “invested” than those who have chosen their candidate and are sticking with him.

And when the true undecideds finally do get around to making their choice, Todorov’s research suggests, they’ll base it more on personalities and less on the reams of position papers that, as Clinton put it this week, “most of you haven’t read.”

Of course, Michaud and LePage are only two-thirds of this mix. Asked Tuesday whether Cutler places a higher premium on his personality or his positions, spokeswoman Crystal Canney called it a draw.

“This race is like Goldilocks and the three bears,” Canney said in an email. “The Michaud people want it to be all about personality because he has no consistent position on any issue. The LePage people want it to be all about positions because he has such an abrasive personality.”

And Cutler?

“Eliot relates well to voters and they find him approachable and thoughtful (if at times long winded),” Canney wrote. “As for positions, no candidate has put forth more detailed positions and plans on everything from roads and bridges to property tax relief. As Goldilocks would say about Eliot if she were a Maine voter, this one is ‘just right.'”

Time will tell whether Goldilocks is as good at testing politicians as she was porridge. For now, though, there’s a lot to be gleaned not just from what these three guys say they’ll do as governor, but also how they plan to go about doing it.

Governing, after all, is about a lot more than charting your course on the campaign trail and then following it, come hell or high water, once in office. It’s about, as Clinton so artfully put it Tuesday, “following the model of inclusive decision making and cooperation.”

“Leaders make choices,” Clinton said. Referring to LePage, he added, “(Michaud’s) opponent chose to be a divisive figure, chose to be an ideological figure, chose conflict over cooperation. I believe all those choices are wrong. You have to decide.”

Indeed we do. And how each of us goes about doing that is, in the end, a quintessentially solitary process.

Still, it’s worth keeping in mind that we’re voting for people here, not three-ring binders crammed with promises that are as easy to make as they are often impossible to keep.

Meaning personalities – good, bad or somewhere in between – do matter.

And if Michaud’s is the “most unobjectionable,” it’s difficult to see a downside.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]


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