Sincerity is a resource, better termed an asset, which is rarely seen as advantageous in politics. Commentators often dance around the subject by reference to charisma, gregariousness and poise. More often than not, anything approaching sincerity or authenticity is seen as a weakness or vulnerability, leaving open the possibility of gaffes and “misspoken words”. Sincerity is the kind of thing that leads political staffers to cover their eyes in agony and pundits to salivate at the prospect of a possible front-page-making blunder.
But voters love it. The impromptu guitar serenade, a beer at a pub at a local Legion or a witty response to a curveball question, can all become the stuff of legend and inject new momentum into a tired and staid campaign. On the positive side, it was these types of un-staged events that helped change the dynamic of the NDP’s 2011 federal election campaign. Staffers have a part to play in making sure the Leader is ready for unexpected situations, but the public know when they have an over-handled and over-managed candidate. Staffers should know when to let the leash out and when to reel it in – a very difficult balance. In the 2011, the NDP’s staff got it right.
The 24-hour news-cycle, exacerbated by the constant circling vulture that is social media, has led to a minefield of possible campaign-killing accidents which has led strategists to take the lowest-risk approach to campaigning. Long-gone are the stump-speeches on the backs of wagons and the barn rallies from whence the euphemism “burning” is derived. Sometimes, there is good reason for this.
Look no further than the last election in the UK, where the Labour Party Leader was caught out making a snide remark about a voter he met on the campaign trail. It was the kind of story that stayed with the campaign throughout and forced the Leader off message event after event. It was a devastating blow of the worst kind: the self-inflicted one.
Are sincerity and authenticity worth the risk? For some leaders, yes, it can be. For others, who are perhaps not so quick on their feet or who are hot-tempered, a tight script is sometimes the only safe way to go. If your candidate is accustomed to the limelight and experienced in sticky situations, allowing them some wiggle room for moments of spontaneity could become a trump card against heavily stage-managed candidates the public can see straight through.
Sincerity could be your candidate’s most untapped resource, but it could also be her or his greatest weakness – so offer slack with caution and accentuate their comfort zones with care.