FOX News Debate Preview: Comparative Psychological Profiles of the Republican Field

Personalities Pack GOP Debate

Fox News primary debate candidates

By Aubrey Immelman
St. Cloud Times
August 6, 2015

Thursday at 8 p.m., the top 10 leading candidates for the Republican nomination for president — as determined by debate host Fox News based on national opinion surveys — will take the stage in Cleveland.

Whether a candidate makes a positive or negative impression is largely a function of personality, meaning a person’s typical patterns of thinking, acting, feeling and relating to others.

The purpose of this debate preview — a “briefing book” of sorts — is to offer viewers a rundown of the personalities on display in Cleveland.

So here’s a quick psychological rundown of debate participants in order of their standing in GOP presidential preference polls as ranked by Fox.

Donald Trump: High-dominance charismatic

You won’t need a Ph.D. in psychology to recognize that Donald Trump has the biggest ego in the house. But not so fast: Although narcissism is commonly employed as a pejorative, the charismatic self-confidence it exudes is arguably the greatest asset a candidate can have in the quest to attract public support — particularly when combined with extroversion, as in the case of Trump. (Case in point: Bill Clinton.)

The problem for narcissists is that their inflated ego is contained in a very thin skin. Puncture it, and the consequences can be catastrophic. For Trump, the challenge will be to restrain the impulse to lash out at his detractors — and if he can’t, at least to do so in a manner that seems “presidential.”

Jeb Bush: Conscientious, forceful introvert

Jeb Bush will be the most conscientious, serious-minded candidate on stage, and also the most introverted. While those are great assets in the Oval Office, the personality traits in question do not play well in campaign politics, because the candidate comes across to voters as wooden, stiff and boring. (Case in point: Mitt Romney, with Al Gore as the worst-case scenario in recent presidential elections.) Expect Bush to be well prepared but struggling to get noticed or make a headline.

Scott Walker: Conscientious enforcer

Scott Walker, like Bush, is primarily conscientious, but unlike Bush, is not an introvert. In terms of public perception of likability, that plays in his favor. Nonetheless, it won’t be easy for Walker to grab the spotlight on the crowded stage.

Mike Huckabee: Dominant, self-confident, extravert

In terms of political charisma, the confident, outgoing Mike Huckabee is the candidate closest to Trump, though a distant second. He also is one of the most congenial candidates in the mix, scoring points for likability. But alas, Huckabee’s challenge in the debate will be not to have his star eclipsed by Trump.

Ben Carson: Self-assured, conscientious operator

Perhaps the best way to characterize Ben Carson is that he’s the kind of person you’d trust to perform surgery on your child. He is confident and conscientious, but not excessively so. The problem for the sedate Carson will be to attract attention in a crowd populated by more flamboyant, aggressive candidates.

Ted Cruz: Confident dominator

Ted Cruz will be one of the most dominant, self-confident personalities on stage, but not as outgoing as some of the other candidates, which renders him somewhat lacking in charisma. Nonetheless, expect Cruz to make his voice heard, though likely overshadowed by in-your-face candidates like Trump or Chris Christie.

Marco Rubio: Confident extravert

Marco Rubio is confident and outgoing, but modestly so in comparison with candidates like Trump or Huckabee. In a manner of speaking, Rubio’s personal appeal has more of a warm glow than the bright spark of charisma. He also lacks the dominance of several of his onstage rivals, which portends that he may come up short in the skill to make a big splash in the debate. That said, Rubio is one of the more accommodating in the constellation of candidates, which serves as a stock raiser in the likability stakes.

Rand Paul: Confident, resolute individualist

Paralleling his libertarian ideological bent, Rand Paul is the most individualistic personality among the slate of candidates. Although he is self-confident, he is not outgoing and, in fact, is somewhat prickly. That makes him less appealing to voters in terms of likability. In addition, Paul is quite conscientious, which is to say he runs the risk that some voters may perceive him as preachy, dull and uninspiring.

Chris Christie: Dominant, self-confident extravert

The prospect of mortal combat between Chris “Sit Down and Shut Up!” Christie and Trump is probably one of the most anticipated features of the debate, and not without reason. In terms of dominance, Christie strongly rivals Trump and is not too far behind in self-confidence and extroversion, which translates to personal charisma. Provided the moderators don’t keep the candidate on too short a leash, viewers can indeed expect a battle royal.

John Kasich: Dark horse

Yes, “dark horse” does not befit the parlance of psychological assessment. As one of the last Republican candidates to declare his candidacy, John Kasich’s late entry into the race did not permit sufficient time for detailed empirical analysis.

Based purely on informal observation, Kasich seems most similar to Carson: self-confident, moderately conscientious and mildly dominant. However, Kasich also seems relatively outgoing and congenial, in which he most resembles Huckabee.

Though these traits may not propel Kasich to center stage, they likely signify staying power and the makings of a good general-election prospect.

No doubt the debate will offer up some unexpected surprises, but this psychological “premortem” should serve to highlight some of the personal dynamics to look out for in sizing up the candidates as they audition before the electorate on a national stage.

This is the opinion of Aubrey Immelman, associate professor of psychology at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, where he directs a faculty-student collaborative research program in political psychology, the Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics.

Cartoon depicting Donald Trump in debate

Photo credit: Bill Day / Cagle Cartoons via St. Cloud Times

Related report

Psychological Profiles of 2016 Republican Presidential Candidates

Related colloquium

Personality Profiles of 2016 Republican Presidential Candidates. Forum Lecture, St. John’s University/College of St. Benedict, November 5, 2015. Abstract and link for full-text (PDF) download at Digital Commons:

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