There’s no official name for ‘The Beer Question.’ It’s what it says on the tin really- a candidate’s likeability is measured by the metaphorical willingness of voters to have a beer with him or her. It’s not a question widely asked. There are approval ratings, sure, but not many pollsters seriously ask who you’d be more likely to grab a beer with. Still, it remains somewhat of a cultural phenomenon in its own right.
The 1840 election pitted Martin Van Buren against William Henry Harrison. Harrison’s opponents jumped on him for being lazy and famously said “Give him a barrel of hard cider and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit … by the side of a ‘sea coal’ fire, and study moral philosophy.”
The Harrison campaign ran with it because it portrayed their candidate, a wealthy man from a political dynasty, as a rough-and-tumble, down to earth man. Log cabin merchandise and cider mugs were handed out like candy. We also have to remember that active campaigning wasn’t really a thing back then. Meanwhile, Martin Van Buren, who had been born into a regular family, was portrayed as a champagne drinker.
We all know what happened in that election and how long poor Harrison actually lasted, so does it prove the theory right?
There’s a mix of charismatic leaders and cold fish. Personality doesn’t always come into it, it’s about where the country’s at and what the issues are. Take for example Woodrow Wilson, a rather austere man, who was re-elected on the promise of staying out of the war. Calvin Coolidge rode on a prospering economy. Richard Nixon used the changing times to his advantage. None of these men can be described as someone you’d grab a beer with, whether you like them or not.
The most famous example in modern times, of course, is George W. Bush. Voters in 2000 and more notably 2004, decided he was the best guy to have a beer with – ironic, perhaps, since he’s a teetotaler. Bush gave off that cowboy, guy next door vibe that Al Gore and John Kerry just could not match. Kerry in particular struggled with his image. Both he and Bush were wealthy, Ivy League-educated gentlemen, but he just seemed so solemn and dull.
It seemed to work for Bush, who won both elections, though 2000 will always be a black mark for the Texan. That folksy image didn’t seem to come from his father, who we will discuss a bit further down. Going further back, Ronald Reagan’s quip about “youth and inexperience” made even its target, Walter Mondale, laugh. Reagan himself was a former movie star with a talent for charisma and communicating to the ordinary man. This made his VP and successor, George H. W. Bush, look damp in comparison.
You can add Bill Clinton to the list as well. Many who have met him have said he is the most charismatic person you could ever meet, how he makes you feel like you’re the only person in the room. He sailed through the Lewinsky scandal and other potentially career-ending issues to remain a popular leader. Whilst Bush looked at his watch, Clinton went up close and engaged the questioner.
Would you want a beer with a former movie star and a saxophone playing womaniser? Perhaps you would prefer them to poor George H. W. Bush.
The 21st century hasn’t slowed things down for candidates. The younger, more jovial Barack Obama went up against the curmudgeon John McCain and serious Mitt Romney. That’s not to say the Republicans weren’t nice, it’s just that they didn’t seem the type you’d chat to at the bar. As a Mormon, Romney doesn’t drink anyway, something that may not have been lost on some voters. You can imagine chatting with Obama over a cold one, but not the other two.
2016 pitted serious politician Hillary Clinton against jokester businessman Donald Trump. Regardless of your thoughts on him, it’s clear that Trump had more of a beer vibe. Again, it’s ironic considering he’s also a teetotaler. Clinton’s attempts to be funny and relaxed didn’t really land well, whilst Trump seemed a bit more interested in getting down and dirty. One may feel lectured by Clinton, but talked to at a similar level by Trump. Again it’s interesting, considering both are wealthy- then again, Trump eclipses Clinton in monetary terms.
2020 proved interesting, as both candidates were the folksy types who projected the beer image. Trump continued with his “he says what you think” persona. Biden had made a career of being America’s uncle who says the darndest things. Both wanted to be the guy who you had a beer with after work at the steel mill – Middle America’s best bud.
It will be curious to see if this trend continues. We don’t know who the candidates will be. If Biden doesn’t go for it, it’ll be Kamala Harris next time. Trump has indicated interest in running again in 2024, but he’s by no means guaranteed. All signs are pointing to Florida’s colourful Governor Ron DeSantis.
This brings us back to the original question: does the beer question bring us any answers? Well, voters like to vote for people who are like them and who they think will benefit people like them. Approval ratings don’t mean the world, but a beer might.