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Hillary Clinton's 'authenticity' effort: Will this new approach work?

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Brian C. Frank/Reuters

(Read caption) US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign stop at the Quad City Federation of Labor's Salute to Labor Chicken Fry in Hampton, Ill., on Monday.

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You’re going to see a different Hillary Clinton in coming weeks, vow her aides. She’ll be more spontaneous and show more humor and heart. Out: rope lines that keep crowds at bay. In: warmer interaction with actual voters.

That’s the upshot of a piece in The New York Times that’s jolted the D.C. punditocracy out of its three-day weekend stupor. Mistakes have been made, according to Clintonworld, but now her campaign will push the real Hillary. Dare we use the “A” word – “authenticity”?

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“The same force and energy that is giving a lift to Donald Trump is dooming Hillary Clinton, and that is authenticity. Experience does not matter to [voters]. What matters is you appear genuine,” GOP strategist Eric Ferhrnstrom tells the NYT.

We disagree. Authenticity is a slippery concept, and there’s no definition of the word that really makes sense in a political context. All politicians are playing a role of some sort. Some are just better actors then others.

This isn’t just our opinion. Many political scientists believe the notion that candidates have to be authentic/genuine/relatable is bogus.

“The whole concept of authenticity in politics is frustrating, in large part because the concept is essentially meaningless,” writes Seth Masket, an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver, in Pacific Standard magazine.

Look at the 2000 presidential race, says Mr. Masket. Two rich, white Ivy Leaguers faced off.  But one – George W. Bush – was more “authentic” because he cleared brush on his ranch in jeans.

Then in 2008, candidate Barack Obama awkwardly bowled in Pennsylvania in pursuit of authenticity. 

“Was brush-clearing a skill Bush needed during his presidency? Does Obama need to bowl much?" Masket writes.

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Many of our greatest presidents were not “authentic” in the modern sense. Both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were very conscious of inhabiting a role that helped them lead the nation. Dwight Eisenhower was far from a genial grandfather, as the press often portrayed him. John F. Kennedy’s public persona was inauthentic in the extreme, given that it left out his health problems and womanizing.

“Had Americans known the ‘real’ John F. Kennedy, he never would have reached the White House,” writes Richard Skinner, a Rollins College political scientist, at the "Mischiefs of Faction" blog.

As for 2016, Mr. Trump is rising because a segment of GOP voters approves of his belligerence, particularly when it’s directed against undocumented immigrants. Is that “authentic”? Plenty of people – Bill and Hillary Clinton included – have said Trump is a nice guy in person.

And is Mrs. Clinton falling in the polls because of wooden public appearances? Or is she declining because she’s getting lots of fire from GOP hopefuls, and the media are closely covering the negative aspects of her use of a private e-mail server while secretary of State?

Yes, voters say they care about authenticity. But there’s little evidence it actually sways their ballot, according to Masket. It’s more likely a label they attach to their favored candidate afterward – particularly if they win.

“It helps create a narrative to easily digest a very complicated national election,” he writes.