When George W. Bush edged out John Kerry in 2004—a vote result that prompted one British paper to ask, “How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?”—a theory formed to explain how Bush, with the fetid albatross of the Iraq War dangling from his neck, won: He’s the “guy you’d want to have a beer with.” A Zogby/Williams poll that fall had indeed found that 57 percent of undecided voters would rather drink with Bush than with Kerry. Left-wing pundits who were baffled that Bush had been awarded a second term seized on this as the only possible explanation for his appeal.
Over time, “guy you’d want to have a beer with” became the agreed-upon narrative of Bush’s campaign wins. Uptight Al Gore and pinot-sipping John Kerry just weren’t desirable barstool neighbors, the now-cemented conventional wisdom holds, while Bush could sell himself as someone whom you’d like to sip a Coors adjacent to. As things in Iraq kept going south, lefties like Bill Maher and Elizabeth Edwards invoked the beer thing as a cautionary tale, tsk-tsking America for thinking it was a good idea to choose the leader of the free world on that basis. The drinking-beer-in-candidate’s-vicinity rationale had cropped up here and there before 2000, but ever since W. it’s been a key indicator—used to predict or explain all sorts of election results.
I haven’t seen a ton of data this cycle on the beer question. But an online poll back in November, conducted by NBC News and Survey Monkey, asked registered voters which Republican presidential candidate they’d “most want to have a drink with.” Donald Trump won with 16 percent. Ben Carson got 11 percent. Marco Rubio came in tied with Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie for a distant third, way down at 4 percent.
I don’t want to put an inordinate amount of stock in one online poll. Or, for that matter, in a reductive theory about election psychology. But it does occur to me that, for a certain swath of voters, there has never been and perhaps never will be a candidate you’d be more eager to have a beer with than Donald Trump. What other presidential hopeful seems so up for anything? So full of ribald stories and high-gloss gossip? So unguarded and unpredictable? What other candidate calls his opponent a “pussy” on camera and then just owns it? Dude seems like he’d be fun after you got a couple shots in him.
Of course, Trump doesn’t drink. Neither did W. The want-to-have-a-beer-with metric is metaphorical in nature. It’s more a measure of the voter’s own id and imagination than of the candidate’s likely behavior if thrown into a prolonged, casual social interaction with an unknown citizen. (A 2005 story in the Onion was titled “Long-Awaited Beer With Bush Really Awkward, Voter Reports.” Noting the poll numbers on the beer question, the story envisions W. tippling an O’Doul’s with a blue-collar Pennsylvanian and failing to connect on any level.)
Still, knocking one back with a candidate appears to be an activity voters like to ponder. Consider this January message thread on the conservative Internet forum Free Republic, in which “Freepers” discuss whether America would prefer to have a beer with Trump or Ted Cruz. Among the comments posted:
“Beer with Trump in a heartbeat. Feel like I could just be myself and he’d be himself. Don’t know what I’d get with Cruz, but it feels like it could be a bit boring.”
“I don’t think Trump is afraid to speak his mind. The rest of Washington DC … forget about it.”
“I like Cruz but I would rather hang out with Trump.”
“[Trump]’s got a wicked sense of humor and it certainly wouldn’t be a dull conversation.”
Cruz himself recognized this deficit at a GOP debate in October when he was asked to identify a weakness. “If you want someone to grab a beer with,” he said, “I might not be that guy.” Noting this, the Dallas Morning News quoted a polling expert who “suspects [Cruz] has some internal polling that says it’s a vulnerability.” Cruz suggested that he could instead be the guy who safely drives you home after the beer is done. Meanwhile, when questioned about his decision to call Ted Cruz a “pussy” in front of one of his frothing crowds, Trump answered, “We were having fun … Every once in awhile you can have a little fun.”
But is “fun” all we’re looking for when we say we want to have a beer with a candidate? I’d like to have a beer with Hillary and quiz her about her relationship with Sid Blumenthal or drink with Jeb and explore twisted Bush family dynamics, but this is clearly not our general understanding of the want-to-have-a-beer-with concept. With Gore and Kerry, there was an element of stuffed-shirtness that came into play—a sense that someone is or isn’t relatable. A 2004 Pew poll found that swing voters, by an 18 point margin, felt Bush was more of a “real person” than Kerry.
There’s some mild sexism inherent in the want-to-have-a-beer-with formulation. It sort of implies a traditionally male manner of interaction. Shoulder to shoulder. Eyes on the football game. Insecurities swallowed. In 2008, there was talk that Hillary was winning “beer-track” Democrats while Obama dominated the “wine-track.” But it’s telling that we don’t ask which candidate you’d most want to be in your book club.
A January Washington Post story claimed that “Who would you rather have a beer with?” is a “way pollsters shorthand” the question of “likability.” But I’m not sure that totally captures it, either. Trump is freewheeling and unpredictable, which makes him entertaining company, but is he likable?
I think Trump voters would flock to him at their corner tavern like high school beta males flock to the cafeteria table headed by the alpha dude in a letter jacket. They turn their faces to him with awe. He mocks their adversaries. Trump promises again and again that we will “beat” China, and Mexico, and ISIS. But these aren’t the opponents his constituency truly wants to defeat. Trump voters fear they’re losing a battle against Obama, and Hillary, and gay people, and Black Lives Matter, and politically correct multicultural elites. That’s who they want Trump to wallop.
For the people who want to drink with Trump, he is their champion. He assures them that, as long as they’re hanging with him, they’re champions, too. Nothing tastes better than an ice-cold bottle of winning.