UNCG Campus Weekly

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What we look for in a Presidential candidate

Photo of President Obama during a past presidential debateSo did George W. Bush win twice because American voters thought he’d be the candidate they’d most like to have a beer with? Or maybe go bowling with?

No. The pundits on the news talk shows may say that personal warmth is important to voters, but it’s just not so, says Dr. David Holian.

Dr. Charles Prysby and Holian, both professors of political science at UNCG, have co-authored “Candidate Character Traits in Presidential Elections” (Routledge) – and have determined the four traits or personality areas voters actually are looking for:

  • Leadership (Strength/Being inspirational)
  • Competence (Knowledge/Intelligence)
  • Integrity (Honesty/Morality)
  • Empathy (Understanding the problems average voters face)

Character traits matter less to voters today than in earlier eras, Holian says. With an increasingly polarized electorate, fewer Americans defect the way Democrats did in voting for Reagan in 1980.

Nevertheless, the character traits of Presidential candidates mean more to voters than those of Congressional candidates, Holian says, because voters consume more information and learn more about higher profile Presidential elections.

In six of the last eight elections, the Republican candidate had the higher rating on leadership. On the other hand, Democratic candidates always get higher marks on empathy.

For competence and integrity, the authors detected no difference in the parties, Prysby says. Bill Clinton was an exception; he received low scores on integrity. Likewise, George W. Bush did poorly on public perceptions of his competence.

Prysby first thought about this in the mid-1970’s. A neighbor who’d voted for the quite liberal George McGovern in 1972 planned to vote for the Republican Gerald Ford in 1976. “For (the neighbor), it all came down to trust. It wasn’t about ideology.”

Did John Kerry lose because he was cold and aloof while George W. Bush was likeable? “In fact, Kerry did just as well as Bush on personal traits overall,” Prysby says. Kerry came across significantly worse on leadership, but better on empathy and competence (knowledge, intelligence), and about even with Bush on integrity.

The data for this analysis comes from surveys conducted each election by the American National Elections Studies in Ann Arbor, Michigan. These are lengthy interviews – mostly face to face. “Every person is interviewed for 90 minutes before the election and 60 minutes after the election,” Prysby explains. “These are long interviews, with lots of questions.”

In 1996, the data set showed something remarkable about the first lady, Hillary Clinton. She had high positives and high negatives. It seemed that people reacted strongly to her – and she was not a candidate for office. Of course, she may well be in 2016.

Character traits do affect votes, Prysby says. The research shows it. He adds that they have no way of measuring the character traits themselves. They are solely considering the voters’ perceptions of those traits.

Which of the four traits matter most to voters? “Election after election, leadership and empathy are the two most important,” Holian says.

By Mike Harris
Photograph courtesy White House archives