Character Trumps Policy for Voters

A new poll reinforces the long-held view that voters care more about a candidate’s character than his stand on public policy issues.

For all the policy blueprints churned out by presidential campaigns, there is this indisputable fact: People care less about issues than they do about a candidate’s character. A new Associated Press-Ipsos poll says 55 percent of those surveyed consider honesty, integrity and other values of character the most important qualities they look for in a presidential candidate. Just one-third look first to candidates’ stances on issues; even fewer focus foremost on leadership traits, experience or intelligence.

“Voters only look at policies as a lens into what type of person the candidate is,” said Ken Mehlman, chairman of President Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign. That campaign based its voter targeting and messaging strategies on the character-first theory.

[…]

Among Republican and GOP-leaning voters, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani leads Arizona Sen. John McCain 35 percent to 22 percent. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had 11 percent, followed in the single digits by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas. Giuliani leads the pack among voters who look first to a candidate’s character, issues and leadership qualities. The only area when McCain pulls even to Giuliani is among voters who cite experience as the most important quality or characteristic in a president.

Among Democrats, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York leads with 38 percent, followed by Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois at 21 percent. Former Vice President Al Gore is at 14 percent and 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards is at 10 percent. The rest of the field is in single digits. Clinton leads Obama among voters who mention honesty and strong character, compassion, intelligence and stance on issues. The former first lady is tied with Obama among the small number of respondents who value experience, a surprise given Obama’s short stint in Washington.

This isn’t really surprising. Indeed, what good are a candidate’s pronouncements on the issues if he’s a liar?

This also helps explain the strong early showing of Giuliani and Obama.

Giuliani has views on hot button social issues that are out of step with his base. His reputation for toughness and decisive leadership, earned as a prosecutor who took on the mob, a mayor who cleaned up crime-ridden New York City, and then as the face of American resolve in the wake of the 9-11 attacks trumps all that.

Obama comes across as competent, decent, and as a fresh alternative to the Washington status quo. He’s largely an enigma on the issues at this point, allowing prospective voters to fill in their own blanks. So far, that hasn’t mattered.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. February 2006 [IMG Outside The Beltway | OTB] Why Lotteries Are Rational Hillary Clinton Invisible Americans Speech (Video) Twice as Many Americans Conservative as Liberal Crisis in Home Mortgage Market? Character Trumps Policy for Voters OTB Caption JamTM Google Goes into the Bus Business Blogging the Scooter Libby Trial Facebook for Geezers Iraqi Government Colluding with Death Squads? [IMG OTB Sports] Chargers Unveil New Uniforms for 2007

  2. according to Ken Mehlman

  3. Bithead says:

    This isn’t really surprising. Indeed, what good are a candidate’s pronouncements on the issues if he’s a liar?

    Quite. At the same time, some people never learn that lesson. How else to explain the support of candidacy of Hillary Clinton?

    He’s largely an enigma on the issues at this point, allowing prospective voters to fill in their own blanks. So far, that hasn’t mattered.

    Which, to my mind, was the only advantage of starting the election season so early; People like Obama will not stand so long and intense a scrutiny.

    I figure the only hope either one of them has, is if enough people don’t look closely at them. Which, as I say, is affected by the length of the campaign.

  4. DC Loser says:

    Oh Puh-leeze. If Bithead thinks Hillar has baggage, just wait till Rudy’s personal issues – ill temper, marriage troubles, etc. – come to the forefront. The spectacle of him being called on those weaknesses by his GOP rivals will be quite a sight. You say character counts, then by all means bring it all out.

  5. ken says:

    I don’ know… when people realize that Rudy was having sex with his cousin… well I think people can only stand so much in a ‘hero’ and that marrying your cousin pretty much crosses the line.

  6. anjin-san says:

    I am still waiting for Giuliani to explain why he did not step up to serve when his party’s President called on him to lead Homeland Security in wartime. “I was too busy making money” does not really wash…

    As for Hillary, her support of the war makes here very suspect in my book.

  7. Bithead says:

    Oh Puh-leeze. If Bithead thinks Hillar has baggage, just wait till Rudy’s personal issues – ill temper, marriage troubles, etc. – come to the forefront.

    I have no dog in the hunt, as far as Giuliani is concerned. However, I must express curiosity; how, exactly, do Giuliani’s transgressions get by that of Mrs Bill Clinton’s, which are already legendary?