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.