Elections: Reliability Trumps Competence: Personal Attributes in the 2004 Presidential Election

By Wattenberg, Martin P. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2006 | Go to article overview
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Elections: Reliability Trumps Competence: Personal Attributes in the 2004 Presidential Election


Wattenberg, Martin P., Presidential Studies Quarterly


The reelection of George W. Bush was one of the closest presidential reelection victories in American history. The narrow margin by which the election was decided has led analysts to focus on various explanations for why Bush won. Various issues, such as terrorism, Iraq, the economy, and gay marriage, have been covered in detail. Yet, very little attention has been paid to the personalities of the candidates themselves. Because American presidential elections are contests between individuals whose every action is thoroughly scrutinized, voters' perceptions of the candidates' personalities are bound to be important. This article argues that evaluations of the candidates' personal attributes were crucial in putting Bush over the top in 2004.

Many scholars tend to ignore the personality factor in presidential elections because they view such evaluations as largely inconsequential for governing. They find it hard to conceive that people might choose a president of the United States the same way they choose the winner of American Idol or their class president in high school. Yet, the kind of personality factors that people take into account are bound to be different in different settings. In the case of the presidency of the United States, what is important is not who the voter would like to hear sing or have lunch with, but rather whose personal qualities would enable them to effectively govern the nation.

An examination of the personal qualities that many voters considered when electing recent presidents reveals that such factors ended up having major consequences for their performance in office. Bill Clinton encountered charges of dishonesty and immoral behavior in his two campaigns for president. The Monica Lewinsky affair validated such concerns in the views of many, dominating the news for much of Clinton's second term and tarring his reputation in history. Ronald Reagan was frequently charged with being intellectually lazy and insufficiently interested in policy details to manage the presidency. Many of his critics believe that the Iran-Contra scandal proved how such personal shortcomings could have serious negative consequences for the nation. From the beginning of Richard Nixon's national political career, his opponents accused him of being a ruthless individual lacking in basic moral scruples, who therefore might abuse the power of his office. The Watergate scandal, which forced Nixon to become the only president to resign from office, confirmed just such fears. Similarly, Lyndon Johnson managed to be elected in 1964 in spite of a popular bumper sticker that posed the question, "Would you buy a used car from this man?" By the end of his time in office, the consequences of Johnson's lack of candor were quite evident in his handling of the Vietnam War and the emergence of the so-called credibility gap. In short, personality factors should matter to voters when they go to the polls because recent experience has shown that the character of the person in the White House often makes a great deal of difference.

This research note presents data that support the conclusion that George W. Bush enjoyed a substantial advantage over John Kerry in terms of how voters perceived their personal qualities. Furthermore, the dimensions of personal character on which Bush had the greatest edge were the most related to voting choices, even after controlling for factors such as presidential performance and party identification.

How Partisanship and Issues Fail to Account for Bush's Reelection

As Angus Campbell et al. (1960) outlined in their classic treatise on voting behavior, the three basic factors that determine presidential voting behavior are partisanship, issues, and candidate character evaluations. A quick examination of party identification in the 2004 electorate, as well as the distribution of attitudes on the issues, reveals that neither factor can explain how Bush won, thereby leaving character evaluations as the most likely determining factor.

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