Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Candidate Character Traits in the 2012 Presidential Election

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Candidate Character Traits in the 2012 Presidential Election

Article excerpt

President Barack Obama's reelection prospects looked shaky in early 2012. His approval rating in January was just 47%; the economic recovery from the Great Recession was erratic and uncertain; and his signature legislative accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, was receiving mixed public acceptance. Believing that he would be unable to win by running on his first-term record, many political pundits suggested that Obama would win reelection only by turning the election discourse away from a narrow, retrospective focus on his performance and toward a debate over the acceptability of his opponent's claim to the presidency. When Mitt Romney secured the Republican nomination, many pundits felt that he was a flawed candidate who could easily be portrayed in an unfavorable light and thus would be particularly susceptible to this strategy. Despite widespread concern about the economy and notwithstanding the great policy differences between Obama and Romney, many political commentators saw the election result as depending on the personal characteristics of the candidates. It was not just a question of which direction voters wanted the ship of state to sail; it was also a question of whom the voters wanted as the captain of the ship.

For President Obama, pundits considered whether his personal likability, combined with Romney's personal deficiencies, would be enough to overcome the weak economy. According to New York Times columnist David Brooks, Obama's leadership style, which Brooks described as "hypercompetitive, restrained, not given to self-doubt, rarely self-indulgent," was keeping him competitive for a second term despite circumstances that normally make leaders look weak, thus sealing their electoral fates (Brooks 2012). If Obama's personal strengths were undermined by the weak economy, the media identified Romney as the president's mirror image: a candidate whose personal liabilities diminished his party's supposedly golden opportunity to defeat an incumbent president. Another Times columnist, Maureen Dowd, wrote that a key distinction between the candidates, "one that will probably decide this presidential race, is this: Barack Obama is able to convey an impression of likability to voters." Dowd argued that the Obama versus Romney election matched two introverts, but that a "graceful introvert beats an awkward one every time" (Dowd 2012b).

Political commentators identified several deficiencies in Romney's character. Timothy Egan wrote that focus groups perceived Romney as "a tin man, a shell, an empty suit, vacuous" (Egan 2010). Dowd saw Romney as having "meager social and political agility" and being "banally handsome with an empty look" (Dowd 2012a). Other commentators used the term "robot" or "android" to describe Romney. Besides lacking in warmth and likability, Romney also was widely portrayed as unable to understand or empathize with the problems of ordinary people. Two Washington Post journalists wrote that "Romney must--MUST--close the empathy gap to win this fall" (Cilliza and Blake 2012). Moreover, some pundits believed that Romney had difficulty communicating an aura of strong leadership, which is essential to the office. In August 2012, Newsweek reprised its controversial 1987 cover story about then Vice President George H. W. Bush titled "The Wimp Factor," only this time Romney was the subject. The article claimed that in the pantheon of Republican presidential tough guys, Romney fell well short of the likes of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and even the latter's once impugned father who, "looks like Dirty Harry Callahan compared to Romney, who spent his war (Vietnam) in--ready?--Paris. Where he learned . . . French" (Tomasky 2012, 24; emphasis in original).

While the media consensus was that Obama had an advantage over Romney on character traits, the president was not without his faults, according to several columnists. Dowd described both candidates as "cold, deliberative fish, self-regarding elitists, with . …

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