The Declining Relevance of Candidate Personal Attributes in Presidential Elections

By Wattenberg, Martin P. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2016 | Go to article overview

The Declining Relevance of Candidate Personal Attributes in Presidential Elections


Wattenberg, Martin P., Presidential Studies Quarterly


As Abraham Lincoln famously said, "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character give him power." Because the presidency is a uniquely personal and powerful office, there is ample evidence that character matters enormously in terms of governing, as Fred Greenstein (2009) has so aptly noted in The Presidential Difference. Furthermore, American presidential elections are inherently personal contests, as unlike in parliamentary systems, voters are able to cast a vote directly for the nation's chief executive. Recognizing how factors like personal integrity, competence, reliability and leadership skills have made a difference in past presidencies, American voters naturally take such factors into account when they cast their ballots.

Journalists are typically the most aware of the personal factor in presidential elections. It is hard not to ignore candidates' personal attributes after spending day after day riding on the same planes and buses with them, listening to their speeches, and asking questions whenever given the opportunity. In short, they are repeatedly exposed to the person as well as the message, thereby giving them the chance to evaluate how personal characteristics might affect governing. As Peter Hamby (2013) wrote in his review of Halperin and Heilemann's (2013) best-selling journalistic account of the 2012 campaign, "Candidates matter. Voters tell pollsters that they make their choices based on issues such as education, health care, taxes and the economy--and they do. But they also care about temperament, empathy, strength, reason, trust and the human side of these strange and wily people who think they're up to the task of running the country." Or, as veteran campaign reporter Jack Germond (2002, 259) sagely put it in his memoir, "The fatal flaw in the sorting of candidates by issues is that it is almost impossible to anticipate which issues will confront a president during his four years in office. No one was thinking about Saddam Hussein when George Bush was elected or about Monica Lewinsky when Bill Clinton was elected." In sum, voters are faced with the task of hiring someone to take on a job replete with unforeseeable challenges; a president's character strengths and weaknesses are bound to affect how they approach the decisions and nondecisions they make.

Scholars of the American presidency are not only aware of how much difference character makes, but also how presidents often try to prime the public to think about them in personal rather than policy terms. The idea here is that policy decisions will inevitably have opponents as well as proponents but that if a president can be portrayed with a positive personal image there will be little down side. Druckman and Jacobs (2015) have recently shown how presidents have used polls to devise methods to focus on personality features, such as strong leadership, competence, and so on, as opposed to controversial policies. For example, they find that Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan regularly conducted polls to assess the public's assessments of their trustworthiness as well as perceptions of their competence and strength of leadership.

But how much do voters really focus on personality matters at election time, and has the importance of personal attributes increased or decreased in recent elections? Even though the classic analysis in The American Voter (Campbell et al. I960) identified candidate personality as one of the three major factors in voting behavior, scholarly analyses of the role of candidate attributes have been relatively rare in comparison to the other major factors of party identification and issues. (Some exceptions are Funk 1999, Kinder 1986, and Miller, Wattenberg, and Malanchuk 1986). This article attempts to counter this imbalance a bit by examining the role of candidate attributes in presidential elections between 1952 and 2012. During this sixty-year period it will be shown that the electorate's focus on candidate attributes has declined substantially. …

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