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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Does Character Trump Issues with Voters?

Ezra Klein has a riff by Neil the Ethical Werewolf on a new Associated Press/Ipsos poll which found that:

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.

Is this a bad thing for Dems? Neil thinks so:

The result of this poll is a sad truth that I long ago made my peace with — voters care more about a candidate’s character than the candidate’s issue positions, and least of all about experience and other leadership qualities. Character, unfortunately, is something that voters are in a very weak position to judge. Our information about the personal qualities of candidates is subject to much more media distortion than our information about the candidates’ issue positions…getting yourself portrayed as a person of honesty and integrity is largely a matter of being able to effectively manipulate the more touchy-feely side of media coverage.

One commenter on Neil’s article, Karl Radek adds a couple of interesting insights to the character vs. issues choices made by voters:

For many such voters, it’s not so much “character” as “personality” that matters…the personality of candidates tends to be emphasized in part because the two parties are actually pretty evenly matched, and have to fight over the portion of the electorate that we call “swing” voters. People who have strong preferences on the issues tend to be already attached to one side or the other, and are a lot harder to shake loose. A considerable fraction of the “swing” vote, I suspect, is made up of the most frivolous voters, those most easily swayed by considerations of personality. The parties are clawing for the slightest edge to get to 50 percent plus one, so they emphasize the winning personal traits of their guy in order to draw in the clueless and the light-minded… The GOP has been a lot better at this for the past 25 years…The decline of party identification has a lot to do with it too…

Undoubtedly, most voters mix the two considerations in varying measures in making their choice. Yet, on one level, it is disturbing that policy is a primary concern of only a third of voters. Even for progressives, however, character is important. How many times, for example, have we seen progressive candidates dishonor campaign policy promises? (for example, candidates who urged getting tough with China on trade and then caved on the issue after being elected). But Neil’s point about media manipulation of character image is hard to deny in light of recent history.
Paul Waldman, senior fellow at Media Matters for America, believes voter choice is more about “identity,” than “character” per se, and in his TomPaine.com article, he emphasizes the importance of Dem candidates demonstrating courage:

When Democrats start demonstrating courage, voters stop thinking of them as weaklings….To use just one tough progressive as an example, no one ever called Martin Luther King, Jr. weak, and he was a pacifist. His courage was evident in his words and actions—he didn’t need to advocate war to be considered strong.
In order for a fundamental statement of belief to do its political work, it has to be stated with conviction. When you stand up for what you believe in without fear and show how you’re different from your opponents, Americans come to see you as principled and strong. That’s what conservatives have been doing for decades, and as a result they’ve achieved success after success at the ballot box despite the fact that the public has been opposed to most of the policies they want to enact. If progressives can join their popular agenda to an identity based in courage, conviction and contrast with conservatives, there are few limits to what they can accomplish.

All good points for Democratic campaigns to keep in mind on the road to an ’08 landslide.
(Note: the original version of this article incorrectly attributed the article to Ezra Klein instead of Neil the Ethical Werewolf)

3 comments on “Does Character Trump Issues with Voters?

  1. Dennis Jones on

    The importance of personality to most voters is doubtless correct. This may trace back to elections for meaningless public school offices most of experienced. Since the posts were essentially powerless, the student body electorate generally cast votes based on the popularity of the candidates. Some consideration was given to the candidates’ speeches, especially those showing humor and creativity.
    Ironically, school elections that are designed in part to promote the democratic system actually promote a callous indifference to the system and adult candidates. Would that school candidates had to run on platforms that mirrored national concerns.

    Reply
  2. Keith Roberts on

    “Character, unfortunately, is something that voters are in a very weak position to judge.”
    On the contrary, ISSUES are the hardest for voters to judge; usually complex and hard to understand on their own, and impossible to sort out when politicians discuss them either demagogically or with careful avoidance of giving offense. Character, on the other hand, comes out in many clues people have lots of experience understanding in their own lives: posture, demeanor, response to pressure (Kerry and the Swiftboaters), associates, and public record, among other clues. Just because W fooled many people doesn’t mean that most voters cannot, most of the time, make reasonable assessments of character. And character is much more important. How many issues actually get discussed, compared with the number of issues a politician actually faces?

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