Martin P. Wattenberg – Will Trump vs. Clinton See a Resurgence in the Relevance of Presidential Candidate Personality?

This is a guest post by Martin P. Wattenberg, Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Irvine

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, character matters enormously in terms of governing.  Recognizing how factors like 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.

In the 2016 campaign, it is clear that both of the major party nominees will be extensively discussing personal attributes.  Donald Trump has repeatedly referred to Hillary Clinton as “crooked Hillary” and charged that she is a weak leader.  He offers his business experience as a major reason for voting for him, saying that if he can make billions of dollars he can certainly manage the nation’s economic affairs.  For her part, Clinton argues that Trump is temperamentally unsuited to be president and too politically inexperienced to be given the reins of power.  In contrast, she has offered her vast experience in government and knowledge of the issues as major justifications for voting for her.

Yet to be seen is just how much voters will really focus on personality matters when they cast their ballots in the fall of 2016.  My research finds that in recent elections the electorate’s focus on candidate attributes has substantially declined.  The analyses were based on a set of open-ended questions asking respondents what they liked and disliked about the major candidates, which have been asked in every American National Election Study from 1952 to 2012.

A great advantage of open-ended questions is that people can say whatever is on their mind, without prompting from survey designers.  Hence, it is revealing that the majority of respondents have consistently said something about the candidate’s personal attributes.  But the trend has definitely been downward, as displayed in the figure below.

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An examination of the data from 2008 and 2012 reveals that young people were substantially less likely than older people to focus on candidate personality.  Having grown up in a much more polarized political environment in which policies are more clearly sorted according to party affiliation, young voters have come to focus more on policies than candidate character.  Assuming this generational change continues, we can expect that the saliency of personal attributes in voters’ evaluations of candidates will probably continue to decline in the future.

In this more polarized era, there is reason to expect that personality evaluations will be more diametrically opposed than ever before.  In the past, it was pretty common for respondents to say that they liked both candidates in terms of their personal characteristics.  But as people have come to hold more black and white views of the candidates, personal character is no longer likely to be judged objectively without regard to political bias. The correlation between personality evaluations of the Democratic and Republican candidates’ provides a simple measure of polarization, with a more negative correlation indicating greater polarization.  The figure below shows that candidate personality evaluations have been more polarized than ever during the last three presidential elections.

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One major reason why candidate character evaluations are now more polarized is that they have become more likely to be seen through the perceptual screen of partisanship.  Indeed, recent elections have seen a much tighter relationship between partisanship and evaluations of candidate character.

With fewer people mentioning personal attributes and with those who do so filtering their comments through the perceptual screen of partisanship, the independent impact of candidates’ personal qualities on voting behavior has declined over time.  My final figure shows that the partial correlation between voting decisions and candidate attribute ratings has clearly lessened in recent presidential elections, with the 2012 election representing the lowest figure ever in the time series.

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Although these results point to a generally lessened role for personality evaluations in the decisions of American voters, they do not necessarily mean that candidate character will never again be crucial to the outcome of presidential elections.  Any future presidential candidate who sees an opening to take advantage of a perceived edge on some personal attribute will no doubt seize on it and voters are bound to pay at least some attention.  With Donald Trump’s outsized personality it is certainly conceivable that personality factors will play a larger role in 2016 than they have in the past several elections.  However, as candidate character evaluations have become so polarized and filtered through partisanship, it seems unlikely that personality factors will be as important to the outcome as was the case in the 1960s and 1970s.

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