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 ... trouble connecting at times" (Dowd 2012c). Mark Shields felt that neither candidate possessed any humility or humor, in contrast to other successful presidential candidates, such as Reagan or the younger Bush (Shields 2012b). Obama's poor performance in the first presidential debate led some pundits to conclude that he looked weak, something that could cost him dearly in the election (Shields 2012a). But as the campaign wore on and it became clear that Obama would triumph, the prevailing view in the media was that voters found Obama more likable than Romney. In particular, pundits argued that Romney failed to define himself early in the campaign, thereby allowing Democrats to create an unflattering caricature. A lengthy postelection analysis in the Boston Globe concluded that one of the Romney campaign team's gravest errors was the "failure, until too late in the campaign, to sell voters on the candidate's personal qualities and leadership gifts" (Kranish 2012).
This study investigates the role that voter perceptions of the character traits of the candidates played in the 2012 presidential election. Relying on the American National Election Study (ANES), (1) we analyze how voters perceived the candidates on several important character trait dimensions and how these perceptions affected the vote. We also present data on the perceptions of candidate character traits from earlier years, and we interpret the findings from our 2012 analysis in light of analyses of previous presidential elections, which is important for an understanding of the role that candidate character traits played in the 2012 contest. As the following discussion elaborates, we find that Obama secured a substantial advantage on character traits, a larger advantage than most winning presidential candidates have possessed, and that these trait perceptions influenced the behavior of voters.
Studying Candidate Character Traits
Existing research has identified several dimensions of candidate character traits that are important to voters. Kinder (1986) analyzed a large number of traits and found that they could be reduced to four basic trait dimensions: leadership, competence, integrity, and empathy. Leadership refers to being decisive, able to take action, and able to accomplish things. Competence denotes experience, knowledge, and intelligence. Integrity encompasses honesty and morality. Empathy means being concerned about and able to understand the problems of other people, especially "ordinary people." These four dimensions of candidate character have been accepted as the appropriate conceptualization by a number of other researchers (Goren 2002; McCann 1990; Miller and Shanks 1996; Pierce 1993). There are divergent views, however. In some cases, the discrepancy is simply a case of combining two dimensions. For example, Funk (1999) started with the above four dimensions--leadership, competence, integrity, and empathy--but found that leadership and competence are best combined into one dimension. In other cases, empathy is not included as a relevant trait dimension (Campbell 1983; Conover 1981; Keeter 1987; Markus 1982; Miller, Wattenberg, and Malanchuk 1986; Rahn et al. 1990; Sullivan et al. 1990). Our study builds on this research and on our own work (Prysby 2008; Prysby and Holian 2007; Holian and Prysby 2008, 2011), in which we have found empathy to be an important trait to voters. We therefore employ the four dimensions of candidate character traits listed above: leadership, competence, integrity, and empathy.
Media portrayals of presidential candidates are sometimes at odds with the perceptions of these traits by voters, as measured by the questions asked in the ANES. In particular, pundits frequently emphasize warmth or amiability as an important candidate trait, often articulated as voters being attracted to the candidate with whom they would most want to share a beer or invite over for dinner. However, our research shows that voters refer only rarely to such traits as reasons for voting for a candidate. Personal warmth does not seem to influence voters in the way that many media pundits think that it does. (2) Similarly, perceptions of elitism also do not seem to affect voters very much. (3)
There is a party component to candidate trait perceptions. Much as political parties come to be identified as owning, or being highly credible on, particular issues (Petrocik 1996), Republican and Democratic candidates own specific traits related to these underlying issues (Hayes 2005). Thus, Democratic candidates, who enjoy ownership of issues related to social welfare, such as Social Security and Medicare, tend to be advantaged on perceptions of empathy. Republican candidates, who enjoy a credibility advantage on such issues as national defense and traditional values, tend to be perceived as stronger leaders with greater integrity. Goren (2007) extends this analysis to partisan voters by arguing that partisan bias leads party identifiers to pay particular attention to the perceived character weakness of the opposition party. Thus, Democrats are most likely to identify Republican candidates as lacking in compassion, while Republicans will view Democratic candidates as weak leaders. As we will discuss below, no trait is more consistently identified with a particular political party than empathy is with Democrats. Republican candidates usually maintain an advantage on the strong leadership question, although this advantage disappears for other traits associated with the underlying leadership dimension, such as being inspiring or optimistic. In contrast, no Democratic candidate has failed to enjoy an advantage with the American public on any question used to measure empathy in the nearly three decades that the ANES has asked these trait questions.
Measuring Perceptions of Candidate Character Traits
Because the personal traits that are most often identified as relevant for presidential candidates include...