A recent AP article claims that voters look more to character than policy when choosing candidates:
A new Associated Press-Ipsos poll says 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.
What does this mean for 2008 Democrats, and specifically, Obama?
The poll also revealed that among Democratic voters who “look first to a candidate’s character, issues, and leadership qualities,” Hillary Clinton “leads with 38 percent, followed by Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois at 21 percent.”
As with any polls this early in the race, the numbers must be taken with a grain of salt. Clinton is still much more widely-known than Obama, and this discrepancy in name recognition could be to blame at this stage. But interestingly, according to the poll, “the former first lady is tied with Obama among the small number of respondents who value experience, a surprise given Obama’s short stint in Washington.” For potential Obama supporters who have been reluctant to put their full support behind the senator from Illinois due to his short tenure in Washington, this could ease some fears.
The focus on character over more technical or substantive aspects of a candidate should be no surprise given the influence of mass media in the last few presidential elections. In the above article, Democratic strategist Chris Lehane says that character is seen as a mosaic of traits, such as “looks, likability, vision, philosophy, ideology, biography, communications skills, intelligence, strength, optimism, empathy, ethics, values, etc.” Many of these traits are communicated to voters visually, through clips on the evening news and YouTube, and images in newspapers and online.
This emphasis on traits that are communicated visually could serve a gifted orator like Obama well. After his speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, people who hadn’t known his name a week before were talking about Obama’s strong character and positive qualities. Obama’s staying power lies in that he not only conveys the impression of being honest and trustworthy, but his track record backs up these initial impressions.
Last week, a stock deal made by Obama two years ago drew scrutiny, but despite the best efforts of conservatives, the story has failed to gain traction as an indication of character weakness. To be sure, Obama’s opponents are digging for any blemish to his fresh-faced image. But so far, it looks like they’re coming up empty.
And this is a very good thing for the Obama campaign. Howard Dean’s quick fall from grace following the infamous “scream” is still in the front of many campaign workers’ minds. A similar incident could mean a similar demise for Obama, who is enjoying a rise in popularity even quicker than Dean did.
But anyone who has seen Obama speak has confidence that he will stay on the top of his game. Bring on the doubts about experience – this man has character, and in 2008, character counts.