Candidate Characteristics

Voters also judge candidates by their personal characteristics. Included among the relevant characteristics are such things as the experience, honesty, morality, compassion, competence, and leadership ability of the candidates (Miller and Shanks 1996, 416; Page 1978, 232-265). Apart from how they see the candidates on the issues, voters form images of the personal qualities and abilities of the candidates, and these perceptions are important influences on the vote. One important aspect of personal character is the perceived honesty and trustworthiness of the candidates--what might be termed an integrity dimension. Another important dimension, which might be termed competence, involves the experience and knowledge of the candidates; in particular, voters are hardly likely to vote for someone whom they feel lacks the experience and ability to handle the job of president. A third important dimension involves the leadership ability of the candidates. Those who are perceived as strong and inspiring leaders are much more likely to be preferred by the voters. Finally, there is a compassion dimension; voters favor candidates whom they see as concerned and caring. These four dimensions of personal traits may vary in their importance; perhaps one or more of the dimensions will have little effect in any given election (Miller and Shanks 1996, 425-427).

The personal characteristics of the candidates received considerable attention in the 2004 presidential election. Republicans attacked Kerry for being inconsistent on the issues (calling him a "flip-flopper"). Democrats claimed that Bush failed to be honest with the American public about Iraq. Both candidates attempted to present themselves as strong and trustworthy leaders. It is not surprising that candidate character received considerable attention in the 2004 presidential election. Many analyses of recent presidential elections have focused on the significance of these candidate characteristics, such as honesty in 1976, competence in 1980, leadership in 1984, patriotism in 1988, trustworthiness in 1992 and 1996, and integrity and leadership ability in 2000. Voters seem to regard their vote for president as a very personal one, and they consider the character of the candidates seriously. Moreover, candidates have often focused on such traits when they felt that it would be advantageous to do so. The dataset contains a number of measures of respondent evaluations of candidate personal characteristics, allowing us to examine the influence of these factors in 2004.

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