Evaluations of 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 (Bartels 2002; Nimmo and Savage 1976; Page 1978, 232-265; Prysby 2008). 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 empathy dimension — voters favor candidates whom they see as concerned and caring about people like them. 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 2012 presidential election. Democrats criticized Romney for being unable to understand the economic problems of ordinary people and for switching his positions on public policy issues. Republicans attacked Obama for failing to provide the leadership that the country needed. It is not surprising that candidate character received considerable attention in the 2012 presidential election.
Other recent presidential election campaigns also have focused on the significance of candidate character traits. 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 emphasized such traits when they felt that it would be advantageous to do so.
The SETUPS dataset contains a number of measures of respondent evaluations of candidate personal characteristics, allowing one to examine the influence of these factors in 2012.