A new AP-Ipsos found that 55% of those surveyed considered character traits the most important qualities that they look for in a presidential candidate. Only one third of voters valued policy views more than positive personal traits, such as honesty and integrity. Even fewer of those surveyed consider traits such as leadership and intelligence to be the most important qualities needed for a potential president. Forty one percent of those surveyed selected honesty as the most important trait a presidential candidate should have.

This poll sheds some insight not only on voters’ views of candidates, but also a president’s popularity. When the same poll was taken in 2004, honesty was the top trait chosen then too. At that time, a majority of those polled considered President Bush to be honest. However as public opinion of the Iraq war turned sour, and his administration bungled the response to hurricane Katrina, the president’s character numbers plummeted, and his job approval rating soon followed.

“Modern day presidential campaigns are essentially character tests, with character broadly defined to encompass a mosaic of traits, looks, liability, vision, philosophy, ideology, biography, communications skills, intelligence, strength, optimism, empathy, ethics, values, among others,” said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane. Most modern American voters don’t study the issues; they seem to believe that if they elect a good person, then that person will do the right thing in each situation.

The problem with this idea is that political strategists are experts at marketing a created candidate personality to voters, which may or may not be real. Today’s American presidential campaigns have become all about selling. Talk about positions on issues tends to just get in the way of the business of selling a slick prepackaged personality to the voters. Since the vast majority of voters, never take the time to study the issues, and get most of their information about the candidates from 30 second campaign ads, it is easy to see how our democracy has allowed itself to get so far off track.

The only way that this could ever change would be if voters started demanding to know where the candidates stood on the issues. As long as most voters are content to base their decisions on personality traits, expect campaigns to continue to be short on details and hard sell the personalities of their candidates. It is too simplistic to say that all dishonesty is viewed the same way.

Bill Clinton’s dishonesty about Monica Lewinsky didn’t hurt him at all, but the perception that George W. Bush has been dishonest about the Iraq war has under minded his presidency. A candidate must not only appear to be honest, but must also maintain that honesty after being elected. Being thought of as dishonest can have devastating political consequences, as the GOP found out in November 2006.

 

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