Would-Be Trouble for a Candidate

The best news for the 2008 presidential candidates is that none of them is a 72-year-old twice-divorced cigarette smoker. But even by itself, each one of those attributes is a significant potential pitfall in the coming campaign.

Being a Mormon is a hurdle as well, while this ABC News/Washington Post poll finds that two other widely noted attributes of current candidates -- being a woman and being an African-American -- have no net negative impact on voter preferences.

Among all these, age stands out. Fifty-eight percent of Americans say they'd be less likely to vote for a candidate who's over 72; just 3 percent would be more apt to back someone that age. John McCain turns 72 in August 2008, three years older than Ronald Reagan was when he was first elected president in November 1980.

Next on the list are being a Mormon (as is former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney), with 29 percent less likely to vote for one; being twice-divorced (Rudy Giuliani), with 26 percent calling that an impediment; and being a smoker (Barack Obama is trying to quit), a negative for 21 percent.

By contrast, as many people say they'd be more likely as less likely to vote for either a woman or an African-American candidate, giving those attributes no negative impact.

The extent to which any of these attributes ultimately hurts a candidate remains to be seen. The chief reason is that politics is comparative; voters don't assess each candidate in a vacuum but in comparison to his or her opponents. It's hard, for example, to imagine that many voters who strongly support Giuliani on the issues would fail to back him solely on the basis of his repeat trips to the altar.

A good candidate, moreover, can defuse negatives. In a debate on Oct. 21, 1984, during his re-election campaign, Reagan famously countered questions about his age by quipping that he wouldn't make Democrat Walter Mondale's "youth and inexperience" an issue in the campaign. (Reagan was 73 at the time; Mondale, a former vice president, 56.)

Similarly -- in the face of polls in which 21 percent said they wouldn't vote for a Catholic -- John F. Kennedy addressed his religion in a celebrated speech at the Rice Hotel in Houston on Sept. 12, 1960: "I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters -- and the church does not speak for me."

Still, personal attributes can matter. Kennedy was elected in 1960 by the narrowest popular vote margin in U.S. history. In 1980, 12 percent of voters called Reagan's age "very important" in their decision, and three-quarters of them voted for Jimmy Carter. That race wasn't close enough for those votes to make a difference, but in another contest it might -- particularly in a primary in which personal attributes can matter more because the candidates tend to have more common ground on the issues.

Mormon -- A positive sign for Romney is that objections to voting for a Mormon have eased a bit -- from 35 percent "less likely" in December to 29 percent now. At the same time, these views may be hard for him to address entirely, because they're strongly held, and cut to personal religious beliefs.

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