Issues and Attributes

Apr 18, 2008 1:40pm

The demand for substance in our election campaigns is a worthy one. The suggestion that the candidates’ personal attributes fall outside that realm is not.

That’s particularly so in primaries. General election contests largely are defined by partisanship and policy issues on which the competing candidates tend to be starkly different. In nominating campaigns, by contrast, candidates generally have much more in common politically – clearing the way for the importance of personal attributes to rise.

So it is today in the Democratic race for president, where the sharpest divisions and the greatest changes have come not on issues but in views of the candidates’ personal qualities. We’ve seen huge swings in Hillary Clinton’s ratings on measures such as electability, leadership, and honesty and trustworthiness. And personal attributes are at least as powerful as issue preferences in predicting vote choice.

The biggest change in our latest ABC/Post poll is in electability – arguably not a trivial matter to Democrats thirsting for the White House. In December, before the voting began, 59 percent of Democrats (and Democratic-leaning independents) picked Clinton as the candidate with the best chance to win the general election. Today half as many still pick her. Obama’s rating as more electable meanwhile has soared from 16 percent then (John Edwards was still running at the time) to 62 percent now.

There are others: In December 27 percent saw Obama as more honest and trustworthy than either Clinton or Edwards; today, head-to-head against Clinton, twice as many pick Obama on this measure. Obama’s rating as the stronger leader has gone from 19 percent in December to 44 percent now; Clinton’s, in the same period, has lost 12 points. On empathy – better understanding the problems of people like you – preference for Obama has nearly doubled since December, while Clinton has slipped slightly. On experience, by contrast – but only on experience – Clinton continues clearly to prevail.

There have been big swings on the issues as well. In December Clinton led by 45 points in trust to handle health care; today, it’s down to 10 points. She led by 27 points in trust to handle terrorism; today it’s 5. On the economy she’s gone from +40 to -3; on Iraq, from +25 to a dead heat.

But issue preferences in and of themselves do not explain the contest. The candidates are essentially even on the issues, save for Clinton’s diminished lead on health care. Yet they are not tied in voter preferences; Democrats by a 10-point margin say they’d like Obama to win the nomination.

There are a variety of factors that push Obama into the lead, some policy-based, some thematic, but also some focused on assessments of the candidates’ personal qualities. In regression analyses evaluating the candidates’ ratings on issues and attributes alike, attributes are at least as strong, and in most cases stronger, in predicting vote preference.

Attributes, then, are hardly a sideshow. Like views on the issues, they represent fundamental evaluations formed by the voters and used in vote choices. They’re a significant part of what campaigns – especially primary campaigns – are all about.

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