Section III: Candidate Traits and the ’08 Campaign
Military service, being a Christian, and political experience lead the list of traits that Americans find most appealing in a presidential candidate. But even more Americans say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who is an atheist or a political newcomer, and nearly half say they would be less inclined to support a presidential hopeful who is a homosexual, Muslim or has used drugs in the past.
The poll also finds that divorce is not much of an issue, but an extramarital affair is still a political liability. Large majorities say race and gender are non-factors; among those who say they are considerations in their vote, at least as many see these traits as a plus as say they are a minus.
A candidate’s religion continues to play a key role in shaping vote choice. Nearly four-in-ten (39%) say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who is Christian. Moreover, 63% say they would be less inclined to support a presidential candidate who does not believe in God — the most negative trait tested. Still, while Americans value religious conviction in their political leaders, large numbers acknowledge they would be less likely to vote for a Muslim (46%) or Mormon (30%) candidate for president.
Among the 23 traits tested in the survey, military experience is the characteristic that the public finds most desirable in a presidential candidate. Nearly half (48%) say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who served in the military, while just 3% would be less inclined to do so. About half (48%) said it would make no difference to them
While the public is generally cynical about politics and politicians in general, Washington political experience is still a major benefit to presidential candidates. More than a third (35%) say they would be more willing to support a candidate who has been an elected official in Washington for many years; far fewer (15%) say they would be less likely to support a politician with years of service in the nation’s capital. At the same time, a clear majority (56%) says a candidate who had never held public office would be less likely to get their vote; just 7% would find a political newcomer more appealing.
A college education matters for a candidate, and presidential hopefuls who are alumni of prestigious universities are viewed fairly positively. Nearly half of the public (46%) says they would be less likely to support a candidate who did not attend college. And 22% say they would be more inclined to vote for a candidate who attended a prestigious university like Harvard or Yale, while just 5% view this as a negative.
Business experience helps, too: 28% say they are more likely to support a candidate with business experience. A smaller number (13%) views business experience as a negative for a presidential candidate.
Notably, about half of Americans (48%) say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate in their 70s; just 5% say they would be more likely to vote for someone of that age. By comparison, 8% say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate in their 40s, while 18% say they would be more likely to support such a candidate.
Divided Over Candidate Traits
Not all Americans value the same characteristics when deciding whether to support a presidential candidate. Democrats and Republicans have deep differences over many of the traits they consider desirable and undesirable.
In particular, partisans disagree about how important it is that a candidate be a Christian: 61% of Republicans say they would be more likely to support a Christian candidate, compared with 32% of Democrats. However, just 5% of Democrats say they would be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate who is a Christian; most (62%) say it would make no difference.
Republicans also are more likely than Democrats to value military service and business experience. Nearly six-in-ten Republicans (58%) say they would be more inclined to support a candidate with military service, compared with 38% of Democrats. And more Republicans than Democrats regard experience as a business executive to be an advantage (38% vs. 21%).
Democrats are somewhat more likely than Republicans to find younger presidential candidates appealing. In addition to being disproportionately less likely to vote for a presidential candidate in their 70s, 24% of all Democrats say they would be more inclined to support a candidate for president who is in his or her 40s, compared with 14% of Republicans.
Republicans’ Negative View of ‘Affairs’
Partisans also disagree over which traits they consider to be liabilities for presidential candidates. An overwhelming majority of Republicans (86%) say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who does not believe in God, compared with 56% of Democrats. The partisan differences are nearly as wide in opinions about whether being a homosexual or a Muslim is a liability for a presidential candidate, with Republicans far more likely to view these as negative traits.
Yet the largest partisan gap comes in views of a presidential candidate who “had an extramarital affair in the past.” Fully 62% of Republicans say they would be less likely to support such a candidate, compared with 25% of Democrats (and 36% of independents).
Democrats, by contrast, are less accepting of older candidates: 60% say they would be less likely to support a candidate in his or her 70s, an opinion shared by only 42% of Republicans. These views, however, may be colored by the fact that one of the leading Republican presidential contenders — John McCain — will be 72 on Election Day, 2008.
There are some areas of agreement in the way that Republicans and Democrats evaluate candidate traits. Solid majorities in both parties, as well as half of independents, say they would be less likely to vote for candidate who had never held elective office. And about half of all Republicans and Democrats (49% each) say they would hesitate before supporting a candidate who had not attended college. Similarly, equal proportions of Republicans and Democrats say a history of using anti-depressant drugs would make them less inclined to support a candidate.
In addition to partisanship, other demographic differences emerged over what Americans see as positives and negatives when sizing up presidential candidates. Among the more noteworthy:
- Older women are the most likely to say they would be less likely to vote for a female candidate. About one-in-five (21%) women ages 65 and older express reservations about voting for a woman for president, compared with just 8% of younger women, and 11% of men.
- About twice as many African Americans as whites say they would be more likely to vote for a woman for president (24% vs. 11%).
- People in the South and those with less education are more likely than others to have concerns about a female candidate.
- As far as a candidate’s race is concerned, far more African Americans than whites say they would be more likely to vote for a black candidate (30% vs. 4%). But most African Americans and whites say this would not matter to them (69% and 90%, respectively).
- Concern about a voting for a Hispanic candidate is highest among white evangelical Protestants and people in the South. There are no significant differences across party lines.
- Concern about a presidential candidate in his or her 70s is widespread regardless of the age of the respondent. Roughly half of those in all age groups — including those 65 and older — say they would be less likely to support such a candidate.
- Most people say it would not matter if a candidate is in their 40s, though it is more of an issue (both positive and negative) for voters who themselves are age 65 or older.
- Four-in-ten white evangelical Protestants say they would less likely to vote for a candidate who is a Mormon, the highest percentage in any religious group. Just 28% of white mainline Protestants, and 22% of all Catholics, say they would be less inclined to vote for a Mormon.
- Doubts about a Muslim candidate increase dramatically with age. Nearly six-in-ten Americans (58%) ages 65 and older say they would be less likely to support a candidate who is Muslim, compared with 32% of 18-29-year olds.
Traits and the Candidates
Americans have clear opinions about what they do and do not like in a presidential candidate. That broad portrait is sometimes at odds with the respective traits of the current Republican and Democratic hopefuls, a detailed analysis of survey results suggests.
Some key traits as identified by the public already are clearly helping or hurting individual candidates. For example, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is somewhat less attractive to the public because he is a Mormon. But other important traits important to voters have yet to make their presence felt: Rudy Giuliani, for example, currently is not being hurt by a personal history that includes divorce and reports of an extramarital affair while he was mayor of New York City.
At the same time, other traits judged by the public to be relatively unimportant are benefiting particular presidential hopefuls. Most Americans agree that the race and sex of the candidate does not matter in determining which candidate they will support. Among those who say they would be more likely to vote for a woman president (13% of the public), most say there is a good chance they will vote for Clinton. However, those who say they would be less likely to support a woman (11% of the public) overwhelmingly say there is no chance they will vote for Clinton.
Here are the traits that are helping and hurting individual candidates, and some important traits that have not had an impact on support:
Barack Obama: People who are more inclined to support a presidential candidate who is black also are more likely to be backing Obama, the analysis suggests. But he loses support among those who would be less likely to say they would vote for a presidential candidate who is Muslim. Overall, nearly half (47%) of those who are less likely to support a Muslim candidate say there is “no chance” they would vote for Obama, suggesting that some are under the mistaken impression he is a Muslim (Obama is a Christian).
The analysis also suggests the one term senator’s relative lack of Washington experience is not hurting him so far: He is no more or less likely to be supported by those who value a candidate with extensive experience in Washington.
Rudy Giuliani: Giuliani loses support among those who object to gay presidential candidates, a finding almost entirely driven by the fact that Republicans who say they are less likely to vote for gay candidates also are disproportionately less likely to be supporting Giuliani. Giuliani was an active supporter of gay rights when he was mayor of New York City.
Even though Giuliani’s years as mayor were marked by a personal scandal that played out in the New York media, the analysis finds that individuals who say they are less likely to vote for a candidate who had an extramarital affair, or one who has been divorced, are not significantly different in their attitudes toward Giuliani’s candidacy than are others. In addition, people who are more likely to vote for a candidate with business experience are supporting Giuliani, the analysis reveals.
John McCain: McCain’s military background is advantage, an analysis of the data shows. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of those who are more likely to vote for a candidate who has served in the military say there is at least some chance they would support McCain. That compares with 51% among those who say military service is not a factor. And twice as many of those who value a candidate’s military service, as those who do not, say there is a good chance they will support McCain.
More surprising, perhaps, is the fact that McCain’s age does not appear to be hurting him. Despite widespread reluctance to support a presidential candidate in his or her ’70s, McCain does not appreciably suffer among this group.
Mitt Romney: The Massachusetts governor’s religious faith currently helps and hurts him, the analysis finds. Romney clearly loses support among people who are less likely to vote for a Mormon. Overall, about 30% express reluctance to support a Mormon candidate, and among this group, 73% say there is “no chance” they would back Romney. This compares with 55% among those who say it would not matter if a candidate is a Mormon.
At the same time, Romney has appeal among those who say they would be more inclined to vote for a candidate who is a Christian. Romney also draws support among those voters who value business experience: nearly six-in-ten (59%) in this group say there is at least some chance they will vote for him, compared with 34% of those who do not view business experience as highly.
For other candidates — Democrats as well as Republicans — no traits stand out as particularly positive or negative. This is case even for some well-known candidates, such as John Edwards. None of the 23 traits tested is solidly associated with support for Edwards and the other presidential candidates, in either party.
Other Factors: Government Experience
When asked about which kinds of experiences are the best preparation for becoming president, people are divided: 35% say serving as governor provides the best preparation while nearly as many (31%) say serving in Congress best prepares someone for the White House. Fewer people say that serving as a top military official (10%), such as a general or admiral, or as a business executive (8%), is the ideal preparation for becoming president.
Republicans and Democrats have somewhat different views on the relative value of different types of experiences: Democrats by 44% to 17% think that serving in Congress provides the best preparation, while Republicans value service as a governor slightly more than do Democrats. Republicans also are three times more likely than Democrats to say being a military leader offers the best training for the White House (18% vs. 6%).
When the options are limited to service in Congress or as a governor, a majority (55%) says that serving as a member of Congress — and acquiring experience in Washington and foreign policy — is better preparation for becoming president. Far fewer (24%) say that prior service as a state governor — and gaining experience as head of an administration — better prepares someone to be president. These opinions have changed little in recent years; in 2003, 52% said experience as a member of Congress better prepared someone to be president.