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To Voters Picking a President, Character Does Matter

Americans have serious concerns about Clinton, but they're not convinced that Dole will do better

By Everett Carll Ladd / July 23, 1996

Of late many have been puzzling over the importance to voters of candidates' "characters" when it comes to picking a president. Specifically, they're asking how important the character dimension is likely to be in the race between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole.

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Surveys show majorities, often large ones, criticizing the incumbent president on matters of character and leadership. But without exception, they also show President Clinton leading Mr. Dole by substantial margins - recently, about 12 percentage points.

A contradiction?

If Americans fault the president on character but say they prefer him over a man whom they give high marks in that area, does this mean that character doesn't really matter all that much?

Stephen Hess, a distinguished scholar of the presidency at the Brookings Institution, thinks so: "If it's a choice between bad character and good economic news [which on the whole the US has been seeing], good economic news is always going to win." Rutgers political scientist Ross Baker minimizes the character dimension from a different angle: "Many see Clinton as somewhat of a likable rogue. Barring any proof of high crimes and misdemeanors on the part of the president, they're likely to say, 'That's just how Bill Clinton is.' " But lots of data contradict such interpretations. While there always seems to be concern that the country is lowering its moral and ethical standards, survey findings and practical experience say otherwise. As to judgments about presidents, we continue to expect a lot in leadership and example. Few of us expect anything close to perfection, but it's simply not true that we're comfortable with "a likable rogue" in the Oval Office.

The public's thinking about "character" is often read too narrowly. Each president has personal attributes that together define his style of leadership and capacity to lead. When Americans assess the personal side of a president, they do so primarily against the backdrop of their proper concern with the quality of his leadership. Many different elements, of course, feed into the latter judgment.

Clinton trails Dole on a wide range of character and leadership considerations. In a survey jointly conducted last month by a survey group with Democratic ties (Lake) and another with Republican connections (Tarrance) for US News and World Report, respondents were given a list of 18 traits relevant to presidential leadership and were asked to rate the two contenders. The advantage went to Clinton in only four areas: "inspiring"; "right for the times"; "compassionate"; and "out of touch." (On the latter, fewer respondents thought the criticism applied to Clinton than to Dole.)

The president's margin wasn't very good on any of the other items. In 9 of the 18 categories, respondents gave Dole the edge - and often by large margins. They were more inclined to credit him than the president in terms of "commands respect"; "moral"; "good example"; "stands up for what he believes"; and "sincere." They associated Dole less than the president with "lots of mistakes"; "weak"; and "dishonest."

In another 5 of the 18 domains of leadership and character, the public gave the two candidates essentially equal overall reviews: "intelligent"; "not qualified"; "no direction"; "unfair"; and "divisive, creates division."