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.
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.
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."
Confronting the seeming conflict between judgments like the above and the trial-heat results in which Clinton leads, many analysts give the latter greater weight. In fact, it may be the seemingly solid but actually soft trial-heat numbers that confuse us.
Consider polling on Jimmy Carter versus Ronald Reagan 16 years ago. At the start of the 1980 campaign, President Carter's position was by many measures poor. Most Americans gave him high marks on moral and ethical behavior, and they liked him personally. But they found his leadership inadequate in key areas. In particular, they faulted him as weak and inconsistent. Already in 1980 the public's confidence in Democratic programs had been shaken, while its receptivity to Republican approaches had climbed. And unlike today, the public's frustrations with economic performance were high.
Yet, asked who they would choose "if the election were held today," more picked Carter over Mr. Reagan and independent candidate John Anderson during much of the campaign.
It's fair to say that trial heats in the first half of 1980 need to be discounted because Carter benefited from the public's rallying behind their chief executive after the seizure of American Embassy employees in Teheran. But that's exactly the point: Many respondents said they would vote for Carter because they wanted to express solidarity in the face of a foreign challenge. Their trial-heat responses were not to be read literally.
During the 1980 campaign, too, Carter was better known than Reagan everywhere outside of California. While Reagan went on to earn good marks for leadership during most of his eight years in office, through much of that first campaign he couldn't persuade voters he had the reach, grasp, and capability that defined presidential competence. For different reasons, Dole has been found wanting by much of the public thus far in the 1996 campaign in important elements of presidential leadership.
When voters have serious reservations about important aspects of an incumbent's leadership, but don't dislike him, and when the challenger has failed to convince decisive groups of swing voters that overall he will do better, there is a high potential for volatility. Many postpone their voting decision, and relatively modest late-campaign developments can have a big impact. In 1980, according to polls, the race went from a virtual dead heat one week before the balloting to a 10-point Reagan victory.
None of this tells us what's going to happen this year. Like 1980 (and 1992), the '96 contest promises to be a three-way competition. Ross Perot's ultimate strength and impact are hard to gauge, but should his vote total approach what he got in 1992, Clinton is likely to benefit.
Most important, while Reagan finally persuaded a large majority of swing voters dissatisfied with Carter's leadership to take a chance on him, we don't know if Dole can do it this time. But however this year's contest concludes, elements of character and leadership, distinct from policy, continue to matter much to most Americans.
*Everett Carll Ladd is professor of political science at the University of Connecticut and president of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research.