From the moment Donald Trump declared his candidacy in the run up to the 2016 American election, his personality has been front and centre.
Voters have been prompted from the get-go to consider “trusting” his “strong leadership,” his “honesty” and his business acumen. Unlike many presidential candidates, who are career politicians, including governors, senators, or members of Congress, Trump has none of this experience but does have a level of personal infamy that rivals some of the most notorious personalities — political or otherwise — in global history.
Does personality matter?
Indeed, much of the content of his campaign has been, strictly speaking, devoid of “real” policy discussion, as he has chosen instead to prey upon the emotions of voters, while insulting the personalities of his opponents.
On the other hand, we have Hillary Clinton, official nominee of the Democratic Party. She represents the first time a woman has been selected by a major party to contest the presidency, and, unlike Trump, has decades of political experience, beginning her career as a Yale-educated lawyer, and more recently, serving as U.S. secretary of state, after seven years in the Senate and eight years as first lady of the United States.
In many ways, both Trump and Clinton are household names, not only in the U.S., but around the world. We have heard of them, we recognize their photos and we have some sense of “who” they are. Does this matter, though? Were voters thinking about personality throughout the primaries? Will voters consider the personalities of presidential candidates when they head to the ballot box on Nov. 8?
In a word, yes.
Competence and character
There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that leaders’ personalities matter, and that they affect electoral outcomes, not just in the U.S., but around the world. Voters assess the competence (traits like intelligence and strength of leadership) and character (traits like honesty and empathy) of candidates, and those assessments affect what they do in the polling booth on election day.
Why might this be? In a properly functioning democracy, shouldn’t party platforms, stances on policy issues and past performance play more of a role than whether or not the candidate is intelligent or trustworthy?
There are a number of reasons why we should expect that voters will consider personality at the ballot box, and there are a number of reasons why this does not signal the end of “good” democracy.
First of all, at the end of the day there is an actual person who will hold the position of president which suggests that “who” they are should probably be a factor in a person’s vote “calculus.” Quite simply, the person is important.
“That is, while policy platforms might change, and a candidate’s perspective on a particular policy issue might evolve over time, who they are underneath all of that is likely to remain fairly stable.”
Second, most of us have jobs, families and other responsibilities. We have limited time and resources and therefore we can’t be expected to pore over party platforms, the legislative records of candidates, policy documents, economics literature, and so on. So we make our decisions based on other types of judgments too, such as our evaluations of candidates’ personality. And actually, my research suggests that even if we did become “highly informed” about all of these things, we would still focus on personality! (The most informed members of society focus on leaders’ traits too, it’s not just a shortcut that those without much information rely upon).
Third, deciding how we feel about others is a normal thing that we do constantly. Every day we meet new people and we decide how we feel about them, and we do it fairly quickly. We are used to doing this, and we generally do it pretty well. Why not take advantage of a skill we have been developing our whole lives?
Finally, psychology research suggests that our personalities change very little over time. That is, while policy platforms might change, and a candidate’s perspective on a particular policy issue might evolve over time, who they are underneath all of that is likely to remain fairly stable.
The presidential debates, for example, haven’t really provided us with any new insights into what the two candidates are “really” like — they’ve arguably been showing their true colours all throughout their careers. Therefore, their personality might actually provide a good indication of how the candidates would deal with the challenges and stresses of political office.
There’s a reason why folks have suggested that you don’t want to give the “nuclear codes” to a guy who flies off the handle in response to a tweet he doesn’t like.
Personality matters to voters. And probably, so it should.
If you’re interested in hearing more about party leaders in the U.S. presidential election, Dr. Bittner is organizing two public events with American experts on elections and public opinion. For more information about either the Tacos and Trump Happy Hour on Friday, Oct. 14, or the Lunch and Learn Jewish Deli Pop-Up on Saturday, Oct. 15, please visit here.