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NC professors’ research offers new insights into presidential voting

Every new presidential election cycle brings another round of pundits proclaiming how much voters value personal warmth in their candidates.

Al Gore looked robotic in 2000, John Kerry came across as aloof in 2004, and they both lost, goes this line of thinking. George W. Bush, on the other hand, seemed like a fun guy to be around, and he won twice. Already, the personalities of the current crop of presidential hopefuls are under the microscope more than a year ahead of next fall’s election.

It all leaves Charles Prysby, professor of political science at UNC Greensboro, scratching his head.

“It’s really kind of demeaning to the electorate to suggest they’d pick a president based on who would be a nice person to have a beer with,” says Prysby.

And his research shows that is actually not what voters do at all.

Prysby and David Holian, associate professor of political science at UNCG, are co-authors of “Candidate Character Traits in Presidential Elections,” a groundbreaking study of presidential election data published last fall as part of the Routledge Research in American Politics and Governance series.

Political science expert William Crotty at Northeastern University calls the book an “exceptionally sophisticated study, one that fills a major void in our analysis of voting behavior.”

In writing it, Prysby and Holian join an impressive roster of North Carolinians who have established national reputations for their studies of presidential leadership, character and elections. Perhaps the most prominent of them all is the late Duke University political scientist James David Barber. His 1972 book “The Presidential Character,” which classified presidents based on character and worldviews, predicted the implosion of Richard Nixon’s presidency and made Barber a media star.

Four key traits

William Leuchtenburg, professor emeritus of history at UNC-Chapel Hill, is a highly regarded expert on the life and times of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. East Carolina University history professor Charles Calhoun is an authority on America’s Gilded Age and author of a biography of Benjamin Harrison that is included in the critically acclaimed American Presidents Series. And Josh Putnam, who taught last year at Appalachian State before taking a job at the University of Georgia, runs Frontloading HQ, a blog that provides comprehensive analysis of presidential primaries.

In adding to this body of homegrown presidential scholarship, Prysby and Holian based their book on data obtained from American National Elections Studies, a collaborative research project involving the University of Michigan and Stanford University that conducts in-depth interviews with voters immediately before and after elections.

Among Prysby’s and Holian’s clearest findings: contrary to conventional wisdom, the perceived personal warmth of presidential candidates does not significantly influence the candidates that voters support. Instead, voters are far more swayed by four other traits – leadership, empathy, integrity and competence.

In the 2004 election, Prysby says, Kerry impressed voters with his perceived empathy and competence. Bush, however, won higher marks for leadership and integrity. With the candidates’ character traits effectively canceling each other out, Bush went on to win, as incumbents usually do, on the strength of a solid economy and a situation in Iraq that was still relatively stable.

Whether the candidates actually possess the traits voters ascribe to them is often a matter for debate. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Prysby says. “It’s not how good a leader someone actually is; it’s how people perceive their leadership.”

Minimize the gap

The character traits identified by Prysby and Holian, of course, are far from the sole factors in determining elections. But they do impact votes – which means the Republican and Democratic parties would do well to assess these qualities in their own candidates as primary season approaches.

Their research shows that Republican presidential candidates are generally viewed by voters as stronger leaders, while Democrats are regarded as more empathetic.

Says Holian: “If you’re a primary voter and want to be strategic in casting a ballot for someone who can win the general election, you want to minimize the gap your party faces on its weakest traits.”

George W. Bush’s narrowing of the empathy gap that Republicans usually face helped fuel his victory in 2000. In 1992, Bill Clinton was similarly able to shrink the leadership gap that Democrat candidates customarily encounter.

Which candidate will rise to the challenge this time? Prysby and Holian aren’t ready to speculate yet. In the meantime, they’re as fascinated as everyone else by the possibilities.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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