In the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004, the Democratic nominees, former Vice President Al Gore and Sen. John Kerry, were both seen by the nation's voters as more knowledgeable and more intelligent than the Republican standard-bearer in both elections, George W. Bush. But those same voters in both campaigns found Bush to be more honest, trustworthy and likable than either Gore or Kerry. In explaining why Bush defeated Kerry, respected Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart put it bluntly: "Voters value 'I Like' over IQ."
Our vote for president is actually the most personal vote we Americans get to cast. Aware of the enormous impact every president has over our lives — both national and individual — we learned painfully that the national tragedies of both Vietnam and Watergate were directly attributable to defects of character and personality — along with acute absence of honesty — of elected American presidents.
In the most recent Wall Street Journal-NBC News national poll, 2020 voters listed the three most important qualities in deciding how to vote for president to be "having the ability to bring the country together" (36%); "being honest and trustworthy" (35%); and "having strong leadership qualities" (33%). Democrat Joe Biden held a statistically insignificant 45%-43% edge over President Donald Trump on the "strong leadership qualities" question. But on "bringing the country together," Biden was judged to be better than Trump by the lopsided margin of 52% to 28%. And on "being honest and trustworthy," voters again picked Biden over Trump by a decisive 47% to 30% margin.
How, if the vote for president is so personal, did Trump, with a 38% favorable-60% unfavorable personal rating from 2016 voters, the lowest for any major party candidate in the history of polling, win the White House four years ago? Because he was running that year against Democrat Hillary Clinton, whose 43% favorable-55% unfavorable personal rating was the second-lowest ever recorded by a major party nominee. If Trump had been running unopposed four years ago, he would have lost. But he was running against Clinton, who just 36% of voters saw as "honest and trustworthy," while 61% said she was not — almost identical to Trump's bad numbers on "honest and trustworthy," which were 33% positive and 64% negative.
No incumbent president or his party has won reelection to the White House when that president's job rating was below 48% positive. In nearly four years, during which he presided over an economy where unemployment fell to just 3.5%, the nation's lowest rate in 51 years, Trump remains the only U.S. president in the history of the Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll never to be rated positively by at least 50% of Americans; in fact, he never even reached beyond 46% approval.
In this bizarre pandemic year, with voters unable to assess the character and personality of the presidential candidates because they are unable to see them interact with voters, Americans will take their clues more than ever from the three presidential debates, in which the candidates will be wise to remember that character is destiny and the presidential choice is the most personal vote we will cast.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
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