Here in late 2007, Democratic voters must confront an unpleasant truth (one which "offends" many of them): In 2000, and again in 2004, George W. Bush defeated two Democratic nominees, Al Gore and John Kerry, both of whom were judged by the nation's voters to be more knowledgeable and intelligent — and in Gore's case to be vastly more experienced — than Bush. But these very same voters found Bush to be more honest and trustworthy, and more personally likable than either Democrat.
How, ask the self-consciously cerebral in our midst, could voters prize personality and disposition over intellect and unsophisticated candor over necessarily sophisticated nuance? One explanation is found in the tragically failed presidencies of the last 40 years, where presidential defects of character and personality — along with absence of honesty — made probable, if not inevitable, the twin tragedies of Vietnam and Watergate.
Quite simply, their vote for president is the most personal vote Americans make. They understand they are choosing someone who will be an awesomely important factor in their lives for the next four years. Understandably, they prefer a president whom they can believe and with whom they can be comfortable. In presidential elections, in the respected judgment of Democratic pollster Peter Hart, "Voters value 'I like' over IQ."
In the next 10 weeks, Democratic voters will almost certainly decide who their 2008 nominee will be. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton remains the dominant front-runner in all national polls. That includes the most recent November survey of NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, where, among Democrats, with a commanding 47 percent, she leads Illinois Sen. Barack Obama (25 percent) and 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards (11 percent).
That NBC News-Journal poll contains good news for the Clinton camp when it finds all voters, by a decisive five-to-three margin, judge the New York senator to be "knowledgeable and experienced to handle the presidency" and by a clear 47 percent-to-43 percent margin find her to "have the strong leadership qualities needed to be president."
But when voters are asked whether Clinton is "easygoing and likable," just 34 percent answer in the positive, while 39 percent respond in the negative. Is she "honest and straightforward"? A clear plurality — 43 percent to 34 percent — answered no.
For Democrats who suddenly fear that they have 'seen this movie before,' the NBC-Journal numbers from an October 2004 pre-election survey are anything but reassuring. When asked in 2004 which presidential candidate was more "consistent in standing up for his beliefs," Bush was named by 57 percent of voters and Kerry by just 19 percent. Which candidate was more "easygoing and likable"? Bush was the pick of 47 percent and Kerry of 27 percent.
Of the 13,130 real live voters interviewed by the Los Angeles Times 2000 exit poll of people leaving the voting booth, one out of four voters said the quality of a candidate's being "honest and trustworthy" had mattered the most in their presidential decision. Those "honest and trustworthy" folks chose Bush over Gore by a lopsided 80 percent to 15 percent. When asked "who would say anything to be president," these same actual voters answered Gore by two to one over Bush.
Democrats are now heading into an election where conditions are so favorable for them that it looks like they can't boot it. But of course, they can. And Democrats would be wise to remember that Americans want to be able to both trust and to like their president — "I like over IQ."
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.