Overrating Personalities

Over at Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight site, our Ten Miles Square contributor John Sides has an important post about the tendency of journalists to overrate their own assessments of political candidates’ personal qualities.

For one thing, partisan preferences often have a big impact on how voters perceive candidates personally, which becomes very evident if you look at the underlying numbers in polls showing that Mitt Romney has an “empathy gap” against Barack Obama:

[A]ccording to my analysis of YouGov polls, 83 percent of Democrats view Mr. Obama as empathetic, but only 14 percent see Mr. Romney this way. Republicans have the opposite view: 82 percent view Mr. Romney as empathetic, but only 25 percent see Mr. Obama this way. Like most perceptions of candidates, perceptions of their traits are rife with partisan bias.

Moreover, some personality traits are persistently associated with candidates from one party rather than the other, and are often “canceled out” by other personality traits. For example, Democrats are typically considered more “empathetic,” while Republicans are rated more strongly on average when it comes to “leadership.” Sides concedes that candidates exhibiting traits not associated with their party–an empathetic Republican or a Democrat perceived as a strong leader–might gain an advantage. But all in all, he says, the evidence suggests that personal traits are not nearly as important in voter preferences than the coverage of campaigns would suggest.

Well, that certainly helps explain President Nixon.

Obviously, political journalists tend to cover what they can see and hear. Beat reporters, who have to listen to the same speeches and attend the same contrived events over and over again, naturally drift into perceptions of how candidates comes across personally–whether they are “connecting,” whether they are “calm” or “in charge” or “confident” or instead are irritable, erratic, or depressed.

That’s all fine and interesting, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into votes. At a minimum, it’s probably time to lay to rest the chesnut that the most important question in a presidential election is with which candidate Americans would prefer to drink a beer. Hell, I might actually prefer hoisting a few with Mitt, who probably knows about some exotic microbrews I’ve never tasted–so long as he is picking up the tab.

But seriously, Democrats shouldn’t count on an “empathy gap” as a huge asset in this campaign. Romney has a problem with consistency and reliability that his strange, remote personality exacerbates, that’s true. But in the end, the people who for whatever reason want Barack Obama out of the White House and Romney in will figure out a way to find Mitt just lovable enough.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.