We recently conducted a study with Ipsos to understand how Americans perceive the 2016 Presidential candidates’ defining personality traits, or what we might call their ‘brands.’ It turns out that regardless of their political leanings, perceptions are remarkably similar. It’s a fascinating finding given the deep differences that exist on the issues.
We asked 1000 respondents to rate the leading candidates across nine factors: experience, honesty, guts to make tough choices, leadership, personal likability, ability to handle domestic policy, ability to handle foreign policy, working well with Congress, and concern for regular people. Out of these nine, the three factors which most distinguish the candidates are experience, guts to make difficult choices, and honesty. The graphic below shows these key factors and how the candidates are perceived. The closer the candidate is to a specific line and the further from the center, the more that trait can be said to distinguish the candidate.
Figure 1 – Regardless of their party identification, likely voters see experience, honesty, and guts as the key traits which separate the candidates.
These results make intuitive sense. Respondents of all political stripes distinguish Donald Trump (Rep) from the other candidates for having the guts to make tough calls, but equally note his lack of experience. Hillary Clinton’s (Dem) experience separates her positively from the pack, but she suffers on the honesty dimension. Ben Carson (Rep) is seen has being the most honest among all rated candidates, but lacking in experience and guts.
We then dug deeper, filtering the data by whether respondents identified as Democrats or Republicans. We found that, among likely Democratic voters, concern for regular people boils up in the place of honesty as a more relevant personality trait that differentiates the candidates. Note that this isn’t to say that honesty doesn’t matter; rather that likely Democrats see greater differences between candidates on this criterion. Respondents associate Bernie Sanders (Dem) with this trait far more than Hillary Clinton. Marco Rubio (Rep) eclipses Clinton on this dimension as well.
Figure 2 – Likely voters identifying as Democrats indicate find concern for regular people to be more distinguishing than honesty.
Among likely Republican voters, personal likability replaces guts as a key personality trait separating the candidates. Here, Ben Carson and Marco Rubio distinguish themselves, with Trump far down the list. Even Bernie Sanders fares better than Trump on this dimension.
Figure 3 – Likely voters identifying as Republicans indicate find personal likability to be more distinguishing than guts.
We also conducted a head-to-head experiment showing pictures of two randomly selected candidates and asking respondents to choose their preferred candidate until a clear ranking emerged. The results here were most interesting for the Republican partisans as they show Trump, Carson, Cruz (Rep), and Rubio virtually neck and neck. This suggests to us that if one were to drop out, likely voters would have no trouble shifting their allegiance to another Republican candidate.
The survey otherwise reflects the deeply polarizing nature of each party’s frontrunner. Democrats rank Donald Trump dead last, while Republicans would prefer anyone to Hillary Clinton. Perhaps the most “ordinary” candidate is Marco Rubio, who is neither exceptionally strong nor weak on any of the key traits.
As the campaign unfolds through the primary season, we believe these personality factors will have a huge impact on the choices people make. The candidates’ brands and distinguishing traits, both good and bad, are already well established. Voters perceive them consistently regardless of their party preferences. What’s left to see is how voters evaluate the tradeoffs. There is no perfect candidate that stands head and shoulders above the rest on all attributes. Each has a flaw. Voters will have to weigh these and make tough choices when they head to the polls.
About the study
For this survey, we interviewed 1,000 respondents from our panel on November 18-19, 2015. The respondent sample was balanced to be representative of the U.S. population by age, gender, and race/ethnicity using interlocking quotas. The survey was conducted using AYTM’s proprietary platform that naturally formats surveys to be appropriate for any Internet-connected device with a focus on smartphones. We used Ipsos’s method to determine likely voters.