February 23, 2007

Voters Remain In Neutral As Presidential Campaign Moves Into High Gear

Republicans Lag in Engagement and Enthusiasm for Candidates

Section II: Images of Leading Candidates

The public’s impressions of most of the top candidates for president remain relatively general and unfocused. Respondents who say they have heard of each candidate were asked “what comes to mind when you think of” the candidate. Significant numbers of people could not think of anything in particular to say about three of the top six candidates. But certain candidate traits and experiences, both positive and negative, have registered with the public and point both to challenges and opportunities for the leading contenders.

Among those who have heard of them, more Americans have impressions of Hillary Clinton (93%) and Rudy Giuliani (91%) than the other top-tier candidates, though the number able to volunteer something about Barack Obama (84%) is nearly as high as for Clinton and Giuliani. Despite having been the Democratic candidate for vice president, John Edwards elicits an impression from only 71% of those who have heard of him. Only 68% can say something about John McCain, and just 46% of those who have heard of Mitt Romney can volunteer any reaction to him.

As is reflected in the single words used most frequently to describe the candidates, impressions tend to be largely personal in nature, focused on the candidates’ personal qualities and characteristics, rather than on their political opinions or ideology. For all of the candidates, references to political views were relatively uncommon. Only 12% of those who had heard of John McCain mentioned his conservatism, his support of the war in Iraq, or other political stances. Even fewer people made such references about the other candidates.

The Republican Candidates

The comments about Rudy Giuliani show that he draws on a deep well of positive feeling about his performance as New York City’s mayor on 9/11. One respondent says that Giuliani “pulled everybody together when 9/11 came around.” Another describes him as a “hero” in New York. Specific references to 9/11 were mentioned by 21% of those who recognized his name. More general references to the city and to his time as mayor are made by 22%, and many of these are very positive as well, with comments such as “was a good mayor” and “I think he cleaned up New York.” Hardly any mentions of his leadership on 9/11 or his service as mayor are explicitly negative, but references to New York and 9/11 are as prevalent among people who say there is no chance they will vote for him as among those who say there is a good chance.

Giuliani also is lauded by many respondents as a strong leader (7%) and someone who is capable and courageous. There are many other positive but more general mentions such as “good man” and “great.”

Very few people mention anything related to Giuliani’s political views or ideology (6%). These mentions are slightly more prevalent among people who say there is no chance they will vote for him than for those who say there is a chance they will.

Negative comments about Giuliani include references to his personal life and personality, with such references as “arrogant,” “egotistical,” “a bully,” “full of himself,” and “showman.”

Despite the fact that John McCain ran for president in 2000 and has played a leadership role in the Senate for many years — especially on military matters and campaign finance reform — impressions of him are less crystallized than they are for Giuliani. Most common are references to his military service and his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam (13%), followed by mentions of issues and ideology. Mentions of his military experience are especially numerous among those who say there is a good chance they will vote for him.

On the other hand, mentions of issues and ideology are more common among those who say there is no chance they would vote for McCain. In this regard, comments about his support of the war in Iraq are especially notable. Others mentioned that he is “too close to Bush” or that he “gives in to the political right.” About equal numbers of people describe him as “trustworthy” or “honest” as say he is “two-faced,” “dishonest,” or a “hypocrite.” Although many observers have speculated that McCain’s age will be a potential liability for him in the campaign, only 2% of respondents explicitly mention his age.

Mitt Romney is not well-known among the public. Mentions of ideology — mostly about his conservatism — are the most common of any single type of comment (at 9%). Various other mentions include his time as governor of Massachusetts, his father’s political career, and his own service as head of the Salt Lake City Olympic Committee. There are only a few mentions of Romney’s religion (3%).

The Democratic Candidates

Comments about Hillary Clinton range very widely across a variety of topics and include many strongly positive and negative references. The most frequent references are to her husband and aspects of his presidency including the Monica Lewinsky scandal (19% of all respondents). Bill Clinton is both a political negative and a positive for his wife; many who mention President Clinton say there is no chance they will vote for Clinton (22%), but nearly as many (16%) say there is a good chance they will vote for the senator.

Clinton draws a variety of highly negative comments (10% overall, and 22% of those who say there is no chance they will vote for her), including “phony,” “sneaky,” “way too feminist,” “backstabber,” and “she-devil.” Positive comments about her tend to be equally strongly expressed, with a number of references to her intelligence (6%) and toughness (5%), and many more of a general nature (9% “good,” “great” and the like) or scattered across many areas (6%, including “determined,” “motivated,” “tolerant,” and the like).

Nearly one-in-ten (9%) respondents mention something related to her political or policy views, with a number of comments focused on her efforts toward health care reform. Policy related mentions are as common among supporters as among opponents.

Clinton’s gender is mentioned by 8% of respondents, and these mentions are more numerous among those saying there was a good chance they would vote for her (12%) than among those who say there is no chance (4%).

For a candidate who was little known to the general public just a few months ago, Barack Obama attracts comments from a relatively large number of people. The most common single reference is to his lack of experience for the presidency (12%), a significant hurdle given the fact that it is mentioned by more than one-in-five of those who say there is no chance they would vote for him (23%). But the flip side of this is that he is viewed as “new” and “fresh” by roughly an equal number of people (11%), and this quality is especially common among those who say there is a good chance they will vote for him (19%).

Obama’s intelligence also is frequently mentioned (by 8%), as is his relatively young age (6%) and his race (6%). A wide range of other mentions included honesty (5%), charisma (4%), and articulateness (4%). References to Obama’s issue and policy positions were made by 6%. A few people say that Obama is a Muslim or made references to Islam.

John Edwards‘s experience as a vice presidential candidate (11%), as well as his career as a trial lawyer (5%), are frequently cited, as are several personal traits and characteristics. General comments such as “great,” “good,” “nice” are made by 8%. A similar number (8%) mention his political views, with a number of references to his focus on poverty. Issue positions are more common among those who said there is a good chance they will vote for him (14%) than those who said there is no chance (8%).