Character vs Policy: What gets the American people going?

Posted on September 28, 2016 by


It goes without saying that this presidential election has been quite unconventional. Rather than addressing important issues facing our country and providing their policy solutions, this year’s candidates have spent a majority of time attacking the integrity and character of their opponent. Substantive policy debates seem to have diminished into a nostalgic era of American politics. Nowadays people, the media, and even other politicians seem to concern themselves with whether or not Hillary Clinton coughs during a rally or if Trump explodes during a debate. Why is this election different compared to those in the past and is character more important than policy?

They both have bad raps 

Neither Clinton nor Trump are viewed favorably among a large majority of Americans. In fact, a recent poll conducted by the Roper Center and IBD/TIPP shows that they are actually the two most disliked candidates to ever run for president. The chart below demonstrates that their unfavorability ratings are higher than George W. Bush’s when he left office.enten-generaldislike-1

Why are these two the most hated candidates in history? Well, of course each individual has his or her personal reasons as to why they don’t like their choices for president this year. However, when one delves into human nature and psychology, the generalized answer is quite apparent. Ed O’Brien who is an assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago and Nadav Klein who is a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy conducted an experiment to figure out what sorts of acts people find moral and immoral. They found that people tend to weigh the bad deeds of a person more so than the good deeds. When it comes to Clinton and Trump, their research concluded:

Both candidates have impressive accomplishments: Clinton achieved top levels of public service as first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state, and Trump has been touted as a modern business tycoon. But no matter how many personal selling points they may offer to their constituents, our findings (along with many others in psychological science) suggest that the human mind gives preferential weight to the bad things.

They have to prove the other guy is worse

Since neither of these candidates are well liked by the American public, it is necessary for each of them to prove why their opponent deserves to be hated more. This is why we have seen both campaigns use negative advertising in an attempt to persuade voters that their rival is the one they should fear.

Below is an ad that Hillary’s campaign released called “Role Models”. The goal of this specific ad is to show that Trump is not the type of president that children can look up to since he is a bully and therefore has no place near the presidency. They include a montage of sound bites from some of the most famous, yet controversial and offensive statements Trump himself has made.

In contrast, here is a Trump attack ad against Hillary. Instead of using his typical fear mongering tactics, Trump attacked Hillary on one of her most controversial statements thus far. The main idea here is that hard working Americans do not deserve to be grouped into a category that they are all ignorant xenophobes and that Hillary does not deserve to be president because she is wrongly generalizing a large chunk of the electorate.

Are voters falling for it? The quick answer is no and the reason is that they view this election and both campaigns as being too negative. A PEW study found that throughout the course of the general election, unfavorability ratings actually increased for the two candidates.satisfaction_4

Do voters care?

It is easy to simply blame Clinton and Trump for relying on attacks of character of their rivals to win the presidency instead of focusing on policy. However, do voters even care about policy? The PEW Research center found that the majority of voters in fact do not think that this election is focused on policy debates. The results also show that more Democrats than Republicans believe this to be true.


In an article for the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza makes note of this phenomenon as well from a poll he found in the Des Moines Register:

Just 41 percent of likely Republican Iowa caucus-goers said they wanted their preferred candidate to “be clear about specific policies” while almost six in 10 (57 percent) said they would simply trust him or her to figure it all out once they got into office.

Trump is definitely the anti-establishment candidate and his supporters are not drawn to him because of policy. Rather, they appreciate that there is someone out there who is not afraid to say what they want and can be a voice for them. Trump has excelled in appealing to these voters and has truly tapped into what Republican voters want.

Hillary is in more of a tough spot because she has to decide what is more vital to spend time on. It is obvious that millennials don’t support Trump and they find him unqualified, sexist, racist, etc. The problem Clinton is having is connecting to these young voters and making them feel as though they have a voice in this election. It is time for her to talk more about policy and how her views are going to improve their lives. The millennials are a passioned group of voters that need to feel the heart and soul of a candidate and that is what Hillary’s next move should be. If she is able to convince this generation to vote for her, she will win the presidency.

Will we ever go back to policy debates?

It is difficult to predict what will happen to the country after this election is over since there has never been an election quite like this one. There is a strong sense of polarization and both sides have no desire to work with the other. One thing is for certain: people love a good matchup. Since these two candidates are so hated, people have been paying attention to this election in record numbers. 84,000,000 people viewed the first Presidential Debate on TV alone. People of all age groups have been reading articles, protesting, posting on social media, and attending rallies for their candidate of choice. What Clinton and Trump have been doing seems to be working since multitudes of voters and people around the world are paying attention. The only problem is if this is the right kind of attention. We will see once this election is over whether or not all this hysteria was worth it.


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