Top-of-Mind Candidate Perceptions In-Depth

by Jeffrey M. Jones

Mix of positive and negative in Americans’ perceptions of each

PRINCETON, NJ -- Over the course of the presidential campaign, Americans have become increasingly likely to view John McCain as too old and Hillary Clinton as dishonest. Barack Obama is much better known today than before the campaign got underway, but the dominant perceptions of him (as being young and inexperienced and a fresh face with new ideas) have changed little.

These findings are based on results from the latest Gallup Panel survey, which asked respondents to describe in their own words "what comes to mind" when they think of the three leading presidential candidates. The question had been previously asked in late 2006, before the candidates officially announced their intentions to run for president.

The current data show that the most commonly mentioned characteristics about McCain are that he is "too old," that he is a "good man"/"likable," that he would give the country more of the same/be another George W. Bush, that he had a good military background, and basic dislike of him.

Apparently, Americans have become more cognizant of McCain's age, as only 2% mentioned this in December 2006. Another major change in top-of-mind responses about McCain is a not-unexpected decline in the percentage of Americans who say he is "a good candidate" who "should run." Also, back in December 2006, no one had specifically thought of McCain as potentially representing what amounts to a third Bush term. Another new perception of McCain is that he is a "war hawk" given his positions on the Iraq war, which were probably not as well known when the question was last asked.

Obama himself was not well known when the open-ended question was first asked. In November 2006, 36% of Americans were either not familiar enough with Obama to provide a response or had no opinion of him. Now, just 9% fall into these categories. Even with the increase in familiarity with Obama, the most commonly held perceptions about him have not changed -- namely, that he is "young and inexperienced" and "a fresh face with new ideas." Equal percentages volunteer that they like and dislike him.

Perhaps the most notable change in perceptions of Obama is that he is "dishonest." Five percent now mention this, but it did not make the list in November 2006. Other newly formed characterizations of Obama are that he lacks substance/is all talk and no action, disagreement with his religious views -- a possible reflection on his membership in the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's church -- and that he is an "elitist" or a "snob." But none of these views are widely held.

The most commonly held perceptions of Hillary Clinton are that she is dishonest or not trustworthy, past scandals or "baggage" associated with husband Bill Clinton, that she is qualified and capable, basic dislike of her, and that she is strong.

Since the question was last asked about her, there have been significant increases in perceptions of Hillary Clinton as being dishonest and of the baggage Bill Clinton brings. On the bright side, there has been an increase in the percentage who mention that she is experienced, and a significant decline in the percentage who believe she is merely "riding Bill's shirt tails."

Praise and Criticism for the Candidates

As the specific comments make clear, the candidates receive a fair amount of praise and criticism from the American public. By characterizing each of the specific open-ended categories as representing either positive, negative, or neutral (usually a descriptive statement, such as "A Democrat") responses, one can get a sense of whether the top-of-mind comments focus more on positive or on negative aspects associated with each candidate. The accompanying graph shows the results.

It is immediately apparent from the graph that Americans tend to give many more negative than positive responses about Clinton. In fact, more than half mention something negative about Clinton, nearly twice as many as the 30% who say something positive about her. Meanwhile, McCain and Obama receive about equal percentages of positive and negative comments.

In part, these differences reflect the basic favorable ratings of each candidate. In the most recent USA Today/Gallup poll, Obama (60%) and McCain (60%) had higher favorable ratings than Clinton (53%). But Clinton's favorable rating was on balance more positive than negative. The lopsided negative comments about Clinton in the open-ended question may reflect a more intense dislike of her by her critics. Or they may reflect a stronger association of negative characteristics with her -- these tend to be the most accessible ones when people are asked what comes to mind when they think of her.

This largely negative characterization of Clinton has not changed much since November 2006. In that poll, 33% of all mentions of her were positive in orientation and 51% negative -- only slightly better than what the current poll shows.

While the other candidates' current positive/negative ratios are currently better than Clinton's, they both have worsened significantly since the last time the question was asked. In November 2006, twice as many Americans mentioned something positive (34%) as negative (18%) about Obama, compared to the roughly even distribution today.

McCain's ratio has suffered even more, dropping from a 55% to 19% positive/negative split to the even split today.

This suggests that in the world of politics, familiarity may breed contempt. As the candidates campaign and become better known, the public finds out a lot that it doesn't like about each one, and (at least in the case of McCain) fewer things it does like.

This could be a natural result of campaigning, where the goal is to generate a base of support, but in doing so, the candidates also generate a well of opposition.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup Panel study are based on telephone interviews with 1,008 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted April 25-27, 2008. Gallup Panel members are recruited through random selection methods. The panel is weighted so that it is demographically representative of the U.S. adult population. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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