A candidate’s character isn’t just one issue in a complex electoral decision matrix. For many voters, it is the most central issue … and that is entirely reasonable. (More)

Voting on Character, Part II: The Most Central Issue

This week Morning Feature considers whether and why voters should base their decisions on character issues. Yesterday we looked at so-called “irrational” voters who are said to “vote against their own interests.” Today we see why character issues, not proposed policies, are and should be central in voters’ decision-making. Tomorrow we’ll conclude by contrasting the characters of President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Meet Ellen

Ellen is a 34-year-old woman in west central Florida. She is a registered Democrat and, when we spoke on the phone two weeks ago, she said she would vote on her way to work after taking her son to school, on election day. Research shows that people who tell that detailed a story about when they will vote are very likely to go to the polls. In fact, that’s why we asked voters to specify when they would vote.

I’m confident that Ellen will vote, but I’m not sure for whom.

Of the over 100 women I spoke with in 1000 calls to young Democratic women, all said they intended to vote this year. Several had already voted by mail. Others had their vote by mail ballots but had not yet returned them. Most of the rest could and did tell detailed stories of when they would vote. Two said they would vote for Mitt Romney. Four declined to say. Almost all of the rest said they would vote or had already voted for President Obama.

Ellen was one of the two who said she was undecided. “I’m disappointed with President Obama’s first term,” she explained. “But I don’t just don’t trust Mitt Romney.”

What we don’t know….

Romney’s initial strategy has been to make the 2012 election a referendum on President Obama’s first term, and the question are we better off than we were four years ago. If you were disappointed with how your life had gone and the state of our nation, that theory said, you should vote for Romney because … well … Romney was Not President Obama.

Ellen’s response suggested she had weighed that Romney theory, as she was disappointed with President Obama’s first term. But Ellen had not followed the simplistic logic of the Romney theory. She recognized, intuitively if not consciously, that an election is not about the past four years but the next four years. People may reasonably disagree on whether they are better off than they were four years ago, but we should all agree that the past four years is … now past.

And as we discussed yesterday, we can’t be sure what issues will be arise in the next four years. The enormity of the 2008 economic collapse – a 6.2% annual plunge in fourth-quarter GDP and 1.5 million jobs lost from October through December – would not be known until early 2009. As they headed to the polls in 2008, voters could only guess at how bad the economy would get. We knew health care and immigration reform would also be on the domestic agenda, but I doubt anyone expected to debate fictitious ‘death panels’ or that states would pass ‘check your papers’ laws.

I doubt most voters expected President Obama to magically end partisan wrangling in Congress, but I also doubt most expected Republicans to become The Party of No. Had someone warned me in November 2008 of ‘tea party’ protests of government bailouts, I would have expected that outrage to be directed against bankers rather than the distressed homeowners whose proposed assistance sparked Rick Santelli’s CNBC rant. On foreign affairs, we knew Sen. Obama pledged to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while Sen. McCain sang “Bomb, Bomb Iran” … but neither their campaigns nor anyone else talked about the possibility of an Arab Spring.

In short, we had only a vague sense of the challenges that would face President Obama, Congress, and our nation. We were all “low-information voters” … as we will be again this year.

“Low-information” reasoning

In fact the phrase “low-information voter” has adopted a very different meaning than its original usage when coined by political scientist Samuel Popkin. His argument was that voters – almost all voters – use cognitive shortcuts. His and other studies show that voters rely on cues like political party, gender, and other non-issue information to make our choices.

Character-based narratives seem to dominate our voting decisions. Indeed studies have found that children can predict election winners based on which candidate looks more competent. In a high-profile race like the presidency, that character-based assessment broadens to an evaluation of whether a candidate understands people like us, and whether a candidate seems trustworthy.

These narratives are not “rational” in the sense we discussed yesterday, but the title of Popkin’s book was The Reasoning Voter. Rather than the dismissive sense we now hear in the phrase “low-information,” Popkin’s theory implies quite sophisticated reasoning with what we know to be very incomplete information. Even experts differ in their evaluations of how each candidate’s policy proposals would impact our lives, and they can consider only the proposals as offered by the candidates, with no allowance for inevitable changes in the legislative process. And those evaluations apply only to the issues and proposals the experts can predict.

Faced with all of that uncertainty, we ultimately ask ourselves a simple question: “As events unfold over the next four years, which candidate do I trust to look out for the interests that matter most to me and the people I care about?

That is – inherently and inescapably – a question about the candidates’ characters. It invites us to estimate whether they value the same things we do. It calls us to learn, as best we can, how they make difficult decisions. And it compels us to decide whether we can trust what they say.

Character is not simply an issue in voters’ minds. It is indeed the most central issue, and well it should be. So while I’m not certain, I think Ellen will cast her vote for President Obama … and tomorrow we’ll discuss why.

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Happy Friday!