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Character Weakness, Partisan Bias, and Presidential Evaluation: Modifications and Extensions

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In a recent article Goren (American Journal of Political Science, 46, 627–641, 2002) draws upon theories of negativity bias, partisan bias, and motivated reasoning to posit that the more strongly people identify with the opposition party of a presidential candidate, the more heavily they will rely on character weakness impressions to construct global candidate evaluations. This paper modifies the theoretical framework by positing that (1) partisans will judge opposition nominees most critically on the traits owned by the former’s party and (2) partisan bias promotes negativity bias in the evaluation of incumbent presidents seeking reelection and incumbent vice presidents seeking the presidency. Analysis of data from the 2000 and 2004 NES surveys, along with a reconsideration of the results from the 1984 to 1996 period covered in the original piece, yields strong empirical support for these expectations.

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  1. 1.

    Party identification represents an enduring sense of psychological attachment to a political party that influences political perception and judgment (Campbell et al., 1960).

  2. 2.

    Dole was omitted from the original article for reasons given in Goren (2002, p629, 635). Using the same procedures and measures described in the original article, I found that among Democrats Dole’s character weakness was a lack of empathy (mean = 0.29 on 0.00–1.00 scale; second weakest trait is leadership, mean = 0.40) and that the empathy × party identification term is statistically insignificant in the Dole feeling thermometer equation (see M1 in the appendix below).

  3. 3.

    In addition, candidates often seek to trespass on the issues and traits owned by the other side, which adds further uncertainty to the trait inference process (Hayes, 2005; Petrocik, 1996).

  4. 4.

    While potential voters have seen less of sitting vice presidents than of the presidents they serve, when it comes to public visibility and recognition vice presidents are more similar to presidents than they are to non-incumbent challengers. To elaborate, by the time a vice president announces his intention to seek the presidency he has served 8 years as the second most visible politician in the US. He is better known than present and former Senators, governors, former administration officials, and so on. Candidates who have not played a prominent role on the national political scene for an extended period of time lack a record visible. Although such officials may have caught the attention of the national media and the broader public from time to time, they cannot match the exposure attained by modern vice presidents.

  5. 5.

    In 1988, strong Democrats rated Bush slightly lower on leadership than empathy (0.35 vs. 0.37; p < 0.09).

  6. 6.

    Note that the feeling thermometer items are drawn from the post-election surveys; all other variables are drawn from the pre-election surveys.

  7. 7.

    All models are weighted by the NES post-sample stratification weight.

  8. 8.

    Note that the constituent party identification variable does not represent the main or average effect of partisanship on the feeling thermometer scores, but rather, represents the impact of party identification when a trait variable equals zero. Similarly, each constituent trait coefficient represents the impact a given trait has on the thermometer scores when partisanship equals zero (see Friedrich, 1982, pp804–805).

  9. 9.

    The predictions derive from the trimmed models reported in the appendix (see M2 and M3), which better isolate the character defect × party effect by dropping the insignificant multiplicative terms.

  10. 10.

    Since few partisans give their own nominee low marks on character and high marks to the opposition nominee, the predicted values are best seen as simulated values rather than as actual data points.

  11. 11.

    Following Zaller (1992), some might posit that politically aware partisans are more prone than politically unaware partisans to pick up elite messages regarding character flaws and subsequently incorporate such information into their opinion judgments about the candidates. Others might argue that this is unlikely to be the case insofar as it is easy to link trait perceptions to candidate evaluations, which suggests that unaware partisans should prove as adept as aware partisans at linking traits to evaluations. Indeed, Zaller (1992, p48) notes that “the more simple and direct the link between a predisposition and an issue, the less important awareness is likely to be in regulating responses to political communications on that issue.” If we think of character flaws as the predisposition and evaluations as the issue, it seems likely that people do not need to be politically aware to make such links because these are already quite simple and direct. To determine whether the interaction between character weakness and partisan bias is itself conditional on political awareness, I created a third-order interaction variable (character weakness × party identification × political awareness; all necessary second-order terms are included in the model) and entered it as a predictor in the 12 candidate evaluation equations for the 1984–2004 period. This term was statistically insignificant in all 12 equations, suggesting that awareness does not condition the relationship between character weakness, partisan bias, and presidential evaluation.


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I would like to thank the three anonymous reviewers and the journal editors for their comments and suggestions on earlier versions of this article.

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Correspondence to Paul Goren.



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Goren, P. Character Weakness, Partisan Bias, and Presidential Evaluation: Modifications and Extensions. Polit Behav 29, 305–325 (2007).

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  • Party identification
  • Presidential character
  • Candidate evaluation
  • Negativity bias
  • Trait ownership
  • Motivated reasoning