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Your Vote is Probably Based on Character

Just a month ago the VIA Institute on Character launched a new survey that asked people what character strengths are essential in a great President. The survey then invited the user to rate the character strengths of the Presidential candidates.

The results are in!…just in time for Election Day. I’ll start with the conclusions and then offer more details.


  1. Regardless of political affiliation or preference in this election, the top 4 character strengths of the “ideal President” are:
    1. Leadership
    2. Honesty
    3. Judgment
    4. Fairness
  2. Most people do NOT see either candidate as closely resembling what they are looking for in terms of presidential character.
    1. The evidence: With one exception, the endorsement rate of these 4 “ideal” character strengths for the candidates is under 50% (the exception is the strength of leadership for Romney).
    2. Interpretation: With the exception of Romney and the trait of leadership, these results suggest that neither candidate has been actively and deliberately managing the perception of their character strengths.
  3. Romney has done a better job than Obama in portraying himself as a leader.
  4. Obama has done a better job than Romney in portraying himself as being fair.
  5. Given the role of character in voting behavior (other polls have noted character is the most important factor in casting one’s vote), it behooves candidates to focus more on consistently demonstrating their own character strengths.
  6. Undecided voters seem to see Obama more positively than Romney on the top four character strengths of the “ideal President.”

Now, for more details….


A convenience sample of 1,703 people from across the nation (52% female; 48% male) responded to an online survey asking them to identify from 24 character strengths a.) those that they would ideally like to see in the next president, and b.) those that they see as most prominent in each of the presidential candidates.


1.  Ideal Character Strengths:

A strong finding was that the total sample and all demographic subsamples had the same vision of the top 4 most important character strengths they would ideally like to see in the next president.  These characteristics, in order of importance, are: leadership, honesty, judgment, and fairness.

*Total Responses: 1703

Leadership: 80%

Honesty: 75%

Judgment: 53%

Fairness: 40%

*see below for definitions

2.  Candidates Results on Top 4 Ideal Character Strengths

a.      Across all respondents and within all subsamples Mitt Romney is seen by more people as possessing leadership than is President Obama.  For the entire sample 63% endorse leadership as one of Romney’s core character traits while 33% identify leadership as core to Obama’s character.

b.      Across all respondents President Obama is seen as possessing the fourth most important “ideal” character strength – fairness – to a greater extent than Romney.  39% of respondents identified fairness as one of Obama’s top character strengths while 17% identified fairness as core for Romney.

c.       Across all respondents Romney is seen by slightly more people as possessing honesty and judgment compared with Obama, but these differences are within the margin of error and not likely to be significant.

Undecided Respondents: 

Of the total sample 7% identified themselves as “undecided”.  Of those respondents Romney comes out ahead of Obama on leadership (52% vs. 29%) BUT Obama comes out ahead on the others:

Honesty: Obama 24% Romney 14%

Judgment: Obama 23% Romney 15%

Fairness: Obama 38% Romney 6%

4.  Candidates Top Character Strengths

Obama’s top-rated strengths: Fairness 39%; social intelligence 38%; hope 35%; honesty 33%; leadership 33%.  “A fair, honest and hopeful leader who understands what makes people tick.”

Romney top-rated strengths: Leadership 63%; spirituality 42%; honesty 40%; judgment 36%; perseverance 34% “An honest and spiritual leader who exercises good judgment and is perseverant.”



Judgment:  Thinking things through and examining them from all sides are important aspects of who this candidate is. He does not jump to conclusions, and he relies only on solid evidence to make his decisions. He is able to change his mind.

Leadership: This candidate excels at the tasks of leadership: encouraging a group to get things done and preserving harmony within the group by making everyone feel included. He does a good job organizing activities and seeing that they happen.

Honesty: This candidate is an honest person, not only by speaking the truth but by living his life in a genuine and authentic way. He is down to earth and without pretense; He is a “real” person

Fairness:  Treating all people fairly is one of this candidate’s abiding principles. He does not let his personal feelings bias his decisions about other people. He gives everyone a chance.



Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press and Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Learn more about strengths:

To measure your character strengths and discover your signature strengths, go to

To apply character strengths in your practice and life, go to

Your Vote is Probably Based on Character

Ryan M. Niemiec, Psy.D

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APA Reference
Niemiec, R. (2012). Your Vote is Probably Based on Character. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 6, 2020, from


Last updated: 6 Nov 2012
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