The 2012 presidential election is rapidly approaching and Americans everywhere continue to engage in debates over the candidates’ qualifications. But what if we take a step back from tax policies and stances on social issues and start discussing the character strengths of the candidates since that’s what weighs most heavy when people consider who to vote for. This is exactly what the VIA Presidential Caucus brings into focus. By completing the short survey, individuals offered their views on what character strengths they would like to see in the next president, as well as identified the character strengths they see most in the presidential and vice-presidential candidates. Over 1700 individuals responded and the results have been summarized below.

Background: Prior polling has indicated that voters’ perceptions of candidates’ character is an important determinant of how they make their voting decisions. The VIA Institute on Character is a non-profit organization that is leading the way to advance scientific understanding of character. Under the leadership of Dr. Martin Seligman, VIA engaged over 50 preeminent scholars who identified 24 basic elements of character, and developed scientific measurement tools for assessing these 24 character strengths. More than 120 scientific articles have been published on the VIA Classification of Character Strengths. (

Method: 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. In other words, there is consensus in wanting the next president to be “a fair and honest leader who is fact-based, open-minded, and deliberate in making decisions.”

Ideal Candidate

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.

Ideal Candidate Obama Romney

Total Responses 1703 1227 1515

Leadership 80% 33% 63%

Honesty 75% 33% 40%

Judgment 53% 31% 36%

Fairness 40% 39% 17%

3. 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

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

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


1. Most people do NOT see either candidate as closely resembling what they are looking for in terms of presidential character. The evidence for this is that the rates of endorsement of ideal character strengths for candidates is by and large under 50% (exception is leadership for Romney). One interpretation of this is that, with the exception of Romney and the trait of leadership, neither candidate has been actively and deliberately managing the perception of their character strengths.

2. Romney has done a better job than Obama in portraying himself as a leader.

3. Obama has done a better job than Romney in portraying himself as being fair.

4. Given the role of character in voting behavior, it behooves candidates to focus more on understanding what voters are looking for and in articulating their own character strengths.

5. Undecided voters seem to see Obama more positively on the top four “ideal” character strengths than Romney. This could result in more undecided voters ending up actually casting their votes for Obama.


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.

To find out your character strengths take the free VIA survey.

About the Author

Neal H. Mayerson, Ph.D.

Neal Mayerson, Ph.D., is the founder and Chairman of the nonprofit VIA Institute on Character.

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