July 27, 2000

A Question of Character

Bush's Intelligence

While difficult to find evidence to support the accusation, the press was hardly shy about suggesting that George Bush may lack the mental capacity for the Oval Office. Make no bones about it. When the press raised the issue, it was not questioning Bush's experience or knowledge. The issue was whether Bush was smart enough.

In all, charges of Bush lacking intelligence accounted for a quarter (26%) of the Bush assertions studied. Another 3% argued that his intelligence is fine. In short, 29% of all the assertions about Bush studied were about his smarts.

Usually, this ticklish subject would come in a thinly veiled but unmistakable form. "The unhappy fact is that George W. has shown himself to be weak in debate, ambivalent in spirit and tentative in his grasp of the issues," Charles Krauthammer wrote in mid February in the Washington Post.

Or journalists would write about Bush's intellect by talking about how a rival candidate would exploit it. Often, the route was amazingly circuitous. "By invoking the name of Dan Quayle, who as vice president was not known for his experience or substance, and linking it with the presidency of Governor Bush's father, Mr. Gore is trying to conjure up the image of a candidate who is neither ready for the presidency nor capable of sound economic decisions," wrote Katherine Q. Seelye in the New York Times in mid March.

Like Seelye, often when people spoke of Bush's lack of intelligence, it tended to be in the framework of his leadership ability. Nearly half, 45%, of all the statements about this subject related to his leadership, compared to 29% for themes on average. A large percentage also connected it to his electability, 11% versus 6% for all themes.

With so soft an issue as intelligence, candidates were not usually the one raising doubts. In fact, they made only 15% of the assertions about Bush's intellect, compared with 25% on average. The doubts were more likely than usual to come from journalists themselves (57% versus 50% overall).

Sources for Bush's Intellect
  Intellect All Themes
Journalist 57% 50%
   Analysis 41 40
   Opinion 16 10
Voter 4 3
Expert 6 5
Surrogate 10 12
Candidate 15 25
Other Media 7 3
Other 1 2
 
Total 100 100

Journalists were also more likely than average to simply express an opinion that Bush lacked intelligence rather than cite evidence (16% versus 10%). Indeed, nearly a third of all the statements about Bush's intellect were unsupported.

This suggests that a major question mark about the Texas governor is one that is particularly hard to pin down, especially in an age of doubting IQ tests and looking for alternatives measurements, such as emotional intelligence (EQ). In addition, there is a potential for backlash. The accuser can look egotistical or self-righteous. Or the charge may invite the press to probe the accuser for any signs of faltering judgment.

When evidence was offered, the most common form was to point to Bush's tactics and rhetoric (14%) or his current policy positions (12%). There was also a fair amount of evidence in the form of an opponent's attack (9%) and in Bush's interactions with voters (7%). Only 6% of all these statements referenced Bush's public record.

A good deal of the time, 38%, the press questioned Bush's intelligence in analytical stories and another 15% in newspaper op-eds. But, interestingly, there were only two mentions of this character thread in editorials and one in a one-on-one interview with the candidate himself. Some of this analysis came from the Sunday talk shows where the percentage of mentions was twice as great as the average.

Interestingly, questions about Bush's intelligence spiked at two moments in the campaign thus far, one during his primary fight in March with John McCain and again in June, a quiet time during the coverage, after he had won the nomination.

Perhaps because the evidence is so soft, the idea that Bush may lack intellectual firepower has not been embraced by the public. Indeed, a slightly greater percentage of Americans actually attribute not being a serious person to Gore than to Bush.

What's more, a greater percentage of Americans said that Bush "not knowing enough about the issues" would make no difference in their vote than said it would bother them, 47% versus 42%.

Evidence for Bush's Intellect
Voter Interaction 7%
Public Record 6
Recent Remarks 6
Camp. Platform 12
Tactics/Rhetoric 14
Opponent Attack 9
Friends' Remarks 2
Past Personal Life 7
Poll 1
Other 5
 
No Evidence 31
Total 100

Like his ties to scandal, Gore's honesty problem was hammered at during the key primary battle. In all, 43% of the assertions came in March. And, as with the scandal theme, the Chris Matthews show was a popular place to discuss his tendency to exaggerate. Twelve percent of these statements appeared on this show alone, compared with 9% overall and 5% of all the Bush threads combined.

Gore's veracity did seem to penetrate to some degree with the public, though not overwhelmingly. The public was noticeably more likely to attribute saying anything to get elected to Gore than to Bush, by a margin of 36% to 25%.

And it seems to matter to people. About half of Americans said that Gore's tendency to lie or exaggerate would make them "less likely" to vote for him, compared with 40% who said it wouldn't make much difference.