July 12, 2004

Character and the Campaign

The Character Themes in Order

The most prevalent message about the character of the candidates in the news media is that President Bush is "stubborn and arrogant." This is followed closely by the idea that Bush "lacks credibility."

The third most common message in the press, however, is a positive one about the President, the idea that he is a "strong and decisive leader."

Put together, all of these messages trump in magnitude those about Democratic challenger Kerry-by more than two to one.

Positive and Negative
Themes By Candidate

(Excluding refuting themes)
Tone of Themes Percent
Bush Negative 56.3%
Bush Positive 16.0
Kerry Negative 23.3
Kerry Positive 4.4
Total 100%
(Total # of Themes = 955)

The most common theme about Kerry is that he "flip flops" on issues, followed closely by the idea that he is "very liberal."

These, in turn, outweigh by two to one the notion that Kerry most wants to project-that he is "a tough guy who won't back down from a fight."

As time wore on, all of these messages about the candidates were less common in campaign stories as events, particularly the war in Iraq, began to overwhelm the coverage.

Both the President and Kerry, in other words, have failed to gain control of the campaign dialogue projected in the press.

In their ad campaigns-the medium they can control-these character themes are more prominent.

Meanwhile, in late night comedy, where some voters say they get political information, a different set of messages tended to exist. Kerry barely has registered at all on the comedy circuit, and when he does it is as a flip flopper. The dominant message of the President in comedy, however, is that he lacks the intelligence to do the job. This message was common in the 2000 race1, but has largely disappeared in the news now that he is a sitting president.

1. Please see the similar study by PEJ conducted during the 2000 presidential campaign: "A Question of Character: How the Media Have Handled the Issue and How the Public Has Reacted," Project for Excellence in Journalism, July 27, 2000.