10/20/2011 04:24 pm ET Updated Dec 20, 2011

It's the Values, Stupid: Why Character Counts in 2012

After watching Fight Night in Vegas, or this week's Republican debate, which heated up considerably, I was struck again by a truth in politics that is often missed in the coverage: Presidential campaigns are fundamentally not about issues; they are about gut values and impressions voters have of the man or woman running for the highest office. Policy points and positions and discussion on issues are merely indicators for voters of what a candidate's values seem to be. The economy is the dominant concern in this election by far, but voters are looking for something much more heart-centered than head-centered in their president.

The Pew Research Center recently did a survey asking for one-word impressions of the candidates. When you look at the breakdown of words used about Herman Cain, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (especially among Republican voters), the vast majority of words used had nothing to do with issues and everything to do with character impressions or traits or even biography points.

For example, Republicans aren't supporting Cain primarily because of his tax plan, they are supporting him because he is likable, smart, conservative, different, and a businessman. And Romney's vulnerabilities (and why conservatives are reluctant to support him) don't really have to do with issue positions; they have to do with character impressions related to trust and authenticity.

So let's look at the debate this week among the Republicans and President Obama's standing with the public with the dynamic of character impressions in mind, rather than issues.

Commentators keep discussing that the American public supports President Obama on nearly all points on his economic plan and on various issue positions he advocates, and he just needs to communicate that to the voters. He has been doing that and has gained not a point in the polls. His Gallup job approval seems to have a ceiling of 42 percent no matter what he does. Why is this? As I mentioned in a previous column, the public does not see President Obama as a strong and optimistic leader right now. Voters see him as beleaguered and a victim of political and global forces he can't seem to control (and his recent interview with ABC news reinforced this). He doesn't fix this problem by going around the country campaigning and acting like a candidate trying to sell policy. He fixes this "character" problem by being the president and strongly leading the country. He would be much better off staying in Washington, getting off the trail, and showing the public he has what it takes to lead at this time of tremendous anxiety and confusion.

While the media wants to write the narrative that Perry has come back after his feisty performance taking on Romney, Perry did nothing to fix his fundamental problem. After his series of bad performances, Republicans wonder if he has the capacity to lead the country. It's not damaging Romney that will earn him supporters, but getting the anti-Romney supporters back, supporters who left Perry because of their impression that he wasn't ready to lead.

Additionally, many commentators reported that Cain didn't have ready answers on his "9-9-9" tax-reform plan, and multiple candidates attacked him on this. He was not damaged thus far on the attributes voters see in him. He doesn't need to have all the issue positions down perfectly. Republican voters feel he is an interesting, likeable, honest businessman who isn't a typical politician and can lead in Washington. Cain has to be careful, in contrast to what Perry did, to not look over time as if he doesn't have the capacity to be commander in chief. Interestingly, thus far in the campaign, when you look at the Pew poll, Cain is much better positioned among Republicans than Romney and Perry on the ratio of positive to negative attributes. It's a long campaign, and Cain still has much to prove.

And on Romney, while his campaign and others in the media have tried to leave the impression that he did very well in debate by standing strong through all the attacks, over time the character traits revealed will continue to make it hard for him to win over reluctant Republican voters. His deficiency with those voters is on trust and authenticity, and he didn't really answer those attacks at the debate. He also showed a bristling side to his personality (in contrast to previous debates where he calmly deflected attacks) that voters had not seen and may again create a sense that Romney doesn't have a core they can count on.

Also, as I mentioned last week, watch out for former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who may begin rising in the polls and winning some of the anti-Romney vote because Republicans are starting to connect with his character attributes and values.

My advice is that while issue positions and policy detail are important, in presidential elections keep an eye on the character of the candidates and the gut values that are revealed to the voters (both positive and negative). It is those impressions that will likely tell us who the nominee will be for the Republicans and whether they can defeat Obama next November. Whoever touches the heart of America, not the head, will ultimately be the victor. The head will follow wherever the heart already is moving.

Cross-posted from National Journal.