Character the Most Important Issue in the Presidential Primary Debates: Executive Summary

Presidential debates are crucial, especially for Americans who have not made up their minds about who could best lead the nation. Although reporters often focus on policy differences, many Americans are more interested in the character of the person who will occupy the Oval Office than his or her position on particular issues. Debates are a window into the candidates' character and values. In a volatile world where crises can arise at any moment, Americans need to trust that their president is guided by something stronger than public opinion.

A short definition of character says it comprises 'qualities of honesty, courage or the like.' One political analyst described character as: 'The sum of a politician's psyche and personality; the internal drives that provide motivation and focus. Character has many facets, and is not simply the equivalent of morality.'1

Candidates participated in a total of 35 debates over the course of 12 months, 20 for the Democrats and 15 for the Republicans. Did the media emphasize character by asking debate questions that shine a light on candidates' personal qualities? Did the media treat the parties fairly, by asking the candidates equal percentages of tough (hardball) and easy (softball) questions?

CMI analyzed all 1,332 questions asked during the presidential primary debates for both major parties in 2007 and 2008, and found that the media asked more questions related to character than any other single topic. CMI also found that the media's character questions were ideologically balanced, in that they sprang from conservative and liberal premises in roughly equal percentages. No such balance existed on the partisan level, as the media pitched Democrats twice the percentage of softballs that they offered to Republicans. Democrats, however, faced more than three times as many questions about honesty.

Major Findings

1. Character Is a Major Focus. Thirty-six percent of the questions (485 out of 1,332) addressed character, the most for any topic. By comparison, only 24 percent of questions centered on foreign policy, and 19 percent focused on the economy.

2. Questions of character were not framed with an ideological bias. Forty-two percent of the character questions asked to both parties were neutral, compared to 29 percent based on liberal premises and 29 percent based on conservative premises. These numbers indicate that character transcends party issues per se in questions that touch on candidates' psyches and motivation. Bias,
however, is revealed by the disparity in hardballs and softballs thrown to the
respective parties' candidates.

3. Democrats received more softballs. The disparity of softball vs. hardball questions between Republicans and Democrats was notable. Of the 251 character questions asked to Democrats, 120 (48 percent) were softballs-more than double the percentage of softballs asked of Republicans. Republicans were asked 234 character questions and received only 58 softballs (25 percent). Three-quarters (75 percent) of GOP character questions (176) were hardballs, compared to the Democrats' 131 (52 percent).

4. But Democrats faced more questions about honesty. Democrats received 29 questions about their honesty, all hardballs. Republicans faced only eight, again all hardballs.

5. Fox threw a greater percentage of character hardballs. Of the four networks that hosted multiple debates, Fox was the toughest, throwing proportionally more hardballs than NBC/MSNBC, CNN or ABC. In five Fox debates, candidates faced 72 hardballs, 84 percent of all character questions. In nine debates, NBC/MSNBC candidates faced 108 hardballs (66 percent). Nine debates aired on CNN, during which candidates faced 76 hardballs (55 percent).

6. ABC seemed least concerned about character. Until the April 16 debate in Philadelphia in which Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos posed a series of hardball character questions to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, ABC had asked only 18 hardball questions. Even with the Philadelphia hardballs, ABC still had the lowest total, with 30 in five debates, or less than half as many as Fox threw in five debates.

To be clear, CMI does not think hardball questions are unfair. On the contrary, the media should ask more of them because they reveal more about the candidates. One reason that Democrats faced fewer hardballs is that they refused to appear in any debate on Fox News Channel, whose panelists threw a higher proportion of hardballs.


As the two presidential candidates face a final series of debates, CMI challenges the media to continue to focus on character, but also to avoid partisan imbalance. This would entail making queries based on conservative premises as well as liberal premises and also to throw each candidate roughly the same number of hardballs and softballs. Finally, given the Fox News Channel's track record for tough but fair questioning on character, the panels of media questioners should include Fox.