Romney and Obama More Alike in Their Personalities Than They Care to Admit

Presidential campaigns tend to focus on the contrasts between candidates. There is some evidence, though, that in one key respect, Obama and Romney are more similar than they'd likely care to admit: their personality traits and characteristics.
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Presidential campaigns tend to focus on the contrasts between candidates. Campaign ads and candidate stump speeches emphasize differences on everything from tax plans to prior experience to visions for the future. This year, the Obama and Romney campaigns are no different. There is some evidence, though, that in one key respect, President Obama and Governor Romney are more similar than they'd likely care to admit: their personality traits and characteristics. Understanding leader personalities is important because, once in office, a president's personality has a significant impact on his or her governing style and ultimate effectiveness.

To get a sense of each candidate's personality profile, I used a computer program called "Profiler Plus" produced by Social Science Automation, Inc. ( This program looks at text transcripts from interviews, debates, and other speaking occasions and uses these transcripts to construct personality measures based on the frequency of certain words that individuals tend to use. This type of analysis was pioneered by political scientists like Margaret Hermann and David Winter and is based on the theory that patterns in the specific words that people tend to use can reveal important personality insights.

For example, if a person uses an excessive amount of personal pronouns ("I," "me," "myself," "my," "mine," etc.) they likely have an above-average sense of self-importance and self-confidence. Or a tendency to use words like "accomplishment," "plan," "achieve," "proposal," or "position" can indicate a task-oriented type of personality that focuses on the achievement of goals, even if it comes at great personal cost or the expense of personal relationships.

To construct a personality profile for both Obama and Romney, I analyzed the transcripts from President Obama's Democratic primary debate performances in 2007-2008 and Governor Romney's Republican primary debate performances in 2011-2012. (These transcripts were collected by Centre College research assistant Matthew Gidcomb as part of another research project he was working on this summer here at Centre College -- see here.) This analysis revealed the following insights:

Self-confidence. Margaret Hermann describes this as a person's sense of importance and self-worth, as well as their belief in the ability to cope with their environment. Compared to hundreds of other political leaders who have been analyzed, President Obama scores very high on this trait. While this may come as no surprise, it appears that Governor Romney also possesses an above-average sense of self-confidence. Of course, this trait would be expected in anyone thinking him or herself qualified to be President of the United States!

Conceptual complexity. This refers to how flexible someone is in his or her thinking, or to what extent he or she can tolerate ambiguity. People high on this trait tend to see the world in "shades of gray" rather than in "black and white." Both Obama and Romney are slightly higher than average in this regard. Indeed, their scores were nearly identical. Incidentally, this may be one reason that Republicans were (and remain) distrustful of Governor Romney, as studies have shown that this particular personality trait tends to be found at lower levels among Republicans than among Democrats in the mass public.

Task focus. This refers to how much a leader is focused on moving a group toward completing a particular assignment or goal as opposed to prioritizing the building and maintaining of group relationships, spirit, and morale. Task-focused leaders see the world in terms of problems to be solved rather than relationships to be strengthened. In the process of working toward their goals, these leaders run the risk of sacrificing group morale for the sake of completing the task at hand. Again, both President Obama and Governor Romney are not very different on this score. The analysis revealed that they're both task-oriented leaders. Romney's score, however, was somewhat higher than Obama's, suggesting that he'd be even more task-prioritizing than Obama if elected president, even if it meant offending his partisan base in the pursuit of policy goals. This might help explain Romney's willingness as Governor to work with Democrats in the Massachusetts legislature to pass health care reform legislation that included an individual mandate.

Need for power. This refers to a leader's desire to be able to control, influence, or have an impact on other people. Romney's score was higher than average while Obama's was much higher than average. Again, not much daylight so far between our two candidates in terms of their personality profiles.

Belief in own ability to control events. This trait measures the extent to which a leader accepts the constraints of his or her environment. Those who have a strong belief that they can influence their environment will be willing to challenge the status quo in order to pursue their goals, even in the face of significant barriers. On this score, the analysis revealed that both Obama and Romney have a high belief in their ability to control events. We've seen this already with Obama's determination in 2009 and 2010 to pass health care reform and in Romney's major planning and determination to win the GOP nomination in 2012, even after coming short once in 2008.

Margaret Hermann argues that leaders who are high on both "need for power" and "belief in ability to control events" (like Obama) are skillful at persuasion and "know what they want and take charge to see it happen." She also argues that those who are high on "belief in ability to control events" but moderate or low on "need for power" (like Romney) will be less skilled at achieving their goals because they are "less able to read how to manipulate people and setting behind the scenes to have [their] desired influence." This may help explain Romney's observed penchant for social awkwardness and aloofness, even around other politicians.

In sum, this evidence suggests that while President Obama and Governor Romney have very different views on taxes, foreign policy, gay marriage, immigration, and a host of other important policies, they are much more similar in their personality traits than is often recognized. This suggests that even though a President Romney would have different policy goals than President Obama, he would likely go about trying to accomplish those goals in the same methodical, deliberate, and risk-averse approach that has characterized Obama's first term in office.

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