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Character Trumps Policy in the 2007 Philadelphia Election By Brett Mandel, Executive Director of Philadelphia Forward

For all the talk of “policy” during the election season, voters are much more likely to cast ballots based not on the substance of a candidate’s policies, but on the content of that candidate’s character. The character-trumps-policy dynamic played out in Philadelphia in the 2007 Democratic mayoral primary when former Councilman Michael Nutter overtook businessman Tom Knox in the late stages of the campaign. 

Unsatisfied with the state of the city, voters were clearly seeking change and looking for a leader to change the city’s direction. Knox outspent his rivals to tell his story of rising from public housing to become a successful businessman. As the campaign entered the closing weeks, he led in the polls. But, armed with substantial policy papers, Nutter emerged from the field of challengers to vault past Knox to win the election.

Some would suggest this was a victory of substance, given candidate Nutter’s voluminous policy documents. But, with unfettered access to information, voters are overwhelmed with policy information. Because each candidate is able to produce intelligent informational materials and find experts to lend credence to their views, voters end up more uncertain about which policy direction makes the most sense. Thus, they trust their own judgment and the views of people they trust to make an evaluation of character.

Nutter’s policy views differed only slightly from Knox’s. But, voters questioned the character of a man with a very shallow public profile and when candidate Knox made steps on the campaign that didn’t align with his claim to be a reformer, voters gravitated to the ex-Councilman who had been pushing a reform agenda for years. Voters did not choose a candidate whose policies agreed with their own policies over a candidate with alternate policy views. They chose a candidate whose character agreed with his own policies over another candidate whose character they questioned.

Brett Mandel is the Executive Director of Philadelphia Forward. For more information about the work of Philadelphia Forward visit www.philadelphiaforward.org.

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