It’s a common question on many exit polls: “Which was more important in your vote today: your candidate’s position on the issues, or your candidate’s leadership or personal qualities?” (Here’s the New York Times’s version, after the New Hampshire primaries).
“Personal qualities” here can mean a number of things. On the one hand, it is a code-word for personal attributes such as gender, race, or age. It can also be a euphemism for how convincingly candidates show the right kind of religious devotion, or how well candidates have distanced themselves from scandal. But the question also speaks to seemingly superficial questions of “likeability,” charisma and charm—all of which can make a presidential election sometimes seem a bit more like a beauty pageant or a reality TV show than a serious exercise of democracy.
Yet “personal qualities” in all these senses do matter, and have always mattered in presidential politics, in part because the president, as head of state, symbolically represents the US as a whole.