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The One Word Most Americans Use to Describe Bernie Sanders

A survey of potential voters say what they really think about the presidential candidates

This article originally appeared in Fortune on March 16, 2016.

By Julie Hennessy and John Wong

This presidential election has the country transfixed, even horrified, in ways that none of us can remember seeing before. As we’ve seen during primary election season, voter turnout and participation is up in many states. A self-proclaimed socialist and a TV personality are confounding pundits.

Why? Well, in this reality show of an election, it’s hard to not get drawn in. Just like voting for your favorites on The Bachelor or The Voice, voters are closely following the primaries, debate after debate, state after state. And their take on what they really think of the candidates is quite surprising, according to a survey of voters’ perceptions of the candidates conducted by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and Brand Imperatives / Survata. The survey, taken last week, asked potential voters what words come to mind when they think of each candidate.

For five of the six candidates studied, the most common first association is far from a vote of confidence. For Republican Donald Trump and Democrat HillaryClinton, the most common first associations are “racist” and “liar,” respectively. Both the leading Republican and Democrat candidates are carrying highly negative and emotionally charged associations. Interestingly, one association that the two have in common in their top five descriptors is “strong” – an association that doesn’t show up on other candidates’ lists.

For Republican Ted Cruz, the most common association is Evangelical Christian; for Marco Rubio, young/inexperienced; for Bernie Sanders, old. More than half, 60% of voters, have an overall negative impression of Republican front runner, Donald Trump, according to the survey. Nearly half, 48% of voters, have a “very negative” impression. Hillary Clinton, still considered the Democratic frontrunner, has the second highest level of negative perceptions at 44%, with 31% “very negative.” Interestingly, the candidate with the least negative perceptions, John Kasich, is struggling to stay in the race.

And while it was assumed that Clinton would have a huge advantage with female voters only six months ago, that’s not entirely clear. Our study indicated that women are no more likely to have a positive impression than male voters. In fact, Bernie Sanders’ positive impression ratings beat Clinton’s with both males and females for all voters younger than 55 years old.

Bernie Sanders, the oldest candidate in the pack, has the most favorable impressions overall. And, the younger the voter, the better the ratings.

As we think about the candidates and their personal brands, it’s difficult to comprehend how the top two candidate brands could be leading with such highly negative and emotionally charged associations. It’s counter-intuitive to how we think, since great brands are usually built upon clear positive associations — Toyota’s “Reliability,” Panera’s “Delicious and Fresh” and Coco Cola’s “Cold Refreshment”. Certainly Trump and Clinton have built strong awareness with the voting public, and maybe voters are looking past their first negative impressions to vote in the primaries. But will they ultimately be satisfied with a choice between negatives? Stay tuned!

- Julie Hennessy is a clinical professor of marketing at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and John Wong is principal of Brand Imperatives.

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