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Presidential Candidates as Leaders: The Public's View

Presidential Candidates as Leaders: The Public's View

PRINCETON, N.J. -- Gallup's executive leadership research program has over the last four decades studied more than 50,000 prospective leaders and senior executives in more than 200 organizations in healthcare, education, military, government, finance, insurance, manufacturing, high tech and retail industries. This research has identified leadership traits that differentiate successful from less successful organizational leaders. Given that the most important leader in the world -- the U.S. president -- is currently in the process of being selected, we thought it an excellent idea to explore the application of this leadership research to the current presidential candidates.

So we set out to assess the degree to which Americans believe that each of the four major presidential candidates possess each of a list of 12 leadership traits that Gallup has found to be important in helping distinguish leadership styles and in distinguishing successful from unsuccessful leaders.

We used short descriptors of the traits phrased in ways that Americans are most likely to easily understand and interpret. The initial, exploratory research was conducted by Web using the nationally representative Gallup Panel, which is based on individuals from Gallup's ongoing Daily tracking research who agree to be panel participants and who agree to respond to surveys using the Internet. This initial research was based on more than 7,500 completed interviews. Each panel participant was asked to indicate how well each of the dimensions fit the candidate, using a 1 to 5 scale, where "1" means the dimension does not describe the leader at all and "5" means it describes the leader perfectly.

The study, of course, cannot conclude which candidates actually possess various leadership characteristics or predict how successful each might be as president, but documents the extent to which the public perceives each characteristic as being associated with the candidate.

The basic results from this process are presented in the accompanying table. The numbers in the table represent the percentage of the sample who rated the candidate as a "4" or a "5" on each dimension.

Using a five-point scale, where "5" means it describes the candidate perfectly and "1" means it does not describe the candidate at all, please rate your overall impression of:
% Rating candidate a "4" or a "5"
Hillary Clinton% Ted Cruz% Bernie Sanders% Donald Trump%
Intense 52 47 50 77
Competitive 70 56 49 84
Inspiring 25 21 48 29
Courageous 35 29 50 33
Prepared 51 38 48 27
Consistent 28 36 62 26
Enthusiastic 42 41 60 62
Cares about individuals 29 25 61 19
Emphasizes success 42 36 39 68
Analytical 43 33 41 29
Focused 55 48 59 44
Visionary 26 26 55 34
Gallup, March 2016

The table shows that, while the candidates vary considerably on many perceived traits, U.S. adults tend to give candidates higher ratings across the board on some dimensions and lower ratings on others. Specifically, respondents are most likely to believe the four major presidential candidates are competitive, intense, focused and enthusiastic , and are least likely to see the candidates as inspiring, caring and visionary.

Average Rating Americans Give Each Dimension, Across All Candidates
% Rating candidate a "4" or a "5"
Average rating across candidates%
Competitive 65
Intense 57
Focused 52
Enthusiastic 51
Emphasizes success 46
Prepared 41
Consistent 38
Courageous 37
Analytical 37
Visionary 35
Cares about individuals 34
Inspiring 31
Gallup, March 2016

On average, 65% of the public rated the four candidates as competitive, based on a "4" or "5" rating. Fifty-seven percent rated the candidates as intense, with slightly lower percentages believing they are focused (52%) and enthusiastic (51%). The high overall rankings of the candidates on characteristics such as competitive and intense most likely reflect that Americans have been viewing the candidates over the past year in a competitive campaign and debate-focused mode.

Profiles of Specific Candidates

The public's views of how well each trait describes each specific candidate vary widely, and the sections that follow review the portraits of the four candidates that emerge from this procedure.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton has a highly defined image. She gets high marks from the public for being competitive, focused, intense and prepared, and quite low ratings for being inspiring, consistent and caring about individuals. She ties Cruz for the lowest mark on being visionary. Clinton gets higher ratings than any other candidate on being prepared and analytical. On the latter (analytical), her "win" on the dimension is by just two percentage points over Sanders (43% vs. 41%), and none of the candidates get high marks on this dimension in general.

Overall, the public's image of Clinton is clearly on the hardworking, "wonkish" side of the ledger.

How Well Leadership Dimensions Describe Hillary Clinton

Ted Cruz

Americans' views of Ted Cruz are somewhat more even across the 12 dimensions than is the case for either Clinton or Trump, perhaps reflecting that he is less well-known than Clinton and Trump and is a relative newcomer to the national spotlight. Like most candidates, he is perceived most favorably in terms of being intense, focused and competitive, a direct derivative of the campaign environment in which Americans are viewing these candidates. Also like other candidates, Cruz gets his lowest ratings on being inspiring, caring about individuals and being visionary. His ratings on the inspiring dimension are the lowest among the four candidates.

Cruz does not "win" on any dimension compared with the other three candidates. Head to head versus his rival Trump, Cruz is rated somewhat higher on being prepared and consistent but falls far behind Trump on being perceived as intense, competitive, enthusiastic and emphasizing success.

How Well Leadership Dimensions Describe Ted Cruz

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders generally does well across all the dimensions, with a more even distribution of perceived leadership characteristics than is the case for the other candidates. Sanders is the only one of the four whom national adults rate more positively than negatively in Gallup's candidate favorability ratings.

Unlike the others, he does not do best on intense and competitive, but instead the public says he is consistent, enthusiastic, caring about individuals and focused. Sanders scores lowest on emphasizes success and analytical, but these are not too much lower than his scores on the other dimensions.

Likely because of his higher favorable ratings, Sanders wins on more dimensions than any other candidate. He wins by particularly large margins compared with his fellow candidates in terms of being consistent and caring about individuals. On these two dimensions, he has a 34- and 32-point lead, respectively, over Clinton. He also gets better scores than any others on visionary, inspiring and courageous, and wins by a smaller margin in terms of being focused.

Overall, a clear portrait of Sanders emerges that is different from those of the other candidates. He has a generally positive image, wins on the "softer" dimensions of leadership and is above all else seen as caring, enthusiastic and consistent.

How Well Leadership Dimensions Describe Bernie Sanders

Donald Trump

Donald Trump, like Clinton, has a highly defined image, meaning the public has an apparently well-formed image of him that includes substantial strengths in some leadership areas and substantial weaknesses in others. He shares with Clinton high ratings on being competitive and intense, but he also gets high ratings on emphasizing success and being enthusiastic. He scores higher than any other candidate on these four traits.

He scores low on most other dimensions, particularly cares about individuals, which is not only his lowest score, but the lowest score Americans give any candidate on any dimension. Trump also scores lower than other candidates on being prepared, focused, consistent and analytical.

Trump does better than any other candidate, by a large margin, on competitive, intense and emphasizing success. He does slightly better than Sanders on enthusiastic, and substantially better than Cruz and Clinton.

All in all, what emerges from the public's views of Trump is a picture of a candidate who has been defined by his historical business and television media persona -- driven and focused on success, with the collateral consequence of having little interest in caring about specific individuals.

How Well Leadership Dimensions Describe Donald Trump


Overall, the public views the four major presidential candidates as being primarily competitive and intense and is less likely to see them as inspiring, visionary and caring. However, three of the individual candidates are differentiated across 12 leadership strengths, with Clinton rated highest of the four on being analytical and prepared, Sanders on caring about individuals and being consistent, focused, visionary, courageous and inspiring, and Trump on emphasizing success and being intense, competitive and enthusiastic. Cruz does not lead the candidates on any of the 12 leadership traits.

These findings do not necessarily indicate the traits the candidates actually possess, because we unfortunately were not able to sit each of them down for the usual Gallup in-depth leadership interview and inventory. But the results do give us an idea of how the public at this juncture perceives their various leadership strengths, and presumably reflect what type of leader the public thinks each would be if elected. This is true even though the public's views of the candidates reflect to some degree their current campaign mode. Of course, Clinton and Trump have been in the public eye long before this year's campaign season began.

Forthcoming research will examine the relationship of each of the 12 leadership strengths with the likelihood to vote for each candidate.

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