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Polling Matters
Presidential Candidates and Competency
Polling Matters

Presidential Candidates and Competency

President Donald Trump and his campaign strategists are clearly focusing his reelection campaign largely on the premise that Trump is a highly competent leader who has kept his promises and completed a long list of accomplishments. Much of Trump's reelection website is given over to "Promises Kept," with detailed descriptions of what he has done in office, category by category. Adding force to the message, the lead headline on the official White House website is "President Trump Delivers 3 Years of Record-Breaking Results."

Many of these touted accomplishments are economic in nature. Unlike the situation for a corporate CEO, of course, there are no revenues, profits or market share figures to use to evaluate a president's competence. Trump and his team are instead using broad, national economic data as quantitative proof of success. This makes sense -- Trump gets more credit for handling the economy than any other issue on which he is measured.

It isn't clear, however, just how well economic success transfers to perceived competency. There doesn't appear to be much recent polling asking Americans to rate Trump and his administration on a "competence" dimension. Gallup did ask Americans to rate Trump on a series of other dimensions in 2019 and found mixed results. He scores highest (51% agreement) as being a strong and decisive leader, but scores significantly lower (43% agreement) on managing the government effectively.

Foreign Policy Moves to the Forefront

In recent days, we have seen at least a temporary shift in the nation's focus from domestic to foreign affairs as both Trump's supporters and his critics decipher the implications of the United States' deadly drone strike on Iran's Revolutionary Guard leader, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

History shows that these types of foreign interventions can produce positive "rally effects" for a president's job approval -- but these are often short-lived. It will take weeks or months to determine the lasting effect of the Iran situation, particularly in terms of its effect on Trump's reelection probabilities. He received a 40% approval rating on handling foreign affairs in Gallup's latest November update, way below his rating on handling the economy and slightly below his overall job approval.

But, as evidenced by Trump's insertion of positive comments about the domestic economy during his White House address to the nation Wednesday on the Iran crisis, the president is not likely to allow his "economic competency" message to languish regardless of what is happening internationally.

Democratic Candidates' Competency: The Bloomberg and Biden Cases

Trump's reelection effort isn't happening in a vacuum, of course. To pry voters away from Trump, Democrats face the challenge of presenting an acceptable, viable alternative. I don't find much recent survey data telling us how the Democratic candidates measure up in the public's eyes in terms of perceived competence, just as there isn't much data measuring perceptions of Trump on a "competence" dimension.

But based on their biographies, each Democratic candidate can and will make their own particular claim to being in the best position to manage the government effectively. Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg have served as city mayors, Elizabeth Warren was appointed head of a Congressional Oversight Panel and Assistant to the President, Amy Klobuchar was a county attorney, Tom Steyer created a billion-dollar hedge fund, and so forth.

Two Democratic candidates -- Mike Bloomberg and Joe Biden -- seem to me to have particularly unique opportunities to successfully claim a clear competency positioning.

Bloomberg created the eponymous $10 billion media company that now employs 22,000 people, and then served three terms as mayor of the nation's largest city. Bloomberg's presidential campaign is clearly using this backlog of experience to counter Trump's competency positioning. Bloomberg's campaign website focuses on his "Strong Leadership, Big Results," a clear analog to Trump's "Promises Kept" sobriquet on his website. And news reports indicate that the Bloomberg-Trump positioning battle will spill over into the Feb. 2 Super Bowl telecast, as both candidates are going to fork over about $10 million for dueling Super Bowl ads.

Biden, for his part, focuses on his unprecedented 44 years of experience as an elected official in the federal government as U.S. senator and vice president. This experience allows Biden to claim unique competence based on his understanding of how the federal government works in all of its bureaucratic complexities. (On the other hand, of course, Biden can be labeled as part of the problem given his involvement with an entity about which the majority of Americans believe is "almost always wasteful and inefficient".)

Both Bloomberg and Biden are septuagenarians (as is Trump), but presumably both will attempt to exploit their advanced age by emphasizing the managerial and leadership advantages of their decades of experience.

Who Will Win the Competency Battle?

Bloomberg, Biden and the other potential Democratic presidential nominees have a two-pronged challenge in their efforts to defeat Trump's reelection bid. They must neutralize Trump's claims of competence and accomplishment. Then, they must provide voters with a less objectionable alternative -- a candidate who can convince voters that they are superior to Trump in terms of competence and the ability to manage the vast apparatus of the federal government.

Democrats have been hard at work on the first challenge, attempting to point out that the apparent economic success the country is enjoying benefits the rich while lower- and middle-class Americans struggle to make ends meet. Democrats also have interpreted the Iran situation as evidence of Trump's flawed management, including Biden's recent callout of Trump's actions as "dangerously incompetent."

Democrats' second challenge is more difficult. Only one person can capture the Democratic nomination, of course, and each candidate has strengths but also weaknesses. Plus, Trump's focus on his accomplishments has been accompanied by an unprecedented presentation-of-self style that generates strong emotions and passion from his supporters, far beyond what has been seen in the past. It's going to be hard for any single Democratic candidate -- particularly a Bloomberg or Biden -- to duplicate that type of emotional appeal to targeted voters.

It seems to me that Democrats might think about a different, radical approach to creating and exploiting a competency advantage. They could present a "team-oriented" front, establishing ways in which they would take advantage of the panoply of Democratic candidates' competencies regardless of who the nominee turns out to be. Candidates, for example, could pledge to tap into Bloomberg's history of business and mayoral leadership or Biden's vast history of involvement in the federal government in some capacity in any new Democratic administration. Trump likes to position himself as a lone, singular leader, which could in theory leave him vulnerable if Democrats emphasized their intention to manage government based on the collective wisdom of more than one person.


Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup Senior Scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport

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