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Presidential Moral Leadership Less Important to Republicans

Presidential Moral Leadership Less Important to Republicans

Story Highlights

  • 63% of Republicans say moral leadership is very important
  • Down from 86% under Clinton
  • 59% of U.S. adults say Trump provides weak moral leadership

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Republicans are much less likely now than they were during the Bill Clinton years to say it is very important for the president to provide moral leadership for the U.S. Democrats, on the other hand, are more likely to believe moral leadership is important now, with Donald Trump in office, than they were under Clinton.

Importance of President Providing Moral Leadership for the Country, by Political Party, During the Clinton and Trump Administrations
How important do you think it is for the president to provide moral leadership for the country -- very important, somewhat important, only slightly important or not at all important?
Clinton administration (1994-1999) Trump administration (2018) Change
% % pct. pts.
U.S. adults 72 66 -6
Republicans 86 63 -23
Independents 69 62 -7
Democrats 64 77 +13
Figures are the percentage who say it is "very important." Clinton data based on an average of four polls conducted between 1994 and 1999. Trump data based on May 1-10, 2018, poll.

Across four polls conducted during the Clinton administration, an average of 72% of U.S. adults said it was very important for the president to provide moral leadership for the country. A May 1-10 update of the question finds 66% of Americans holding that view.

The modest change at the national level obscures more significant shifts among partisans -- a 23-percentage-point decline among Republicans and a 13-point increase among Democrats.

Both Clinton, a Democrat, and Trump, a Republican, faced substantial controversy during their presidential campaigns, and it followed them after they were elected president. It appears that some partisans may discount the importance of the president providing moral leadership when a sitting president from their own party is under scrutiny. At the same time, some supporters of the opposition party may magnify the importance of moral leadership when this is a weak area for the incumbent.

This turning of the tables is evident in the flip in Republican and Democratic views about the importance of the president providing a good moral role model between the Clinton and Trump eras. Republicans, by 22 points, were much more likely than Democrats to say it was very important for the president to be a moral leader when Clinton was in office. Now with Trump in office, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to hold this view, by 14 points.

Independents are slightly less likely now (62%) than during the Clinton years (69%) to regard presidential leadership on morals as important.


Americans Say Trump Provides Weak Moral Leadership

By 59% to 40%, Americans believe Trump provides weak rather than strong moral leadership. Republicans and Democrats diverge greatly on this question, with 77% of Republicans believing Trump provides strong moral leadership and 91% of Democrats saying he provides weak leadership. Seventy-eight percent of Democrats believe his moral leadership is "very weak." Independents are much more negative than positive about Trump's leadership on morals.

Overall, what kind of moral leadership do you think Donald Trump provides as president -- [ROTATED: very strong, somewhat strong, somewhat weak (or) very weak]?
Very strong Somewhat strong Somewhat weak Very weak Total strong Total weak
% % % % % %
U.S. adults 11 29 18 41 40 59
Republicans 22 55 14 8 77 22
Independents 9 29 24 36 38 60
Democrats 2 6 13 78 8 91
May 1-10, 2018

The partisan difference could result from Democrats being convinced that any questions about Trump's moral character are true, while Republicans would tend to be more skeptical. To the extent that people's conceptions of a president's moral leadership are related to his policy positions, Republicans would likely be satisfied with Trump's positions on such ethics-related issues as abortion, immigration and the environment, while Democrats would find his views and actions on these highly objectionable. It is also possible partisans may just more superficially respond positively to any question about a president of their own party and negatively to a question about a president of the opposing party.

Gallup asked U.S. adults to assess Bill Clinton's moral leadership twice during his presidency, and the results varied. In 1996, more Americans regarded his leadership in this area as strong (53%) rather than weak (45%). Two years later, when Clinton's affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky was the focus of a federal investigation, 30% said the president provided strong moral leadership and 68% weak leadership.

Democrats' opinions about Clinton's moral leadership in 1996 were similar to Republicans' views of Trump today. Seventy-eight percent of Democrats thought Clinton was a strong moral leader in 1996, while Republicans and independents were more likely to regard him as weak.

After the Lewinsky scandal, all party groups' opinions of Clinton worsened, including a 32-point drop in the percentage of Democrats regarding him as a strong moral leader.

Overall, what kind of moral leadership do you think Bill Clinton provides as president -- [ROTATED: very strong, somewhat strong, somewhat weak (or) very weak]?
Very strong Somewhat strong Somewhat weak Very weak Total strong Total weak
% % % % % %
1996 May 9-12
U.S. adults 11 42 27 18 53 45
Republicans 4 25 31 39 29 70
Independents 6 40 34 16 46 50
Democrats 22 56 17 4 78 21
1998 Sep 14-15
U.S. adults 10 20 23 45 30 68
Republicans 4 9 13 72 13 85
Independents 8 23 24 43 31 67
Democrats 19 27 30 22 46 52

Gallup has asked this moral leadership question only during the Clinton and Trump administrations, as it was less of an issue for presidents whose administrations were far less consumed by scandal.


On the whole, Americans believe the president should provide moral leadership for the country. However, Republicans' and Democrats' commitment wavers when moral leadership is a point of concern for their own party's president.

Arguably, Trump and Clinton have had more character concerns than other recent presidents, but their political allies stood by them. Doing so may have forced their supporters to minimize the importance of having a president who is a strong moral leader. At the same time, those who opposed the president may have played up the importance of that presidential responsibility.

Partisans also find ways to regard scandal-plagued presidents as exhibiting strong moral leadership, either because they discount the moral charges against them or because they focus more on the president's issue positions.

These findings underscore the degree to which partisanship colors views of the president, but also how extensively opinions on seemingly normative questions are subject to change, depending on the prevailing political conditions.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted May 1-10, 2018, with a random sample of 1,024 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.

Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 70% cellphone respondents and 30% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.

View survey methodology, complete question responses and trends.

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.

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