It’s a well-worn cliché that our perceptions are subjective. The parable of the five blind men and elephant, each one touching a different part of the animal’s body, convinced that their tactile experience captures the whole, is an apt metaphor for the U.S. Presidential Elections, where each one holds a different interpretation of events.
Today is the last day of the Republican National Convention, where Trump will emerge as the Republican candidate for President, from a chaotic and cacophonous convention. What’s remarkable about this current presidential election, besides everything, is that it is proving to be so much more than a contest between candidates; it appears to be a referendum on leadership, on values, and on the two-party system itself.
Early this year, with colleagues, I created a poll to look at what characteristics define leadership, in particular, how leaders use power. We designed and conducted a survey entitled “How Do Presidential Candidates Use Their Power?” Our poll asked respondents to react to a series of statements about each candidate’s character and interpersonal abilities.
While the poll did not ask people about their voting preferences, the results, now available, shed light into the values and beliefs that underlie this tumultuous election year.
What our research finds is not new, but fascinating: Trump supporters and opponents agree on Trump’s character and traits, yet draw very different conclusions.
Trump Supporters and Opponents See the Same Traits—but Arrive at Different Conclusions
Originally published on Power in the Public Eye
Volatile, unapologetic, and resolute, Donald Trump has baffled voters and—at least for members of the press—set the tone of the 2016 United States Presidential Election. Throughout a campaign that has generated daily headlines and disquieted establishment members of both the Democratic and Republican parties, Trump has weathered controversies that would have humiliated and discredited other candidates.
His opponents have accused him of lying, bullying, using innuendo, and distorting facts (if not disregarding facts entirely). He has shown no interest in cooperating with his colleagues and rejects opportunities to collaborate with other politicians aligned with the GOP, where he is the presumptive Presidential nominee. His rhetoric—labeled racist, sexist, and xenophobic—has generated negative international press and earned condemnation from world leaders. His critics point to his failure to furnish credible evidence for his inflammatory accusations and his declination to reveal details, such as tax statements, that may demystify his business operations and reveal his financial reality.
To many of his observers, Trump looks nothing like a conventional U.S. President. The same behavior that makes some denounce his politics, however, further entrenches his supporters and endows him with an apparent immunity to criticism.
Who are these supporters, and what is it about Trump’s behavior that polarizes the American public? On this site, early in this election season, we designed and conducted a survey entitled “How Do Presidential Candidates Use Their Power?” Our poll asked respondents to react to a series of statements about each candidate’s character and interpersonal abilities.
While they may not add meaningful detail to a portrait of Trump as leader, our findings shed insight into how his supporters view themselves, and illustrate the values and motivations that may be bringing an end to our current two-party political system.
On the statements above, self-identified Democrats and Republicans consistently scored Trump negatively. Although Republican party supporters view Trump slightly more favorably than their Democratic counterparts do, members of both parties perceive the same weaknesses in him, and by and large favor presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton over Trump. In fact, nearly every Republican respondent rated Clinton higher than Trump on each of the qualifications above.
Who, then, supports Trump? Only among self-described Independents did Trump on average score better than Clinton—and typically by a wide margin. Whereas the majority of Democrats and Republicans ranked Clinton above Trump for every statement, the opposite held true for the majority of Independents, particularly on the questions of the Republican candidate’s professionalism, civility, and cooperation:
Republicans, Democrats, and Independents did agree about certain aspects of Trump’s demeanor, but those traits held different meanings for each group. Trump’s lack of “Presidential qualities,” interpersonal characteristics which traditional voters value and associate with effective U.S. leaders throughout history, make the man more attractive to Independents.
This unaffiliated group appears to be choosing to vote for Trump not in spite of his supposed flaws, but because of them.
As a group, the Independents we polled associated certain perceived shortcomings with strengths in other fields. Independents admire Trump for his inappropriate behavior, propensity to gossip, and uncooperative attitude; and they rate him highly on measures of persuasion, directness, and engagement with others. For people who do not align themselves with either major political party, Trump’s inability—or refusal—to live up to accepted criteria of a fair leader cements his outsider status.
In assessing Trump, Independents see much of the same qualities that Republicans and Democrats see, but view Trump’s flaws to live up to mainstream expectations as qualities to admire. Bipartisan criticism does not hurt Trump, but rather fuels support among people who believe the standard calculation of a President is a broken equation. To his supporters, Trump’s inappropriate conduct and domineering attitude is intrinsically connected to his positive capacity to engage the public and effect change.
Donald Trump’s brand of influence is a complex one. His power thrives in opposition to some traditional leadership values—such as humility, collaboration, and impartiality—while reclaiming others, such as honesty and toughness.
In one sense, Trump’s supporters and his detractors share a similar impression of the man: a political outsider uninterested in institutional approval or bipartisan compromise. In another sense, the two sides in the debate over Trump—Establishment versus Independent—are fighting entirely different battles: one is an election between candidates, the other a referendum on our political parties—and their leadership values—themselves.