Communications researchers have developed a new scale to measure perceptions of having a presidential image. Their work has recently been published in the Journal of Political Marketing. The study indicates that personability and capability are both key components of appearing presidential. The new findings also provide some insight into the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, in which Democratic candidate Joe Biden prevailed over Republican incumbent Donald Trump.
“Before academia — before being a professor teaching public relations and political communication, before running experiments testing the effects of political messages — I worked in politics,” said study author David E. Clementson (@DavidClementson), a political communication professor at the University of Georgia.
“I was a campaign manager and director of media relations, running successful campaigns for Democrats and Republicans. I’ve always loved politics, volunteered on campaigns when I was young, attended receptions as a kid, and grew up reading books by James Carville, George Stephanoupolous, Dick Morris, Lanny Davis, etc. So naturally when I have had the opportunity to try to tap into what makes a presidential candidate seem ‘presidential’ in the minds of voters, I want to tackle that sort of research. It is impactful and also enjoyable.”
Between September 30, 2020 and October 6, 2020, the researchers surveyed 618 registered U.S. voters in two separate studies to examine perceptions of Donald Trump or Joe Biden. Approximately 48% of the participants said they were voting for Trump, while approximately 47% said they were voting for Biden.
Clementson and his colleagues first examined previous research and commentary from political experts to generate a list of 75 characteristics associated with having a presidential image. Four professional political pollsters and strategists also reviewed the list and “said that they could not think of any items that were missing.” The participants then completed a survey in which they reported the extent to which they believed Trump (or Biden) displayed these characteristics.
Finally, the researchers used a statistical technique known as a confirmatory factor analysis to determine which of these characteristics best represented having a presidential image.
“These studies have revealed that a presidential candidate achieves the perception of being ‘presidential’ through mostly the candidate’s communication: what he (or she) verbally communicates. Not so much through visual imagery or physical outward appearances,” Clementson told PsyPost.
“For example, based on the findings, a presidential candidate is presidential by proposing realistic solutions to problems, using wit to your advantage, saying out loud what voters are thinking, speaking articulately, and sounding knowledgeable. You don’t have to be attractive or have the best slogans or the most money, or even have strong partisan support, to win on those criteria. You have to be a good communicator.”
The researchers found that presidential image scores were strongly correlated with voting behavior. Trump voters tended to see Trump as highly presidential, while Biden voters tended to see Biden as highly presidential. Interestingly, Biden voters rated Trump as less presidential than Trump voters rated Biden.
“These studies of being presidential applied specifically to Trump and Biden in the weeks leading up to the 2020 election, and the data were sort of prophetic in showing exactly how Biden would be more popular than Trump among voters in many dimensions — particularly in terms of Democrats fervently disliking Trump and thinking he was extremely unpresidential, while Republicans did not dislike Biden to such an extreme degree and kind of considered him presidential,” Clementson explained.
The researchers also uncovered some interesting findings related to sincerity.
“Our initial scale measuring Trump showed that seeming sincere was a component of being presidential,” Clementson said. “But that specific item did not replicate to Biden. Whether Biden seemed sincere or did not seem sincere was not a measure for whether or not Biden was considered presidential by Democratic and Republican voters, but it was for Trump.”
“Seeming sincere is a demeanor cue that is almost entirely misleading in diagnosing a person’s actual veracity. Sincerity is a behavioral impression that is quite deceptive. For example, a person can appear confident and make good eye contact with you — and thus seem sincere and believable — but be lying to your face. Or a person can appear nervous and fidgety, avoiding eye contact — and thus seem deceitful and insincere — but be telling you the total honest truth. So that element of presidentiality really intrigues me too. After all, politicians are stereotyped as being very deceptive, but obviously some are able to manifest sincerity with great talent.”
The findings have some practical applications outside of politics as well.
“For example, the indicators of presidentiality, could be lumped together as ‘personability’ and ‘capability,'” Clementson said. “Personability would include presidential components of seeming sincere and using wit to your advantage. Capability would include presidential components of being capable (obviously), proposing realistic solutions to problems, and sounding knowledgeable.”
“Just as a presidential candidate must master these in order to win the biggest job interview on the planet, so can others applying for lesser jobs take a lesson from these findings,” Clementson explained. “Whether you are campaigning for President of the United States or any other job, keep in mind that your target audience desires you to be personable — witty and sincere, for example — and also capable — proposing realistic solutions to problems, for example. If you are personable (such as having a good sense of humor), and you can also roll up your sleeves and do your job conscientiously, you are presidential — in whatever job you might hold or seek.”
The study, “What Does It Mean to Have a Presidential Image? A Multiple-Group Confirmatory Factor Analysis Measuring Trump and Biden in 2020“, was authored by David E. Clementson, Michael J. Beatty, and Tong Xie.