Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Analysis | Our flawed comparisons of the mental faculties of Biden and Trump

Analysis | Our flawed comparisons of the mental faculties of Biden and Trump

A Wall Street Journal article last week set off a new round of teeth-gnashing about coverage of President Biden’s age. And more than a few Democrats asked why Trump’s unwieldy behavior wasn’t getting the same treatment.

This is the former president, after all, who has felt compelled to take and tout the results of a simple cognitive test commonly used to test for dementia, and who once saw fit to christen himself a “stable genius.” Trump will often engage in bizarre riffs, including the one this weekend comparing the dangers of submerged batteries to sharks.

But whatever the reasons, it’s evident that concerns about Biden’s age and mental capacity outpace concerns about Trump’s stability — both what it is today and what it was when Trump’s conduct was more front-and-center for voters to observe as president.

That didn’t used to be the case, but it is now.

Some comparisons of the two men’s mental capacities miss the mark a bit. Polls will often ask about the candidates’ ages or who has the edge on measures like “mental fitness” or “mental health.”

A CBS News/YouGov poll this weekend showed 42 percent said only Trump had the requisite “mental and cognitive health to serve as president,” for instance, while 25 percent said only Biden did. Similarly, a recent ABC News/Ipsos poll showed voters preferred Trump 42-23 on “mental sharpness.”

The better comparison, though, might be Biden’s age and mental fitness to perceptions of Trump’s stability. After all, that was the big mark against him with many voters as president. It wasn’t that Trump was old or mentally dull; it was that his behavior was bizarre. A Washington Post/ABC News poll in 2018, for instance, showed 47 percent of voters didn’t believe that the “stable” portion of “stable genius” applied to Trump. Ditto a Quinnipiac University poll. About half of Americans thought we had an unstable president.

When you frame things on terms like those, things get a little closer.

Perhaps the best recent poll on this is from NBC News, back in April. It asked multiple questions that get at voters’ faith in the candidates’ decision-making:

  • When people were asked which was better on the “mental and physical health” to serve as president, they said Trump, by 19 points (45-26).
  • But when it came to being “competent and effective,” Trump’s lead shrank to 11 (47-36).
  • And when the “ability to handle a crisis” was the question, the result was much closer, with Trump leading by just four points (46-42).

Similarly, a March Gallup poll showed the candidates as very close on some related measures. Fully 56 percent said each man was “intelligent,” while Trump held a narrow edge on displaying “good judgment in a crisis” (45-40).

And a Fox News poll last year showed a relatively small gap between the percentage of people who viewed Biden (38 percent) and Trump (42 percent) as having the “judgment to serve effectively as president.”

It seems when voters’ frames of reference are age and how sharp a candidate is or presents as being, Biden is at a clear deficit. But when decision-making and judgment are the frame, it’s not such a huge advantage for Trump.

That said, it’s an advantage Trump didn’t have in 2020. The same NBC poll questions back then showed voters were about evenly split or favored Biden on each of the three questions bulleted above. The Fox poll showed 52 percent of voters in July 2020 said Biden had the judgment to serve effectively, compared to just 42 percent for Trump. Now Trump leads on all of these measures.

Perhaps most significantly, the percentage of voters who expressed serious reservations about Biden’s age (81 percent say he’s too old, per the ABC poll) and mental fitness (more than 6 in 10 say he’s not mentally fit for the job, per a recent Pew poll) is greater than the percentage who ever expressed reservations about Trump’s stability or judgment (about half or a little more).

This isn’t just about voters not getting the full, updated picture of Trump’s mental state. That was covered extensively once upon a time and will be available for voters to reassess in the months to come, starting with the first debate in a couple of weeks. But will that new exposure offset Biden’s liabilities on this front? The polling history suggests it probably won’t.

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