A central question for 2020 is the extent to which Trump will similarly be able to overcome skepticism about his personal traits. Incumbency has an advantage, yes, but how does that advantage play out for a president who’s never been above the mid-40s in approval and who may be facing off against a much more positively viewed Democratic nominee?
New polling from CNN and its partners at SSRS offers a partial answer to that latter question: On several key leadership traits, leading Democratic candidates aren’t viewed that much more positively than Trump.
It varies by candidate, of course. Take the question of whether a candidate “can manage the government effectively.” About 40 percent of respondents thought that described Trump, down from 50 percent who said so during the presidential transition.
Former vice president Joe Biden earns much higher marks on the question, with more than half of respondents saying he could manage government effectively. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are seen as about as capable as Trump. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg does slightly worse.
Interestingly — and ominously, for Democrats — Trump fares about as well as most of his potential opponents on the question of being able to “bring the kind of change the country needs.” Here again, Buttigieg trails Trump.
CNN added a new question in this poll that seems to be targeting questions about Biden: Does the candidate have the sharpness and stamina to be president? Biden and Buttigieg fare about as well as Trump while Warren has an advantage. Sanders, perhaps because of his recent heart attack, trails somewhat behind.
On two questions, though, the Democrats have consistent advantages over Trump. Biden and Sanders are seen as being much more likely to unite the country than Trump, for example. This is the question on which Trump fares the most poorly, with optimism about his ability to unite the U.S. that was demonstrated during the presidential transition quickly fading.
Democrats across the board are seen as more honest and trustworthy than Trump, with Sanders holding a massive advantage on this question.
This was one area where views of Clinton eroded over time. In September 2016, Trump and Clinton were viewed as equally honest according to Post-ABC News polling; a month later, Trump actually had an advantage. This was a function of a concerted effort by Trump and, to some extent, a willingness of voters to give him the benefit of the doubt — though views of his honesty were about the same during the campaign as they are now in CNN’s polling.
Honesty is an important metric, one that overlaps with favorability. Trump’s campaign will certainly try to drag down views of the honesty of his eventual opponent. But at this point in the 2016 cycle, Clinton’s honesty was already viewed as suspect, with only 35 percent of respondents in a November 2015 Fox News poll identifying her as honest and trustworthy.
Voters may see Trump and leading Democrats as equivalent on bringing needed change or effective management, but if those gaps on honesty persist, there’s a substantial distinction between the candidates that will probably play to Trump’s disadvantage.