Most Republicans say a criminal past is highly undesirable in a CEO; fewer say it is for a president

Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
February 28, 2024, 5:28 PM GMT+0

Far more Democrats than Republicans find criminality to be among the most undesirable traits in a president.

As Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump's legal problems continue to mount, more Americans classify him as a criminal than do the presumptive Democratic nominee, President Joe Biden. Knowledge of Trump's legal exposure may drive some Republicans to downgrade criminality as a quality they care about in a president. Far more Republicans say they strongly dislike criminality in a CEO or member of Congress than in a president. The reverse is true among Democrats.

Comparing Joe Biden and Donald Trump

A recent YouGov survey asked Americans whether 20 attributes (10 that generally are considered positive and 10 negative ones) better describe Biden or Trump — with options to say that each describes both men equally or neither of them.

There is more consensus in evaluations of each candidate's negative attributes than their positives. Biden is more likely to be seen as elderly, forgetful, and out of touch, while Trump is more likely to be characterized as egotistical, a bully, and a criminal, among other things.

Americans assign more of the negative and positive traits asked about to Trump than to Biden. (The traits generally seen as desirable or undesirable for a president wouldn't necessarily seem that way to everyone; "elderly" was chosen because of its use to describe Biden in a recent special counsel report.)

The margins between the two candidates are slimmer on traits that voters are more likely to find desirable. Biden beats out Trump on his willingness to compromise, compassion, honesty, and likability, while Trump wins on charisma, mental fitness, leadership strength, competence, and intelligence.

Around one in five Americans say that both candidates aren't each of the following: charismatic, honest, likable, and willing to compromise.

Democrats and Republicans are far more likely to assign most of the 10 negative descriptors to the opposing party's candidate rather than their own. There are some exceptions, however. A sizable share of Democrats (29%) say "elderly" describes Biden more than Trump; just 12% say it's a better fit for Trump.

At least one in four Republicans say Trump is more authoritarian (41%), egotistical (38%), impulsive (28%), and a bully (27%) than Biden is. More Republicans say authoritarian and egotistical better describe Trump than say they fit Biden better.

While some Democrats and Republicans acknowledge potential flaws in their own party's candidate, few identify positives in the presumptive candidate from the opposing party. The largest share of Democrats who say a positive trait — charisma — describes Trump more than Bidenis a mere 16%. The largest share of Republicans who assign a positive trait to Biden is 12%, for being more willing to compromise than Trump. As for positives that people are especially likely to assign to their party's candidates, 79% of Democrats see Biden as more compassionate than Trump, while Republicans are especially likely to characterize Trump as a stronger leader (87%).

Presidential traits: The best and worst

Before being asked about the specific candidates, respondents were asked which sets of three traits — from the same lists of 10 — they find most and least desirable in a president.

Among all Americans, half listed being a criminal among their three least desirable traits in a president. The next most frequently selected are out of touch (35%), a bully (33%), disrespectful (31%), and forgetful (30%).

In terms of what they do want, 60% say being a strong leader is paramount, while about half say intelligent (49%) or honest (48%).

Americans’ views on what makes a good president line up closely with who is on the ballot for their party. Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to least desire qualities more commonly associated with Trump than with Biden, including: being a criminal (62% of Democrats list it as least desirable vs. 34% of Republicans), a bully (42% vs. 20%), and authoritarian (40% vs. 13%). Similarly, some of Republicans' least desired traits align with those linked to Biden: being forgetful (51% of Republicans list it vs. 13% of Democrats), out of touch (50% vs. 20%), and elderly (32% vs. 12%).

There is a similar pattern when it comes to positive traits: More Democrats than Republicans (27% vs. 12%) include being compassionate — a characteristic that more people think better describes Biden, according to our poll — in their three most desirable traits in a president. More Republicans emphasize a president's leadership strength (76% vs. 50%) and mental fitness (44% vs. 27%) — traits that more people associate with Trump than with Biden.

One interpretation of these results is that voters nominate candidates who have the qualities they desire, which differ for members of each party. Or people whose preferences align with a candidate's traits may be prompted to identify with that candidate's party. Another possible interpretation is that people adapt their criteria, post hoc, to align with the perceived strengths and weaknesses of their party's nominee. While fully disentangling these possibilities would require analyzing how views change over time, we do find some indications of post hoc reasoning — or, of different preferences for the presidency that happen to line up with this year's likely candidates.

Comparisons to other leadership positions

In a follow-up survey, we asked respondents to answer the same questions — selecting their three most and least desired traits — for two other positions of power: a member of Congress and a CEO. Having these comparison points — which offer distance from the context of Biden and Trump — provides some insights into the extent to which Democrats' and Republicans' standards for the presidency also apply to other important jobs.

The results show that Democrats and Republicans are equally likely to say that a criminal background is highly undesirable in a CEO, with about half naming it among their three least desired qualities. In contrast, 62% of Democrats and 34% of Republicans list it among their most undesired traits in a president. For Democrats, that's higher than the share who list it for the other two jobs; for Republicans, lower. There is a similar pattern with bullying: There is just a 10-percentage-point gap in the share of Democrats and Republicans who say this is one of the most undesirable traits in a CEO and the same gap for a member of Congress, but a 22-point gap when it comes to a president.

Democrats are about equally likely to list forgetfulness as a top negative trait for a president (13%), member of Congress (14%), and CEO (15%). Republicans, on the other hand, are far more likely to say it would be among the worst qualities for a president to have (51%) than a member of Congress (31%) or CEO (30%). The same is true for being elderly — Democrats do not differentiate between the three roles while Republicans are more likely to say it is a major problem for a president than for a member of Congress or CEO. Republicans generally have bigger differences between their preferences for presidents and for members of Congress or CEOs, though Democrats are more likely to say they especially don't want presidents who are criminal and authoritarian.

Members of both parties see strong leadership as more important for a president, while willingness to compromise is more important for a member of Congress. Among Republicans, honesty is less likely to be listed as a top trait for a president than it is for a member of Congress or CEO; the reverse is true for mental fitness.

— Carl Bialik contributed to this article

See the results for this YouGov poll + the follow-up poll

Methodology: This article includes results from two polls conducted online on February 9 - 12, 2024 and February 14 - 16, 2024, each among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to November 1, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 31% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 4%.

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