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A handful of weeks out of one of the most important presidential elections of our lifetime, Joe Biden is consolidating his lead in polls. And, yet, Donald Trump’s approval rate remains relatively stable. Is Trump really like a Teflon pan, to which nothing sticks - no matter the size of the scandal or extent of the controversy? A new study suggests there are first fissures in his Teflon coating. Alessandro Nai of the University of Amsterdam and Jürgen Maier of the University of Koblenz-Landau analysed how voters perceived the personality of the president over time, and find that (strong) Republicans have developed an increasingly more negative perception over the last 18 months.

It is obvious that Democrats and Republicans have different perceptions of Trump’s personality. Some see him as charismatic and genuine, whereas others perceive him as egocentric and disagreeable. These contrasting perceptions align closely with partisan preferences, so that Republicans tend in general to have a much more positive image of the president’s character. To what extent is the US electorate changing their perception in light of all the scandals and political controversies that have marred the Trump presidency? And what could this mean for their voting behaviour?

Through four sequential surveys among a total of 6.000 American respondents Alessandro Nai of the University of Amsterdam and Jürgen Maier of the University of Koblenz-Landau analysed the evolution of Trump’s perceived personality between November 2018 and May 2020. They looked at how voters perceive the character of Trump in terms of the Big Five positive and 'socially desirable' personality traits (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability and openness) and the three negative and potentially harmful Dark Triad traits (narcissism, subclinical psychopathy and Machiavellianism ).

Nai and Maier found that strong Republicans have an increasingly more negative personality perception of the president, which could potentially be associated with lower political mobilization for them. In such a highly polarised setting like the contemporary United States, where people tend to stick to their political side no matter what, the implications of these shifts are noteworthy.

A surprisingly stable approval rate…

In the general public there is not much agreement about the character and personality of Donald Trump. Is he a charismatic leader that ‘tells it like it is’, or rather an insecure hot-headed egocentric? Voters of different partisan identifications seem to have radically opposed perceptions. Not surprisingly liberal voters tend to have a much more critical perception than conservative ones. Liberals mostly pinpoint Trump’s (very) low agreeableness, low conscientiousness, and low emotional stability, whereas the latter rate the President much higher on all the Big Five personality traits, especially on openness and conscientiousness. There seem to be a greater consensus about Trump’s extraversion, which is rated high across all voters, and (somewhat) also about Trump’s narcissism. However, above and beyond these partisan divergences, the approval rate of the president during his first term has been low but surprisingly stable.

Table with stable approval rate for Trump
An updating calculation of the president's approval rating by FiveThirtyEight of abc News (click on picture for the live table)

… but perhaps perceived personality is shifting

The remarkable stability of Trump’s approval rate, especially compared to the extreme oscillations of his predecessors, is particularly surprising in light of the (many) controversies and scandals that have marred the Trump administration and the president himself - from their relaxed approach to factual truth, mediatized spats with foreign leaders (and dictators), alleged affairs with adult film stars, numerous accusations of sexual misconduct, alleged campaign finance violations, overt conflict with federal investigative authorities and personal feuds with 'top cops', a multi-year investigation into potential collusions with Russian operatives, a pressure campaign towards Ukraine’s President Zelensky leading to Trump’s impeachment in the House of Representatives for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, and, of course, the recent suboptimal response to the COVID-19 crisis. There is even a Wikipedia page trying to list all controversies, classified alphabetically and currently filling several computer screens.

Nai and Maier argue that these scandals, if they have not been able to put a dent in trump’s aggregate approval rates, are nonetheless likely to alter how some respondents view the president - strong conservatives. According to the Moral Foundations theory, conservatives tend to assign a higher moral status to ingroup loyalty, deference and respect to authority, and purity of actions. Nai and Maier argue that it is not unlikely that the numerous controversies in the first years of Trump’s presidency are particularly at odds with these three ‘conservative’ moral foundations. For instance, the allegations of sexual misconducts, extramarital affairs, and inappropriate intimate relationships with adult film stars particularly contrast with the conservative moral principles of purity and sanctity of actions. Because of this, they argue, perhaps the accumulation of controversies that tend to clash with conservative moral foundations can alter how (strong) conservatives see the president.

Teflon Trump becomes sticky

Nai and Maier found that Trump’s perceived personality is on average extremely stable over time, and split over partisan lines. Overall, strong Democrats and strong Republicans have a reversed image of the President; for instance, for the former Trump scores much higher in Machiavellianism and psychopathy than in openness, whereas for the latter the reverse is true. Not surprisingly, respondents identifying with the Democratic party do not seem to change their (very negative) opinion over the 18 months under investigation. Only one group of voters significantly shifts their opinion about Trump: strong Republicans.

Alessandro Nai
Copyright: nai
The “Teflon” image of Donald Trump, a hard surface on which nothing sticks, has probably reached its limits Alessandro Nai

Strong Republicans turn out to have an increasingly more negative perception of Trump’s personality over time. Their perception of Trump becomes more critical when it comes to the ‘dark’ traits; over time, they rate him higher in narcissism, and substantially higher in psychopathy and Machiavellianism. Perhaps due to the violation of conservative moral foundations, ‘The “Teflon” image of Donald Trump, a hard surface on which nothing sticks, has probably reached its limits - especially for conservatives’, state Nai and Maier.

Is the way respondents perceive Trump relevant for their political participation?

These shifts are likely to have electoral consequences. Respondents that have a more negative perception of Trump could potentially be associated with lower political mobilization. Nai and Maier did indeed detect a potential demobilization trend for strong Republicans; the more they perceive the president as high in psychopathy (and low in conscientiousness), the less they are likely to report a strong intention to vote for Trump or vote at all in the forthcoming election: ‘The shifts in perceptions of the President’s personality across different political groups could help predict changes in his electoral support in the coming time and could be seen as the first fissures in his Teflon coating’, conclude Nai and Maier.

More on the American Elections

In the coming weeks we will also publish articles on: the role of race & gender in the elections; on the role emotions in politics and on the role of the debates.

Contact

This study will soon appear in the scientific journal: International Journal of Public Opinion Research. For more information you can contact Alessandro Nai.

dr. A. (Alessandro) Nai

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

CW : Political Communication & Journalism

This article has been written by Alessandro Nai (Assistant Professor of Political Communication and Journalism at the Amsterdam School of Communication Research -ASCoR-University of Amsterdam) and the Science Communication team of the Faculty of Social & Behavioural Sciences at the University of Amsterdam.