Experienced? Depends On How You Ask

By Kathy Frankovic, CBS News director of surveys

Assessing the qualities of the presidential candidates, especially the quality of "experience," is not as simple as it seems. This year, with so many candidates, there are trade offs.

Many polls ask potential voters to say who -- of a list of candidates -- has the "most" experience, or the "best" experience. Here are some examples:

From a Fox News September poll: "Regardless of how you plan to vote, I'd like you to tell me whether these words or phrases better describe Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, or John Edwards.... 'Has the right experience.'"

From the ABC News/Washington Post Poll: "Regardless of who you may support (for the 2008 Democratic nomination for president), who do you think...has the best experience to be president -- Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, or John Edwards?"

Or from the recent Des Moines Register Iowa Poll: "Regardless of which candidate you support as your first choice, which one would you say is the most experienced."

Clinton wins easily on every question: "best," "right" or "most." More than twice as many voters choose her than choose Edwards¸ and more than four times as many choose her as choose Obama. And in the Iowa poll, she placed first with 39 percent, while Obama finished fifth. Only 5 percent described Obama as the most experienced, behind Clinton, Joe Biden, Bill Richardson and John Edwards.

But does that mean Edwards or Obama is in-experienced?

You can't say that from the way these questions were posed. Obama or Edwards could have good experience, just not the "best," "right" or "most." More nuanced answers take more polling time, and a separate question asked about each of the candidates. But some polling organizations have done just that.

Here is a question from CBS News (actually three questions, one for each candidate): "Do you think Hillary Clinton/Barack Obama/John Edwards has the right kind of experience to be a good president, or not?"
This is how Newsweek/Princeton Survey Research Associates posed the question: "From what you know about...Barack Obama/Hillary Clinton/John Edwards, do you think he/she has enough experience in politics and government to be a good president, or not?"

And from the most recent CBS News/New York Times Poll: "From what you know so far, do you think Hillary Clinton has prepared herself well enough for the job of President and all the issues a President has to face, or do you think she needs a few more years to prepare?" The same question (with appropriate gender pronouns) was asked about Barack Obama and John Edwards.

Answers to these questions lead to slightly different conclusions. The most recent CBS News/New York Times questions, asked only of Democratic primary voters, mirrored the pattern of the forced-choice question. That's when the wording of a question "forces" respondents to rank or choose names from a list. Eighty-three percent said Clinton had prepared herself well enough, but fewer than half said that about either Obama or Edwards. Other national polls, asking the questions of the general public, yield somewhat different results. Yes, Hillary Clinton is way ahead in the "experience" dimension in the Newsweek poll: Seventy percent said she had enough experience, while just 40 percent said that about Obama. But John Edwards also meets the threshold for concluding that a majority -- 55 percent in this case - said he had enough experience.

Being the "most" experienced is different from meeting the experience threshold (i.e., having "enough" experience), so forcing respondents to choose from a list can be problematic. The 2000 election provides a cautionary example where the conclusions drawn from each method of asking would have been different -- and one of them would have been wrong.

In September 2000, the Los Angeles Times asked likely voters to say which candidate -- George W. Bush or Al Gore -- "has the best experience for the job." Sixty-two percent chose Gore, and only 25 percent chose Bush. Likely voters in an October Fox News Poll also chose Gore over Bush, 54 percent to 31 percent, on having the "right kind of experience."

But while most voters thought Gore had more of the "right" or the "best" experience, a majority had already decided that Bush met the threshold. CBS News had asked registered voters in March of that year whether Bush and Gore each had "the right kind of experience to be a good president." And for most voters, both of them did. Slightly more (70 percent) said Gore did than said Bush did (62 percent), but Bush had clearly met the experience threshold with nearly two-thirds of voters.

Experience might not be voters' chief criterion this election cycle. It might be fresh ideas, it might be honesty, it might be electability, or it might be something else. But measuring whom voters think has the most of a characteristic is not the same thing as finding out whether or not voters think a candidate has enough of it for them.