The "Experience Gap" Question

This column was written by CBS News director of surveys Kathy Frankovic.
Back in December, I wrote about how different ways of asking a question can produce different answers, especially when it comes to tracking characteristics like experience and other "presidential" qualities. Voters may perceive one candidate as having more experience than the other when they are asked to compare two candidates - but may believe both candidates have "enough" experience to handle the job. Despite Al Gore's lead in experience overall during the 2000 election campaign, more than six in ten registered voters thought George W. Bush had enough.

The "experience gap" - and especially how it plays out in the foreign policy realm - has played a role in the scheduling of Barack Obama's current trip to Europe and the Middle East. How big an "experience gap" in foreign policy is there today? And does anybody care?

Here are some comparisons from polls that were conducted before the trip. All of them asked two identical questions about each candidate, so we really can see whether a candidate has passed one experience test - being "Commander-in-Chief" with the majority of voters:

  • On July 10-12, ABC News and the Washington Post asked whether the statement "He would be a good commander-in chief of the military" applied to John McCain and Obama. Seventy two percent said that the statement applied to McCain (25 percent said it didn't), and just 48 percent said the statement applied to Obama. The same percentage - 48 percent - said the statement did NOT apply to Obama.
  • In mid-June, the Gallup/USA Today Poll posed the question in a softer way: "Do you think John McCain/Barack Obama can or cannot handle the responsibilities of commander-in-chief of the military?" No surprise that 80 percent said McCain could, but a majority of 55 percent agreed Obama could as well, although 40 percent said he could not.
  • The CBS News/New York Times Poll, conducted July 7-14, asked a different question, and found that the "experience" problem Obama faces might not be so troublesome. The question was: "Regardless of how you intend to vote, how likely do you think it is that Barack Obama would be an effective commander-in-chief of the nation's military--would you say it is very likely, somewhat likely, not very likely, or not at all likely? As you might expect, only about half as many registered voters said they would be "very likely" to think Obama would be an effective commander-in-chief as to say McCain would be (24 percent versus 46 percent). But combining those who said "very likely" with those who said "somewhat likely" - admittedly, a slightly lower threshold of acceptability on this issue - makes the difference, while still large, seem less dramatic. Four out of five voters (82 percent) say McCain is at least "somewhat likely" to be an effective commander-in-chief, but 62 percent - nearly two in three - say Obama is as well. In other words, majorities say both candidates meet the threshold.

    Obama may or may not have a politically debilitating weakness on the question of being Commander-in-Chief, but he has not made much progress in the last few months convincing more voters of his abilities. The July CBS News Poll found almost the same results as it had in May: Sixty two percent said he was "somewhat likely" or "very likely" to be an effective commander-in-chief, and 25 percent made the "very likely" choice. In contrast to the rather static assessment of Obama, McCain had improved by five points on this measure in the same two months.

    But running a military is not the only foreign policy matter, and on one foreign policy issue, Obama has shown a clear lead over McCain in recent polls. And that issue is NOT Iraq! The ABC News/Washington Post July Poll found a fairly even division - 47 percent trust McCain more on Iraq, 44 percent trust Obama more. Fox News found something similar in a poll conducted about ten days later: by 47 percent to 39 percent, voters said they "trusted" McCain more to deal with the situation in Iraq.

    Where Obama is well ahead of McCain is in the perception that he will improve the image of the U.S. in the rest of the world. Nearly half of voters, 48 percent, say he will. Just 18 percent say that about McCain. It's not that the rest say the image will get worse in a McCain administration, but 59 percent say things just won't change.

    But this raises the question: how much will it matter?'s Mark Blumenthal has made some historical comparisons that suggest meeting a foreign policy threshold may have mattered in previous elections. But "experience" and competence in foreign policy may not be the determining factor when it comes to the vote in the fall. Fewer than one in five adults name any foreign policy issue as the most important problem facing the country (and most of those references are to Iraq). In contrast, the economy and gas prices are named by more than half.

    American voters may not care all that much what people in other countries think of us. And one trip may not resolve Obama's "experience" problem. Americans can sometimes be skeptical of the purpose of international travel and action. Even successful foreign trips by Americans Presidents don't necessarily boost their approval ratings. And when we ask the American public if politicians are sincere when they do something, or whether they are doing it for political gain, political gain almost always wins.

    Obama's trip may be seen that way too. Halfway into this trip, the latest Fox News poll asked if Obama's trip was "better described as a fact-finding trip or as a campaign event." By 47 percent to 19 percent, in that poll at least, the public said it was a "campaign event." We'll see what happens when it's all over.
    By Kathy Frankovic