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Our flawed comparisons of the mental faculties of Biden and Trump

A Wall Street Journal article last week sparked a new round of gnashing of teeth over media coverage of President Biden's age. Many Democrats wondered why Trump's impractical behavior didn't receive the same treatment.

This is the former president, who felt obliged to accept the results of a simple cognitive test commonly used to test for dementia, and who saw fit to call himself a "stable genius." Trump often makes outlandish statements, including one this weekend comparing the dangers of submerged batteries to those of sharks.

But whatever the reasons, it's clear that concerns about Biden's age and mental capacity outweigh concerns about Trump's stability — both who he is today and what it was when Trump's behavior was more important for voters to watch as president.

Some comparisons between the mental abilities of the two men miss the point a little. Polls often ask how old candidates are or who has an advantage on measures such as "mental fitness" or "mental health."

A CBS News/YouGov poll over the weekend showed that 42% of respondents said only Trump had "the mental and cognitive health to be president," for example, while 25% said only Biden did. . Similarly, a recent ABC News/Ipsos poll showed voters favoring Trump 42 to 23 on “mental acuity.”

However, a better comparison might be that of Biden's age and mental aptitude with perceptions of Trump's stability. After all, it was a huge mark against him with so many voters as president. It wasn't that Trump was old or mentally boring; His behavior was strange. For example, a 2018 Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 47% of voters didn't think the "stable" part of "stable genius" applied to Trump. Ditto for the Quinnipiac University survey. About half of Americans think we have an unstable president.

When you put things in these terms, things get a little closer.

Perhaps the best recent poll on this subject was the one conducted by NBC News in April. Several questions were asked that affect voters' confidence in the candidates' decision-making process:

  • When people were asked who was better in terms of "mental and physical health" to be president, they answered Trump by 19 points (45-26).
  • But when it comes to “efficiency and effectiveness,” Trump’s lead narrowed to 11 (47-36).
  • When the question was “ability to deal with the crisis”, the result was much closer, with Trump only having a four-point lead (46-42).

Likewise, a March Gallup poll showed the two candidates neck and neck on some relevant measures. Fifty-six percent of respondents said each man was “smart,” while Trump had little room to exercise “good judgment in a crisis” (40-45).

A Fox News poll from last year showed a relatively small gap between the percentage of people who view Biden (38%) and Trump (42%) as having “the judgment necessary to serve effectively as president.”

It seems that when voters' frames of reference are the age and accuracy of a candidate or his presentation as such, Biden presents a clear deficit. But when decision-making and judgment is the framework, it doesn't really represent an advantage for Trump.

However, that's an advantage Trump didn't have in 2020. The same NBC poll questions at the time showed voters were evenly divided or favored Biden on each of the three issues above. The Fox poll showed that 52% of July 2020 voters said Biden had the ability to work effectively, compared to just 42% for Trump. And now Trump is leading all these measures.

Perhaps more important is the share of voters who expressed serious reservations about Biden's age (81% say he is too old, according to an ABC poll) and his mental health (more than 6 in 10 say he is mentally unfit for the job, according to a recent Pew poll). poll) is higher than the percentage who expressed reservations about Trump's stability or power (about half, or a little more).

It’s not just that voters don’t have a complete, up-to-date picture of Trump’s mental state. It was once widely covered and voters will be able to re-evaluate it in the coming months, starting with the first debate in two weeks.But will this new exposure offset Biden's responsibilities on this front? Polling history suggests that probably won't happen.


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