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Is Hillary Clinton Qualified to Be President? A New Poll is Easy to Misread

People sometimes have an easier time assessing the whole than the parts. Zagat reviews of restaurants show highly correlated ratings between food and service, for instance. Perhaps there is some intrinsic relationship between these qualities. But it’s not always so easy to separate the steak from the sizzle.

This “halo effect” also manifests in politics. For instance, government-issued terror alerts during George W. Bush’s first term improved not only his approval ratings, but also views of how he was handling the economy.

A Gallup poll on Hillary Clinton released Friday is triggering some of these challenges of interpretation. It asked an open-ended question about what Americans would regard as the best and worst qualities of a Clinton presidency. The top negative, mentioned by 6 percent of respondents, was that Clinton was not qualified to be president or wasn’t likely to succeed on the job.

This poll could easily be misread. Clinton’s qualifications were her most oft-mentioned negative — but they were cited by just 6 percent of respondents. Nor, however, should the results be taken to imply that 94 percent of respondents see Clinton as qualified. Many of the respondents who described other negatives about Clinton undoubtedly also think she lacks the credentials for the job. (Gallup recorded only one reply per person.)

A better way to test voters’ opinions on Clinton’s qualifications is to ask them directly. YouGov did that in a poll released last month. In that survey, 49 percent of respondents said Clinton had the qualifications to be president while 38 percent said she did not.

Those ratings might seem low when Clinton is compared to the two most recent presidents. She spent 12 years in national or executive office, counting her tenure as U.S. senator and secretary of state but not her years as first lady. Barack Obama, by contrast, had spent just four years as a U.S. senator at the time of his election, while George W. Bush had spent six years as governor of Texas.

I can imagine some of our Democratic readers bristling at my implication that Bush was qualified to be president, and some of our Republican readers doing the same for Obama. Maybe if Obama had had actual responsibilities instead of being a community organizer, he would have been better at the job, the Republicans might say. Maybe if Bush hadn’t leveraged his family name to get into the governor’s mansion, he would have been more suited for the Oval Office, the Democrats might say.

But that’s just the problem with taking this sort of polling result too literally. The question on Clinton’s qualifications tends to reflect overall assessments of her personal qualities and performance in office — more than it does the narrower issue of her credentials.

Consider the results of two other questions that YouGov asked about Clinton. Did voters approve or disapprove of her performance as secretary of state? And do they have a favorable or unfavorable impression of her?

DATALAB.Silver.Clinton

The results were almost identical to the question about Clinton’s qualifications. For instance, 25 percent of Republicans said they regarded Clinton as qualified for office, while 21 percent said they approved of her performance as secretary of state and 20 percent said they took a favorable view of her.

Most of these Republicans are not worried that Clinton would make an unqualified president so much as they don’t want her to become president in the first place.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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