Hiring POTUS: Examining the 2016 Presidential Election Through the Lens of I-O Psychology
Mahtab Farid, Hofstra University; & Kevin P. Nolan, Hofstra University
Those elected president of the United States (POTUS) assume a position so important they become one of the most powerful people in the world (Ewalt, 2016). It is, therefore, hard to overstate the importance of selecting the right person for the job. As such, presidential elections are extensively studied to better understand voter behavior. These studies are primarily conducted by political scientists, journalists, and pollsters. However, as I-O psychologists, we view the process of electing POTUS as a special case of employee selection. By incorporating principles of employee selection into the study of voter tendencies, this research provides a unique examination of the 2016 presidential election through the lens of I-O psychology.
Several TIP articles have been written on the application of I-O psychology to presidential elections. Deselms, Bahls, Campana, and Sachau (2016), for example, interviewed SIOP members and asked them to describe how a system could be designed for selecting, rather than electing, POTUS. Although happy to participate in the thought experiment, many respondents indicated they preferred having an election to a selection system. Riggio (2005) examined the extent to which research on business leaders increases our understanding of how presidential candidates are evaluated. He concluded that research in I-O psychology can be applied to presidential elections but that fundamental differences in the processes used to select presidents and business leaders limits the generalizability of leadership findings. In this study, we investigate the extent to which two concepts that have been reliably shown to influence employers’ evaluations of job candidates likewise influence voters’ evaluations of presidential candidates. These concepts are beliefs about person–job (PJ) and person–organization (PO) fit.
Research has consistently demonstrated that employers form perceptions of PJ fit (i.e., congruence between an individual’s knowledge, skills, and abilities and those that are required to perform the demands of a job; Edwards, 1991) and PO fit (congruence between an individual’s personality, values, and goals and those that characterize an organization’s unique work environment; Kristof, 1996) during employee selection and that these perceptions positively influence their attraction to job candidates (Kristof-Brown, Zimmerman, & Johnson, 2005). Whereas employers generally believe they can predict candidates’ future job performance via perceptions of PJ fit, perceptions of PO fit are believed to predict a variety of outcomes including mental health, pro-social behaviors, and the quality of coworker relationships (Nolan, Langhammer, & Salter, 2016).
Presidential candidates are not evaluated using traditional selection methods (e.g., work samples, personality inventories). Nevertheless, nationally broadcast events like campaign rallies and presidential debates afford voters ample information to form beliefs about PJ and PO fit—much like the way employers form these beliefs about job candidates from the limited information they obtain via LinkedIn profiles and employment interviews. Through these outlets, the messages Secretary Hillary Clinton and President Donald Trump delivered to voters regarding their capability to perform the demands of the presidency differed significantly. Clinton touted her accomplishments as a career politician, whereas Trump espoused his achievements as a prominent businessman. Accordingly, we expected voters’ perceptions of PJ fit to differ across candidates, with the candidate voters support being perceived as having the higher level of congruence. Although voters were expected to differ in their perceptions of the candidates’ PJ fit, possessing the attributes required to successfully perform the demands of the presidency was expected to be universally attractive. Therefore, consistent with the findings of employee selection research, we expected perceptions of PJ fit to have a positive influence on attraction for all voters.
The messages Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump delivered to voters concerning their fit with the U.S. government were also meaningfully different. Clinton presented herself as a Washington insider having valued relationships with established politicians, whereas Trump presented himself as an outsider wanting to “drain the swamp” that is Washington DC. In accordance with the ways in which they positioned themselves to the public, we expected voters to perceive Clinton as having higher levels of PO fit than Trump regardless of the candidate they support. However, given the tone of their messages about the U.S. government, the relationship between PO fit and attraction was expected to differ among supporters, with perceptions of PO fit having a positive influence on attraction for Clinton supporters and a negative influence on attraction for Trump supporters. In this way, the relationship between PO fit and attraction in the presidential election was expected to deviate from the general findings of employee selection research.
A sample of 180 eligible voters completed an online survey – between September 29 and October 7, 2016 – where they were randomly assigned to evaluate either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. At the end of the survey, participants indicated the candidate for whom they intended to vote. Our study thus employed a 2 candidate evaluated (Clinton, Trump) x 3 candidate supported (Clinton, Trump, Other) quasi-experimental design, with candidates being evaluated by supporters and non-supporters alike. In evaluating the candidates, participants completed measures of Attractiveness (Highhouse & Sinar, 2003), Perceived PJ fit (Lauver & Kristof-Brown, 2001), Perceived PO fit (Cable & Judge, 1996), and Subjective PO fit. Whereas the perceived PO fit measure provided information about voters’ general beliefs concerning the candidates’ fit with typical politicians working in the U.S. Government (e.g., This candidate’s values are similar to the values of other politicians in the US government), the subjective PO fit measure provided additional insight about perceived fit on 10 specific attributes from Schwartz’s (1992) Universal Human Values, Hofstee, De Raad, and Goldberg’s (1992) Big Five Personality Facets, and Jonason and Webster’s (2010) Dark Triad Personality Traits. Participants were given an operational definition of each attribute to rate (Table 1), and subjective PO fit scores were created by averaging the absolute values of difference scores between the ratings assigned to U.S. politicians and presidential candidates, with lower values indicating greater levels of fit (Vancouver & Schmitt, 1991).
As expected, voters’ perceptions of PJ fit depended on both the candidate they evaluated as well as the candidate they supported. Voters supporting Hillary Clinton generally perceived her as having greater PJ fit than Trump or Other supporters, and voters supporting Donald Trump, generally perceived him as having greater PJ fit than Clinton or Other supporters (Figure 1). Consistent with the findings of employee selection research, perceptions of PJ fit were positively related to attraction for all voters regardless of the candidate they support. However, for Clinton and Trump supporters, the relationship between PJ fit and attraction was significantly stronger than it was for supporters of other candidates (Figure 2). Finding that beliefs about the candidates’ abilities to perform the demands of the presidency had less influence on attraction for supporters of Other candidates than Clinton or Trump supporters (e.g., “What’s Aleppo?” – Gary Johnson) is consistent with the notion that third-party votes were largely acts of protest against the major-party candidates (Brown, 2016).
Figure 1: Mean Levels of Perceived PJ Fit and Perceived PO Fit Across Study Conditions (Candidate Evaluated/ Candidate Supported)
Figure 2: Candidate Support Moderating the Relationships Between Perceived PJ Fit and Attraction (Left), Perceived PO Fit and Attraction (Middle), and Subjective PO Fit and Attraction (Right)
Regarding beliefs about the candidates’ fit with the U.S. government, results suggest that both perceived and subjective measures of PO fit were affected by the candidate being evaluated as well as the candidate voters supported. Voters supporting Hillary Clinton or other candidates generally believed that she had greater PO fit than Donald Trump, but Trump supporters did not perceive a significant difference between the candidates. Consistent with the findings of employee selection research, beliefs about PO fit were positively related to attraction for Clinton and other supporters. However, deviating from the results of selection research, beliefs about PO fit were negatively related to attraction for Trump supporters. Exit poll research suggests that Trump supporters were largely dissatisfied with the U.S. government (Lee, Petras, Thorson, Penzenstadler, & Sullivan, 2016). Our findings suggests that hiring an outsider with discrepant personality traits, values, and goals was perceived as an attractive avenue for voters seeking to change the status quo.
Further insight into voters’ beliefs about the candidates’ demeanors is provided by their ratings of the individual attributes from the subjective PO fit measure. Both Clinton and Trump supporters generally agreed that their candidates valued security, were moderately narcissistic, and low in morality. Whereas Clinton supporters generally agreed that intellect, universalism, and cooperation characterized their candidate, Trump supporters did not agree that he possessed these attributes. Instead, Trump supporters rated him highest in provocativeness, hedonism, and psychopathy. For Clinton supporters, provocativeness and hedonism were perceived as unattractive traits. However, for Trump supporters, these attributes were positively related to attraction. It is possible that Trump supporters viewed hedonism as a celebration of capitalist success (e.g., I’m a winner and deserve a golden apartment) and provocativeness as a necessary catalyst for change in the government.
This research has several noteworthy limitations (e.g., sample size, single-item measures, use of difference scores). Nevertheless, the overall findings of the study support the notion that employee selection research can help predict and explain voter tendencies. The purpose of the study was to examine the extent to which factors that have been shown to influence employment decisions for more traditional jobs also influence employment decisions for POTUS. Consistent with traditional employee selection research, results suggest that voters’ evaluations of the presidential candidates were meaningfully related to their beliefs about PJ and PO fit. These constructs are well-understood by I-O psychologists, who are capable of developing lines of research dedicated to more fully understanding their influence on voter behavior. The knowledge generated by these lines of research could be combined with work from political scientists, journalists, and pollsters to provide a more complete understanding of presidential elections. Echoing the advice of Riggio (2005), however, scholars should be cautious about generalizing the results of employee selection research to elections at this time. It appears, for example, that Trump supporters’ dissatisfaction with the U.S. government affected the relationship between PO fit and attraction in a way that is unlikely to be seen in typical organizations unless those with hiring power are specifically looking to onboard dissidents.
 This research was conducted as part of the program of activities surrounding the first 2016 Presidential Debate hosted by Hofstra University.
2 Detailed information about the methodology and results of this study are available from the corresponding author.
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