Does Business Experience Matter for a Political Leader?

This year is the year of the outsider in presidential politics, as Donald Trump and Ben Carson lead the polls for the Republican nomination, while Carly Fiorina has been among the top tier of GOP candidates. At the same time, candidates with political office experience, such as Jeb Bush, are well behind in the polls.


The reason why experienced candidates, such as Jeb Bush, struggle while newcomers such as Trump top the polls is because voters are angry at those who have or are currently are serving in elected office. Voters feel that these elected officials are too entrenched in playing politics and don’t have any new ideas for dealing with the nation’s problems, especially economic issues (Pew, 2015).  Outsider candidates such as Trump and Fiorina argue that their business backgrounds make them uniquely qualified to handle issues such as the tax code or international trade agreements.


To test the effectiveness of a business background as an important qualification for political office and that voters prefer that candidates have a business background, we asked a series of questions about the background for generic candidates and for Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina.


A majority of North Carolina voters (57%) consider a business background to be important for a candidate for elected office, but less than one-in-five voters (19%) consider a business background the deciding factor when voting for a particular candidate. Traditional factors such as party affiliation and policy positions are considered to be more important factors in voting decisions.


Not all voters consider a business background equally valuable. A large majority of males (68%) consider a business background to be effective for a candidate, while slightly less than half of women (49%) consider a business background effective. Likewise, Republicans put more stock in candidates with a business background (74%) than do Democrats (41%).



Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina are prominent candidates without political experience who are running for the Republican nomination for president based on their business backgrounds. Almost half of North Carolina voters (46% and 45%, respectively) consider Trump and Fiorina’s business experiences effective factors in their candidacies. Their support comes predominantly from Republican voters. 70% of Republican voters consider Trump’s business background as an effective factor in being considered qualified to be president, while only 6% of Democrats considered his business background to effectively qualify him as president and 18% of unaffiliated voters. Likewise, 62% of Republicans considered Fiorina’s business background to effectively qualify her to be president, while only 8% of Democrats and 23% of unaffiliated voters consider be business background to be an important qualification for her.


Just as men and women see business backgrounds differently when considering generic legislative candidates, men and women have different perceptions of the importance of the business backgrounds of Trump and Fiorina in making them qualified to be president. Men were significantly more impressed with the business credentials of Trump and Fiorina than were women.



Trump and Fiorina’s business backgrounds also seem more effective to Republican voters with less education.


Source Contact Information

Meredith College
Visiting Professor of Political Science
919-345-7334 (cell)