Do We Need Smart Presidents?

The Founding Fathers never meant for Washington, D.C. to be the fount of all wisdom. As a matter of fact, they were very much afraid of that because they had just had this experience with this far away government that had centralized thought process and planning and what have you. And it was actually the reason that we fought the Revolution in the 16th century was to get away from that type of onerous crown, if you will.

That’s Rick Perry talking to students after last night’s debate.  Of course, this has precipitated all manner of snarkiness, but let’s try to ask a serious question, especially in light of Perry’s undergraduate academic record: Do we need presidents who are smart?

Daniel Franklin takes a crack at this over at the Encyclopedia Brittanica’s blog.  He reports on research by Dean Keith Simonton.  Simonton measured various qualities of presidents by noting about 300 adjectives used to describe them in their biographies.  He then used a method of data reduction (factor-analysis) to reduce this long list of adjectives to 14 personality traits.  He demonstrates correlations between various of these traits and previous efforts at rating presidents on similar dimensions. Of course, no such effort is beyond reproach.  But Simonton’s is, on its face, a credible effort.  One of the dimensions he identifies is “intellectual brilliance”—precisely what we are discussing regarding Rick Perry.  He finds that a president’s intellectual brilliance is associated with a higher ranking by historians and others, controlling for other factors (years in office, the number of years the president presided over a war, whether the president was assassinated, beset by a scandal, or a war hero).  The article is gated, alas, but it does provide more details.

Franklin discusses a later article by Simonton that imputed IQ scores for presidents.   Franklin then regresses presidential rankings on IQ and finds, again, a statistically significant and positive relationship.

Of course, these are correlations and not definitive proof that a higher IQ causes presidents to be more successful.  Nor does a higher IQ guarantee success, of course.  And these rankings aren’t necessarily beyond reproach.  And we don’t know Rick Perry’s IQ.  And it’s hard to measure intelligence.  Caveats abound.

But I thought it might be interesting to discuss what some relevant social science has found.  That research suggests that intelligence may help (and note I said “may”) presidents be better, relative to other presidents.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

John Sides

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.