Author Archives: Matthew Dickinson

Voters To Clinton and Trump: “You Lie.” But Does It Matter?

There has been a flurry of media coverage over still another recent post, this one by Rasmussen, indicating that voters rate Donald Trump as more honest than Hillary, although neither candidate rates very highly among voters on this metric.  In my last post I examined why, despite his documented penchant for making accurate statements, several recent polls indicate that slightly more people view Trump as the more honest of the two.  In the latest Rasmussen poll, a national survey of likely voters (margin of error +/- 3%) asked respondents the following two questions:
1. Is Hillary Clinton more honest or less honest than most other politicians? Or is her level of honesty about the same?
2. Is Donald Trump more honest or less honest than most other politicians? Or is his level of honesty about the same?
According to Rasmussen’s summary of their survey data (I don’t subscribe to their polls and thus don’t have access to the poll’s internals), 30% of survey respondents think Trump is more honest than most other politicians, compared to only 15% who think Clinton is more honest than most politicians. That’s the good news for Trump, and that’s what a lot of conservative media outlets played up. The bad news for Trump, and for Clinton too, is that a plurality of respondents think both Trump (45%) and Clinton (46%) are less honest than most other politicians. Based on Rasmussen’s summary of the poll, 22% of respondents rate Trump about as honest as most others in the political game, compared to 37% who say that about Clinton. According to other media outlets (presumably with access to Rasmussen’s crosstabs), Clinton’s trust gap even extends to Democrats, with only 27% of them believing she’s more honest than other politicians, compared to 50% of Republicans who say that about Trump.

As I noted in my last post, at first glance it might seem rather remarkable that Trump would beat Clinton in any poll on the issue of who is more honest and trustworthy, but in fact this is a pretty consistent finding across several recent polls. But it makes sense if you think that for many voters, being “trustworthy” is speaking your mind without regard for political consequences. This is consistent with what a lot of Trump supporters told me during his rallies when I asked why they were supporting him. At the same time, Clinton has been embroiled in a string of controversial events that have led many to question her credibility.

Naturally, conservative media outlets have picked up on this, arguing that Trump’s relative advantage on the honesty scale might be an important factor in the general election. As Mike Flynn writes at Breitbart News, “In the expected close election in November, such differences can have a huge impact.”  I can understand why pundits would make this claim. But, as I’ve written before, I don’t know of much research that indicates that voters’ perceptions of a candidate’s personal qualities, like trustworthiness, has a significant impact on the presidential vote. In an earlier post at U.S. News, when Hillary’s trust issues were getting significant media coverage, I teased readers by writing this: “Consider the following results from this nationwide survey of voters. When asked, only 41 percent of those polled find Clinton ‘honest and trustworthy,’ while fully 54 percent do not. Among those who do not find Clinton trustworthy, fully 67 percent say they are voting for Clinton’s opponent. The results seem to support the contention of political pundits that a candidate who is so widely mistrusted is unlikely to win the presidency. As one analyst puts it, ‘If you don’t fundamentally trust someone or believe they are, at root, honest then how would you justify putting the controls of the country in their hands for at least four years?’

How indeed? Except that this data comes from 1996 presidential election exit poll – the one taken on the day of the election. That was the election, you will recall, in which the deeply mistrusted candidate Bill Clinton handily defeated his opponent and man of sterling character, World War II veteran Bob Dole, 49.2 percent to 40.7 percent.”

I went on to cite data suggesting that voters’ attitudes toward presidential candidates’ personal qualities are not particularly useful for predicting how they are going to vote in the general election. Nonetheless, I’m confident this won’t stop pundits of all ideological stripes from claiming that Clinton’s trustworthiness issues constitute a “major problem.”  This was probably going to be the case no matter who she ran against, even if the data doesn’t seem to support the assertion. But when facing an opponent who has his own trustworthiness issues, as recent polls indicate Trump clearly does, I’m even less convinced that questions regarding who is the least dishonest of the two are going to be the decisive factor come November.

Nonetheless, it is pretty remarkable that when it comes to issues of trust, the two major party candidates don’t seem to be held in particularly high regard. Most voters seem to accept the fact that, “You Lie” is a pretty apt description of their candidacies.

Is Trump More Honest Than Hillary?

The latest Quinnipiac nationwide survey of registered voters has Hillary Clinton holding a slight lead over Donald Trump, 45%-41% (margin of error of +/- 2.5%). That’s consistent with the polling averages at Huffington Post, which have Clinton up 42.7%-40.8%, and at RealClearPolitics, which has Clinton leading Trump 44%-42.5%.  Of course, as I’ve noted before, head-to-head polling is still not very predictive at this point in the race, and really won’t be until after the nominating conventions. This is particularly true with Clinton still in a fight for the Democratic nomination, while Trump is moving ahead to unify Republicans behind him. It is also the case that fully 15% of respondents chose not to back either candidate. Nonetheless, it is interesting to look at the internals of recent polls to get a sense of what is driving the results.

Perhaps the most surprising result in the Quinnipiac polls is that when asked who they found more trustworthy and honest, Clinton or Trump, 44% of respondents chose Trump, compared to 39% who selected Clinton. Obviously some of the responses are conditioned by the respondent’s partisan affiliation – Democrats rate Hillary higher, while Republicans view Trump as more trustworthy.  But among independents, Trump led by an even greater 15%, 44%-29%.


How can this be? Isn’t Trump the candidate that Politifact fact-checked and rated close to 80% of the statements of his that they checked as false, mostly false or meriting a Pants on Fire? Given his documented record of making false statements, how could survey respondents rate him more trustworthy than Clinton? This result isn’t unique to Quinnipiac, mind you. In the latest ABC/Washington Post poll, Trump also “led” Clinton 42%-41% among registered voters on the honesty/trustworthiness question.

One explanation is that because Clinton hasn’t been able to secure her party’s nomination, some Democrats and likely Sanders’ supporters are more willing to say that Trump is more trustworthy as a form of protesting Clinton’s candidacy rather than as a statement in favor of Trump’s honesty. As evidence, note that more than twice as many Democrats – 10% – said Trump was more trustworthy than did Republicans – 5% – about Clinton.

A second possible explanation is that Trump draws disproportionately from less educated supporters who may be less able to judge the veracity of Trump’s statements – or less willing to care whether what he says is true or not.

Note that in the Quinnipiac survey, those without a college education are more likely to rate Trump as the more honest of the two than are the college educated.

However, I think a third factor is at play here. For many Trump supporters, his trustworthiness and honesty is not measured by how factually correct his statements are. Instead, it is better gauged by his willingness to speak candidly about issues, even if he does so in ways that are not viewed as politically correct, and which may create a media backlash. Again and again I heard his followers at his rallies say that they appreciated his willingness to talk about issues that other candidates shied away from, regardless of the potential consequences. They tended to dismiss his exaggerations as “Donald being Donald”.  In contrast, for many voters, Clinton often appears too clever by half, with her every statement carefully crafted to appeal to a potential voting bloc or interest group. That, combined with her long history of being embroiled in controversy, from Whitewater through the Lewinsky affair to concerns  about her finances to the current questions about her speaking fees and the ongoing email controversy, has made many voters uneasy regarding her credibility. Her careful parsing of statements regarding whether she exchanged classified material on her private email server is a case in point. Did she lie? Probably not. Was she being completely candid? Many voters have their doubts.

In short, when asked about candidate honesty or trustworthiness, many voters do not respond  in terms of whether the candidates’ statements are factually accurate. Instead, they are using a slightly different metric – one based on whether they think the candidate’s statements are candid and sincere. I was reminded of this a couple weeks back when a CNN panel of talking heads was vigorously debating how much blowback Trump would receive if his tax returns showed that he was only worth $4 billion or even less, as opposed to the more than $10 billion Trump claims. If his tax returns show he is lying, it would certainly earn Trump still another Pants on Fire rating.  And yet my sense is that for potential Trump supporters, the answer isn’t nearly as important as the talking heads were making it out to be. Potential Trump supporters know he is very rich – he practically shouts it at them in every rally, when he explains how he can’t be bought. If it turns out he is only half as rich as he claimed to be, he’s still very rich, and his broader point still holds, at least to his potential supporters.

My point here is not to defend Trump or, for that matter, to make a virtue of his spouting blatant falsehoods. Nor should we exaggerate the differences in the survey results between Trump and Clinton when respondents are asked to compare the two candidates’ honesty and trustworthiness. The difference is not great, at least based on recent polls. But the fact that Trump is viewed by slightly more respondents as more trustworthy, instead of Clinton, does seem somewhat shocking, given the almost daily media story documenting still another Trump statement as untrue. The explanation, I think, is that many voters, when asked about trustworthiness and honesty, think in terms of candidate sincerity and candidness, as much or more than they do about the factual accuracy of candidate statements.

Is Clinton honest? Is Trump? It depends on the meaning of honesty!


To My Favorite Student in the Class of 2016

It’s that time of year again.  Middlebury held its commencement ceremony Sunday, and as I have done ever since I started this blog, I commemorate the event by sitting down on the deck and, while the bluebirds fly by,  pouring a deep glass of single malt (thanks Tuesday Luncheon auditors), and raising a toast to you, My Favorite Student.

Who, you ask, is My Favorite Student? You know who you are.

Four years ago you dragged yourself across campus in the dark to make that first 8 am class in Twilight Hall, only to doze off six minutes into my opening lecture on why you should study American politics.  And yet you kept coming, week after week, likely inspired by my promise that “90% of success in life is just showing up.”  By the semester’s end, you realized that it truly was “great to study American politics in America” and you signed on to become a political science major.

Four years later you have reaped the many benefits from this decision.  Perhaps none is more consequential than getting added to the distribution list to this Presidential Power blog.  Your participation during the Live Blogging (Fill in the Election) results made listening to Wolf Blitzer so much more tolerable.

You heard my impassioned plea regarding the consequences of a legal career (the rhinoplasty to repair damage from your cocaine habit, the estranged children, the massive debt, the adultery with the pool boy, the long hours writing briefs defending BP [“It was just a little spill! In Louisiana, for god’s sake!”] and, of course, the terminal cancer) and still asked me for a letter of recommendation to law school;

You listened, amazed, at my lecture on the American Revolution, during which I quote from memory and with perfect inflection Captain Kirk’s famous speech about the Constitution – “We, the PEOPLE!… Down the centuries you have slurred the meaning of the words!” – and then asked your classmate: “Who’s Captain Kirk?”;

You now understand that political science is the “queen” of the social sciences, and why after four years this major has better prepared you to improve the world than if you had chosen any other discipline (but especially economics) – unless you blow it and go to law school;

You know now that just because a pundit says it is so, you still need to ask for evidence;

You didn’t make me explain “Teabagging” during my lecture on the Tea Party movement;

You gave me a gift of a bottle of scotch after the final class lecture that wasn’t Old Smugglers and didn’t come in a plastic bottle;

You figured out that my political views and partisan affiliation are exactly the same as yours;

You entered my blog contests for a chance to win an “It’s the Fundamentals, Stupid!” t-shirt, and then sent me a picture of you wearing your prize;

You stifled a gasp when entering my office, and managed not to fixate on the coffee stains and food remnants;

You learned, from “my son”, how to really do “the wave”;

You laughed at all my jokes, even the second time through (“Did you hear about the two hunters from Ripton who drove to Yellowstone to shoot grizzly?  The sign said ‘Yellowstone – Bear Left’, so they went home”);

You understood that when I hectored you in class, it was to make a broader teaching point, and not (necessarily) to humiliate you, although that was an ancillary benefit;

You remembered not to bring your Strawberry, U-Pad or other hand-held electronic device to exams;

You took on responsibility for sending the seemingly endless stream of emails the night before exams, asking all the questions that the other students wanted to ask;

You know that when we next see each other, I will not recall your name, but I will remember everything you ever said to, or wrote for, me during your entire four years at Middlebury.  (Which means at our next meeting you must greet me by first telling me who you are);

You brought me free beer during Election Night at the Grille, so that by evening’s end I was spouting utter nonsense even though all my electoral projections were dead on;

You understand now what really happened when they tried to “Free Willy”;

You know as well how to survive a nuclear holocaust;

You stayed home until you were sure you could not infect me;

You became part of my twitterverse by joining the other Twits who now receive my infrequent  twittings.

And, finally, you taught me more than you realize during your four years here.  Students often don’t appreciate that my interactions with them provides the impetus and the spark for keeping up with developments not just in my area of expertise but in society more generally. How else would I learn about The Cable, or FaceSpace, or the myriad other technological innovations?  Always remember that the questions you ask often inspire lectures or blogs or tweets!  In short, education at Middlebury is an interactive process – a two-way street – from which I benefit as much, or more, than do you. That is why I stay in this job despite the fact that, as I have reminded you countless times, Middlebury pays me nothing.

So, assuming you didn’t get heat stroke, let me end by sending you – My Favorite Student – best wishes in all your future endeavors.  Do stay in touch, and remember to thank your parents for getting you vaccinated; for rousing you out of bed for all those 5 am trips to the skating rink; for the endless piano lessons; for reminding you to finish those application essays; for instilling a strong sense of values based on discipline, hard work, and rooting for Boston sports teams; and for forking over the $76,000 a year (none of which went to me) to attend Middlebury College.  They did all this because they love you and they want to be sure you don’t have to move back home again.

And parents, you should realize that although you won’t ever see that money again, and that your kids are in fact going to move back home for a bit, it was well worth the investment. Contrary to what you probably believe deep in your soul, your child did not squander your retirement money on endless nights of booze and partying. They actually learned to think and to communicate and to treat anything they read in the New York Times with skepticism. Nor did s/he waste four years by majoring in political science.  Read the papers.  Listen to the news.  More than any other discipline, it is politics that most determines whether tomorrow will be an improvement over today.  Your child has a head start in fulfilling that promise.

So, to paraphrase the late, great Richard Neustadt, “Trust the kids.”  After all, you were one too and look how your life turned out!  (Ok, maybe a bad example….)

And finally, if you don’t want to take the elevator down while your spouse holds the bag, remember to always, always, know your limits.

Good luck, stay in touch, and may your scotch bottle never run dry…

With fond memories,

Matt (which you may call me only after you are handed your diploma!)

P.S. To My Favorite Student: If you would like to continue to get direct email notifications of new presidential power blog postings, please remember to provide me with an updated email address before your Middlebury email expires. And the same goes for you parents out there who also wish to get blog notifications.  Unlike the Middlebury alumni office, I’ll never ask for money.  (But I won’t turn down an endowed chair!)

Cue Kevin Bacon! National Polls Show General Election Dead Heat!

Cue the panic! Two new national polls are out,  and and they show Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in a near tie in a hypothetical general election matchup. That represents a considerable tightening of the survey results from a month ago, when Clinton held double digit leads over Trump in most national polls, as this Huffington Post polling average shows.


Naturally, these latest results provided irresistible fodder for the talking heads on the Sunday talk shows this morning, and they dove into the topic with gusto. The general consensus seemed to be that these latest polls show how vulnerable Clinton is, why Trump has underappreciated strengths, and why Democrats should be ready to panic. You should, of course, ignore most of this chatter – now that the nominating races are essentially over, the chattering class has to talk about something else, and head-to-head polls are a readily available topic, particularly if they help feed the horse-race narrative that drives these shows’ ratings.

The fact is that we should not be surprised the polls have tightened in this way. With the Republican race all but over, Trump is consolidating his support among likely Republican voters, while a significant chunk of Sanders’ voters are refusing to concede the Democratic race to Clinton. That resistance is fueled by results, like this one from the NBC/Wall St. poll, that suggest Sanders will run stronger against Trump than will Clinton.

Sanders and his surrogates are seizing on these results to argue that the Democratic super delegates who initially expressed support for Clinton should reconsider that decision. As I noted in my recent post at U.S. News, I don’t expect Sanderistas to consolidate as quickly behind Clinton as Clinton supporters did for Obama in 2008. Unlike Clinton and Obama in 2008, Sanders represents a more distinct ideological choice from Clinton, as reflected in their different coalitions of support during the current election cycle. Exit polls indicate she’s beating him consistently among self-proclaimed Democrats, while he wins among independents. There’s also a huge generational gap, with younger voters strongly supporting Sanders while the over-45 crowd generally supports her.

The bottom line is that Sanders’ supporters aren’t ready as yet to fall into line behind Clinton despite the fact that she is almost certainly going to be the Democratic nominee. In the NBC poll, only 66% of Sanders supporters say they will back Clinton in a head-to-head matchup against Trump. The ABC poll has a similar result, with 70% of Sanders’ Democratic nomination supporters saying they will back Clinton over Trump. That’s down from 77% in ABC’s March poll, indicating she’s losing support among Sanders’ voters as she gets closer to clinching the nomination. In that same period Trump has gained 10% among Sanders backers. Not surprisingly, the 18-29 year-olds comprise a good chunk of those who are reluctant to vote for Clinton. Back in March, Clinton was winning this age group over Trump by 19% in the ABC poll – that margin is now down to 3%.

Clearly, then, Sanders’ supporters as yet show little inclination to switch over to Clinton. But why should they? Sanders has made it clear he’s in the race to the end of the primary process – and perhaps even beyond, into the convention. He’s laid out a clear, if improbable, strategy for how he could still claim the Democratic nomination. And his backers are unusually idealistic and passionate in their support, and less committed to the Democratic Party than are Hillary’s supporters. So we shouldn’t be surprised by polls that show the general election contest between Trump and Clinton is tightening. One side is consolidating behind their nominee, while the other remains divided. Remember, exit polls in some states at this time in 2008, when the Democratic race also remained contested, indicated that 45-50% of Clinton supporters were telling pollsters they wouldn’t back Obama in the general election race against McCain. Eventually, however, most of them backed their party’s nominee. Sanders’ supporters may be slower to come around this election cycle, for the reasons I’ve suggested above, but it’s too early to take these recent survey results as their final word. Head-to-head polling does not really begin to become a reliable predictor of the general election results until after the nominating conventions are over. This year the Democrats hold theirs in late July – more than two months away. Before we begin explaining why Sanders voters will never back Clinton, let’s revisit the polling results after she’s officially nominated and has begun the process of consolidating her support, as Trump is doing now. My guess is that the great bulk of Sanders’ voters will choose her over Trump.

(Addendum 2:05 P.M.:  RealClearPolitics, which uses a slightly different algorithm for averaging polls, now shows Trump ahead of Clinton in the polling average by .2 – 43.4%-43.2. That should induce additional panic!)

In the meantime, however, I expect two more months of this from the pundits.

What Does Bernie Want?

It may be, as Julia Azari recently argued, that there is no good reason for Bernie Sanders to get out of the Democratic race for the presidency. As she notes, what little research there is on the topic suggests that lengthy primaries probably don’t hurt the nominee’s general election chances. This is in part because it is policy differences, more than the contentious nature of a nominating contest, that divides parties. Of course, as Azari acknowledges, researchers are generalizing from a very small sample, and many of the comparisons the media makes are to the 2008 presidential race which, as I argue below, may not be a very relevant example. In any case, I suspect that Azari would agree with me that if Sanders isn’t hurting Clinton’s general election chances by staying in the race, he’s probably not helping them either. It’s long past the point where one could argue that he’s sharpening her debating skills, or helping her develop explanations for policy stances or to defend past actions (speaking fees anyone?) Whether you believe Sanders is staying in because he actually has a shot at the nomination, as his fervent supporters believe , or because he’s fighting for the soul of the Democratic Party  – neither objective seems all that compatible with Clinton’s goal of closing this nomination out and pivoting toward the general election.

Of course, Sanders’ supporters will point out that Clinton stayed in the race for the duration in 2008, only conceding after the last primary was held. But Sanders isn’t Clinton, and this isn’t 2008. Eight years ago Clinton was viewed, for the most part, as slightly less liberal than Barack Obama by most Democratic voters, although these ideological placements varied a bit as the campaign dragged on.

To the degree that this influenced Obama in a very competitive nominating contest, she served as something of an ideological anchor, preventing him from moving too far to the Left. In 2016, however, the perceived ideological gap between the two Democratic candidates appears larger. According to exit polls, about 2/3 of the roughly 30% of Democratic voters who favor more liberal issues support Sanders, whereas Clinton won 70% of those who want to see a continuation of Obama’s policies.

This suggests that to the extent that issues matter, he’s been pressuring her from the Left of the ideological spectrum, as evidenced by her repositioning on issues like trade and social security. Moreover, there’s been a big influx of self-described liberals voting in the Democratic nominating process, compared to eight years ago, which has made it more likely that Sanders’ ideological positioning will exert some pull on Clinton’s policy views.

More importantly, however, in 2008 there was no doubt that both Obama and Clinton were mainstream Democrats, whose ideological views were shared by most Democratic voters. This is not the case in 2016. According to research by Middlebury College’s Kate Reinmuth, Sanders has beaten Clinton among self-identified Democrats in only two primaries for which we have exit polls: those in his home state of  Vermont and in neighboring New Hampshire. In the remaining 17 nominating contests (again, for which we have exit polls), she beat Sanders among Democratic voters in every one. Here is a table created by Reinmuth showing how Sanders has done among Democrats versus Independents.


Among the approximately 70% of voters self-identifying as Democrats, Sanders wins less than a third of the vote, on average. In contrast, among the roughly 25% of voters who are independents, Sanders wins about 60% of the vote, according to exit polls. That pattern, by the way, continued in the West Virginia primary. Although Clinton lost the primary to Sanders decisively, 51%-36%, she again beat him, 49%-45% among the 56% of West Virginia voters who self-identified as Democrats.

Given his middling support among rank-and-file Democratic voters, Sanders may be less concerned about the impact of his staying in the race on Clinton’s chances than if he were a more traditional Democrat. To be clear, I have no doubt that Sanders is sincere in wanting to defeat Trump in November. But to the extent that he is playing a longer game, one whose end objective is remaking the Democratic Party in a more progressive image, one could see why he might calculate that it is worth fighting for every last delegate, even if it does make it more difficult for Clinton to pivot to the general election. Given the clear generational disparity in their respective coalitions, Sanders may believe he represents the future of the Democratic Party to a much greater degree than does she.

Ideally, of course, Sanders hopes to accomplish both goals: defeating Trump in November, and repositioning the Democratic Party in a more progressive direction in the years to come. And to be fair to him, it is not clear that those objectives are incompatible. But to the extent that they are, I suspect many of his followers would urge Sanders to remain true to his progressive principles, and to fight the good fight through the remaining contests up to the convention – even if it harms Clinton’s general election chances. Indeed, a recent NBC poll indicates that 89% of Bernie supporters want him to stay in the race, compared to only 28% of Clinton supporters.

Of course, Sanders’ supporters aren’t the only ones urging him to stay in the race. Donald Trump recently tweeted that Sanders should continue competing for the presidency – even if it means running as a third-party candidate!

It may be the only issue on which The Donald and FeelTheBern crowd agree.

For local listeners, I’ll be on Vermont Public Radio tomorrow to talk Bernie – send in your questions now!