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.

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