How another Clinton overcame an honesty deficit

Story highlights

  • A nationwide CNN/ORC poll last month found 57% of adults said they don't think of Clinton as honest and trustworthy
  • Looking back at those candidates who made it through to the general election, four out of the 10 major candidates for President in elections dating back to 1992 faced an honesty deficit

Washington (CNN)No presidential candidate in recent history has faced the level of public distrust confronting Hillary Clinton in her run for the White House.

But when her husband dealt with similar doubts, he overcame an honesty gap by relying on his ability to "feel your pain."
In an interview with CNN Tuesday, Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for President, said "people should and do trust me." But a nationwide CNN/ORC poll last month contradicts that assertion, with 57% of adults saying they don't think of her as honest and trustworthy. That's a near reversal from March 2014, when 56% said they did see Clinton as honest and trustworthy.
    Further, a June poll from Quinnipiac University found doubts about Clinton's honesty were widespread in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, three general election states heavy with electoral votes.
    Looking back at those candidates who made it through to the general election, four out of the 10 major candidates for President in elections dating back to 1992 faced an honesty deficit, and none faced one as large as Clinton's current gap. Just one overcame the public's doubts about his honesty and won the White House: Clinton's husband, Bill.
    Bill Clinton headed into the final stretch of the 1996 campaign with 50% saying they didn't think he was honest and trustworthy, according to an October 1996 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll. Just 27% said they had such doubts about his chief opponent, Republican nominee Bob Dole.
    But as big as Dole's advantage on honesty was, Clinton enjoyed nearly as large an edge on empathy. A CBS News/New York Times poll, also in October of that year, found 65% describing Clinton as someone who "cares about the needs and problems of people like you," while 49% thought of Dole that way. In the end, Clinton won.
    Compare that with Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in the last presidential election in 2012. Obama held a clear edge as the more trusted candidate; a Washington Post/ABC News poll in October found 56% thought of Obama as honest and trustworthy, while 45% said Romney was.
    But Romney lacked Clinton's 1996 trump card, and trailed by an even larger margin on the question of empathy. A Quinnipiac University poll in September of that year found 60% saw Obama as someone who "cares about the needs and problems of people like you." Just 46% thought so about Romney. Obama won.
    Questions about Romney's honesty followed a long stretch of presidential fields judged to be mostly honest by the public. Majorities felt both John McCain and Obama were honest in 2008, that George W. Bush and John Kerry were honest in '04, and that Bush and Al Gore were both honest in 2000.
    The 1992 election was an oddity in this string, with none of the three major candidates viewed as honest by a majority of the electorate. An October Washington Post/ABC News poll found 47% saw sitting President George H.W. Bush as honest, 44% said so about Democratic challenger Bill Clinton, and 37% thought independent businessman Ross Perot was honest. Here, too, Clinton won while carrying a massive advantage on empathy. Two-thirds (67%) said he understood "the needs and problems of average Americans," while fewer than four in 10 said so about either of his competitors, according to the same Post/ABC poll.
    It is early in the campaign, and Clinton could well recover on this issue. The numbers cited here for past campaigns were all measured late in the general election, because there are few comparable data points for individual candidates this early in the campaign. Few, aside from sitting presidents, entered the race as well-known as Hillary Clinton at this stage in her career.
    But if empathy is the key for a presidential candidate to overcome doubts about his or her honesty, Clinton may have more work to do. In the CNN/ORC Poll in May, 52% said they would not describe her as someone who "cares about people like you."
    Among those in her own party, Clinton does fare better on these questions, but doubts are growing. Democrats broadly see Clinton as honest and trustworthy, though even among this core group fewer now say she's honest than thought she was a year ago. The March 2014 CNN/ORC poll found 88% of Democrats saw Clinton as honest and trustworthy, that dipped slightly to 81% in April of this year, and further to 73% in the May poll.
    And when asked to choose which of the Democratic field "cares the most about people like you," less than half in a June CNN/ORC poll said Clinton was the standout: 47% chose Clinton, and 20% each picked Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.
    In the early states, a CNN/WMUR poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire found Clinton lagging well behind Sanders on empathy, with 45% of Democratic primary voters there believing Sanders cared most about people like them, with just 24% saying Clinton did. The poll also found 28% of Democratic primary voters thought Clinton was the least honest in the field, well above the rest of the candidates tested.
    In Iowa, Clinton has held her ground on these questions, despite Sanders' growing support in the state. A July Quinnipiac University poll of likely Democratic caucus-goers found that 75% see Clinton as honest and trustworthy, and 83% see her as empathetic. But a June Des Moines Register/Bloomberg survey found Clinton lags behind Sanders when likely caucus attendees are asked to choose between the two on which "is authentic -- what you see is what you get," and that Clinton has just a slim 5-point edge over Sanders when considering which cares more "about people like me."
    These trends are beginning to resemble those from the 2008 Democratic nomination campaign, when Clinton's stronger ratings on experience and most issues weren't enough to overcome the empathy and sense of change Democratic voters saw in Barack Obama. Those personal traits do ultimately carry some weight with voters: No candidate has won the presidency in the last six elections with an underwater rating on empathy.