Can Hillary Clinton regain voters' trust?

Voters start with values, not policy, when assessing candidates. Declines in voters' views of Hillary Clinton's trustworthiness and honesty show she has work to do. It won't be easy. 

Donna Carson/Reuters
Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks about voting rights during an appearance at Texas Southern University in Houston on Thursday.

The political world is abuzz over Hillary Clinton’s decline in the polls this week on key qualities – likability, honesty, trustworthiness, and empathy.

“Nothing to see here,” aides to Mrs. Clinton are essentially saying. It’s still quite early in the campaign (true). Her favorability numbers were expected to decline after she reentered the nitty gritty of presidential politics, especially after her time as a popular secretary of State (true). She’s still the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination, and beats all the Republican candidates in head-to-head matchups (also true).

“I take all of these public polls with a grain of salt,” Clinton pollster Joel Benenson told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, raising the points above and adding that he felt the CNN/ORC survey underrepresented women voters.  

But the fact that the Clinton campaign sent Mr. Benenson out to talk on TV is telling. Criticizing survey methodology is a time-honored technique when the numbers don’t fall your way.

Democrats, in short, are uneasy. They’re not panicking, but they know that public perceptions of a candidate’s character – the sum total of trustworthiness, honesty, and empathy – are arguably more important than views of his or her policy positions. And there’s concern that once negative impressions of a candidate have sunk in – particularly for a candidate as universally known as Clinton – they can be hard to reverse.

“It’s a real concern for Hillary and for any politician these days, because of a predisposition [by voters] to believe and accept the negative,” says Peter Fenn, a veteran Democratic communications consultant who is not affiliated with the Clinton campaign.

Two polls out earlier this week launched the discussion. The CNN/ORC survey found Clinton’s favorability at 46 percent and unfavorability at 50 percent, her worst numbers in 14 years. Only 42 percent of Americans rated her as honest and trustworthy, versus 57 percent who don’t. And on the question of whether Clinton cares about “people like them,” 47 percent said yes – down from 53 percent last summer.

The other poll, by ABC News/Washington Post, recorded a slight decline on the empathy question – worded as “understands the problems of people like you” – with 49 percent saying yes, and 46 percent saying no.  Clinton’s overall favorability number – 45 percent positive, 49 percent negative – is now underwater for the first time since she last ran for president in 2008. As secretary of State, her favorability peaked at 67 percent.

On honesty and trustworthiness, Clinton’s numbers have also tanked. A year ago, she stood at 53 percent, then dropped to 46 percent two months ago, and is now at 41 percent in the ABC/Post poll.

Analysts attribute those declines to Clinton’s handling of various controversies: her use of personal e-mail as secretary of State; foreign donations to the Clinton family foundation; and the attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, at the end of her time at State.

"The notion that someone may be hiding something, that always worries the public," says Karlyn Bowman, an expert on polling at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

The issue of Clinton's use of a private e-mail address (and server) while she was secretary of State, instead of a e-mail address, could be particularly problematic, Ms. Bowman says. Clinton's deletion of e-mails that she deemed private, e-mails that are gone forever, only adds to her image problem.

"Everyone uses e-mail and knows how it works, and this idea of deleting e-mails you don't want people to see raises flags for people," Bowman says. The questions around donations to the foundation may be less problematic, because "it's probable that most Americans haven't paid much attention to what the foundation does."

But taken together, these issues add to a sense among some that the Clintons can be less-than-straightforward in their activities. Democrats blame conservative media for pounding hard on these issues, and blowing them out of proportion in public thought. But the reality is that they are a problem for her.

It's also worth noting that on favorability, Republican candidates fare worse than Clinton – but that is partly because they are less well-known. Still, the top eight are all underwater, except for Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who comes in at 31 percent favorable and 31 percent unfavorable. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who will announce on June 15, is at 32 percent favorable and 51 percent unfavorable.

So for now, the public isn’t all that impressed with anybody, or even paying much attention. Candidates are still announcing, and Clinton, who got in April 12, has spent the past several weeks doing small events with hand-picked voters, plus a few policy speeches. She will hold her first major rally on Roosevelt Island in New York City on June 13.

But Clinton is different from the other candidates.

“She has 100 percent name recognition, and it’s hard to reinvent someone who is universally known,” says independent pollster John Zogby. “It risks looking artificial.”

Mr. Fenn, the Democratic strategist, isn’t so certain that voters’ impressions this early in the campaign are fully cast in concrete.   

“One of the things that we found out about Bill Clinton, for example, during his presidency and afterwards, is that some of this stuff takes some time to sort through in people’s minds,” says Fenn. “They have a visceral initial reaction to something, and then they begin to put all the pieces together. And they think, ‘You know, wait a second, how important is this? How critical to my decision on who to vote for is e-mail? Or the fact that there’s a foundation?’ ”

Whom the Republicans nominate, and his or her background and controversies, will also matter. If it’s Mr. Bush, his past business interests will get more scrutiny. If it’s Senator Rubio, personal controversies, such as his use of a state credit card when he was speaker of the Florida House, will come into play.

Some candidates bounce back from controversy and others don’t. Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008 seemed in peril when incendiary videos of his controversial pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, came to light, but then-Senator Obama survived. But in September 2012, GOP nominee Mitt Romney seemed mortally wounded by the release of the secretly taped “47 percent video” – the one in which Mr. Romney told donors that 47 percent of voters will vote for Obama “no matter what” because they are dependent on government. 

It’s impossible to draw a direct line between the 47 percent video and Romney’s loss, but there’s no doubt that Romney already had an image problem when the video came out. A Gallup poll released on Aug. 30, 2012, found that only 31 percent of voters found Romney likable, only 36 percent said he “cares about the needs of people like you,” and only 36 percent saw him as honest and trustworthy. Such a dismal view of his character proved to be an anchor around his neck.

“We always start with our values when we’re assessing candidates,” says Bowman.

An Associated Press/Ipsos poll taken in 2007 found that character trumped policy for voters. 

Some 55 percent of voters listed character traits – such as honesty, trustworthiness, and integrity – as the most important characteristics in a presidential candidate versus 33 percent who listed policy stands.

“Voters only look at policies as a lens into what type of person the candidate is,” Ken Mehlman, chairman of President Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign, told the AP at the time.

The Clinton campaign is pursuing that same view of voters. So far in Clinton’s speeches, she has focused on issues of special importance to minorities – police practices, immigration, and voting rights – as she seeks to hold onto Obama’s voter base. Clinton has also put more emphasis on women’s issues, such as equal pay, than she did in 2008. Women, particularly single women, are another critical part of the Democratic base.

Then there are the personal controversies – the e-mails, the foundation – that dog her.

“You never like things to dribble out, and continue to dribble out,” says Bowman. "That's obviously a problem with the Clinton foundation issues."

But "things dribbling out" on both the foundation and the private e-mails will keep happening, and so the task for Clinton and her surrogates is to address issues as they emerge. For starters, says Fenn, the Clinton camp has to do a better job at explaining the global philanthropic activities of the Clinton family foundation. That can easily be done by former President Clinton, he says.

“And it’s not that there’s a new Hillary,” Fenn says. “Look, here’s a person who’s very compassionate and funny and cares about what she’s doing.... It’s not a simple thing to communicate. You can’t do it with one sit-down with folks in the lunch room…. It takes big speeches – big things and small things.”

So can Clinton build up trust with voters, especially the swing voters she will need in what is expected to be a close election? Yes, but it won’t be easy.

“It’s always much harder to raise these numbers than bring them down,” says Bowman.

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