Does Hillary Clinton have a 'trustworthiness' problem?

Reports of the appearance of conflict of interest between her role as secretary of State and foreign donations to her family foundation have generated lots of headlines in recent days.

Samantha Sais/Reuters/File
Former President Bill Clinton (l.), former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (c.), and Vice Chair of the Clinton Foundation Chelsea Clinton, discuss the Clinton Global Initiative University during the closing plenary session on the second day of the 2014 Meeting of Clinton Global Initiative University at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona on March 22, 2014. Questions about foreign donors to the Clinton Foundation are weighing on Hillary Clinton's presidential prospects.

Does Hillary Clinton have a trustworthiness problem?

We ask the question in that manner because we’re talking here about voter perception of Mrs. Clinton more than our judgment of her character per se. Reports of the appearance of conflicts of interest between her role as secretary of State and foreign donations to her family foundation have generated lots of headlines in recent days. It’s possible that those reports are already taking a toll on her image. 

Clintonworld is surely worried that might happen. On Sunday, the Clinton Foundation hit back with a lengthy rebuttal of some of the allegations of problems with the organization’s tax returns. For instance, foreign donations linked to Russian uranium interests went to a Canadian affiliate of the foundation, not the US HQ itself. Canadian law prohibits disclosure of charitable donations without donor permission.

The foundation’s labyrinthine nature may make it more difficult for the media, and hence voters, to follow this money trail. As the explanation notes, the Clinton Foundation has 11 different initiatives, organized in different ways. Much of its work involves wooing donors to give directly to field charities, not the foundation itself.

That means voters’ response to initial (confusing) reports will depend crucially on how voters already feel about Clinton herself. This brings us back to the word “trustworthy.”

There is some indication that Clinton’s trustworthiness is declining with the US public. A new Quinnipiac survey that’s produced lots of buzz amongst political wonks found that 54 percent – more than a majority – of respondents said the former secretary of State was “not trustworthy.” Only 38 percent said she was. Those are not great numbers for a presidential candidate.

Republicans overwhelmingly did not judge Clinton honest. But her numbers here were bad among independents as well – with 60 percent in the “not trustworthy” category.

However, we think there’s less here than meets the eye, and not just because it’s one poll taken very early in the 2016 cycle.

First, this doesn’t threaten her virtual lock on the Democratic nomination. Ignore all the stories about unnamed top Democrats second-guessing her status and pining for Elizabeth Warren to run. That same Quinnipiac survey shows she is still the nominee choice of 60 percent of Democrats. Her lead is 50 points over the second-place Vice President Joe Biden.

This is close to the RealClearPolitics rolling average of major polls. If Clinton were to lose the nomination, it would be the biggest US political primary upset of modern times.

Second, “trustworthy” is a loaded survey word. It implies that maybe there’s something about this person you should know. The more general query is whether you have a favorable opinion of this politician or not, and Clinton’s numbers there don’t appear to be affected by the Clinton Foundation donation stories.

In the Quinnipiac survey Clinton’s favorable rating is 46 percent positive, higher than the trustworthy measure. This is in line with other polls. The HuffPost Pollster average has her favorability at 47.4 percent favorable, 47.2 percent unfavorable. That’s about where it’s been since November of 2013.

Hillary’s favorable rating was much higher when she was serving as secretary of State. It then fell to a level commensurate with the ratings of President Obama. Clinton’s future popularity may be tied more closely to public approval or disapproval of the current administration than to complicated stories about her foundation’s finances.

Finally, Clinton’s perceived trustworthiness issues might affect the Republican nomination race more than the Democratic one.

That’s because many in the GOP think their best chance to beat Clinton would be a candidate who can best exploit suspicions about her past and voter fatigue with the drama that has long accompanied her and her husband’s public lives.

This might hurt Jeb Bush. His own family has produced lots of political drama over the decades, and his business career has produced allegations of conflicts of interest that might match those directed against the Clinton Foundation.

But somebody without that baggage, maybe young, without years of a political record to mine for negative nuggets, might be more competitive. Somebody such as Sen. Marco Rubio, who in the Quinnipiac survey is only two points behind Clinton in a head-to-head matchup, the closest of any GOP wannabe.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.