Hillary Clinton’s honesty problem

Is it possible to win the White House if more than half the electorate thinks you’re dishonest?

Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonDem: Pruitt violating anti-campaigning law with GOP fundraiser Michael Flynn’s troubles mount Writer who pushed 'Pizzagate' conspiracy theory says he'll attend WH briefing MORE may yet put that question to the test. It’s not the kind of challenge any candidate would relish, but two new polls released on Tuesday underlined the presidential hopeful’s difficulty in persuading the public of her integrity.

Both those polls found Clinton deep underwater when voters were asked whether they viewed her as honest and trustworthy. 

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An ABC News/Washington Post poll found 52 percent of people answering “no” to that question, compared to 41 percent who expressed trust in Clinton. 

A CNN poll made even grimmer reading for the former secretary of State. It found 57 percent of adults asserting that Clinton is not honest or trustworthy, and only 42 percent saying that she is.

Those figures were enough to send a shiver down some Democrats’ spines.

“We’re about 30 to 60 days away from real nervousness, if not panic, in the Democratic establishment,” said one strategist who declined to be named, citing a fear of retribution by Clinton loyalists.

The strategist argued that Clinton’s campaign has consistently underestimated the damage that has been wreaked by negative stories about donations to the Clinton Foundation and the former secretary’s use of a private email account while at State.

“There is this attitude that this is something that the media or the right-wing are fixated on, and they are missing the bigger dynamic here,” the strategist said of the Clinton campaign. “The bottom line here is that there is this pervasive belief that the story is going to go away and they can mitigate this with silence. And it ain’t working.”

The Clinton campaign contends that the candidate’s low numbers are symptomatic of a general distrust of political figures. Campaign officials believe the higher ratings Clinton enjoyed at the State Department were bound to slide as she returned to partisan politics.

Further, they assert that her policies will, over time, foster a different, more important kind of trust among voters.  

Observers who follow every political twist and turn might imagine that opinions of Clinton would be hard to change, for good or bad, given that she has now been a top player on the national political stage for a quarter-century.

The polling figures do not bear that out, however. 

In the past year, the former first lady’s polling numbers on the “honesty” question have flipped. 

One year before Tuesday’s ABC News/Post poll showing her 11 points underwater on the issue, the same organization found her with a net positive of 11 points, with 53 percent of those polled thinking of her as trustworthy versus 42 percent saying she was not.

When CNN/ORC asked the question in a March 2014 survey, 56 percent said Clinton was honest, while 43 percent disagreed — a net positive of 13 points. Today her standing on the question in the equivalent poll is a net negative of 15 points.

Republicans see those figures as little more than an increased public acceptance of what they have long believed to be true. 

“She is paranoid, she is ethically squirrelly and she believes there are two sets of standards: one for the Clintons and one for everyone else,” said GOP strategist Rick Wilson. 

Wilson was buoyed by what he considered fresh evidence of the shallowness of Clinton’s support. 

“She is always ‘inevitable’ right up until the moment she is no longer inevitable,” he said.

Independent observers don’t believe the situation is quite so dire for Clinton. They note that she has often performed worse on questions of honesty and likability than on other metrics such as having strong leadership skills.

“It’s certainly not good news but these are not necessarily the kind of numbers that make a candidate unelectable,” said Peter Brown, the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

An April Quinnipiac poll in three swing states — Colorado, Iowa and Virginia — showed the same weakness for Clinton on the honesty question, most conspicuously in Colorado, where a startling 56 percent of voters viewed Clinton as dishonest versus only 38 percent who saw her as honest.

But, Brown notes, “We have elected presidents who voters did not necessarily like.” 

Others, including journalist Ron Brownstein, have pointed out that exit polls from the 1996 presidential election showed that 54 percent of voters did not view President Clinton as honest or trustworthy. He won handily regardless.

But a related question is whether a distrust of Hillary Clinton would stymie her efforts to maximize Democratic turnout. 

“Her husband transcended numbers like this and it’s not crazy to think that she can as well, especially because American politics is so partisan now,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents may not think Clinton is very trustworthy, but they’re going to like her a heck of a lot more than any Republican. Clinton’s main concern is getting those voters to show up.”

Still, right now, some Democrats just want to see evidence that the decline in personal trust in Clinton can be stopped before it becomes a larger problem.

“At some point they are going to have to address this head-on, publicly,” the Democratic strategist said, “and the clock on that is beginning to tick loudly.”