Democratic leaders are increasingly frustrated by Hillary Rodham Clinton’s failure to put to rest questions about her State Department email practices and ease growing doubts among voters about her honesty and trustworthiness….
Interviews with more than 75 Democratic governors, lawmakers, candidates and party members have laid bare a widespread bewilderment that Mrs. Clinton has allowed a lingering cloud to settle over her candidacy — by using a private email server in the first place, since it was likely to raise questions about her judgment, and by not defusing those questions once and for all when the issue first emerged in March.
This raises a question: How much do Clinton’s sinking numbers on personal traits like honesty and trustworthy really matter?
Today’s Quinnipiac poll finds that only 34 percent of Americans say Clinton is honest and trustworthy, versus 61 percent who say she’s not. Other polls have found the same.
But political scientists have frequently challenged the idea that such findings tell us all that much about a candidate’s chances. Matthew Dickinson of Middlebury College has pointed out that Bill Clinton handily won reelection in 1996 even though his “honest and trustworthy” numbers were terrible, because issues proved more important than perceptions of “character.” Dickinson cites studies that show a weak correlation between such personal traits and the outcomes of presidential elections. Morris Fiorina, a political scientist at Stanford University, has researched this question and concluded that national conditions matter more than personal attributes in determining electoral outcomes.
However, even if you accept that these political scientists are right, it does seem plausible that Clinton’s slipping “honest and trustworthy” numbers could be on the verge of creating a problem for Clinton among Democratic party actors and elites. The Times story quotes one leading Democrat after another calling on Clinton to make a more visible effort to be more forthcoming with the public about the situation.
To be sure, as Jonathan Bernstein explains, we shouldn’t read too much into these public displays of dissatisfaction from leading Democrats. Right now she continues to rack up endorsements from party actors, and the preferences of such party insiders tend to determine the nominee. “The party remains committed to Clinton,” Bernstein writes. “She’ll be in trouble if and only if that changes.”
The Clinton team expressed confidence to the Times that it would be able to ride this out, but Camp Clinton clearly thinks it is going to be a long hard grind. As the Times story puts it:
Mrs. Clinton’s staff largely shares her view that the news media have been unfair, and a sense of frustration has set in. Aides have privately told supporters that the email issue is not going away anytime soon.
My best guess is that the Clinton team thinks it can mitigate the situation by middle to late fall. If Biden decides against running in mid-September, that could reinforce the impression that the party remains solidly behind her and quell the (overhyped) narrative that Dems are increasingly persuaded of her weakness. And if Clinton turns in a strong performance before the House Benghazi committee in late October, that could give nervous supporters a hook to make the case they’re plainly itching to make: that she has forcefully and persuasively addressed the matter in public.
Of course, it’s also possible that the email story will worsen amid new revelations.
Obviously it would be better for Clinton if her personal numbers were not sliding. As political scientist Dickinson notes, “it is probably better to be trusted than mistrusted.” But I wouldn’t worry too much about these numbers, unless or until they start weighing so heavily on party actors that they begin deserting her.