- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 19, 2016

Hillary Clinton’s honesty problem may end up not being much of a problem at all.

Voters this election cycle don’t seem to be making their decisions based on a candidate’s honesty and trustworthiness, surveys and exit polling data show, and many seem willing to back Mrs. Clinton even though they harbor deep doubts about her character.

A report released last week by the technology company Morning Consult, for example, found that Mrs. Clinton’s 56 percent unfavorability rating is driven by the fact that 39 percent of Democrats and 47 percent of independents say she can’t be trusted. Significant percentages of those who view her unfavorably also say she’s flat-out corrupt.

Furthermore, a Gallup survey released earlier this month found that just one-third of all voters consider Mrs. Clinton to be honest.

But some of those same Americans ended up voting for her anyway, and political analysts say the jarring figures simply may not matter in this unpredictable election season.

While Mrs. Clinton’s trust deficit played a role in why her primary battle against Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders ended up being much tougher than expected, it likely will fade to the background as the campaign against presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump heats up, according to Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston who specializes in presidential leadership.

“Trustworthiness by itself is less important than trustworthiness to handle specific issues, like national security or the economy,” he said. “In the context of the crazy 2016 election, Clinton’s low trust numbers may not mean much. If she was matched against a different nominee of the opposing party, she might be in danger. Trump’s bucolic approach to politics gives her some much-needed cover.”

Indeed, Mr. Trump is even more unpopular than Mrs. Clinton, according to the Morning Consult survey. Fifty-eight percent of voters have an unfavorable opinion of the billionaire businessman. The Gallup poll found that only 33 percent say Mr. Trump is honest and trustworthy — just 1 percentage point higher than Mrs. Clinton.

Given those numbers, specialists say voters may be willing to look past their questions about Mrs. Clinton’s honesty and support her based on her experience. There’s evidence many Democrats did exactly that during the primary process.

Exit polling data from key primary states such as Pennsylvania, Texas, Ohio and others show that significant percentages of voters were willing to back Mrs. Clinton even though they didn’t trust her, or in some cases, trusted Mr. Sanders more.

In Texas, for example, Democrats were asked which candidate is honesty and trustworthy. Thirty-two percent said “only Sanders,” New York Times exit polling data show.

Of those voters, 10 percent voted for Mrs. Clinton anyway. The former first lady won the state in a landslide.

In Pennsylvania, which Mrs. Clinton also won handily, honesty seemed to matter even less. CBS News exit polling found that 38 percent of Democratic voters said Mrs. Clinton is not honest and trustworthy. Of those, nearly one-fifth voted for her.

Similar numbers can be seen in Ohio, Indiana, and other states, and perhaps surprisingly, in some instances they held true for Mr. Sanders, too.

In Ohio, for example, 15 percent of Democratic voters said the Vermont senator is not honest and trustworthy. Fourteen percent of those Democrats voted for him anyway, CBS News data show.

Throughout the Democratic campaign, Mr. Sanders has taken veiled shots at Mrs. Clinton’s character. He has cast her as the embodiment of the political establishment and has questioned her judgment on the Iraq war, trade deals such as NAFTA, and a host of other issues. He also repeatedly has highlighted her refusal to release transcripts of paid speeches Mrs. Clinton made to Goldman Sachs, which may factor into doubts about Mrs. Clinton’s honesty.

The Sanders campaign has at times directly raised the notion that Mrs. Clinton’s status as a fixture of the Washington establishment would hurt the Democratic Party’s chances of keeping the White House. In an email to supporters last month, Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver hinted that voters lack of trust in Mrs. Clinton is one reason why Mr. Sanders performs better in hypothetical November match-ups against Mr. Trump.

“The Democratic Party must decide if they want the candidate with the momentum who is best positioned to beat Trump or if they are willing to roll the dice and court disaster simply to protect the status quo for the political and financial establishment of this country,” he said.

Some of the biggest drivers of Mrs. Clinton’s poor honesty numbers — her use of private email while secretary of state, and the Benghazi terrorist attack and its aftermath — haven’t been central issues in the Democratic primary, though Mr. Trump is sure to pounce on them in the general election.

For her part, Mrs. Clinton argues that the perception she’s dishonest comes from years of Republican attacks.

“For 25 years I was subjected to an enormous wave of attacks, and it hasn’t stopped,” she told ABC News in April. “I’m sure there’s more I can do and I’m going to do my best to try to break through that.”

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