Americans Don’t Need to Trust Clinton to Vote for Her

A candidate’s perceived competence and the national conditions matter more than trustworthiness.

Former American secretary of state Hillary Clinton campaigns in Charleston, South Carolina, January 16
Former American secretary of state Hillary Clinton campaigns in Charleston, South Carolina, January 16 (Hillary for America/Barbara Kinney)

Most Democrats who prefer Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton concede that the former, a self-described socialist, is less likely to win the general election in November. Their heart may be with Sanders; their head tells them Clinton can actually win.

H.A. Goodman is letting his heart get the better of him. He argues at Salon that Sanders is actually the more electable of the two.

He points to polls that show Sanders can defeat both Ted Cruz and Donald Trump in a general election, the two Republicans currently in the lead on the other side. But that says more about those two than it does about Sanders.

The only real argument Goodman has in favor of Sanders per se is that Clinton isn’t particularly trusted. Virtually everyone agrees that the Vermont senator is, if anything, sincere.

“At what point will critics of Bernie Sanders realize that American voters will never vote for a candidate they don’t trust and don’t like?” he wonders.

Except they have. And they probably will again.


Matthew Dickinson, a presidential historian, has argued that other factors than trust can weigh more heavily on voters’ minds when they elect the most powerful person on Earth.

In 1996, for example, Hillary’s husband, Bill, was deeply mistrust. Yet he handily defeated his opponent and man of sterling character, World War II veteran Bob Dole.

Voters may have viewed Bill Clinton as untrustworthy, but in a time of peace and economic prosperity, most chose in the end to reward the incumbent with a second term in office, his personal peccadillos notwithstanding.

And the 1996 results were not unusual.

Morris P. Fiorina, another political scientist, has written in The New York Times that the personal qualities of a candidate matter far less than do national conditions and their experience, record and positions.

Fiorina and his colleagues examined the thirteen presidential elections between 1952 and 2000 and found that Republican candidates won four of the six in which they had higher personal ratings than the Democrats while Democratic candidates lost four of the seven elections in which they had higher ratings than the Republicans. “Not much evidence of a big likability effect here.”

Which is not to say trustworthiness is irrelevant. “All things being equal, it is probably better to be trusted than mistrusted,” writes Dickinson. But a candidate’s competence and the electorate’s desire for either continuity or change are more important.

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