Leslie Rzeznik was excited to vote for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary, hoping to see America elect its first female president. But this year, when her state’s primary came, the 54-year-old of Canton, Michigan, chose Clinton’s opponent, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. A key reason among many for her: “I don’t feel like she’s the same candidate she was in 2008,” Rzeznik says. “I really don’t trust Hillary.”
I just don’t trust her. This has become a familiar refrain for Democratic voters this election cycle. Just 19 percent of respondents to an April NBC/Wall Street Journal poll described Hillary Clinton as “honest and trustworthy.” And Donald Trump? More than 70 percent of voters in an April AP/GfK poll said the word “honest” describes him only slightly or not at all.
And yet, barring some shocker between now and July, American voters will choose either the scandal-plagued and supposedly prevaricating Clinton or the blustering and often buffoonish Trump to be their next president. “I look at a lot of polling data,” says Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “It’s amazing that anyone would vote for these two people.”
At one time, questions about integrity could sink a presidential candidate, even if they were unfair. Al Gore’s claim in a 1999 CNN interview that he “took the initiative in creating the internet” fed perceptions of him as a serial exaggerator. John Kerry couldn’t shake the “flip-flopper” label in 2004. And Mitt Romney’s support for universal health care in Massachusetts torpedoed his credibility as a true conservative in 2012. Today, we still say we care about trust: A February YouGov poll that ranked Clinton and Trump worst on trust asked voters what they wanted in a candidate. For Republicans, trust tied with “has policy proposals I agree with.” For Democrats, trust came in third but only 2 points behind “has the experience to be president.”
But at the ballot box, honesty doesn’t seem to matter as much. This is partly a function of some broad changes in the American electorate and partly a coincidence, in that these two candidates are overcoming their glaring trust problems. With voters more polarized than ever before, and with their trust in the government and other institutions at a nadir, many have begun to rank trust lower on their list of desired political attributes. Or perhaps they’ve set it aside altogether. At the same time, both of these two very different candidates have managed to convince voters of this: You don’t have to trust me, but you should still pick me.
This is a huge change.
The Polar(ized) Express
Whether they know it or not, American voters have for years been moving further and further away from valuing trustworthiness in their leaders, thanks to changes in our politics and the way we think.
The first issue is polarization: Voters committed to one political party or another tend to view their tribe as honest and righteous and the opposition as liars and wrong. Confirming the obvious, a 2014 Pew Research study found that Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines today than at any point in the last 20 years. A Washington Post poll found that among Republicans, 60 percent considered Trump “honest and trustworthy,” but among American voters overall, 59 percent say the opposite. “True-blue and true-red partisans are happy with the present situation,” says Stanford University political scientist Morris Fiorina. “But the less partisan portion of the electorate is less than thrilled.”
But polarization alone doesn’t explain why voters would choose two candidates who are so poorly trusted. Perhaps because Americans are increasingly overworked, stressed, checked-out or distracted by Facebook, they are relying on heuristics—mental shortcuts—to simplify the processing of information, wrote Yale University professor of psychology Dan Kahan in a July 2013 study on how voters think. This kind of fast, associative reasoning explains, for example, why people tend to overestimate the danger of a terrorist attack, rather than more common and more threatening dangers, like car accidents. Heuristics are problematic because they tend to reinforce existing bias, Kahan found. Gun control opponents staunchly believe more restrictions wouldn’t have any impact on gun deaths, for example. When voters do some homework, he added, they tend to look for evidence that reinforces their already held ideologies. Conservatives who took a test measuring their cognitive abilities in 2005 did no better or worse than liberals who took the same test, Kahan reported. In fact, those who scored highest on the test were the most likely to let their ideology motivate their thinking. Being smarter, in other words, doesn’t make us more likely to rely on credible information.
Mental processing known as “post-decision dissonance” also helps us feel more satisfied with the choices we’ve made. In politics, “once voters put their support behind one candidate, they may start viewing that candidate as more trustworthy and alternatives as deceitful, lying scoundrels willing to say or do anything to win,” Matt Motyl, a political psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, tells Newsweek. We choose quickly, then look for ways to justify that decision, even if it means rejecting plainly observable facts. Clinton’s Benghazi scandal might be baseless, but millions of Americans seem to think there’s a reason to be outraged. Trump’s proposal for a wall at the Mexican border may be unrealistic, but the idea has propelled him toward the White House. And after we’ve made a choice, the loyalty only grows: A 2001 study in the journal Political Psychology showed that for no discernible reason voters became more enamored with candidates not only after voting for them but also after they won an election.
So we think less and vote more predictably, according to whatever club we’ve joined. But Americans also don’t care about trust because, to some degree, it isn’t really there anymore. Overall, trust in government is at or near historical lows. When a Washington Post /ABC News poll asked Americans in September if “most people in politics” can or can’t be trusted, 72 percent of respondents checked “can’t.”
“Americans have always associated politics with corruption,” Bowman says. “We would prefer our politicians to be honest rather than not honest, but maybe we’ve defined honesty and trustworthiness down.” Trust numbers for other institutions have dropped precipitously as well, from organized religions to big business to schools. This has impacted our political choices; we simply shrug and choose our candidates based on other factors.
Clinton and Trump have done their best to encourage that phenomenon. Both candidates have found a way to overcome voters’ distrust of them in different ways.
Clinton’s big problem is baggage—the stench left behind after decades of scandals dating back to the 1990s, be they legitimate or trumped up. So her approach in 2016 is to try to convince voters that scandal-mongering Republicans are to blame—the attacks are causing the public perception, not her actions. “Read behavioral science, read psychology,” Clinton told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow in February. "Even when all the attacks prove to be unfounded, untrue, it leaves a residue.”
Trump’s tactic is markedly different. He just calls everyone else out and gives them negative nicknames, from “Lyin’ Ted Cruz” to “Crooked Hillary.” He tweeted in April that Clinton is “p erhaps the most dishonest person to have ever run for the presidency.” Whether he’s wrong or not doesn’t much matter, and his supporters either agree with him or they don’t care if he’s being honest. “To the extent that people are using Trump as a way of venting about their general unhappiness, trust is irrelevant,” Fiorina says. “They’re just trying to send a message that they’re tired of being taken for granted and screwed by both sides.” Or as Shapiro puts it, “Trust matters, but in the context of this competition between these two candidates, it matters less.”
It may simply be coincidence, then, that 2016’s front-runners are Trump and Clinton, and that we’ve picked them because we care more about other traits than trust. Georgetown University linguistics professor Deborah Tannen argues that trust still matters, and that voters find Clinton inauthentic, though perhaps unfairly. If they didn’t, she says, Sanders wouldn’t be nearly as competitive as he is. “If it wasn’t for this ‘I don’t trust her, I don’t like her’ she would have totally galloped over Sanders,” Tannen tells Newsweek. “Even he didn’t expect to be a serious candidate.” While Sanders is more trusted, Democrats believe Clinton is more electable and better prepared to be commander in chief. An ABC poll in January (when Clinton’s overall lead against Sanders was much higher nationally) found Clinton with an 18-point edge on handling the economy, up 21 percent on managing health care and 29 points on immigration issues.
General elections tend to involve personal characteristics less than other measures too. Voters often pick their president not based on who that person is but on “issue proximity,” i.e., “how the economy has been very recently,” notes Ariel Malka, a psychology professor at Yeshiva University.
“Trustworthiness sounds so important, but voters can be forgiven for not necessarily prioritizing honesty and trustworthiness over how strong a leader someone is, how competent they are,” he says. “A voter might assume they’re all kind of dishonest and sellouts, in a way, but that they’re under institutional constraints that prevent them from lying about everything.”
So what happens in November if Americans are forced to choose between two candidates they don’t trust or even like very much? They may stay home. “This might portend a low-turnout, cranky general election, based on which candidate voters dislike the most,” says Will Friedman, president of the nonpartisan research firm Public Agenda. Rzeznik is certain she’ll vote in November, and if Clinton is the Democratic nominee, it’ll be for her. “I think she’s as dishonest as the next politician,” Rzeznik says with a sigh. “She’s a weather vane, blown into one direction and following it. But given a choice between her and a Republican, I would definitely choose her.” As will staunch conservatives probably choose Trump. In a race to the bottom, the next president will likely be the one we hate less.