SHOW, DON’T TELL
How to Fix Hillary’s Trust Deficit
Poll after poll shows that few voters think Clinton is honest and trustworthy. After decades in the public eye, is there any way to fix that?
Tell us something we don’t know—that’s one suggestion for Hillary Clinton, who is looking to rebuild her cratering trust numbers with voters. Not about policy, something personal, like the summer she spent in Alaska washing dishes at a national park and sliming salmon at a fish processing cannery.
“Get people saying, ‘I didn’t know that,’” says Charlie Cook, founder of the Cook Political Report and a seasoned political handicapper.
“At some point we’re going to see her walking through the neighborhood where she grew up in Chicago,” he says. “Do the whole package,” he advises, not just her mother, get her talking about her father. He was a pretty stern fellow. When she didn’t put the top back on the toothpaste tube, he’d toss it out the window and she had to find it, even in the snow.
And go easy on the grandmother schtick. “She borders on overplaying that,” says Cook.
Political analysts and academics asked by The Daily Beast what Clinton should do about her sinking numbers, and how much they matter, agree that she is on the right course trying to humanize herself in an unforgiving partisan environment. “A lot of people see her as smart and competent but not necessarily as a person,” says Cook. “Make her a human being.”
Clinton has been so guarded for so long that she is wary of opening up to the media or letting voters into what she considers her zone of privacy. But showing vulnerability and making an emotional connection is the key to reaching voters, especially women. She can’t match Barack Obama with African-American voters or the excitement he generated among young people, but she can out-perform him with women, especially white married women, who Mitt Romney carried in the last election.
Clinton is also correct in concentrating on “one on few” meetings as opposed to the “one on many” large rallies that were Obama’s signature events, says Bill Galston with the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank. “He needed to lend credibility to a long shot and even quixotic campaign; she needs to connect with voters in a more intimate way.”
Negative stories about her email server, her paid speeches and the continuing investigation into Benghazi have taken their toll, bringing the high favorable rating she enjoyed as secretary of state “down to mere mortal level,” says Cook. A Quinnipiac poll last week found the number of voters who see Clinton as honest and trustworthy dropped to 34 percent in Colorado, 33 percent in Iowa and 39 percent in Virginia. In each of those swing states, she lost in theoretical matchups with Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio, a flashing yellow warning sign to Democrats.
Clinton’s ramped-up public appearances show she’s paying attention along with the orderly rollout of policy positions designed to appeal to progressives while not veering too far from the center where she came of age politically. Speculation that Vice President Biden might yet enter the race picked up after this latest round of polls, but for Democrats to panic would be silly: Clinton is still the most commanding non-incumbent presidential candidate either party has seen in modern times.
“Candidates are big packages,” says Cook. “Bill Clinton got elected and reelected with lousy trust numbers…There are other issues, like being an adult and knowing stuff.”
Asked how serious Clinton’s trust deficit is, Galston replied, “I’m going to say exactly what you expect me to say. It’s early, number one, and number two, the comedian Henny Youngman put it best, ‘Compared to what?’ If people continue to see her as a strong, knowledgeable, experienced leader, that is going to be worth a lot in the end. That’s her ace in the hole, and she can play it to great advantage.”
Al From worked with Bill Clinton to help develop a centrist policy agenda that could move the Democratic Party back to the middle after losing three successive presidential elections. “The thing that would help her the most, which is what she’s starting to do, [is to] lay out a clear agenda and give people a reason to vote for her. And when she does that, I think she’ll be fine,” From told The Daily Beast.
“The Clintons never come without controversy, but they also have enormous support. She has to energize her people, but the main thing is to lay out where she wants to take the country compared to the Republicans. There always were questions about trust with President Clinton. But if she makes a good case for being president, her numbers are going to go up and her trust number will go up as well. Presidential elections are a choice and it’s about the future of the country. We have a lot of serious problems, and she’s well equipped to deal with them.”
The Democratic Leadership Council, founded by From in 1985, provided a policy framework that carried Bill Clinton to the White House. Calling for 100,000 more cops on the street and promising to “end welfare as we know it” positioned Clinton to win back Reagan Democrats that had fled the party.
The DLC folded in 2011, bankrupt financially and resigned to a different era requiring different policy prescriptions. Hillary Clinton is developing her signature ideas in a noisier media environment than her husband faced in 1992, or that she faced eight years ago. Still, there are some truisms, says Jack Pitney, a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College.
“Talk about the future rather than the past. She doesn’t want to get dragged into a discussion of the scandals of the nineties. …So long as she stays substantive and puts out a coherent and persuasive policy agenda, she will put the focus on the issues.”
That focus on issues kept Bill Clinton’s approval rating high as president even in the midst of impeachment. “I need to get back to work for the American people,” he would say. News broke of his relationship with a White House intern shortly before he was to stand before Congress and deliver the State of the Union address. A record number of people tuned in to see what he would say about the scandal, Pitney recalled. Clinton didn’t mention it.
A final piece of advice to Hillary, says Pitney: The last thing she should say is “Trust me, I’m trustworthy.” She needs a better answer than the one she gave CNN when she said, “People should, and do, trust me.” As with all good drama, a successful campaign is more show than tell.