Mark Blumenthal | January 24, 2008
Topics: 2008 , The 2008 Race
On Tuesday, New York political consultant Eric Schmelzer posted a DailyKos diary (via Smith) about an aspect of Monday night's debate that he believes may "pivot the campaign" in Barack Obama's favor:
Surprisingly (at least to me), it seemed like Clinton, as well, made the decision to fight Obama on the trust issue, intimating that Obama was slick ("...it’s just very difficult to get a straight answer"), and that he worked for a slum lord.
I can't think of a worse issue for Clinton to try to match Obama over than trust. So far, trust hasn't entered the debate. It's surprising Obama didn't raise it before, because it tops the list of things people concern themselves with when voting (not surprising since we're coming out of W's administration). It's also an issue where Clinton is a clear loser (see questions 43, 44, 69). While voters fundamentally love what the Clintons did for the country in the 1990s, I think without reservation, most voters didn't see them as the most honest couple in the world.
In the battle to change the dialogue from experience to trust, Obama clearly won. It was definitely viewed as a victory by the Obama team, which released a post-debate dripping with references to 'trust.'
He's still waging that battle today, and Clinton is still taking the bait on it.
Today, Senator Clinton's team is still hitting on trust/truth, with Clinton saying this morning, "He has a hard time responding to questions about his record..." and "[Obama's answers] were so rehearsed that he kept on insisting that I had mentioned President Reagan in what I had said when I didn't mention President Reagan..."
Clinton still holds enormous advantages on foreign policy, health care and the economy and for having the "right experience." "Honesty/integrity," however, is easily her her weakest dimension, and one of Obama's strongest, as other surveys have shown in recent months.
How important are perceptions of integrity and trust? Very. Drawing on decades of opinion poll data, political scientists identify two central traits -- competence and integrity -- that drive judgements about presidents and presidential candidates. "Presidents are judged," wrote Professor Donald Kinder (with whom I once studied at the University of Michigan), " by their intelligence, knowledge and experience on the one hand, and by their honesty, decency and ability to set a good moral example on the other" (p. 840). Candidates that are perceived to be otherwise qualified and competent lose when voters find them lacking in terms of honesty and trust. And keep in mind that the bulk of the research driving these conclusions comes from general election surveys in which perceptions of competence and integrity were sometimes strong enough to overcome partisan leanings in driving voter choices.
The Clinton campaigns emphasis of experience throughout the campaign is entirely consistent with the perceived importance of the competence/experience brand. Emphasizing areas of perceived strength in a campaign's final days is a basic element of Political Strategy 101, which makes the sudden, blistering shift to issues of personal character by both Clintons so curious.
Of course, Schmelzer was right to hedge. Only time will tell," he wrote on Tuesday, whether the "trust/truth narrative" would overtake the "'experience' narrative of the past few weeks," or whether such a shift might benefit Obama "at the polls."
The last 24 hours, however, brings signs that the coverage may be changing: A front page story in today's Washington Post takes sides in the Clinton-Obama dispute, hitting a Clinton radio ad for repeating a "discredited charge" against Obama and "juxtapos[ing] it with GOP policies that Obama has never advocated." A companion editorial in goes further, concluding that this "episode does not speak well" for Clinton's "character and judgment."
Of course, that is just one newspaper on one day. It is still too soon to know how far the media curve will turn or how much such a development might affect voter preferences, but a shift to the "trust/truth" narrative is not something the Clinton campaign should welcome.