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The Integrity/Trust Brand

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..."

Schmelzer is certainly right about "trust" being dangerous ground for the Clinton campaign, as is evident in results from today's new LA Times/Bloomberg survey (PDF):

01-24 la times bloomberg2.png

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.

 

Comments
art hackett:

As Karl Rove once said, "You attack their strength."

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Elliot:

Not when you have no credibility in it.

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RS:

a shift to the "trust/truth" narrative is not something the Clinton campaign should welcome.

Unless, of course, this is something they planned all along - the Clinton team is not a bunch of amateurs!

If more press coverage like the WaPo follows, that gives more fuel to Team Clinton telling voters - "look, they are beating us down, they are trying to pick their favorite [Obama], they don't care about YOU!" Much as President Clinton has been saying the past few days...

But I hear they pulled the negative radio ad in SC...

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Mark McGee:

Those few still holding Karl Rove stock?

SELL!

I would find it hard to believe the Clintons would be wasting their time with this long-term losing strategy (it will either lose them the nomination or, if not, it will certainly lose them the general election) if it weren't for the fact that they are playing this losing hand with *other people's money*.

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p_lukasiak:

I agree with the "attack the opponents strength" strategy -- if you can do it effectively.

and I think that the Clinton effort has been effective in raising doubts about Obama's claim that he is "a different kind of candidate." And once those doubts take hold, its all good for Clinton.

Remember, just because people don't believe everything you say, doesn't mean they believe nothing that you say...

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Obama may be the most honest Illinois candidate since Abe, but when it gets to a he said / she said, the voters usually conclude that both are shading the truth. The media is supposed to be the referee, but the public regards it as another player, so its judgments merely become more of the namecalling.

If New Hampshire showed anything, apart from the challenges of polling in a fluid environment, it was that Hillary is adept at playing against media narratives.

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eorse:

I fear that the two Clintons' attack machine has already successfully baited the voters via race, gender, and ethnicity.

If Obama wins SC, I predict it will be a small margin (2-3%).

I wish there was a way to focus more on the Clinton presidency. It had scandals after scandals (from the first to the last day). All by the Clintons.

I wish someone from the GOP (who are in the cemetery having lost to the two Clintons) would talk about what it is to compete with them (e.g., Bob Dole).

I wish someone would dissect Clinton's senate career (e.g., voting for the war with great anguish but not reading the intelligence report).

Why is the press not working hard to be fair?

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Christopher Carrington:

This polling result plays on at least two factors one should consider:

1) Obama is an unknown quantity to many voters at this stage. People give newbies the benefit of the doubt. Just wait until the swiftboaters get done with Obama's youthful drug usage. I can see the ad already: McCain in a prisoner of war camp and Obama using cocaine in his .

2) The poll is picking up conservatives' unhappiness with the sexual life of Bill Clinton, and I suspect, inner fears among many conservatives about their own marriages.

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Asp:

I believe that Obama's 'truthiness' charges against the Clintons won't start to bite. Notice that he's integrated those charges into his pitch that he can be a 'transformational' president while Bill wasn't and Hillary can't be. In the SC debate, he started saying that the Clintons can't build a working mandate because they undermine trust by failing to tell the truth. It's not just, 'stop lying about my record,' it's 'those who lie can't fly.'

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Asp:

Not only is Obama successfully (if rather delicately) making the case that the Clintons are not trustworthy, he's also grafting this charge onto his prior claim that he is better equipped than Hillary to build the "working mandate" that Bill never had (or lost early), which a president needs to be 'transformational.' He's been saying in effect that Bill Clinton lost that mandate and Hillary may not get it because they undermine the trust that underpins broad support from the electorate.
http://xpostfactoid.blogspot.com/2008/01/truth-and-transformation_23.html

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Asp:

Not only is Obama successfully (if rather delicately) making the case that the Clintons are not trustworthy, he's also grafting this charge onto his prior claim that he is better equipped than Hillary to build the "working mandate" that Bill never had (or lost early), which a president needs to be 'transformational.' He's been saying in effect that Bill Clinton lost that mandate and Hillary may not get it because they undermine the trust that underpins broad support from the electorate.
More on this at
http://xpostfactoid.blogspot.com/2008/01/truth-and-transformation_23.html

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Mark, is it possible that there are nuances to the word "trust" that is being overlooked?

People decide who to trust in different ways. Some people "trusted" Bush because he seemed like he shared their values, and thus would act like they would on important issues. I would say "trust" for some Obama supporters is similar - he reflects my values, my cultural attitudes, therefore I trust he will act the way I would want on important issues.

"Trust" for me has more to do with specific past performance, particularly since the issues I most care about are controversial and tend to be the first ones elected officials like to throw overboard.

I wouldn't say one way of deriving trust is better than another - my point is that for some voters, "experience" and "trust" are the same value, so to construct a forced choice between them doesn't necessarily tell you anything useful.

Re: "Candidates that are perceived to be otherwise qualified and competent lose when voters find them lacking in terms of honesty and trust." Doesn't this really depend on the specifics of the honesty / dishonesty?

President Clinton is widely viewed as having been dishonest with regard to marital fidelity, but because of his competence and dependability in other areas he has had high favorability ratings for some time now.

Further, Obama's attacks on Clinton's truthfulness and trustworthiness undermine his message that his is a "different kind of politics." And when he undermines his own message, he starts to look less than truthful himself. To echo p_lukasiak, it would be a mistake to not recognize that there is a significant downside for Obama in moving towards "trust" as a way to draw a contrast at this time.

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Ciccina:

Crikey. "...there are nuances to the word "trust" that is being overlooked?" No, I is learning to writes well now, thank yous.

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