As he is wont to do now and then, National Journal‘s Ron Brownstein nailed it today in a column that reminded us all in the context of all the sturm und drang about Hillary Clinton’s personal credibility that somebody else with that last name was able to overcome severe doubts about his own “honesty and trustworthiness:”
On the day Bill Clinton was reelected by more than eight million votes in 1996, a solid 54 percent majority of voters said in exit polling that they did not consider him honest and trustworthy.
It’s possible that voters have since grown less tolerant of perceived ethical missteps, such as the questions Hillary Clinton is facing over her private State Department email account and the Clinton Foundation’s fund-raising practices. But it’s more likely that empathy, faith in her competency, and ideological compatibility will count more than integrity in shaping voters’ verdict on Hillary Clinton—just as they did for her husband.
Brownstein goes on to say that while HRC is broadly perceived as an effective leader, she may need to work on her empathy skills. That may be true, but you could make a pretty good argument that ideological compatibility and its first cousin, partisanship, along with (Democrats hope) some good luck on the economy and the identity of the opposition will matter as much or more. And in terms of partisanship, it’s important to remember that polarized voting is much more prevalent now than in 1996, and that perceptions of “honesty and trustworthiness” may be an effect as much as a cause of voting preferences.
In the end, perceptions of this or that candidate characteristic may be like “enthusiasm” as a determinant of voting behavior: it matters at some minimal level, but once a certain threshold is crossed, it may not matter at all.