Hillary Clinton Confronts Her Growing Trust Problem, With Scant Results

The issue haunts the presumptive Democratic nominee, even against an opponent with historically high negatives.

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Photographer: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

Hillary Clinton knows she has a trust problem, and it may be the biggest threat to her campaign for the White House.

She's tried using humility to fix it, deflecting blame and acknowledging mistakes. But so far none of her attempts have worked.

A growing majority of Americans say they distrust Clinton, and she's slipping nationally and in battleground states in match-ups with presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump after the conclusion of an FBI investigation involving her handling of top-secret information as America's top diplomat.

A New York Times/CBS national survey released Thursday found Clinton's six-point lead over Trump in June evaporating to a tie, with each garnering 40 percent support. A whopping 67 percent over voters said Clinton is not honest or trustworthy, up five points from June. Trump fared only modestly better at 62 percent, unchanged from the previous month.

A Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday found Clinton's comfortable leads in Florida and Pennsylvania last month narrowing to a dead heat, with Ohio remaining a tie—even as Clinton and her campaign spend millions in TV ads in all three states. A key shift in the survey was that Clinton lost a large lead for having "higher moral standards," while Trump widened his lead on who's more "honest and trustworthy."

Clinton Brand's History Of Trust Issues

The trust issue haunts the presumptive Democratic nominee, even against an opponent that some surveys show is the most unpopular in the history of modern polling. Questions of trustworthiness are as old as the Clinton brand itself—former President Bill Clinton faced questions about his honesty in both of his campaigns for the White House, the result of a host of controversies including revelations during the 1992 primary campaign about his extramarital affairs and the investigation into into a land deal known as Whitewater, which also embroiled his wife.

But Bill Clinton overcame the trust deficit with empathy. At the time, he consistently scored high in surveys when voters were asked whether he cared about their needs and problems. Hillary Clinton readily admits she doesn't have the same political skills as her husband. She has a modest empathy advantage over Trump, but neither scores well: a Fox News poll released in late June found that 45 percent of Americans said "cares about people like me" describes Clinton, while 35 percent said it describes Trump.

In recent weeks, Clinton has attempted to confront her shortcomings head on.

"I personally know I have work to do on this front. A lot of people tell pollsters they don't trust me. I don't like hearing that and I've thought a lot about what's behind it," Clinton said on June 27 at the International Women's Forum in Chicago.

She admitted making "mistakes," which she didn't specify, but also suggested she's misunderstood.

"Now, maybe we can persuade people to change their minds by marshaling facts and making arguments to rebut negative attacks,'' she said. "You can't just talk someone into trusting you, you've got to earn it. So yes, I can say the reason I sometimes sound careful with my words is not that I'm hiding something, it's just that I'm careful with my words."

Scolding From Comey

FBI Director James Comey said last week that Clinton's use of a private e-mail server as secretary of state doesn't merit charges in a court of law, and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch concurred. But Comey also gave the Democrat a tongue-lashing for being "extremely careless" with classified information. In a court of public opinion, however, she's still on trial, and so far the results are not good.

Along with the New York Times poll that found her dropping, a McClatchy/Marist poll conducted over five days starting on the day of Comey's announcement found Clinton's national lead narrowing from 9 points in April to 3 points.

Trump routinely calls his opponent "Crooked Hillary," seeking to capitalize on the perception of her as dishonest. He and other Republicans have hammered Clinton on the e-mail issue. While she has acknowledged her use of private server and e-mail address was a mistake, Clinton's also tried to deflect Comey's harsh assessment, suggesting that any classified material she had on her server were sent by career officials at the State Department.

A Dash Of Sexism?

As they gear up for an intense 15 weeks after this month's Democratic convention and work to elect the first woman president, Clinton's allies see more than a dash of sexism in perceptions of her as dishonest and untrustworthy. Many point to a body of research that says Americans tend to view ambitious and successful women more negatively than they do men.

"As with all women leaders, Hillary has been held to a different standard her entire career," said Marcy Stech, a spokeswoman for EMILY's List. "But she hasn't let that stop her from doing what's right, no matter who thinks it's unpopular."

In keeping with other themes of her campaign, Clinton is less shy than she was in 2008 about discussing the sexism that she and other powerful women face in American society. In an article published in May in New York magazine, Clinton said society is "accustomed to think of women’s ambition being made manifest in ways that we don’t approve of, or that we find off-putting." She attributed it to "a fear that ambition will crowd out everything else—relationships, marriage, children, family, homemaking, all the other parts [of life] that are important to me and important to most women I know."

When asked by New York if part of the phenomenon is that men worry ambitious women will take up space that has traditionally belonged to them, Clinton concurred. "I think it’s the competition," she said. "Like, if you do this, there won’t be room for some of us, and that's not fair."

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