Gearing up for 2020.

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Honesty Doesn't Win Presidential Elections

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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In his speech about the U.S. presidential campaign on Thursday, Mitt Romney described both parties’ front-runners, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, as dishonest. Voters seem to agree. Is it all-important, though, for a successful candidate to be perceived as honest, or more honest than his or her chief rival? Previous election results appear to indicate the opposite.

“Dishonesty is Donald Trump’s hallmark,” Romney said after cataloging the developer’s business failures and before listing some of his false statements during the campaign. Then he lit into the Democratic front-runner, claiming Clinton and her husband had been living “at the intersection of money and politics, trading their political influence to enrich their personal finances.” The unsuccessful 2012 Republican nominee added, “A person so untrustworthy and dishonest as Hillary Clinton must not become president.”

I’ve heard the same from ordinary voters in the early primary states. Even many Democrats -- those who support Bernie Sanders -- consider Clinton dishonest; many Republicans, especially religious ones, consider Trump an untrustworthy hustler. According to a recent YouGov poll, among all the candidates still in the race, Trump and Clinton are thought of as the least honest. 

In a 2014 book titled “Candidate Character Traits in Presidential Elections,” political scientists David Holian and Charles Prysby of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro analyzed data on previous elections from the American National Election Studies to see how important various aspects of a candidate’s character were in presidential races. Every election year, different traits came to the fore: Leadership, experience, caring. Integrity -- how honest and moral candidates appeared -- also played a role, Holian and Prysby wrote:

Voters prefer a candidate who does not misrepresent facts, who does not bend the truth, and who is not deceptive in his or her statements. Candidates who are perceived as deficient in this area generally suffer; those who can portray themselves positively tend to gain. Gore in 2000, for example, was not helped by perceptions that he exaggerated, made false claims, and stretched the truth for his political benefit. In 1976, the first presidential election after the Watergate scandals, Carter emphasized that he would bring honesty to the White House; voter confidence that he would do so undoubtedly contributed to his narrow election victory.

The researchers’ own calculations show, however, that the candidate who is seen as more honest, (or less dishonest) than his or her rival doesn’t tend to win:

In 1988, George H.W. Bush prevailed over Michael Dukakis, though more people considered the latter honest; in 1996, Bill Clinton, the candidate with the lowest “honesty rating” in recent history, beat Bob Dole; in 2000, George W. Bush beat John Kerry despite being seen as less honest; and Barack Obama triumphed over John McCain despite being seen as somewhat less honest. 

Data from the American National Election Studies isn’t directly comparable to the various 2016 polls that show how little Americans trust Clinton and Trump. One thing is clear, though: If they win their parties’ nominations, they will be the first pair of candidates at least since the 1980s whom more voters consider dishonest than honest. That the least trusted politicians stand the best chance of winning is one of the more bizarre quirks of this strange elections, and it’s hard to understand or accept. Are Americans willing to hand their country to people from whom they clearly wouldn’t buy a used car?

It’s almost as if American voters express their distrust of the system -- everywhere I went, both Republicans and Democrats said it was broken -- by picking the people who best match its untrustworthiness. Trump’s voters expect him to outsmart the system, and Clinton’s expect her to work it cleverly. 

It’s easy, however, to understand Romney: Cynicism is unattractive and a bad foundation on which to build a country’s future. In most of the recent elections, according to the Holian-Prysby research, the more inspiring candidate won. This time around, America may end up with politicians selected for their perceived cunning. It would be dispiriting if this were what America thought of itself.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tracy Walsh at twalsh67@bloomberg.net