And as you may remember, Trump won that race.
Which, for many people, is proof positive that people didn’t — and don’t — care about whether or not Trump is honest. They wanted change in 2016 and they want results in 2020. Whether or not they believe the President to be a good guy who tells the truth most of the time is really not something that changes people’s votes.
To which I say: Maybe in 2016. But don’t be so sure that’s the case in 2020. Here’s why.
In 2016, Trump was running against Hillary Clinton, someone who had similarly dismal numbers on being “honest and trustworthy.” In that same exit polling that showed just 33% of voters thought Trump was “honest and trustworthy,” only 36% said the same of Clinton. Which is basically a wash. And which means that voters in 2016 didn’t trust either candidate much at all, taking the issue of honesty effectively off of the table.
Politics tends to be obsessed with fighting the last election — or at least believing, often wrongly, that what happened four years ago is predictive of what will come next. At least in this case, that thinking is deeply misguided.
And it’s misguided for an obvious reason: Joe Biden is not Hillary Clinton. This is objectively true, of course. But what I mean is that how the public perceives Biden is radically different than how they perceived Clinton.
Although both Clinton and Biden have been in public life for decades, the former vice president has never generated the sort of intense feelings — particularly among Republicans — that Clinton and her husband do. Clinton was the No. 1 bogeyman for Republicans for years, as they fixated on scandals (some real, most imagined) and conspiracy theories about the former first lady, New York senator, secretary of state and presidential nominee.
Biden isn’t any of those things. He doesn’t engender those same feelings in Republicans. To the extent they have negative views about Biden, it’s that he’s been around forever. But there isn’t even close to the same depth pf negative views about Biden in the electorate at large.
Asked which candidate is “honest and trustworthy,” 53% named Biden while just 36% said Trump. Among women, Biden has a 60% to 31% edge. (He has a 5-point margin among men.) Among people of color, 60% say Biden is “honest and trustworthy” while 29% say Trump. Among white, Biden is favored on the question by 13 points.
The point is this: Voters don’t see the questions of honesty and trust as a wash between Biden and Trump as they did between Clinton and Trump. This is not a throw-your-hands-up-because-both-candidates-probably-lie situation as 2016 quite clearly was. Biden is seen, clearly, as more trustworthy than Trump.
That line probably doesn’t work for Clinton. Because, well, voters didn’t trust her. And it definitely doesn’t work for Trump. But for Biden it just might.
The conclusion after the last election was that voters didn’t care whether their president was an honest person, they just wanted someone to shake up the system.
Which, sort of? The reason honesty and trustworthiness didn’t matter to voters in 2016 was that they didn’t think either candidate possessed those traits. That’s not the case in this election — and it’s why Trump’s rampant dishonesty might well hurt him much more in November than it did four years ago.