Sure, We Want An Honest And Trustworthy President, But It's Complicated In times of stress, in particular, many countries have turned to leaders regarded as tough and decisive — even if they were also seen as controversial and untrustworthy.
NPR logo Sure, We Want An Honest And Trustworthy President, But It's Complicated

Sure, We Want An Honest And Trustworthy President, But It's Complicated

GOP presidential candidate may not get high marks from voters on honesty and trustworthiness, but that might not matter. Susan Walsh/AP hide caption

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Susan Walsh/AP

GOP presidential candidate may not get high marks from voters on honesty and trustworthiness, but that might not matter.

Susan Walsh/AP

Americans say they like Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton the most for president, but they don't think they're honest and trustworthy.

Such a lack of trust, according to the latest Quinnipiac University poll, might be astonishing if we were not already accustomed to hearing about it — about our politicians in general and about these two candidates in particular. But the new polls shows one of the starkest divides yet.

Polling at 27 percent, Trump is at least 10 points ahead of any of his many rivals among registered Republicans. Clinton is the choice of 60 percent of Democrats, with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders a rather distant second at 30 percent.

Yet 60 percent of poll respondents said they did not find Clinton "honest and trustworthy." Fifty-nine percent said the same of Trump.

Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac Poll said this anomaly has been apparent over months of polling.

"We've always found bad numbers on 'honest and trustworthy' for both Clinton and Trump, but good numbers for both on leadership," Malloy said.

Indeed, Clinton scored exactly as well on "strong leadership qualities" in this poll (60 percent agreeing) as she did poorly on honest and trustworthiness. And Trump, by the same token, got similar numbers for strong leadership (58 percent yes, 39 percent no).

"The one (judgment) seems to eclipse the other," said Malloy. "I mean, what else could it be?"

The preference for strength as the premier quality in a leader has a long history both in the U.S. and around the world. In times of stress, in particular, many countries have turned to leaders regarded as tough and decisive – even if those same politicians were also controversial and distrusted by many.

In terms of the whole sample, this does appear to be the case. But the apparent contradiction between leading the pack and failing the trust test seems less pronounced upon closer inspection.

With their own supporters, Trump and Clinton were rated as honest and trustworthy. Among those planning to vote for Trump next year, 90 percent said he was honest and trustworthy while only seven percent said he was not. Among those planning to vote for Clinton, 84 percent said she was trustworthy while and 13 percent disagreed.

There are, of course, reasons someone might vote for a candidate without entirely trusting that person. It could simply reflect a preference for them over the other available alternatives.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign event on Nov. 3 in Coralville, Iowa. Scott Olson/Getty Images hide caption

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Scott Olson/Getty Images

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign event on Nov. 3 in Coralville, Iowa.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

In Clinton's case, Democrats might see her as the party's most electable candidate, even though the Quinnipiac poll finds Sanders runs better against some Republicans in hypothetical match-ups.

In Trump's case, the willingness to back him despite controversy and doubts may indicate the absence of any other consistent GOP rival who's been able to challenge him. Trump's closest competitor to date has been neurosurgeon Ben Carson, but this poll shows Carson fading as many of his former supporters are split between Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

We also need to remember that Trump and Clinton's front-runner status in the candidate preference numbers reflects only the choices within their respective parties. Quinnipiac talked to 672 Republicans and 573 Democrats, but the bad numbers for both Trump and Clinton on whether they are "honest and trustworthy" were based on the responses of all 1,453 registered voters surveyed.

Among Republicans, Trump's trust number was much higher (58 percent) than it was from all people in the survey. Among Democrats it was just 12 percent, while independents gave him 36 percent— nearly matching the 35 percent average for all respondents.

Similarly, among Democrats Clinton has a much higher trust number (73 percent). With Republicans it was just seven percent, and among independents it hit 26 percent— leading to an overall average among all respondents of 36%.

The news in this poll may be more worrisome for Clinton, if only because her trust number among independents was 10 points lower than Trump's marks.

While many numbers in the poll could be cautionary for her backers, a remarkable 63 percent of all respondents (and 60 percent of independents) said she had "a good chance of beating the Republican nominee," whomever that might be. That measure was the highest figure in the hypothetical general election test for any candidate in either party.

Meanwhile, only 46 percent of all respondents believed there was "a good chance" of Trump beating an unnamed Democratic nominee next November, with independents split evenly on the question.

The poll was conducted nationwide using live interviewers calling both land lines and cell phones from November 23rd-30th (after the November 13th Paris attacks). The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points for the whole survey sample and plus or minus 3.8 points for the Republican sample and plus or minus 4.1 points for the Democrats.