For all those convinced that the serial allegations of ethical impropriety swirling around Hillary Clinton will puncture her prospects of winning the presidency next year, there’s a relevant precedent to consider: 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.
Few presidents ever faced as many distinct ethical allegations from their opponents and the press as Bill Clinton did during his two terms. Those charges created persistently high doubts about his honesty and morality. But none of them produced a fatal wound.
Many factors allowed Clinton to survive questions about his character: satisfaction with overall peace and prosperity, respect for his skill and effectiveness, and distaste for critics who repeatedly seemed to overreach. But his most important shield may have been the belief that he understood, and genuinely hoped to ameliorate, the problems of ordinary Americans. For Hillary Clinton, it’s probably more important to match his strength on that front than to improve on the weak perceptions of his character. And that’s something she has not yet done.
The exit poll conducted the day Bill Clinton won reelection in 1996 captured the consistently conflicted American assessment of him, and offers clues about how the country may weigh its similarly ambivalent feelings about his wife. Clinton dispatched Republican nominee Bob Dole that day by a solid 49-41 margin. Yet in the survey, 60 percent of voters said they did not believe Clinton had told the truth about the controversial “Whitewater” investment in Arkansas, and just 41 percent said they considered him honest and trustworthy (far less than the 54 percent who did not.)
Those doubts cost Clinton some, particularly with independents. But according to the exit poll, Clinton won nearly one-fifth of those voters who did not consider him trustworthy and almost one-fourth who doubted him on Whitewater. How did Clinton attract so many voters dubious about his character? The answer is that they placed higher priority on other assessments of him. Almost three-fifths of voters said issues mattered to them more than character—and they backed Clinton by more than a 3-1 margin. And while Dole won by more than 10-1 among those who said honesty most influenced their vote, that group represented just one-fifth of the electorate. Clinton amassed similarly lopsided margins among the combined 35 percent of voters who said their decision was most influenced by the candidate’s vision for the future, being in touch, and caring about people like me.
A similar dynamic sustained Clinton through his impeachment ordeal two years later. Public doubts about Clinton’s character skyrocketed after his affair with Monica Lewinsky was revealed. But as Stanford University political scientist Richard Brody wrote then, “the public’s view of President Clinton’s compassion and strength of leadership” actually improved through the tumult. The share of Americans saying Clinton “understands the problems of people like you” rose to about 60 percent in ABC/Washington Post polls through 1998. Most Americans, in other words, seemed willing to look past Clinton’s flaws so long as they felt he was looking out for their interests—and capable of advancing them.
Today, Hillary Clinton is stronger on the second part of that equation than the first. Since the 2008 Democratic primary, she has scored well as a strong and decisive leader. But Americans have consistently given her more equivocal grades for empathy. When the ABC/Washington Post poll last asked in March whether Hillary Clinton “understood the problems of people like you,” just 47 percent said yes, far fewer than for her husband even during impeachment. In this week’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, a comparable 43 percent described her as “compassionate enough to understand average people.”
Fewer Americans may view Hillary than Bill Clinton (at least in his heyday) as empathetic partly because she, like most politicians, can’t match his unique ability to convince voters he could “feel your pain.” She may also suffer because the allegations confronting the Clintons now include charges that they have used their contacts to enrich themselves, or because Americans have seen her in powerful positions for so long they can’t easily imagine her relating to their struggles. (It didn’t help when she acknowledged she has not driven a car since 1996, or when he suggested he needs six-figure speeches to “pay our bills.”)
Whatever the cause, it’s almost certainly more important for Hillary Clinton to persuade Americans that she understands their lives, and has solutions relevant to their challenges, than to dispel the doubts about her integrity. Bill Clinton’s experience suggests that if Americans believe she can walk in their shoes, they will accept plenty of mud on her own.