In spite of email controversy, Clinton holds edge over Trump

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton talks with media as she meets with law enforcement leaders at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, joined by New York Police Department Commissioner Bill Bratton, left, and others, meets with law enforcement leaders at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

NEW YORK — Hillary Clinton can't seem to escape her use of a private email server as she runs for president. But faced with the choice of Donald Trump, voters seem willing to tolerate the questions it raises about Clinton's honesty because of their distaste for the Republican nominee.

This week, it was the FBI's delivery to Congress of notes from its investigation into Clinton's email habits that put one of the most uncomfortable parts of her State Department tenure back in the headlines.

It's an issue unlikely to go away: At hearings planned for next month, Republicans in Congress say they'll ask FBI officials whether those notes indicate she may have lied to lawmakers in response to questions about her handling of classified material.

Yet for all the attention the emails get, recent preference polls show Clinton with a solid and steady lead over Trump in a series of competitive battleground states. Voters also give her higher marks on her readiness for the White House and handling of foreign policy.

Those same polls show that much of the public doesn't like Clinton and find her untrustworthy, and she has acknowledged as much. But it's worse for Trump, and compared with the billionaire, the perceptions of dishonesty the public has of Clinton appears to be an attribute many Americans are willing to live with.

"All of this calculation over the emails will probably be drowned out by the determination that he's not fit to be president," said Matt Bennett, once an aide to former Vice President Al Gore and a senior vice president at the centrist think tank Third Way.

Should Clinton win the election, questions about her honesty are likely to trail her into the White House and could complicate her ability to push through a policy agenda. It's a political challenge that mirrors the one her husband, former President Bill Clinton, faced nearly a quarter century ago.

As a candidate, Bill Clinton was dogged in 1992 by questions about his honesty, but voters ultimately viewed him as a better caretaker of the economy, which had stumbled during President George H.W. Bush's administration.

"It will be a challenge," said Mickey Kantor, a longtime Clinton supporter who chaired his 1992 campaign. "He overcame it and was re-elected. She can overcome it. Not easily, but she can overcome it."

The tone Hillary Clinton sets during a transition and inauguration will likely be key to potentially improving her image, said Chris Lehane, who worked in opposition research in her husband's administration.

"You'll have a moment there where potentially people will be interested in getting what you rarely get in life, a second look," he said.

According to polls conducted by Gallup, her favorability ratings have fallen from a high of around 65 percent during her tenure as secretary of state to just over 40 percent after the Democratic convention, a historic low for a presidential candidate, surpassed only by Trump.

"She will have a significant challenge in persuading the voters of the country that she is indeed honest and trustworthy," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who worked for GOP primary candidate Marco Rubio's presidential bid. "A great many people will vote for her because they can't stand voting for Donald Trump. But she'll still have work to do."

Old Clinton hands see echoes of their strategy in Hillary Clinton's approach.

In early 1992, voters knew Bill Clinton as an Ivy League graduate who avoided serving in Vietnam and had been accused of extramarital affairs, said Paul Begala, a key strategist for the then candidate who now works for the main Democratic super PAC supporting Hillary Clinton's White House bid.

Their goal was to expand public perceptions of Bill Clinton to encompass other, more positive facts, such as his poor upbringing, difficult family life, college scholarships and decision to return to Arkansas as a public servant rather than accept a high-paid corporate job.

In 2016, Clinton's campaign, says Begala, has similarly tried to fill out her public image. It has run ads highlighting her mother's abusive childhood and Clinton's early commitment to helping women and children as a legal advocate, while much of the Democratic convention was devoted to Clinton's personal biography.

"Sure, she has had Secret Service protection since she became first lady in 1993 — she needs it. But she was not born in the White House," Begala said.

Clinton and her campaign attribute much of her low approval ratings to a belief that voters like Clinton more when she's working than campaigning, a view that they say is intertwined with the scandals of her husband's administration, years of relentless GOP attacks and how Americans view female candidates.

But in recent weeks, they've preferred to focus on the failings of their opponent.

"He's been unraveling for weeks, since the convention," Joel Benenson, Clinton's chief strategy said Thursday in an interview with MSNBC. "He's a failed candidate and failing campaign."

But even Clinton admits that fixing her trust problem will take time.

"I've made mistakes. I don't know anyone who hasn't. So I understand people have some questions," Clinton told black voters at a June luncheon in Chicago. "You can't just talk someone into trusting you. You've got to earn it."

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Follow Ken Thomas and Lisa Lerer on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/kthomasdc and http://twitter.com/llerer

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