How voters’ perception of trust may have influenced the 2016 presidential election

New research sheds more light on why President Donald Trump was able to defeat his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

The study, published in American Behavioral Scientist, investigated Americans’ trust in the two presidential candidates. The research indicates that while neither candidate was perceived to be trustworthy, Trump was trusted more where it mattered most — on a key issue in the swing states.

“The topic of trust, particularly in organizations, has been of interest to my colleagues and me for some time,” said study author Sherwyn P. Morreale, a professor in communication at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

“We have developed and written extensively about a research-driven model of trust that has five drivers, or reasons, why people trust others, or not. The model outlines five underlying drivers of trust: openness and honesty, identification, concern for others, reliability, and competence.”

“As the presidential primaries and then the general election campaign ensued, quite a few pollsters called attention to the lack of trust in the political candidates,” Morreale added. “Intrigued by those polls, we realized that the unanswered question was why, what were the underlying drivers or reasons or causes of the lack of trust, particularly in Clinton and Trump.”

“We determined therefore to apply our model of five trust drivers to investigating public opinion nationally of the two candidates. The two census-representative national polls reported in our published study provide a clear answer to the question of why.”

The researchers conducted one survey of 1,500 Americans immediately before the first presidential debate and a second survey of another 1,500 Americans after the third debate.

Clinton was rated as more open and honest than Trump after the first debate, but this relationship had reversed after the third debate. However, Clinton was also considered more competent, concerned for others, reliable, and a person with whom respondents could identify after the third debate. Clinton was seen as a bit more trustworthy than Trump, but overall Americans had little trust for either candidate

The study also found that Clinton was more trusted regarding the issues of health care, crime/violence/guns, education/college affordability, race relations, and climate change/environment. Trump was more trusted on terrorism/national security and immigration. The two candidates had equivalent trust perceptions for economy/jobs.

An analysis of swing states, which were key to Trump’s electoral victory, showed that terrorism/national security was a focal issue. “The trust advantage on this issue for Trump in part contributes to understanding the Electoral College difference from the popular vote,” the researchers wrote.

“Perhaps the general public should be somewhat more aware of how they make judgments about trust or the lack thereof — in political leaders, government, governmental institutions and organizations,” Morreale told PsyPost. “Then in the best of all worlds, we could interact with these entities in a focused and better informed manner.”

The researchers also found several demographic differences.

Gender had no link to trust evaluations for Clinton, but it was linked to evaluations of Trump. Men were significantly more trusting of Trump than women and transgender individuals.

There was a stark difference in regards to race and ethnicity. Black Americans were more trusting of Clinton than Trump, while white Americans were more trusting of Trump than Clinton.

More educated Americans tended to be more trusting of Clinton than those with less education, while less educated Americans tended to be more trusting of Trump.

Liberals viewed Clinton as trustworthy, while conservatives viewed Trump as trustworthy. But moderates tended to view neither of them as trustworthy.

“As the study indicates, there is some tendency for various demographics to shape our perceptions of trust or the lack thereof; just knowing that about ourselves could be informative,” Morreale explained. “That is not to say that the collective thinking of any group of people is not valid; rather, becoming aware of our collective perceptions may serve all of us well.”

The study makes no claims about causality and trust is only one factor of many that influenced the 2016 election.

“Good research should always yield as many if not more questions than it answers,” Morreale said. “That is our hope, with this study. That said an important societal question may be how the electorate and the leaders whom we elect can move back to the more trusting climate and culture that existed until approximately the middle of the 20th century.”

“Albeit, the rise of information dissemination through mass and social media probably is a significant impacting factor. However, continuing to address the public’s generalized lack of trust contemporarily, as it relates to the five drivers, is a question that could and perhaps should be addressed.”

The study, “Voters’ Perceptions of Trust in 2016 Presidential Candidates, Clinton and Trump: Exploring the Election’s Outcome“, was also co-authored by Pamela S. Shockley-Zalabak and Carmen Stavrositu.