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Why Some Super Tuesday Voters Trust Donald Trump

Trust is a relative term, after all

This article originally appeared in Fortune on March 1, 2016.

By Kent Grayson

As the various campaigns ramp up for Super Tuesday, trust will undoubtedly be a word used on all sides — whether candidates seek to extend or solidify leads, narrow gaps, or accelerate momentum.

In the Democratic primary races, the stakes are the highest for U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders who trails former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. On the Republican side, real estate executive Donald Trump continues to lead, and there is pressure for U.S. senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz to show which one can coalesce non-Trump supporters among the GOP.

No matter who comes out on top tonight, voters will ask which candidate can they trust — and what does trust really mean, anyway? Trust is not a yes-or-no issue, but a matter of honesty, benevolence, and competence. So for many voters, their choice will not be a simple matter of who is more or less trustworthy, but also how much weight the voter is going to place on each dimension of trust.

Research shows that trust is multifaceted and can be broken down into three elements. The first is honesty; can we trust the person to tell the truth and keep promises? The second is benevolence, meaning can we trust the person to regard others’ needs as being equal to or greater than their own? The third is competence: can we trust the person to be able to do the job?

On the Democratic side, the issue of trust has crystalized into a contest of competence versus honesty. In other words, when voters ask themselves which candidate do they trust —Clinton or Sanders — their answer will depend on the kind of trust they’re asking about.

If the trust question is which Democratic candidate is the most competent, I think most undecided voters would probably think that Clinton has the edge based on the breadth of her experience. Although Sanders has a record of competence built from serving in the U.S. Congress since 1990, Clinton’s competence was built on a more diverse and influential stage—not only in Congress but also as First Lady and as Secretary of State.

If the trust question is about honesty, most Americans think Sanders has the advantage, according to a Gallup poll released last week. With his emphasis on small donors and his long record of speaking “truth to power,” many voters view Sanders as being more forthcoming and consistent than Clinton.

Clinton, on the other hand, has been dogged by issues of honesty, including her use of a private email account during her 2009-2013 tenure as Secretary of State, which remains under investigation. Recently, Clinton has also drawn some criticism in the media for telling an interviewer “I’ve always tried to [tell the truth]. Always. Always” — the word “try” perhaps indicating what one commentator called “wiggle room.”

Sanders’ more favorable perceptions in relation to honesty help explain why the candidate, who characterizes himself as a Democratic Socialist, has been more successful than expected thus far. Against a candidate with unassailably superior competence and honesty, he might not be as big of a threat.

While many voters may pine for the perfect candidate, most recognize that voting —like many choices in life — involves making trade-offs. When political commentators say (as they often have this season) that Sanders appeals to voters’ hearts and Clinton appeals to voters’ heads, what they’re really referring to is the tradeoff many Democratic voters feel they need to make between honesty and competence.

On the Republican side, the trust question focuses more centrally on how voters define the different dimensions of trust. For example, Rubio supporters might define competence based on his more than 10 years as a public servant, both in the Florida House of Representatives and in the US Congress. In contrast, Trump supporters may look at the government gridlock of the past 16 years and conclude that business success is a better predictor of competence than experience in Washington.

Republican voters may also differ on how they define integrity. For Cruz, it’s all about consistency. His supporters view him as having greater integrity because they believe he does not change his views over time to suit the climate or the audience. For Trump, it’s about candor. Trump may not be as consistent as Cruz over time but, for Trump supporters, integrity judgments hinge more on “telling it like it is,” and not saying things for the sake of political correctness.

Trust’s multiple facets also help give voters ways to justify their choice once they’ve made up their minds. A Clinton supporter may recognize that she has an honesty deficit. But that supporter may argue that what matters most in a president is the competence that comes from Clinton’s extensive experience. And, a Sanders canvasser may accept that the senator does not have his opponent’s foreign policy experience, but asserts that competence can be developed on the job, whereas honesty cannot.

- Kent Grayson is an associate professor of marketing at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and faculty coordinator of The Trust Project at Northwestern University.

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