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No One Knows Whether Hillary Clinton Is Authentic

The solution to Hillary Clinton’s recent slide in the polls, according to David Axelrod: Be more authentic. And, indeed, Clinton gets heaps of abuse for alleged inauthenticity.

But authenticity is overrated. There may be no other word more misused by the media and by political pundits. And it’s doubly useless: First, “authenticity” means different things to different people; we use it as a proxy variable for traits that we do like, forgetting that authenticity can just as easily stand in for variables that we don’t. And second, even these varying definitions of authenticity don’t necessarily lead to electoral success.

There’s no objective measure of authenticity, so we can’t throw it in a regression model with electoral results to isolate its impact. But when you look at the situations where authenticity and its markers have been applied, it’s difficult to find evidence that authenticity was ever paramount in voters’ minds.

Trustworthiness and honesty may be the traits most closely associated with the idea of “authenticity.” In the 1992 Democratic primary, Bill Clinton was followed by accusations of infidelity, and that he was lying when he denied them. But Clinton’s perceived electability trumped voters’ sense of his dishonesty. Clinton won the Democratic nomination and then the White House.

Fast forward a bit: Clinton’s job approval rating was never higher than it was after voters knew (60 percent of them did, anyway) that he lied about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, probably because voters believed that the economy of 1998 and 1999 was the best they’d ever experienced. It may well be true that Clinton’s personal character ratings constrained his job approval ratings, but the economy hummed — and that mattered more.

In these polarized times, a slight majority of the American public thinks President Obama is honest. With one exception, Obama’s numbers on this characteristic have been at least 50 percent, according to Gallup. But Gallup also found that the percentage of Americans who think he’s a strong leader has consistently been lower. Similarly, Obama’s job approval rating has consistently underperformed his honesty numbers. For enough Americans, Obama’s performance matters more than our assessment of his character.

What about “authenticity” as a stand-in for “approachability” or “likability”? That doesn’t predict who wins elections so well either. During the 2000 presidential election, pundits loved to talk about the fact that people would rather have a beer with George W. Bush than Al Gore. And yet Gore won the popular vote in 2000. Gore “doesn’t pinch cheeks,” his then-wife Tipper said. “Al’s not that kind of guy.” In other words, he was authentically stiff. And what of Bush, the toothpick-chewin’, brush-clearin’ Texas governor? His lineage was more noble than Gore’s: Bush went to Andover, and Yale and Harvard, and his grandfather’s first name was Prescott, for goodness sakes. His presidential image was meticulously crafted, with attractive qualities that Bush possessed (he was an evangelical and born-again, believed in redemption, and genuinely connected with Hispanics long before he first ran for office) projected from his identity homunculus, and negative qualities (he lacked depth, curiosity, had a significant temper, was overly loyal, could be childish and arrogant) squashed.

In a very real way, the consistent attention on Gore’s alleged inauthenticity itself created the perception that the Gore we were seeing was inauthentic. We may not know what “inauthentic” really is, but if you quantify this variable as the amount of negative press attention a candidate’s personality receives, it’s easy to see how the media’s obsession with such a squirrely variable can hurt a candidate.

The Democrats’ next presidential nominee, John Kerry, had much the same problem in 2004. Tagged as a patrician and a flip-flopper, Kerry suffered from a much-discussed likability gap during his effort to defeat Bush. But the likability gap was much bigger than the margin Kerry lost by. And, in fact, Kerry did better than the “fundamentals,” structural factors like the economy, suggested that he would.

Let’s get back to Hillary Clinton’s problem. What matters for a candidate, the former Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom told The New York Times, is that “you appear genuine.”

Well. The Times got a preview of how the Clinton campaign planned to respond to the charges of inauthenticity: create a strategy to demonstrate her authenticity. So meta! Stephen Colbert mocked the meta-narrative. Axelrod said headlines about the reboot read like they were from the The Onion. The Washington Post wondered if Bernie Sanders’s “no-nonsense authenticity” is why he’s drawing enormous crowds. Hollywood mega-agent Jay Sures announced that he was supporting Joe Biden, in part, because “his authenticity just came shining through.”

Polling data shows that as Clinton found herself subject to scrutiny over the private email server that she used as secretary of state and as the Democratic race has gotten more competitive, virtually every measurement associated with her character — including whether she’s a strong leader and cares about the average person — has declined, not just her honesty ratings.

Indeed, thinking through Clinton’s authenticity problem can bend your mind. Let’s pick a relatively objective standard: the “big five” traits that psychologists use to determine someone’s baseline personality.

Let’s posit that Clinton’s personality — her level of extroversion, her agreeableness (the degree to which she trusts others), her sense of order and conscientiousness, her engagement with culture and her inner emotional equilibrium — can be measured on a test, and it comes out as X. X is Authentic Clinton. Now, reader, think about your own mix of traits. In fact, take the test and see how you score. Your score is Y. Authentic You.

Everyone’s Y is different. But we treat Clinton as if her X must somehow move toward everyone’s Y, or she’s not authentic. To put it in more concrete terms: If Clinton’s personality mix shows her to be more introverted, less trustful, highly conscientious and mildly agreeable, then no amount of prodding or campaign fine-tuning will make her more authentically extroverted.

Moreover, Clinton’s X manifests itself differently in different situations. But journalists compound the error by comparing a candidate’s behavior in private with his or her behavior in front of a live audience. Bad mistake. Humans behave differently in private than they do in front of groups, and audiences expect different things when they know they’re listening to a political speech, versus when they’re meeting someone one on one.

Ken Walsh at U.S. News & World Report wrote recently of Clinton’s “softer side”: “And when I got to spend time with her, I learned that she could be fascinating and fun; she has a sense of humor and enjoys having a good time.”

Oh really? He continues: “The problem was, and still is, that she doesn’t let many people inside what she once called her ‘zone of privacy,’ and consequently, very few people ever see her more appealing side.”

Well, sort of. It’s a zone of privacy because the circumstances influencing her behavior in private differ from the circumstances influencing her behavior on the campaign trail. The fundamental attribution error we make tries to disabuse us of this distinction, attributing to someone a set of fixed traits indifferent to environmental changes.

What Walsh is really saying without quite realizing it is that Clinton cannot fake certain traits in public that she exudes in private. He is praising her authenticity, by accident.

We make a dangerous mistake if we evaluate authenticity on the basis of how a person responds to the artificialities of the American campaign season.

No one knows what authenticity really is, so it’s not super useful in understanding elections. Let’s stay away from catch-all adjectives that ghostwrite our explanations for candidates’ behavior. It’s not fair to them, and it’s not the way we actually choose our leaders.

Check our our live coverage of the first Democratic Debate.

Marc Ambinder, a writer based in Los Angeles, has covered every presidential campaign since 2000.