An honest question: Where does truthfulness rank as Democrats select a 2020 candidate?

PolitiFact California explored how important honesty will be as voters select a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate.
PolitiFact California explored how important honesty will be as voters select a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate.

Honesty. It’s one of the many qualities Democrats will look for in a 2020 presidential candidate. But how much does it really matter? And has this value lost importance with President Trump in the White House, given his persistent and documented struggles with the truth?

PolitiFact California spoke with polling experts, and also asked delegates at the California Democratic Party Convention in San Francisco this weekend, about the topic. We gathered responses from these on-the-ground party enthusiasts about the value they place on a candidate’s truthfulness.

In addition, we fact-checked several claims made by the 2020 candidates at the convention, and we’ll continue to do that whenever they campaign in the Golden State.

The party delegates are considered among the most zealous and progressive Democrats in the state, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the average voter, or even the typical Democrat, statewide.

Still their voices are important. They’ll vote in November on which 2020 presidential hopeful the state Democratic Party should endorse.

How much we value honesty

The weight Americans put on honesty ebbs and flows. But during most election cycles, voters consider it a crucial quality for presidents, said Kathleen Frankovic, who spent three decades as survey director for CBS News.

"If you ask people a question specifically about honesty, you’ll find two-thirds sometimes saying it is a very important quality in a president," Frankovic, who now works as a polling consultant, said. "Ideally, Americans want a president who tells the truth, who is honest, who is trustworthy. They don’t necessarily always find it."

Voters didn’t find it in 2016 in either leading candidate. More than 6 in 10 Americans viewed both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as not being honest or trustworthy.

Early in the election, in a July 2015 Quinnipiac University National poll, voters said honesty was the most important quality in deciding their presidential vote. By September 2016, that quality had dropped to third most important in a Quinnipiac poll, behind good leadership skills and a president who cares about average Americans.

During his presidency, Trump has been blamed for attacking and degrading the truth. PolitiFact National has fact-checked President Trump’s statements nearly 700 times, rating 70 percent of those Mostly False, False or Pants On Fire, its most severe rating. The Washington Post, meanwhile, has logged more than 10,000 misleading or false claims made by Trump since he assumed office. Many are repeated falsehoods.

Frankovic said honesty has made comebacks through time. It gained renewed importance in the late 1970s, in the post-Vietnam War and post-Watergate period, when trust in government was at a low-point.

"Jimmy Carter won the Democratic nomination (for president) in 1976 in part by saying ‘I will never lie to the American people,’" she added.

Four years later, Americans voted President Carter out of office in favor of Republican Ronald Reagan. That’s because the value placed on truthfulness gave way to a desire for "strong leadership," Frankovic said.

What the delegates had to say

Elizabeth Talbott, a delegate from Stanislaus County, is backing Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren in 2020. She feels Warren is honest and trustworthy. But she also said what passes for the truth has expanded for many Americans since Trump was elected.

"I think that while people believe that truthfulness is important, I think that there’s a wider array of what is considered truth for more people, or what they would tolerate, than we would have prior to 2016," she said.

Talbott said the president is to blame. However, several delegates said former Democratic President Bill Clinton also helped degrade the truth.

"When the bar gets continually lowered and lowered and lowered and lowered, you can still be above that bar and still be below what would have been acceptable to people before," she added.

‘I will support anybody to beat Donald Trump’

Robert Nelson, a delegate from Pasadena, backs Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. And while he doesn’t trust Joe Biden, the former vice president and Democratic 2020 frontrunner, Nelson said that won’t stop him from voting for Biden, if necessary.

"I will support anybody to beat Donald Trump," Nelson said. "If I have to suck it in and vote for Joe, even if he continues to be as disingenuous as he appears to be, I’ll have to do that, but I’m not going to like it."

The Real Clear Politics poll average shows Biden is favored by nearly 35 percent of Democrats. That’s 18 percentage points ahead of Sanders, his closest Democratic competitor, who is at nearly 17 percent. Warren is polling at about 8 percent and Harris at about 7 percent.

Several Democratic contenders, including Sanders and Warren, took indirect shots at Biden at the convention. Sanders said "there is a debate among presidential candidates who have spoken to you here in this room and those who have chosen for whatever reason not to be in this room about the best way forward."

"We cannot go back to the old ways," Sanders added. "We have to go forward with a new and progressive agenda."

Instead of attending the convention, Biden participated in the Human Rights Campaign's LGBTQ civil rights gala in Columbus, Ohio.

People want ‘emotional honesty’

Democratic Delegate Joe Griego of Inyo County is undecided on a candidate. Before the 2016 election, he said he naively believed that all voters wanted a candidate that was completely honest.

"I realized," he said, "that people really want 100 percent fidelity in emotional honesty and perhaps not so much in factual honesty, unfortunately."

Griego said he’s torn about whether he’d support a Democrat who has issues with honesty.

"I’ve got to admit, it feels odd saying it out loud," the delegate continued. "Because I’d like to believe that, no, I just want to vote for person who is the most honest person."

Hopefully, Griego said, the party’s nominee is someone with integrity, and he won’t need to make that choice in 2020.

Compared with past elections, California will play a much larger role in deciding who the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee will be. It moved its primary up three months to March 3, 2020. Also, vote-by-mail ballots will be sent out on Feb. 3, 2020, the same day as the Iowa caucuses.

This weekend’s convention was just the start of major campaigning in the state. Voters can expect a flood of advertising and appearances in coming months by the Democratic contenders. As they arrive, PolitiFact California will be there to keep them honest.

PolitiFact and PolitiFact California are fact-checking the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. See what they’ve gotten right and wrong here.

Read and listen to Capital Public Radio’s full coverage of the California Democratic Convention here.