SALT LAKE CITY — Dishonesty isn't a deal breaker for most Republicans in the age of Donald Trump.
Fifty-five percent of Republicans say they would still vote for a presidential candidate in 2020 who they believe "would lie to cover up the truth," according to a new Deseret News survey on honesty and the Ten Commandments. That's up from just 12 percent of Republicans who said the same in July 2015, when a Fox News poll asked the same question.
Only around 3 in 10 Democrats (30 percent) and independents (27 percent) say they would still vote for a presidential candidate who lied if they agreed with him or her on most issues. But when asked about a race for governor in their state, 29 percent of both Republicans and Democrats, along with 31 percent of independents, say they would stick with a candidate for governor who seemed dishonest if they agree with him or her, the survey reported.
The fact that Republicans answer differently for presidential and gubernatorial candidates likely points to a "Trump effect" on moral expectations, rather than a permanent ethical shift, political scientists said.
The overall number of voters who say they would support a presidential candidate they agree with even if the candidate seems willing to lie to cover up the truth has grown from 21 percent to 36 percent since 2015, an increase that has taken place entirely among Republicans and independents.
The Deseret News poll was conducted online by Y2 Analytics and YouGov from March 10-13, 2018. It includes responses from 1,000 U.S. adults and an oversample of 250 Mormons and has a margin of error of 3.1 percent. The survey is a key part of the Deseret News’ annual Ten Today project, which explores the relevance of the Ten Commandments in modern life.
Partisan differences likely stem more from this political moment than voters' true feelings about honesty, political scientists said, noting that Trump supporters have long since accepted his tendency to stretch the truth.
"Even if they wouldn't want him as a pastor, if they wouldn't like a guy with Trump's proclivities toward dissembling in their personal lives, he seems to be a reliable servant to their political, ideological ambitions," said Tom Wood, an assistant professor of political science at Ohio State University.
Democrats would also be prepared to make moral sacrifices, but it's not easy for them to admit that right now, said Monika McDermott, a professor of political science at Fordham University.
"Trump is the person who everyone is thinking about (in the survey) and Democrats revile him. Of course they're going to say, 'No. I wouldn't take a liar,'" she said. "But if it was someone promoting democratic policies, it's safe to assume Democrats would change their tune a little bit."
"It's not just about whether a politician is lying or not. It's whether he's lying on my behalf," McDermott added.
That's a natural reaction in many contexts, Wood said. In the wake of a sports scandal, people get angry, but they don't switch teams.
"You might be slightly less optimistic about a candidate (caught lying) but you would still support him or her as a partisan obligation," he said.
Partisanship, which political scientists also call "tribalism," is playing a growing role in American politics.
"We live in an age of exquisite polarization," Wood said. "It's almost unthinkable for most partisans to consider walking to the other side."
Tribalism helps explain the ongoing "fake news" phenomenon, driving members of the same political party to dispute a provable fact, such as the size of the crowd present for Trump's inauguration, noted Scott Basinger, an associate professor of political science at the University of Houston. Co-partisans unite around certain lies they've agreed to call the truth.
"We're all somewhat more credulous when it comes to people from our tribe and more skeptical when it comes to people from other tribes," he said.
Tribalism affects voters' moral expectations, making them more willing to accept a candidate who has had an affair or told a lie if that politician is from their own political party, Basinger said.
An imagined past
In spite of measurable shifts in how partisans think about honesty, political scientists say Americans shouldn't spend too much time wringing their hands over an imagined past when everyone demanded honesty from politicians. We've always had the stomach for some white lies, sins of omission and even a few major untruths.
“I would love it if every person sat down and agreed to a 'Schoolhouse Rock' version of American government, which says that every utterance of our national political figures sets the moral thermometer in our country. But that’s not how Americans see it. They have a fairly low estimation of politics,” Wood said.
Peter Brunk, a 38-year-old software engineer who lives near Richmond, Virginia, said he'd vote for a presidential candidate who seems less than honest because lying is part of the game. People campaign on a broad set of promises known to entice members of their party and then narrow their priorities later.
"I think most people will tell you that there is never an ideal candidate for them. They're just picking between the leftovers," he said, admitting that he's grown more cynical as he aged.
Voters understand that political campaigns are like advertising campaigns, Basinger said. There's some fluff mixed in with the true policy goals.
"When you hear, ‘This is going to be the best pizza you’ve ever eaten,’ no one believes that. There's a different standard for that kind of puffery,” he said.
The role of hypocrisy
Stretching the truth can become dangerous for a politician — especially if he or she has lied about something previously presented as their defining characteristic, McDermott said.
"When you add hypocrisy to a scandal, it makes it more damaging," she said. "If you're going to talk the talk, you need to walk the walk."
But Trump can get away with lying about the polar ice caps or crime data because honesty was never central to his reputation, McDermott said.
"People have never thought Donald Trump was an honest person. Since they went into (his presidency) with that expectation, they don't seem to need honesty from him," she said.
Trump supporters can accept fact checks of his statements without wavering in their support, according to research led by Wood and a team of other political scientists.
For example, one study highlighted incorrect claims from Trump about rising crime rates, analyzing how his supporters responded after being exposed to FBI data showing a decline in crime. Participants adopted a better understanding of crime rates, but Trump's favorability among the group stayed the same.
This willingness to stick with a liar enrages Democrats and others who dislike the president, adding to political polarization. But deep commitments are hard to give up, so current conflict won't be easily solved, Basinger said.
He referenced a 1950s book on cognitive dissonance, a psychological concept used to describe acting against one's stated beliefs. The book described a doomsday cult waiting for aliens that didn't come on the date the group had predicted. The more sacrifices members had made to be part of the cult, the more likely they were to excuse the missed date and double down on the alien-related teachings.
"The people who had given up the most in order to join the cult were the ones who were the most committed," Basinger said.
The political parallel is that a voter who accepts dishonesty early on will continue to accept it. We all want to save face, he added.
That's problematic for our political system, which depends on good people being put in positions of power, said Kristen Amundson, president and CEO of the National Association of State Boards of Education.
"The only way government can work is if there is a basic belief that people are trying to do the right thing," said Amundson, who served in the Virginia General Assembly from 1999 to 2009.
In general, women are more concerned about candidates' moral reputations, according to the Deseret News survey. Thirty-one percent of women said they would still vote for a presidential candidate who seemed dishonest, compared to 41 percent of men.
"Women tend to put a higher priority on moral standards," said McDermott, who studies the fallout from political scandals. Research shows that's true in nonpolitical contexts, as well, although surveys haven't sought to explain why, she added.
Honesty should matter in politics, just like it matters in our homes and workplaces, said Ashley Phillips, a 34-year-old teacher in central Illinois, noting that we can't raise children to care about honesty if we're not being consistent.
"If I'm trying to teach kids to be true and honest, I wouldn't want to follow a leader who is not true and honest," said Phillips, an independent who didn't vote in the 2016 presidential election because she felt uncomfortable with both major-party candidates.
Political scientists doubt that a candidate's reputation for honesty will ever be more valuable than political goals at the polls.
"We think we have high moral expectations, but, when the rubber hits the road, context becomes important," McDermott said.