Donald Trump almost certainly has set records for the number of fact-checks conducted in a presidential campaign. Over the past 56 days, NBC News has exhaustively cataloged him making a long list of baseless claims. Hillary Clinton, for her part, has offered up inaccuracies — but not to the same extent.
Yet, by most measures, America trusts him more than they trust her. Could it be because one candidate is a man, and one is a woman?
Trump led Clinton by 4 points on “being honest and straightforward” in an October NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, taken just after the second debate when Trump denied tweeting “check out a sex tape” about a former Miss Universe when he most certainly did. Trump also led Clinton by 10 points on the same question in a September survey taken the week he finally conceded that President Barack Obama was actually born in the United States.
Experts who study the differences between how men and women speak and are perceived say that gender is playing a key role. When both speak authoritatively, the man’s credibility is boosted while the woman’s is questioned.
“People find it easier to trust men. Particularly…when you have two candidates running for an office that’s been the business of men,” said University of California-Berkeley’s Robin Lakoff, a leading expert on the intersection of language and gender. “Clinton is doing something that isn’t normal or natural and is forcing you to change the notion of how you want to look at women. This is scary — both for men and women. Something that makes you nervous, you don’t trust.”
To be sure, both Trump and Clinton have complex personalities and long histories in the public eye that contribute to their perceived trustworthiness.
Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele argues that America holds Trump to a different standard than all politicians, male or female. “People don’t see him as a politician, so they don’t hold that standard the way they hold it to Hillary Clinton,” he said. Steele isn’t voting for either Trump or Clinton, and the Trump campaign declined to comment for this story.
Trump has spent much of his campaign trying to discredit Clinton’s credibility, calling her “Crooked Hillary,” and arguing she’s a corrupt criminal who has somehow managed to “rig” the FBI. Like many of Trump's insulting nicknames against his rivals — “Little Marco” or “Low Energy Jeb” — “Crooked Hillary” taps into existing suspicion. Republican strategists often say Clinton’s penchant for privacy and secrecy — including things like her private email server — is why people don’t trust her.
But Steele said that there may also be a gendered standard at play. “People don’t see women as secretive, your mom doesn’t hold secrets from you, your sister doesn’t hold secrets from you, they project,” he said. A man with a similar taste for privacy would be applauded, he added.
“When we see a woman not talking in a way you expect to talk, you may feel uncomfortable,” explained Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University who has been studying Clinton since 1992. “She is authoritative, she’s extremely knowledgeable and articulate, and she cites facts and she cites her experience. It’s one of the things that makes people uncomfortable — because they think she’s scripted.”
Men, however, are expected to be authoritative, articulate and trustworthy.
“We’re so used to men who talk assertively, so when they talk assertively, we assume they know what they’re talking about,” explained sociologist Michael Kimmel, a leading expert in masculinity and professor at Stony Brook University.
Women have to surpass more hurdles in how they speak and how they are perceived. “If you appear too feminine, they discredit you, if you appear not feminine enough, they discredit you too. What a line you have to walk,” Kimmel said. “She’s not only going to be president, she has to be first mother.”
Former Ted Cruz communications director Rick Tyler said running against Trump often brought up those mind-boggling inaccuracies.
Cruz “was very focused on facts, but Donald Trump — we’d sit there slack-jawed!” Tyler said, acknowledging that women face different hurdles in politics.
The strategist, who voted for conservative independent candidate Evan McMullin, said it’s Clinton’s history in politics, however, that explains the distrust. She “seems central to the story of Washington corruption,” he said, which frustrates voters sick of the political status quo. She’s also just not as good a communicator as people like Barack Obama, he added.
“Hillary Clinton delivers her message confidently, but she’s not warm. It’s hard to deny that she’s not warm, she doesn’t give you that feeling,” Tyler said.
Does Trump feel warm?
“Donald Trump doesn’t feel warm,” he said.