In an Iowa focus group the other day, some Democratic voters were quizzed about Hillary Clinton. Their host, journalist Mark Halperin, asked, “What did she accomplish that you consider significant as secretary of state?” – and everyone in the room was stumped.
One voter replied, “I really can’t name anything off the top of my head.” Another replied, “Umm…no.” Another replied, “Give me a minute. Give me two minutes.”
The focus group video is being circulated by conservative websites, as proof that Hillary has no record to run on. But in truth, the episode is no big deal – for a host of reasons:
Most voters generally have no clue about candidates’ track records. How many focus groupers could name anything that Jeb Bush did as governor of Florida, or anything “significant” that Marco Rubio has achieved in the Senate? Back when I covered the 2000 presidential race, I chatted up voters at George W. Bush events and asked them to say what they liked best about Dubya’s six-year tenure as governor of Texas. I got blank stares every time. Eight years earlier, covering the ’92 race, I asked voters at Bill Clinton events what they liked about Bill’s Arkansas gubernatorial record. Surely there was something; the guy had served 12 years. But, again, I got blank stares.
Even if voters paid close attention to Hillary’s secretary of state stint, singling out a “significant” achievement wouldn’t be easy – because she was only one of many foreign policy players, in an administration where decision-making has been tightly controlled by the White House. Very few secretaries of state have been consequential: Henry Kissinger, James Baker, maybe Condoleezza Rice (until she clashed with Dick Cheney). In Bill Clinton’s second term, Madeleine Albright was a high-profile promoter of human rights, but when she left office in ’01, I doubt the average person could’ve singled out an achievement.
Voters don’t pay much attention to the arcana of foreign policy (unless Americans are being killed abroad, though even that factor has become less important since the draft was abolished). For instance, in a national poll not long ago, most Americans said that foreign aid spending was 10 percent of the federal budget; some said it was 30 percent. Correct answer? One percent.
One of those Iowa responses – “Give me a minute. Give me two minutes.” – sounded vaguely familiar. And sure enough, here’s what President Dwight Eisenhower said in 1960, when a reporter asked him to name something that Richard Nixon had achieved during his eight years as Ike’s veep: “If you give me a week, I might think of one.” That’s what happens to a team player. When the senior George Bush ran for president in 1988, I doubt that many voters could’ve singled out anything Bush did during his eight years as Ronald Reagan’s veep – much less anything “significant.”
As for focus groups in general…don’t get me started. They’re random collections of people who often don’t know anything. Granted, they lead busy lives and have every right to assign politics a low priority, but in this era, all it takes to raise one’s political IQ is a few clicks on the mouse, a Twitter account, and two thumbs on a phone. I’ve watched numerous focus groups via a one-way mirror, and at times I’ve literally smacked the palm of my hand against my forehead. This gem from 2008, for instance: “I’m a little concerned about Obama. I don’t know enough about his Muslim background and their beliefs and how he views everything. I’m a little concerned. I need to check his background.” And in Iowa the other day, this voters’ response to the Hillary question says it all: “I honestly can’t say I followed everything that was going on.”
Truth is, voters are typically guided by their gut instincts about the candidates (are they likeable and relatable?). Voters like a good resume, but they’re not going to sweat its details. They know Hillary is “experienced,” but they’re not going to divine the finer points of her experience.
And if foreign policy issues are going to be a hot in ’16, as Republicans anticipate, who in the GOP field (aside from long-shot Lindsey Graham) has even a smidgen of Hillary’s foreign policy seasoning? To quote Ike: if you give me a week, I might think of one.
The race will not be a referendum on Hillary’s tenure as secretary of state. It will be a choice. As another Iowa focus grouper said of Hillary, “I mean, it’s either going to be that or Scott Walker.”
OK, here we go: A solution to the overpopulated GOP debate stage.
Late yesterday, Fox News – the broadcast arm of the Republican party – decreed that there shall be only 10 contestants in the kickoff scrum on Aug. 6. Participation will be limited to the candidates who, on average, occupy the top 10 slots in the last five national polls as of Aug. 4.
According to the current average of the most recent five polls, this means that Ben Carson and Donald Trump would go on stage – while two sitting governors (Bobby Jindal and John Kasich), a sitting senator (Graham), the sole female (Carly Fiorina), and the winner of the ’12 Iowa caucuses (Rick Santorum) would get shut out.
Is this gonna be fun, or what?