Iowa Republicans say they feel overwhelmed by the large number of potential candidates at this stage of the 2016 presidential nominating contest and are waiting for the field to shrink before they focus on the race. But they share one concern: Jeb Bush’s viability.
Contrary to earlier polling, likely Republican caucus-goers who participated this week in a Bloomberg Politics/Purple Strategies focus group in Des Moines said they were not especially troubled by the former Florida governor's past support for Common Core federal education standards or changes to immigration policy.
Instead, they said Bush's loyalty to his brother, former President George W. Bush, and his stumbles in saying whether he would have invaded Iraq may weaken his chances for the nomination as well as his ability to beat Hillary Clinton if she is the Democrats’ 2016 nominee.
“Our country’s a country and I think it should be run like a business—and I don’t think it should be run like a family business,” said Lucy, 68, a retired saleswoman. “I just think he seems to follow a little bit into his brother’s footsteps, he’s not anywhere near as charismatic as the dad, and that’s too bad.” She also described Jeb Bush as “too laid back.”
Several participants indicated that they would prefer a candidate who appeals to younger voters and represents the future. The participants—five men and five women—also suggested that they would be open to considering candidates with limited foreign policy or governing experience if they had significant accomplishments elsewhere and demonstrated leadership and the ability to surround themselves with experienced advisers.
Initially, none of the participants said that it was crucial for candidates to appeal to blacks, Hispanics, or women. Pressed on how to appeal to a broader coalition of voters, Crystal, 30, a house cleaner, said Republicans needed to address immigration “because that affects a lot of Hispanic people that are here already.”
“I think we need a candidate that is going to make people feel safe, so this is going to be a safe place for them. And then they will have the confidence to vote for a candidate.”
While participants didn't describe Bush as the Republican front-runner, they acknowledged his fundraising ability and stature as a leading candidate.
Randi, 59, a retired lawyer who described herself as a moderate, was the only panel member to say Bush may be best poised to beat Clinton. Yet she said she was surprised and disappointed by his handling of the Iraq question.
“He should have known that question was coming,” she said, and had a “canned answer” ready. “I’m surprised that he wasn’t able to come forth and not have to go three times at it.”
Others cast their doubts about Bush in strategic terms, saying they are open to him personally but worry that other Americans’ resistance to him or to the family name may be hard to overcome, particularly in a potential general election matchup against Clinton.
Though Clinton also has family history in the White House, “it seems like no matter what obstacles she comes across, she's like Teflon,” Lucy said. “You know? It just kind of rolls off of her—or whatever Teflon does.”
“It’s just such a negative connotation when you see that Bush name, that people get, they get turned off, they don’t even know why they get turned off,” said Craig, 63, a retired teacher. “He can be the best candidate, but I just don’t know if, with the name connotation with the media, if he is electable or not. So that’s the only problem I have with him.”
“It’s too bad that that’s his last name, because I think people are really going to hold that against him, and I don’t think they should,” said Crystal, the house cleaner.
“It’s not fair, but it’s reality.”
As for other Republicans:
- Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s history of fighting labor unions was seen as a potential strength in the caucuses and a potential weakness in a general election. “It’s appealing to me, yes,” said Randy, 44, an underwriter. “Will it be appealing to the middle part of the electorate on whether, you know, he’s getting the union vote?” he said. “Let’s just say what it is: It’s not happening.” Only one member of the group expressed concern that Walker is not a college graduate.
- Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz appealed to some participants for their libertarian and conservative stances, while others questioned whether either could win the general election.
- Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s background as a child of Cuban immigrants appealed to participants, as did their impression of him as a family man. Craig said Rubio embodies “the American dream.” But Michelle, 32, a CPR instructor, said she had been turned off by Rubio's previous openness to a bipartisan immigration compromise that she regarded as amnesty for undocumented workers.
- Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who narrowly won the Iowa caucuses in 2012, didn’t hold much interest for the group. “He didn’t win,” Crystal said. “So why would I put all of our energy behind him again?”
Even those participants who could identify one or two candidates they were particularly interested in said they were largely ambivalent at this stage in the campaign, with eight months to go before the Iowa caucuses.
“I’m just listening and hearing and hopefully the field will narrow down, and them that will help me more knowing what I want to do,” Lucy said.
Added Randy: “If you could narrow that field down from the beginning, so with only six to eight people show up in Iowa and then you narrow it down from there, give them the less ammo, less time to beat on each other ... maybe the electability question maybe could take care of itself.”
Bloomberg Politics, in conjunction with Purple Strategies, conducted two qualitative focus groups in Des Moines, Iowa, one of likely Democratic caucus participants and one of likely Republican caucus participants. Each group consisted of 10 participants, both men and women, and from a variety of ages and socio-economic and educational backgrounds. Qualitative research results cannot be statistically analyzed or projected onto the broader population at large. As is customary, respondents were compensated for their participation.
For more from the focus groups, watch With All Due Respect at 5 p.m. ET/PT on Bloomberg TV or BloombergPolitics.com.