With speculation running high about the possibility of Vice President Joe Biden making a late entry into the 2016 Democratic race, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are expressing skepticism about the prospect of a Biden campaign and presidency.
Simultaneous focus groups conducted on Monday by Bloomberg Politics’ Mark Halperin and John Heilemann in the two states where the first ballots of the presidential election will be cast provided some surprising insights into the state of the electorate at a crucial point in the Democratic presidential campaign: The run-up to the first nationally televised debate next week.
The focus of the past few weeks in politics has been squarely on the vice president: Will he get in the race or sit this one out? While a handful of New Hampshire Democrats said Biden would be qualified to be president, only one Iowa Democrat said he should run.
When asked to describe Biden, some used the term “experienced,” others said “personable,” and one called him an “experienced wildcard.” Others answered simply, “Not interested.”
More ominously for Biden, focus-group participants in both states indicated they do not see the gaffe-prone Biden as presidential material.
“I like him personally, I’m not sure he would make the best president for us,” said Diane, a retired teacher from New Hampshire. “I worry sometimes about some of the things that he’s done and said.” Marilyn, a retired school principal from Iowa, said she wants to see Biden in the race—but not to win it. “I don’t really think he should be president, but I think he’d be a wonderful debate partner,” she said.
Dave, an administrator from Iowa, questioned the rationale behind a potential Biden candidacy. “I just don’t think he brings anything to the field that we don’t already have, so it just complicates things in a way that I don’t find valuable or helpful.” Jonathan, a New Hampshire resident who renovates apartments for a living, was even more adamant. “Nothing about him would make me even think about voting for him,” he said.
After participants in both groups were shown footage from Biden's emotional appearance last month on the Late Show With Stephen Colbert, where he expressed doubts about whether he was ready to run for commander-in-chief after the death of his son in May, skepticism about his potential only grew.
“I felt for him, but I still don’t see that spark, that want-to, that passion, just even in his posture,” Breneisa, who works in youth development in Iowa, said. “I just don’t see presidential.”
Meanwhile, the focus groups showed that some candidates who already are challenging former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination have made little headway with voters. In New Hampshire, only three people said they had heard of Martin O’Malley, but knew nothing about him. In Iowa, more focus-group participants knew the former Maryland governor's name, but not much else. Asked to briefly describe O’Malley, Richard, a custom picture framer from Iowa, said: “I know who he is but not enough to answer three words.”
But growing momentum for Clinton's chief rival, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, suggests he has a credible shot at picking up the key early-voting states. Reactions to Sanders in the focus groups reflected recent polls in the two states: In Iowa, they show Sanders behind Clinton but gaining ground, while a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll of Granite State voters released at the end of September showed Sanders leading Clinton by 14 percentage points.
In the New Hampshire focus group, the registered voters who said they are likely to participate in the Democratic primary were unanimous in telling Halperin that Sanders will be the eventual winner of their state's primary. “He’s in touch with I think a lot of things we’re thinking about,” said Ken, a school principal from New Hampshire. In Iowa, when Heilemann asked who would win the caucuses, likely caucus-goers split between Clinton and Sanders.
Despite rising concerns about Clinton that have more to do with her personality than any scandal surrounding her e-mails, Iowa participants unanimously predicted that Clinton will be the party's eventual nominee. New Hampshire participants leaned slightly toward Clinton as the eventual overall Democratic victor, but several said Sanders would win, reflecting a change in expectations from just a few months ago.
Clinton was uniformly seen by participants as “experienced,” “knowledgable,” “a strong Democrat,” “impressive,” and “probably will win.”
“I think she’s done very well, I think she’s putting forth her experience and knowledge in a way that people can feel confident about her,” Bob, an adjunct professor from New Hampshire, said of Clinton, who also served as U.S. senator and first lady. “She’s just got the experience and in a really troubled world that could be helpful.”
Others like the glimpse Clinton's campaign has been offering of the grandmother behind that formidable résumé. Voters are getting to see a “more approachable” and “more personable” side to Clinton than they did when she first ran for president in 2008, said Shirley, a church elder from Iowa.
When asked to name a policy Clinton has put forth during her campaign, New Hampshire participants were hard-pressed to provide an answer, despite recent policy announcements on issues ranging from gun control to the cost of prescription medications. Participants said they want more media coverage of Clinton's policy proposals and less focus on the controversy over her use of private e-mail as secretary of state, a matter than is now the subject of multiple lawsuits and congressional investigations.
“Move on, there are plenty of different topics that she can be talking about,” said Gonzalo, who works at Home Depot in New Hampshire.
Voters' harshest criticisms of Clinton came when discussing her personality.
In New Hampshire, participants were asked “what Secretary Clinton could do or would have to do to win you over and say, ‘Absolutely I’m voting for [her],’” prompting comments that illustrated the challenges facing the the nation's would-be first woman president. Shannon, a teacher from New Hampshire, faulted Clinton for “that scorned kind of woman thing that’s a little off-putting.”
“You know when she’s, I don’t want to use the word…” she added, before audibly whispering an epithet that begins with “b.” “It’s that, like, ‘women need to be equal.' I mean…I don’t feel unequal.”
While the men in the room at first seemed to try to avoid the discussion, Kara, an office manager from New Hampshire, jumped in. “I would agree with that,” she said. Referring to a video clip the focus group saw earlier of Clinton delivering her signature line, “If equal pay for equal work is playing the gender card then deal me in,” Kara said: “I don't feel unequal...so that's not an issue that speaks to me.”
Male participants in the group then weighed in cautiously. Bob, the adjunct professor, agreed that he saw Clinton as having “a little bit of an edge” that “could bother people.”
“I just think her sharpness sometimes,” said Ken, the high school principal. “If she’d lose that, I’d vote for her. That’s my biggest problem with her.”
Joe, a project manager from New Hampshire, disagreed. “It’s a double standard,” he said. “If it was a guy up there saying that, he would be impassioned.”
Regardless of personal feelings about her, almost all New Hampshire participants said they worry that Clinton’s personality could hurt her chances at claiming the Oval Office. In Iowa, however, likely Democratic caucus-goers recalled Clinton’s gender card comments as “powerful.”
“I would say that what she’s doing is stirring up some important issues, trying to go head on with a real important issue for a lot of people,” said Breneisa, the youth development worker.
“I think she kind of brought up a lot of issues against her in a tactful way,” Shelby, a finance and home mortgage manager from Iowa, said. “She knows what people are saying about her but I think she went about it in a very professional way.”
With voters from both early states lukewarm toward Clinton, cool on Biden, and unimpressed if not completely unaware of O'Malley, the door seems to be opening for Sanders. Likely voters in both states described the 74-year-old senator as “exciting,” “interesting,” “knowledgable,” and “a visionary.” Alec, a fitness consultant from Iowa, called the socialist a “game changer.” “The little guy matters, you know, so I think he’s talking to people like me,” he said.
Both focus groups expressed an interest in Sanders’s strong rhetoric about income inequality and a respect for his knack for raising large amounts of campaign contributions through small donors. “I think it shows broader appeal,” said Joe, a project manager from New Hampshire.
The focus groups were organized by independent polling firm Purple Strategies. Participants came from the Manchester, New Hampshire, and Des Moines, Iowa, areas and represented a variety of ages and socio-economic and educational backgrounds. They agreed to be quoted without their last names. 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 much more from Bloomberg Politics’ Democratic focus groups, watch With All Due Respect on Bloomberg TV and BloombergPolitics.com Wednesday at 5 p.m. ET, and come back to Bloomberg Politics on Thursday for Republican focus group results.