The conventional wisdom these days is that grassroots Democrats are happy with their presidential candidates, and confident about recapturing the White House in 2008. But, after attending a Democratic focus group the other night, I am tempted to conclude that the prevailing mood is far less festive than generally described.
Democratic pollster Peter Hart, working with the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, gathered 11 Democratic voters in a Philadelphia conference room, and elicited their opinions about the '08 race. Along with a few noteworthy Washington journalists, I watched the proceedings from behind a one-way mirror. They knew we were there, and they agreed in advance to be quoted by name. That's the basic focus-group format.
Obviously, this was not a scientific national sampling, and these particular Democrats won't have a say in the '08 nomination race, because Pennsylvania schedules its party primary in April, when it makes no difference. But their nuanced remarks helped to explain why the Democratic polls have been tightening lately, and why so many Democratic voters have yet to be conclusively sold on either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama (not to mention the rest of the field).
Basically, there's considerable concern about whether those frontrunners are electable - or, if elected, capable of governing effectively.
Of the 11 voters (six live in Philadelphia, five in the suburbs), only four count themselves as Hillary supporters. Another is undecided, but leaning toward her. Without trying to extrapolate too much, this underwhelming tally appears to suggest that her claim on the Democratic electorate is a tad soft.
Christopher Haig, a Philadelphian who works in the health care field, isn't backing anybody at the moment. His beef about Hillary is that she's too "embroiled in government," that "she's so connected" - meaning, in his view, that she's a status-quo insider. He said, "I'm looking for something completely different."
Andrew Alebergo, a Philadelphian who owns a tanning salon, who is leaning toward John Edwards, fretted that Hillary would just perpetuate the polarization that has afflicted America for so long, thanks to her membership in one of our apparent family dynasties ("Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton"). He put it this way:
"Hillary is divisive. You remember how ugly (the mood) was when Bill was in charge? Just imagine what the Republicans would pull out if Hillary is elected...It'll be red state/blue state all over again...poisonous for the country."
She was sometimes dismissed by these Democrats as too calculating. When they were asked how they thought Hillary might choose to spend a few hours of free time, Philadelphia lawyer Ray Kempenski scoffed, "Depends on what the polls would say."
Even one of her supports, Red Cross manager Lynda Connelly, said she was worried about Hillary's lack of support among women - specifically, upscale professional women. Polls show that that these voters continue to hold back. Connelly talked it out: "Women sometimes can be their own worst enemies. There are women who are jealous that (Hillary) is intelligent, that she has gone to the heights she has gone to. They say to themselves, 'Maybe I could have done that, if only I had made this or that choice'...and so they take it out on a woman who has been successful. I don't understand it, myself." (Fresh evidence, here.)
It also turned out that one of the Hillary supporters, retiree Venetta Allen of suburban Yeadon, is doing so strictly on the rebound. Her first choice is actually Barack Obama - but she doesn't think he can win a general election. Allen, who is African-American, doesn't believe that most Americans would elect a black man, no matter what they tell pollsters. So she's for Hillary, because she thinks that the gender barrier is lower than the racial barrier.
On the racial issue, she was seconded by Philadelphian Cheryl Ewing, who is also black. Ewing is backing Obama over Hillary, but she has no faith that he'll make it all the way: "No matter how intelligent the gentleman might be - he could be a rocket scientist, but people still don't want a black in office...The country's racist."
Craig Gilmer, a job recruiter from nearby Norristown, agreed with Ewing. He too is black, and an Obama supporter. But he fears that Obama, because of his skin color, might not get the requisite "respect" that a candidate needs in order to win.
Only five of the 11 participants think that Obama can win a general election - and not just because of his race. Despite his rock star appeal, some in the room questioned whether he's qualified for the job. Kempinski said, "In eight years he might be an ideal candidate. He's not there yet...There's a level (of competence) that you can only get with experience."
Alebergo nodded in agreement. He said that if Obama made some rookie mistakes in the wake of a terrorist attack, many Americans might not be so willing to cut him slack, and "he'd have a tough time digging his way out....If we weren't involved in a war, I'd say that he is just what we need." But, because of the war, "I'd hesitate to put him in charge."
In the end, there was rough agreement that, despite many nagging reservations, Hillary would probably be the most effective nominee next fall. There was little love for Hillary in that room, but she kept getting points for "toughness," and even Alebergo said he sensed that,as president, she would handle herself well in a crisis.
This may well be an accurate mirror of the national Democratic mood. Above all, these voters want to win. As they got ready to leave, pollster Hart asked if they had any parting advice for the Democratic candidates. Most said things like "be fearless" and "be tough." But Edward Suchy of Hatboro had the last word:
"Don't be a loser."