Let’s face it: Crowdsourcing questions for presidential candidates often feels like a waste of time, because audience members frequently ask the same things that a skilled moderator would have come up with, anyway — and would have phrased more articulately and concisely.
But town hall events, like the one CNN held for the Democratic White House hopefuls in Des Moines on Monday night, can be powerful reality checks for politicians who love to dismiss controversial subjects as media creations. If that story line you don’t like comes up in a question from Joe Voter, well, it’s hard to pretend that it’s not something Real People care about.
Boy, did Hillary Clinton get a dose of reality in Iowa, where polls are all over the place but show her losing ground one week before the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses. Right out of the gate, questioners hit the former secretary of state with some of the least flattering narratives about her.
This was the first question from the audience:
It feels like there is a lot of young people like myself who are very passionate supporters of Bernie Sanders. And, I just don't see the same enthusiasm from younger people for you. In fact, I've heard from quite a few people my age that they think you're dishonest, but I'd like to hear from you on why you feel the enthusiasm isn't there.
And this was the second:
Secretary Clinton, earlier this month Vice President Joe Biden said you were a newcomer to the issue of income inequality, while praising Senator Sanders for his authentic voice on the issue. How do we know that you will keep this issue a top priority?
To review the premises of these questions: Clinton doesn’t inspire passionate support, isn’t honest and trustworthy (a perception that consistently shows up in polls) and isn’t as authentic as top rival Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont on the subject of income inequality, a key issue in this year’s Democratic primary.
Even the third question, which came from a man who identified himself as a strong Clinton supporter, introduced the troublesome topic of Benghazi. (The man said he was impressed by Clinton’s performance during a congressional hearing on the 2012 attack last fall.)
When compliments come with that kind of baggage, you’re having a rough night.
Clinton answered smoothly and smartly — as she usually does — but if she had any doubt about why her lead is slipping away (again), the lines of questioning at Drake University should erase it. These are the things on voters’ minds. These are real problems that Clinton has not adequately addressed, perhaps because she remains convinced that her experience and self-branding as a “progressive who likes to get things done” will outweigh voters’ qualms.
In the end, she might be right. But the race is a lot closer than she or anyone else imagined. And the questions Monday night showed exactly why.