AURORA, Colo. — It’s been a good few weeks for Jeb Bush, who has been setting the pace among prospective 2016 presidential candidates — at least in the view of some in the elite world of political donors, strategists and commentators. But even before the news that Mitt Romney is thinking about a third campaign, a dissenting view on Bush was registered here Thursday night.
A dozen Denver-area residents spent two hours dissecting the state of the country and its politics. The 12 participants — Democrats, Republicans and independents — are weary of political dynasties. They were dismissive, sometimes harshly, in their assessments of Bush, the former Florida governor. They were also chilly toward former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton.
When the name of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was introduced into the conversation, however, many of those around the table, regardless of party affiliation, responded positively. To this group, who spoke in stark terms throughout the evening about the economic challenges of working Americans, Warren has struck a chord.
The two-hour session, moderated by Democratic pollster Peter Hart for the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, turned upside down much of the conversation about the coming presidential campaign, where Bush and Clinton occupy so much space.
It is important to emphasize that this was simply one group of 12 people. They are not necessarily a representative cross section of the entire population, any more than a dozen donors or a dozen strategists would be. But as with all recruited focus groups, the collective impressions and individual observations provide a valuable counterpoint to the conversation that is taking place among political insiders.
The participants in Aurora have barely begun to engage with their 2016 choices; most are not even close to the starting line. But they are underwhelmed by the prospect of a race pitting another Bush against another Clinton. When Charlie Loan, an IT program manager and Republican-leaning independent, said half-seriously that he would be happy if Congress would pass a law banning anyone named Bush or Clinton from running, half the people in the room agreed.
Reactions to Bush were viscerally negative. When the participants were asked for short impressions of him, the responses included the following: “Joke.” “No, thank you.” “Clown.” “Don’t need him.” “Greedy.” “Again?” One said, “intriguing” and another said, “interesting.” That’s as close as anyone came to outright enthusiasm for Bush.
Hart asked the group which individual from a long list of current politicians they would least like to have as a next-door neighbor. Eight named Bush. “I’m tired of it,” said Brandon Graham, an IT systems engineer and Democratic-leaning independent. Jenny Howard, who works in accounting and voted for Romney in 2012, said, “He’s running off the Bush name and thinks that means something.”
Clinton fared slightly better. Instant impressions included the following: “Don’t like.” “Strong.” “Spitfire.” “Untrustworthy.” “More of the same.” “Politician, but gets things done.” The reactions echoed what has been found in polls and in other focus groups, which is that Clinton has stature but remains a polarizing figure.
Most of the prospective presidential candidates were only vague figures to these Coloradans. When names such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) or Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) or Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) or Mike Huckabee, the former Republican governor of Arkansas, were raised, many indicated they didn’t know enough to have even a superficial impression.
Of those in the Republican field, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) drew positive comments, not necessarily because the members of the group know that much about him, but because they find him new and intriguing. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) was better known but not admired.
Warren proved the exception to all this. Quick impressions voiced about her were highly positive: “Passionate.” “Smart.” “Sincere.” “Knowledgeable.” “Intelligent.” “Capable.” One person said, “questionable.” That was as close to a negative reaction as she got in that round.
There were other signs that Warren, who has said repeatedly that she is not running for president in 2016, had caught the eyes and ears of people in the room. She was the popular choice as a next-door neighbor, seen as genuine and personable. Even one of the most conservative members of the group said this.
Several said that if they could pick from a long list of national politicians, they would prefer to have the chance to have a long conversation with Warren, describing her as both articulate and down to earth. “She’s a strong woman, and I’d like to sit down and pick her brain,” said Susan Brink, an independent who backed President Obama.
Howard, an independent who voted Republican in both 2012 and 2014, was among those who offered an admiring view of Warren. “If she ran, I think she could be the next president,” she said.
What’s behind all this? The rest of the discussion on Thursday helped to explain why the participants feel the way they do, from the lack of enthusiasm for Clinton to the obvious disaffection with Bush to the comments about Warren.
These voters distrust elected officials and are disgusted by what they regard as the privileged lives they lead. To them, Bush and Clinton represent a political class that is seen as living lives apart from those they represent, people who are seen as out for themselves rather than for ordinary people.
“They want your vote, but I feel like once they have that, the American citizens end up being voiceless,” said Karstyn Butler, a homemaker and caterer who voted for Obama.
Just as significant was the feeling that the economic recovery has not touched most people. Rick Lamutt, a cable company technician who said he leans Republican and voted for Romney, said he sees the problem every day.
“I’m in 10, 12, 15 homes a day, every day,” he said. “People are hurting. . . It’s just crazy to see what people are doing just to pay their bills.” He scoffed at talk of a rising economy with plentiful jobs available. “If you want to make $9 an hour, you can get a job,” he said. “But if you want to make a wage that can support your family, good luck.”
Howard offered her situation as evidence. She said her husband has been out of work for more than a year. Meanwhile, she carries a hefty student-loan debt, with monthly payments that she said are nearly twice what she spends for housing.
Those realities are shaping the qualities these voters say they are looking for in the next president. Andrew Regan, a beekeeper and Democratic voter, said the next president should be “someone who understands what everyone in America is going through — someone that we can relate to, someone who we understand and someone who understands us.”
After the group had departed into the freezing drizzle outside, Hart stayed behind to sum up what he had taken away from the conversation. The group had started predictably, he said, and then turned quite unpredictable. He found several things to be notable.
“One is [that] the political classes told us it’s going to be Bush against Clinton. But these people are hundreds of miles away from that choice,” he said. “Essentially what they’re telling us is, ‘I don’t trust these people. They’re part of an establishment that I don’t like.’ ”
That was one turning point, he said. The other was Warren. “Elizabeth Warren, from every part on the compass, had a level of support,” he said. “She’s not invisible. She’s not unknown. She’s not undefined.” And, he added, she has reached them on the issue that so many spoke about, which was their own economic concerns.
“You couldn’t leave this without feeling how hard-pressed these people are and how they’re looking for someone who will be a voice for their cause,” he said. “And Elizabeth Warren has broken through.”
That, he added, was wholly unexpected when the focus group was organized.