Hart Research Associates conducted a set of two focus groups in Columbus, Ohio on Nov. 16 for Annenberg’s “Voices of Voters” project.

Split by gender, the voters came from different political and ideological backgrounds and supported a range of candidates in the 2016 presidential race, Annenberg reports the focus groups, conducted by Peter D. Hart and Corrie Hunt, explored the groups’ thinking on Hillary Clinton, the leading Democrat who seems destined to be the Democratic nominee next year.

Clinton’s ‘Glass Curtain’

“President Kennedy stated about Columbus, Ohio: ‘There is no city in the United States in which I get a warmer welcome and less votes than Columbus, Ohio,’” Hart and Hunt begin their analysis of Hillary Clinton. The times have changed from the 1960s. Columbus and the county it’s in, Franklin, have become islands of blue. President Obama won the county twice, and Columbus has a mayor and city council composed of all Democrats.

Hillary Clinton’s ‘Glass Ceiling’ Challenge

  • These voters, Hart and Hunt observed, “respect Hillary Clinton for her experience, understanding, and knowledge about policy, and especially for being a person who can deal on the international front.” Moreover, they describe her as having a “backbone of steel, titanium, or iron…Nobody underestimates her professional abilities or how formidable she is.”
  • She’s in a class of her own, and may be the right person for the times. The initial conclusion by Hart and Hunt is that the so-called “glass ceiling” that stops women in general from advancing to leadership roles in business or government won’t prevent Clinton from becoming the first woman president.
  • For Clinton, there appears to be a “glass curtain” between Clinton and voters in these two focus groups, many of whom feel that they cannot relate to or trust her. Even her supporters express uneasiness about their ability to connect with her.
  • These voters perceive a glass curtain or invisible shield between them and Hillary Clinton, through which they can see and study her, but they cannot touch or relate to her.
  • Women in this discussion expressed positive attitudes toward having a woman president, saying that electing a woman would be a great achievement.
  • Among attributes a woman president would bring, be it Mrs. Clinton or Carly Fiorina, group participates cited “organized,” “determined,” “good listener,” “multitask-oriented,” “level headed,” and “a strong fighter.” Women describe a woman being elected president as “a breakthrough,” ”a historical achievement,” and “refreshing.”
  • The session was conducted three days after the terrorist attacks in Paris, so on that topic, Clinton’s perceived resolve added to her stature, and diminished both Donald Trump (too strong or mercurial) and Ben Carson (not ready).
  • To some men, Hillary Clinton is “smart,” “honest,” and has “something to prove,” while to women she is “powerful,” “strong,” and “experienced.”
  • Among both genders, terms such as “liar,” “questionable honesty,” “not good vibes,” “deceptive,” “controversy,” and “polarizing” were offered.
  • These findings underscore that even in the wake of a strong period for the Clinton campaign, these attitudes are well embedded in voters’ psyche.
  • Voters’ perception of a female president (in general) bringing the quality of “inclusiveness” to the table does not translate to Hillary Clinton; on the contrary, she is perceived as someone who is polarizing and surrounded by controversy.
  • When asked to which family member Hillary Clinton reminds them of, women feel much closer to and more supportive of Hillary Clinton than do men.
  • Hillary Clinton offers a divided profile, one of admiration and respect for her professional abilities, knowledge, and strength, which made her head and shoulders above the competition.
  • The comfort level with her personally has not advanced much from the day she first contemplated seeking the presidency in 2016.
  • While 2016 is a year Republicans are in turmoil, searching for their candidate, Democrats are more “united and accepting” of their frontrunner than they have been in 40 years.
  • 2016 feels like it should be a Democratic year (the GOP is without a natural nominee, and it remains a party with a tremendous gulf between the establishment and its electorate on social issues).
  • Voters remain very unhappy about the direction of the country, and give President Obama passing grades (B’s to D’s), but running a campaign to “keep the good times rolling” may not work for Clinton should she become the nominee.
  • “Hillary Clinton has often referred to the ‘glass ceiling’ she is trying to break through. These voters also are trying to break through, but for them it is a “glass curtain” that prevents them from relating to her.” This group of Columbus voters say she is remote and distant. “Whether it is her voice, manner, attitude, or language, there is a gulf,” Hart and Hunt said.
  • “At this stage, one year before the election, the challenge facing Hillary Clinton is to find a way to relate to voters and more important, provide voters a way to relate to her.”