Mark Shields: Early returns from Ohio

Mark Shields

COLUMBUS, Ohio – How important politically is Ohio? Of the nation’s first 10 Republican presidents, seven of them – from Ulysses S. Grant to Warren G. Harding – were native sons of Ohio. In fact, no Republican has ever won the White House who did not first carry Ohio. And in the most recent 13 presidential elections, Ohio has voted for the winning White House candidate.

This is why it made good sense to come here to listen as two focus groups of Ohio voters, one entirely male and the other entirely female, conducted by two respected pollsters, Peter D. Hart and Anna Bennett, spoke frankly about the state of the nation and the 2016 presidential campaign and candidates less than 12 months before Election Day.

Shannon Bird, a 36-year-old IT analyst who identifies himself as an independent leaning Democratic and currently leans toward Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont but who had spoken positively about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s strength and intelligence, was asked by Hart what, if anything, bothers him about Clinton. Bird’s answer: “She reminds me of the wife on ‘House of Cards.'” For those unfamiliar with that Netflix TV series, which portrays a relentlessly amoral and sordid political Washington, the brilliantly conniving ice-queen wife is Claire Underwood, who makes Lady Macbeth look like Mother Teresa as she plots with her equally ruthless president-husband.

But what makes these sessions, done under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, so fascinating is that we confront the complexity of voters – for example, when participants here were asked what material the backbones of the candidates are metaphorically made of. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush could not be encouraged by responses such as “marshmallow,” ”Jell-O” and “Styrofoam.” For Clinton, according to the group of 12 women, which included a number of harsh critics, her backbone is composed of steel (six in the group said that), titanium, metal and iron – more positive responses than those drawn for Barack Obama at any time over the past eight years in similar sessions – along with wire, rubber and plastic.

What relative does the candidate remind you most of? The jury’s verdict is in on Republican front-runner Donald Trump. To Rachel Barnes, 36, a Democrat and a homemaker, the billionaire businessman is the “racist uncle” she had to warn her children about. Several compared Trump to a “drunk uncle,” and one described him as “Mom’s abusive boyfriend.”

Clinton did not fare that much better. To Lauren Smith, a 22-year-old student who leans Republican and likes Carly Fiorina, Clinton is the “evil stepmom,” while to teacher and Hillary supporter Karen Kendall-Sperry, 60, Clinton is her “spinster aunt, who was a businesswoman her entire life.” To strong Democrat and Clinton backer Anita Hicks, 49, Clinton is the “controlling, bossy mom.”

But when it came to the demands of the office – from dealing with terrorist attacks to dealing with the economy to negotiating simultaneously with difficult allies and obnoxious adversaries – these two groups overwhelmingly, 22 out of 24, said they are confident that Clinton could fill the job of president. No other candidate came anywhere near that level of support, and Ben Carson, the former pediatric neurosurgeon who has been near the top of the polls, got a vote of non-confidence from 21 of the 24 voters.

The early returns from Ohio are clear. Hillary Clinton’s strengths as a candidate are formidable. She is judged to be smart, exceptionally experienced, strong and tough. What she is not seen as is personally likable or completely honest. Very few question Clinton’s intellect or her competence; too many doubt her integrity. Dealing with this is her problem and her challenge.

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