Here’s how Hillary Clinton campaigned for president this week: She took a private 15-minute tour of a bike shop that had closed for her visit. She spoke to four small business owners chosen by her staff in front of an audience of 20, also chosen by her staff. She answered a few questions from the media following weeks of silence.
And after a little more than an hour, Clinton was off, whisked away by aides and Secret Service agents, into a minivan and on to the next event.
Members of the public who wanted to go inside the building to support her, oppose her or merely ask a question of her were left outside on an unseasonably cool Iowa day. Most didn’t bother showing up.
“I am troubled that so far in this caucus cycle she hasn’t had any public town halls,” said Chris Schwartz, a liberal activist from Waterloo, as he stood outside the bike store hoping to talk to Clinton about trade. “If she had a public town hall then we wouldn’t be out here. We would much rather be in there engaging with her.”
Welcome to Hillary Clinton 2.0. Mindful of her defeat by Barack Obama in 2008, Clinton has embraced a new strategy – one that so far does not include town-hall meetings and campaign rallies, media interviews, even public events.
Instead, she holds small controlled events with a handful of potential voters in homes, businesses and schools. She repeats many of the same lines (“I want to be your champion” is a favorite), participants are handpicked by her staff or the event host, and topics are dictated by her campaign.
Brent Johnson, 35, the owner of Bike Tech, said Clinton campaign staffers walked into the shop a week earlier and asked him if he’d be interested in hosting an event. He and the three roundtable participants were on a conference call with the campaign the day before to hear Clinton’s “basic talking points” about helping small businesses. A campaign aide says they found guests through the small business community.
Clinton’s approach – made possible by her lack of strong competition for the Democratic nomination – comes as she works to relate to working American families after years of being criticized as an out-of-touch Washington insider garnering hefty paychecks for her speeches and books.
But the campaign to show the world that she’s never forgotten her middle-class, Middle America sensibilities can be a tough sell from inside a bubble of armored cars, Secret Service agents and wary aides.
“It’s going to come back and haunt her,” said Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno. “I think it will backfire.”
Clinton takes a minute at most events to talk about her approach.
“This conversation is just another example of why I love doing this, because I always learn something and I feel like we need a conversation in our country again, where we are talking to each other, where we are respecting each others’ opinions,” she said, thanking the roundtable participants Tuesday.
As of Monday, Clinton had answered 20 questions from “everyday Americans” and asked 117 questions to “everyday Americans,” according to Correct the Record, a research organization designed to defend Clinton against attacks.
“In 2008, the rallies got so big you couldn’t talk to her,” said Scott Brennan, a former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party. “This provides a chance to get to know her.”
Clinton’s distance from the public stands in contrast to other candidates in both parties, who routinely mix and mingle with the public, hold town-hall meetings and appear on TV news programs.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, has been known to unexpectedly break into song on the campaign trail when someone hands him a guitar. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, unexpectedly posed for photos with a bride and groom last month after his speech in New Hampshire had to be moved to accommodate their wedding. And Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., was surrounded by crowds this week after campaign events in Philadelphia, where people lined up to shake his hand or pose for photos.
“You can’t script your way to the presidency – put yourself in a protective bubble and never interact with people, only talk to people who totally agree with you,” said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican. “It’s not going to work.”
Walking outside the bubble does pose political risks, of course.
Bush, for example, has faced tough questions, such as when a 19-year-old college student confronted him about former President George W. Bush’s role in allowing the Islamic State terrorist group to grow. “Your brother created ISIS,” the student said in a tense exchange at a town hall in Reno.
So far, Clinton has not held one event open to the public since she launched her campaign, though aides say she eventually will hold bigger events. She sometimes makes unannounced visits to coffee shop and stores, though the easily recognizable Clinton, who often travels with an entourage, frequently finds herself physically removed from the crowds.
“She’s someone I’m interested in seeing in seeing face to face and asking her some questions,” said Christine Elliott, 28, a librarian at nearby Wartburg College who generally votes for Democrats.
Elliott said she appreciates Clinton’s new strategy but wonders if it’s authentic. “It’s just advertising,” she said. “It’s a ploy to show that she can get down to our level. That’s how it is with all politicians.”
Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, said that while there’s value in hearing what potential voters say, the Clinton campaign has ensured she only gets friendly audiences even if she doesn’t know exactly what they will say.
“There’s not the same level of push-back. It’s always going to be artificial.” he said. “She shouldn’t be afraid to talk to voters and really campaign.”
Clinton spoke Monday to about 60 people at the Mason City home of Dean Genth and Gary Swenson, major Democratic organizers in Iowa who were among the first gay couples married in the state. They supported Barack Obama in 2008.
“It just thrills me that Hillary is coming to Iowa and really doing what Iowa caucus-goers love, which is having up-close personal interactions,” Genth said. “I think she is astute and smart at this stage of the campaign to come to Iowa and gather what is on Iowans’ minds.”
David Lightman, Sean Cockerham and Patricia Mazzei of the Miami Herald contributed.