Where an Insider Label Might Help Hillary Clinton

Focus group suggests the former secretary of State's experience is a benefit, at least in New Hampshire.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers a keynote address during the Watermark Silicon Valley Conference for Women on February 24, 2015 in Santa Clara, California. (National Journal)

It's something people like to say—on the campaign trail, a candidate is better off playing the Washington outsider than talking about inside-the-Beltway accomplishments. That seems especially true when Congress and the president are as deeply unpopular as they are today.

But for Hillary Clinton, whose campaign will be built on her decades of work in Washington, a focus group conducted by Bloomberg Politics/Purple Strategies suggests that experience might not be the albatross that pundits expect.

Asked if the next president should be "experienced in the ways of Washington" or someone who's from "outside the system" who can "bring real change," the New Hampshire Democrats participating said they preferred an insider who knew how to work the system. They cited President Obama as a cautionary tale for outsiders who think they can come in and change the system entirely.

"Based on what happened with Obama being the outsider, I would say we have to go back to the having somebody in there who knows how to play the game and make it work," one woman said. Another woman in the group echoed that sentiment: "Somebody who has a little bit more experience in Washington, who knows how to, unfortunately, manipulate the system "¦ is kind of what's necessary to get things done," she said.

Clinton is making a similar argument. In one of her final speeches before an expected April campaign announcement, she touted the importance of "relationship building" in ending partisan dysfunction in Washington. She offered examples from her time in the Senate, such as her work to convince President George W. Bush of the need for additional post-9/11 aid for New York.

"If you don't build relationships with people, and all you do is show up to argue "¦ you can't get anything done," she told an audience in Atlantic City, New Jersey. "And there's been too much of that in the last years."

By emphasizing collaboration and compromise with political opponents, Clinton is previewing the kind of message she might deliver as a candidate while also contrasting herself with Obama, who ran in 2008 as an outsider and has struggled to get anything done with Congress.

And the former secretary of State is, in the minds of these focus group Democrats, the kind of insider who can work the system. "She's Washington smart, she knows the inside stuff," one man said. "I think she's smart, I think she's quick, I think she knows how to work Washington," a woman in the focus group added.

The Londonderry focus group consisted only of Democrats, who have an incentive to hope Clinton is the kind of candidate and politician who can succeed in D.C. (Indeed, she may be their only real option in the 2016 primary.)

But consider polling from Bloomberg in December, conducted by the Iowa-based Selzer & Co. In that survey, respondents were given a list of characteristics about Clinton and asked whether they were an advantage or a disadvantage. On one statement, "She has lived in Washington and worked in the federal government," 78 percent of respondents—from both parties—said it's an advantage for Clinton. Just 20 percent said it was a disadvantage.

Still, recent data shows no consensus on the insider-vs-outsider issue. In a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released this month, respondents nationally seemed opposed to the idea of another Clinton or another Bush in the White House.

Asked whether they thought it was time for a "more experienced and tested person" or "a person who will bring greater changes "¦ even if he or she is less experienced and tested," 59 percent opted for the change candidate—up four points from when the same question was asked in July 2008.

On Clinton specifically, 51 percent of respondents said she would "represent too much of a return to the policies of the past," compared with 44 percent who said she would "provide the new ideas and vision the country will need for the future."