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Hillary Clinton's 'Scooby' van adventure: Will it swing voters?

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Charlie Neibergall/AP

(Read caption) Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton talks with local residents at the Jones St. Java House, Tuesday, April 14, 2015, in LeClaire, Iowa.

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Hillary Rodham Clinton: she’s just an ordinary American, a footloose former secretary of state in a van named “Scooby” on a New York-to-Iowa road trip, stopping for Chipotle, chai, and water with lemon along the way.

She’s relatable. She’s authentic. She orders guacamole. Will this boost her standing with voters? Of course it will, say some members of the US punditocracy.

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“Her problem is not to prove to people that she’s ready for president,” said Time Magazine and MSNBC political expert Mark Halperin in a Tuesday appearance on Morning Joe. “The two words she needs are ‘fun’ and ‘new.’ And part of why yesterday was so successful is, she looks like she’s having fun and she’s doing, for her, new stuff. We’ve ever seen her get a burrito before.”

Hmmm. We’ve got a couple of comments here. First, technically speaking we have still never seen Hillary Clinton get a burrito. During her Monday run-through at an Ohio Chipotle, she ordered a burrito bowl, which is different. It lacks the crucial tortilla wrapping. (She also bought a chicken salad and a couple of soft drinks, in case you’re interested.)

Second, “fun” is not a word most patrons associate with waiting in a fast food line. “Boring” is the more appropriate term. “Tasty” might work too, if you’re hungry and they’re not out of carnitas.

But our real point is this: presidential campaigns devote far too much time and effort to portraying their candidates as relatable, just folks, somebody you’d like to sit down with and chug a caramel latte.

“Authenticity,” in this context, may not matter. It can’t be defined, in terms of a politician. Some of our most renowned presidents were hidden people with highly artificial public personas, points out political scientist Richard Skinner, who teaches at Johns Hopkins and George Washington University.

Franklin Roosevelt was famously two-faced. Dwight Eisenhower was far shrewder than his genial granddad act let on. John F. Kennedy would never have won the election if the voters knew about his health problems or womanizing.

“We may want our friends to be authentic. I don’t see why we should care whether our presidents are,” wrote Skinner on the Mischiefs of Faction political science blog in 2014.

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This does not mean candidate personalities don’t matter. At the presidential election level, where party nominees tend to be roughly matched in terms of accomplishment and resources, everything matters. Everything is interrelated. A butterfly flutters its wings in the Amazon, and we’re in President John McCain’s second term.

But personality matters on the margins. Fundamentals, such as the state of the economy, or voter partisan identity, matter more.

“It may feel as if we’re drawn to vote for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney because we like them. In fact, we’re just very receptive to liking candidates who we are (more or less rationally) likely to support in the first place,” writes political scientist and Bloomberg View columnist Jonathan Bernstein.
So go ahead, Mrs. Clinton – name that van “Noblesse Oblige.” In months to come, the trend in unemployment figures will matter a lot more than what voters
remember about your lunch habits.