In a sea of soberly dressed supporters, Debbie Boyd dazzles.
The retired deputy sheriff wears a white straw hat on which a miniature Hillary Clinton doll sits, surrounded by flowers and little American flags. Red, white, and blue peace signs clatter around her neck, and “Hillary” stickers adorn her cheeks. She even carries around a picture-book biography of Mrs. Clinton that she hopes to get autographed.
“She sends a message to little girls about what it means to be a leader,” says Ms. Boyd, a mother of two, when asked what excites her about her candidate.
Few others standing in line for the Clinton rally at the University of California, Riverside on Tuesday wear their support as overtly as Boyd, a former Republican who switched parties to vote for Barack Obama in 2008. The orderly, almost quiet scene outside the venue seems to illustrate one of the most persistent criticisms leveled against Clinton: her lack of likability, expressed in part by a relative disinterest among her supporters.
And when placed beside the more outspoken advocates for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders – some of whom came to the Tuesday rally to protest Clinton’s candidacy – or the outrage that marks followers of presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, Clinton voters do appear almost dispassionate.
But none of that means the former secretary of State fails to inspire, her supporters say. To them, the ability to excite and rile up a crowd is less important than experience, a sense of respect, and the skill to negotiate one’s way out of a problem. These voters say they choose to show their enthusiasm in less sensational ways, whether it’s donating to Clinton’s campaign or encouraging others to educate themselves and turn out to vote.
“I’m not looking for someone to entertain me,” says Boyd, as she squats on the grass to add tinsel to her “Hillary” poster. “I’m looking for someone to lead this country.”
'We are very enthusiastic'
Which isn’t to say passion doesn’t exist among Clinton supporters. Inside the Johnson Family Practice Center at UC-Riverside, a current of anticipation runs through the gathering – an intimate affair that is typical of Clinton’s rallies. When she at last appears just after 6 p.m., the crowd cheers, waving campaign-issued balloons and posters.
“We are very enthusiastic,” says Sebastiano Grasso, a local artist, dismissing any suggestion that Clinton is unable to galvanize her supporters. “We’re just not punching people, yelling at people.”
Others, like Carrie Lucas, say they show their enthusiasm with actions, not words. Ms. Lucas, a ballroom dancing instructor from Corona, Calif., says she donates to the Clinton campaign with every paycheck.
“I put my money where my mouth is,” she says.
Denise Davis, a school administrator at the University of Redlands, defends Clinton’s ability to move her constituency.
“If you’ve ever seen her live in person, she’s completely energizing,” Ms. Davis says, recalling how she managed to convince her mother to vote for Clinton over President Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries. “She went to see Hillary speak and that’s what swayed her decision.”
But Davis's support for the former secretary of State goes beyond optics. To her, Clinton embodies progress that is earned over decades.
“She’s very much interested in progressive, social change, and she’s in a position to make that change happen,” Davis says. “She would be the first female president – that’s huge in itself. But she has the best ability to make change happen.
“That’s what fires me about her.”
Solutions, not slogans
Likability was not always a criterion for electability. Indeed, the Founding Fathers would “be horrified by the modern presidential campaign,” Slate’s John Dickerson noted in 2012.
“In their day,” he wrote, “no man worthy of the presidency would ever stoop to campaigning for it.”
Particularly since the advent of television, however, the charm factor has haunted many a losing candidate.
“There’s an assumption that the candidate you want to win is the candidate you prefer to” hang out with, says Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University’s School of Public Affairs in Washington. “It becomes a cue for whether [or not] you trust this person, whether they’ll understand people like you, whether they’ll have your interests at stake, whether they get what it’s like to be a real American living in this country right now. It’s all rolled up in this term called ‘likability.’ ”
“I don’t think Hillary Clinton … comes off as a warm and fuzzy person you want to hang out with after work,” she says.
And it shows, at least in the polls. As of mid-May, only 40.2 percent of Americans saw Clinton as a favorable candidate, according to the Huffington Post, which tracks data from more than 400 surveys nationwide. Mr. Trump is doing just worse, with 38.7 percent of voters viewing him as favorable in the same period. The figures represent some of the lowest favorability ratings for presidential candidates in American history.
For Clinton, the problem is that “it’s hard from the outside to think of any non-career or pre-career aspect to her life,” writes New York Times columnist David Brooks. “Except for a few grandma references, she presents herself as a résumé and policy brief.… It’s hard from the outside to have a sense of her as a person; she is a role.”
Yet the folks at the Clinton rally on Tuesday applaud her rational approach, saying they support her precisely because she is about her work and not her celebrity.
“She has done so much for this country,” says Earlene Freeman, a retired registered nurse, as she leans on her walker. “She will better represent the values that I have; she wants people to reach their potential.”
“And it’s time for a woman to be president,” she says.
Clinton’s younger supporters seem to be thinking along similar lines.
“Her approach is very analytical,” says Callie Scoggins, a senior at Redlands East Valley High School, about a half-hour drive from Riverside. “She won’t be quick to do something without considering the consequences.”
“What it comes down to,” adds Tyler Washington, a new graduate at Riverside, “is that the other candidates are like the tooth fairy or Santa Claus, offering magical rewards. Clinton is like the mom telling you to eat your vegetables.”
That may not make her likable, he says, but “those thinking with their brains understand what’s more important.”
“We don’t need a slogan,” adds Mr. Grasso, the artist. “We need solutions.”