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Democratic activists on Clinton email flap: What scandal?

In early presidential states Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, Democrats think the story on Hillary Clinton's emails will not swing many votes.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attends the EMILY's List 30th Anniversary Gala at Hilton Washington Hotel on March 3, 2015 in Washington, DC.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attends the EMILY's List 30th Anniversary Gala at Hilton Washington Hotel on March 3, 2015 in Washington, DC.

While controversy over soon-to-declared presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email account while she served as secretary of state has dominated headlines and overtaken Washington this week -- Clinton confidante Lanny Davis told msnbc Friday she had been "a little bit behind the curve" in getting the facts out -- the story has landed on the doorsteps of Democratic activists in key presidential nominating states with barely a notice.

Almost to a person, more than a dozen Democratic activists and party officials -- most of whom are not aligned with Clinton – told msnbc in interviews Thursday that the email flap has not broken through to voters in their states and is unlikely to damage the presumed Democratic nominee in the long run.

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“It’s been three days and not one person has brought it up, and I’m out in a lot of places,” said Dan O'Neill, an alderman in Manchester, New Hampshire, who did not support Clinton in 2008 and remains uncommitted for 2016. “Nobody has brought it up, even my wife. We watch TV at home and we saw the story, but we didn’t even talk about it. Nothing.”

"It’s been three days and not one person has brought it up, and I’m out in a lot of places."'

In South Carolina, Democratic National Committeeman H. Boyd Brown, who is no Clintonista and wants former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley to challenge the presumptive frontrunner, nonetheless saw partisan motivations behind the story. “Folks out here are really talking about the need for a primary. If she’s going to be vetted, she needs to be vetted by Democrats in a primary, and not wait for the general election,” he told msnbc. “Do people care about emails? Probably not. But what this does is distract Congress and give them another reason not to do their job.”

And in Iowa, longtime Joe Biden friend and ally Teri Goodman said: “I don’t think that story’s had any impact here.”

Clinton’s use of a personal email account to conduct official business while she served as America’s top diplomat, first reported by The New York Times Monday, has set off days of negative press coverage, accusations of criminality from Republicans and subpoenas from a House investigative committee.

The lengths Clinton apparently went to shield her emails from public disclosure laws fit with her decades-long penchant for privacy. And the story has alarmed some Democratic operatives, who worry the former first lady and New York senator has not learned lessons from her 2008 presidential primary loss to Barack Obama.

But political scientists say these kinds of stories, while fanned into white-hot scandals in Washington and New York, are unlikely to carry much heat outside the Northeast Corridor. It’s also a view shared by many Clinton defenders, who argue the so-called scandal is unlikely to resonate with voters and activists on the ground.

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“The actual public response to the controversy is likely to be a combination of apathy and partisanship,” wrote Dartmouth professor Brendan Nyhan, who studies the intersection of the media and politics.

Many Democrats in the early presidential nominating states agreed. And even though Clinton’s dominance means most are loathe to criticize her publicly, the sentiment was nearly universal.

Dave Pollak, the Democratic Party chairman of conservative-leaning Belknap County in central New Hampshire, said even his Republican best friend doesn’t take the story very seriously.

“Is it illegal? Is it stupid? Who knows. It's the sort of questions we can't answer. You don't really think about how people use email in Washington very much,” Pollak said. “It doesn't strike me as something that people care very much about.”

With no declared presidential candidates on either side this far, election season hasn’t really begun, meaning most voters are still not paying attention and not yet gathering to discuss their potential nominees. And without a major Democratic challenger eager to inflame the issue and recruit voters who might be turned off from Clinton, it’s hard to see how the story makes a major splash in a Democratic primary – at least so far.

RELATED: Report: Hillary Clinton used private email throughout tenure at State Dept.

In Iowa, Sue Dinsdale, the executive director of the progressive grassroots group Iowa Citizen Action Network, said most people were concerned with more immediate issues.

“The little that I have heard is that it’s just a distraction. There are so many important things that we should be concentrating on, and it’s not like she’s trying to hide the emails,” Dinsdale said of Clinton. “It’s just kind of like, why is it such a big deal?”

With most voters tuned out at this early stage of the campaign, those paying attention now tend to already have strong opinions about Clinton one way or another, said Kurt Meyer, the chairman of the Tri-County Democratic Party in northern Iowa.  

He called the private email account an “unforced error” and said Clinton’s “reluctance to be transparent is certainly cause for concern,” but he still thought the story didn’t have legs in the state that derailed Clinton’s presidential ambitions in 2008.

“I am not [pollster] George Gallup, though he was from Iowa, but my impression is that this is sort of the story du jour and it will pass,” Meyer said.

According to Tom Henderson, the Democratic Party chairman in Polk County, Iowa, which includes Des Moines, the story will only change minds if Republicans undercover real evidence of malfeasance. “It's more of a story inside the Beltway, but for the Democratic voter here in Iowa, unless there's some kind of connection to some kind of wrongdoing, it's just a story that's interesting to read about,” he said.

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Former Iowa Democratic Party chair Gordon Fischer, an Obama supporter in 2008 who was not afraid to go after Clinton then, said he was only “dimly aware” of the story, though he’s retired from party activity and doesn’t follow politics much these days.

For other Democrats, the controversy is generating a bit more heat -- but it’s not Clinton they’re angry with.

At a planning meeting Wednesday night for Iowa Democrats’ annual Wing Ding Dinner fundraiser, Cerro Gordo County Chairman John Stone said the dominant view among attendees -- some of whom were for Clinton, some of whom were not -- was that the email controversy amounted to little more than a “Republican witch-hunt.”

“They just didn’t seem at all disturbed by it,” Stone said.

In South Carolina, the partisan dynamic hits home thanks to the central role of Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy, who represents the state’s fourth congressional district and chairs the main congressional committee investigating Clinton’s emails, the House Select Committee on Benghazi.

"If Trey Gowdy’s for it, we’re against it."'

“If Trey Gowdy’s for it, we’re against it,” said state Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison.

“I don’t think [the story has] infiltrated political circles here, and those folks who are knowledgeable about it are somewhat dismissive and see it as conservatives and Tea Party folks trying to find yet another reason to bring down Clinton. Folks just aren’t buying it,” Harrison added.

Jay Stamper, a South Carolina Democratic activist who ran a longshot Senate campaign in the last election cycle, agreed. “I think there’s a lot of outrage at the extent to which this is being used as a partisan political attack, and a lot of bewilderment at how something like this could be blown up into some sort of scandal,” he said.

Even John Deeth, an Iowa City Democratic organizer who has long thrown barbs at Clinton on his blog, doesn’t think the story will do much damage.

“In our polarized partisan political culture, which is All About That Base Base Base and where only about 5% are actual swing voters, is ANYONE actually going to choose Scott Walker or Jeb Bush over Hillary Clinton a year and a half from now just because of this issue?” he wrote.

Nonetheless, the story is certain to resurface when the State Department releases the contents of Clinton’s emails several months from now. And with Gowdy’s committee sure to try to keep the issue alive, the controversy could make inroads into voters’ consciousness in the future.

And there are at least some Democrats who find Clinton’s actions troubling.

Paul McAndrew, an Iowa attorney and progressive activist who supported John Edwards in 2008, said he was both surprised and disappointed by the news of private email account, wondering if Clinton was trying to hide something.

“I see no good reason why one wouldn’t follow the laws that exist concerning archiving and open records,” he said.

But McAndrew added that his view was likely going to be in the minority. “I’ve had open records requests,” said the attorney, “so my response is probably loaded with past experience. I don’t think other people are going to respond in that way.”