Hillary Clinton Faces Tough Battle Winning Over Young Women

Hillary Clinton’s decisive win in the Nevada caucuses is a critical validation of her candidacy, though it also brought into sharper relief one of her campaign’s unexpectedly vexing problems: A majority of younger Democratic women are passing on the chance to cast their vote for the first female president and, instead, throwing in with the crusty socialist firebrand Bernie Sanders.

In the three Democratic contests so far—Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada—nearly eight out of ten of the women voters under 45 supported Sanders. Nationally, polls show that 64% of the Democratic women under 45 currently back the Vermont senator. In each of the three contests already decided, Clinton carried more than half the female vote, but that’s because younger voters almost always turn out in smaller numbers than older ones, no matter what the demographic.

So, why are younger women passing on the chance to make history and put one of their own in the White House? The answers—and they’re probably plural—are likely to be complex and anyone who claims to know them for sure probably should check into rehab and sober up. Here, though, are some of the possibilities: Among older Democratic women, automatic solidarity with Clinton is perceived as a feminist obligation—witness the remarks to that effect by Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright. Young women of the millennial generation, by contrast, have grown up in a post-feminist environment in which the hard won gains of Steinem’s and Clinton’s generation are taken for granted.

If the electorate remains as split in November as it appears to be today, though, Clinton will need to mobilize as broad a Democratic constituency as possible and it will be a problem if the younger women now supporting Sanders decide to stay home.

Some older feminists argue that when these young women actually get out into the world of work and the professions and see just how entrenched sexism remains, their attitudes will change. Perhaps that’s correct, but it also is true that many young, politically conscious women seem to reject the traditional definition of feminism, which places gender at the center of their identity. Instead, these nouveau-feminists embrace what many call “intersectionalism,” which places identity at the intersection of gender, sexual orientation, race, class and ethnic and refuses to elevate on over the other. For them, voting for a candidate merely because she is a woman is as bad as refusing to vote for anyone but a man.

Like all millennials, younger Democratic women have emerged into a world that appears to offer only shrinking possibilities for education, work, health care, retirement and economic advancement. As a consequence they live with a great deal of anxiety not only about their futures, but also about their immediate situations.

From the beginning of his candidacy, Sanders has spoken directly to those anxieties. He promises to lift college debt, to make higher education free for all, to push through a single-payer health care system and arrest the growing gap between the rich and everyone else. He is, in other words, speaking to female and male millennials where they live. Clinton has begun to try to do that, but Bernie was there first.

Younger Democrats put a high premium on authenticity. Bernie Sanders–rumpled, quixotic, contentious and passionate—is nothing if not authentic. Few would put authenticity among either Bill or Hillary Clinton’s most obvious qualities.

Millennials, male and female, live on the web and social media. They consume information in bites and, mostly, don’t have the attention span for Clinton’s sort of wonkish approach to social and economic issues. Older Democrats find her knowledgeable and realistic; younger ones find her boring. Sanders, by contrast, has a staccato message that breaks easily into Twitter-length bullet points. That resonates with younger voters who have grown up with Comedy Central’s topical comedy show, which serve as both sources of humor and news.

Younger Democrats put a high premium on authenticity. Bernie Sanders–rumpled, quixotic, contentious and passionate—is nothing if not authentic. Few would put authenticity among either Bill or Hillary Clinton’s most obvious qualities.

Clearly, they’re progressives and principled, but they’re also shrewdly flexible when it comes to the politically expedient. That may be realistic, but it’s not “authentic.” Moreover, both always have had about them a whiff of that smug baby boomer entitlement, an assumption that they have a right to do well for themselves by doing good for others and an unspoken belief that they’re free to trim a bit around the rules’ edges, because their hearts are in the right place.

The fact is that Hillary Clinton—with her firm base among older women and Democratic men, as well as African Americans—probably isn’t going to need her party’s younger women to win the nomination. And none of those women, who hold deeply progressive social values, is likely to drift toward Trump, Cruz or Rubio in a general election. If the electorate remains as split in November as it appears to be today, though, Clinton will need to mobilize as broad a Democratic constituency as possible and it will be a problem if the younger women now supporting Sanders decide to stay home.

The imponderable here is the fear factor: The prospect of having the country elect a vulgar, foul-mouthed, ill-tempered, self-aggrandizing ego maniac who never has given a minute of his life to public service just might energize Democrats and independents across the board.

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