Hillary's Big Problem: Motivating Younger Women Voters

Election '16

The other day in Manhattan, Hillary Clinton supporters met for lunch at the home of the media executive Geraldine Laybourne. A group of 50, mostly women, was determined to generate excitement for Clinton’s campaign for president. They were frustrated to see her lagging again among younger voters, and their invited speaker was Kenyatta Cheese, a young Obama campaign veteran and internet impresario.

The debate sparring that night between Clinton and Bernie Sanders over who belongs to the establishment was another reflection of how perilous it is to be an insider this American political season. And it is galling for politically seasoned women to watch Sanders caricature Clinton as an establishmentarian worshipping at the altar of Goldman Sachs. “When you are in the White House, you’re going to be connected to the establishment,” says Sarah Kovner, who served in the Clinton administration and was at Laybourne’s lunch. “That’s just a fact.”

Sanders put Hillary Clinton on notice last summer, when no one was paying him much heed. “All over this country,” he declared, “ordinary people, working people, elderly people are moving in our direction because they do want a candidate to take on the establishment.”

“Hillary, can you excite us?” asks Osaremen Okolo, a 21-year-old African-American who supports Clinton but “misses feeling fired up” as she was for Barack Obama and as some of her friends feel about Sanders.

“Young people like Bernie because he sounds like a revolutionary,” she says. But Okolo prefers Clinton’s experience and positions on issues like equal pay for equal work and criminal justice reform. “Hillary sounds pragmatic, which can come across as stuffy to young people. Her experience can almost count against her.” She adds: “Sanders seems bold, even if none of his ideas can happen.”

Shattering “that highest, hardest glass ceiling”, as Clinton so elegantly put it in her 2008 concession speech, doesn’t seem revolutionary to some younger women. Income inequality is a bigger concern in what may turn out to be a post-gender election.

Kara Lessen is a 23-year-old in her final year at Harvard who has volunteered for Sanders but was excited by Clinton eight years ago. “The ‘I’m a woman and it’s OK to vote with your uterus’ message is tired,” she said. “Bernie really understands systemic oppression. Her neo-liberal politics is pretty tired."

I first met Clinton, then Hillary Rodham, in 1978. I was struck by her directness and that she spoke in perfect paragraphs. She was a sincere feminist and activist, but pragmatic. To help her husband win back the governor’s office, after he lost in 1980, she took Vernon Jordan’s advice to add Clinton to her name.

She’s also been a source. In the 1980s, she headed a women’s commission of the ultra-establishment American Bar Association that called for promotion of more women lawyers and judges, something that was just beginning to happen. Although I was a reporter, a species she inherently distrusts, she provided some useful information for my first book about women lawyers.

In early 1993, when the Clintons moved into the White House, I was covering a reception in the ballroom of the Mayflower Hotel for women appointees in the new administration. To wild cheering, she proclaimed that, in the important government jobs, “there have never been women like us”. She was using code for feminists.

Lately Clinton has been talking about her activism at Wellesley and Yale Law. With Sanders on her heels in both Iowa and New Hampshire, any day now I expect her to talk about the summer she worked at an Oakland law firm whose lead partner was a former Communist married to Jessica Mitford. But that’s another story.

At an Iowa rally on Thursday, trying to broaden her appeal to younger women, Clinton was introduced by the singer Demi Lovato. There was an older crowd in New Hampshire the next day, when she got a standing ovation at a Naral Pro-Choice America event celebrating the anniversary of Roe v Wade. Earlier, Sanders had said groups like Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign that have endorsed Clinton were “part of the establishment”. Clinton’s retort came quickly: “We need someone in the White House who understands that Naral and Planned Parenthood aren’t part of the establishment.”

This fight over who belongs to the establishment reminded me of a brilliant article by David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker. He explained how a “Joshua generation” of younger black leaders like Obama had evolved from an older Moses generation. We may be witnessing a similar evolution with Clinton and women.

Laybourne, 68, is Clinton’s age and, like the woman for whom she held that lunch the other day, became politically active during the first wave of feminism. Clinton is doing well with the Layborne generation. Her troubles are with the Lenny generation.

Lenny is a newsletter for younger women founded by the writer and actress Lena Dunham, the star of HBO’s Girls. Dunham, 29, has campaigned hard for Clintonand interviewed her for Lenny’s first issue a few months ago.

“I am so frustrated with the dialogue around Hillary among my peers,” Dunham told me in an email. “It feels so gendered, even from women, so harshly sexist. We never throw claims of too establishment or too stiff or even too selfish at male politicians. It’s unfair in the deepest sense.”

If she wins the Democratic nomination, Clinton needs to bridge the Laybournes and the Lennys, as Obama did with the Joshua and Moses generations. She must satisfy Okolo, one of her Harvard supporters:

Hillary, can you excite us?

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