It is bad enough to lose the New Hampshire primary by more than 20 percentage points to a septuagenarian socialist, but when you also lose the votes of young women by an even more lopsided margin, it really stings if you happen to be the first female in history with a serious shot at becoming president of the United States.
Hillary Clinton must be baffled. As an advocate for feminism since she was a Wellesley undergrad back in the 1960s, she had to assume the one bloc of voters she could always count on would be her fellow (fellow?) feminists. They stuck with her in 2008 during her protracted and ultimately futile battle with Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination and, after voters opted for the first black commander in chief, it looked as if 2016 would be a woman’s turn at last.
In the early stages of the campaign, Hillary appeared utterly dominant among the Democrats while the Republicans seemed to be self-destructing. Conventional wisdom said she should be picking a dress for her inaugural ball. Then along came Bernie Sanders and his children’s crusade. Clinton still has the best shot of anyone running to reach the White House, but only if she is able to convince young people — and young women, in particular — that she is not yesterday’s news.
Interviews with young female Sanders supporters by various media outlets prior to the New Hampshire vote revealed Clinton’s problem. For these 20-something women, gender is not a major consideration. Sure, they would like to see a woman become president and expect that to happen in the near future, but they are not especially enthused by the too-familiar female candidate asking for their votes this year. These young women adore Bernie because he is honest, idealistic and bravely radical. They are shunning Hillary because, in their eyes, she is devious, boringly pragmatic and as conventional as mom jeans.
The Clinton campaign’s outreach to millennial women was not helped by the pre-primary comments of two staunch Hillary champions, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and feminist icon Gloria Steinem. Stumping for her candidate last weekend, Albright ended an appeal to young female voters by dragging out an old aphorism, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!” That did not go over well. For her part, Steinem went on Bill Maher’s HBO show and blamed hormones for the lack of Hillary love among young females.
“When you’re young, you’re thinking, ‘Where are the boys?’” Steinem said. “The boys are with Bernie.”
Village Voice writer Holly Wood, a female millennial, wrote a caustic column in response to the dismissive arrogance of Clinton’s old guard. Millennials’ enthusiasm for Sanders is not a sign of immaturity or ingratitude for the hard-won social progress attained by their elders, Wood said. Rather, it is a product of fears about the future and a realization that the issues Sanders has been hammering at for 40 years are the most pressing concerns of 2016: “The economy is rigged. Democracy is corrupted. The billionaires are on the warpath.”
Clinton might have the right chromosomes, but that is not enough for Wood and many other politically engaged young women. They look at the compromises she has made through a long life in politics and do not see the unavoidable accommodations that must be made to achieve incremental change; they see collusion and clouded morality.
“The reason Wall Street is dropping zillions of quarters into Hillary’s Super PAC-Man machine isn’t because it wants change — it’s because Wall Street sees revenue in her promises of keeping things much the same,” Wood writes. “Under Hillary, our prisons will continue to punish for profit. Our schools will continue to be sold off to private contractors. And despite 87% of Democrats standing behind universal healthcare, Hillary insists it will ‘never, ever come to pass.’ Not from her, I guess, since she’s taken over $13 million from the healthcare industry.”
Ouch. That judgment may be way too harsh, but it shows how much work Clinton will need to do if she wins the nomination. Hillary will have no chance to shatter the ultimate glass ceiling if she cannot inspire young voters to show up at the polls in November.