Hillary Clinton Has Two Big Obstacles Between Herself & Millennial Women
In the 2016 presidential race, there are a few voting blocs that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton each have in their back pockets. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has largely locked down some of the most reliable voters — white men — and can largely count on backing from people without a college degree. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has the overwhelming support of minority voters. But there's one group that, on its face, seems like a lock for Clinton but that hasn't come through as strongly as expected: millennial women.
The reasons they wouldn't flock to Trump may seem obvious. But the explanation for why Hillary Clinton hasn't won over millennial women — a group that she has been fervently trying to secure — in the numbers one would expect is far more complex.
If you had told me four years ago that Clinton's inevitable 2016 bid would be challenged by a misogynistic, racist reality TV star — much less that she would face the credible possibility of losing to one — I would've built a time machine to stay put in 2012. And of the many baffling turns this election has taken, Clinton's failure to reliably woo young female voters is the one that I never could have predicted.
I don't have to waste much space detailing why Trump's very presence is repugnant to many young women. Instead, I'll offer this illuminating statistic: in an ABC News/Refinery29 poll conducted among millennial women this spring, 63 percent of respondents said that they were scared of Trump. Actually scared. So wouldn't that drive them straight into the arms of the woman who has been ostensibly destined to be the first woman to disrupt the 227 patriarchal years of American democracy? Nope.
Clinton's woes with female millennial voters started with the Democratic primaries. This January, when everyone's favorite 70-something democratic socialist was still in the race, Bernie Sanders led Clinton by a 19-point margin among Democratic and independent women aged 18 to 34, according to a poll by USA Today/Rock the Vote. The polling has gotten much less gender-specific since the race has narrowed to Clinton versus Trump.
However, though millennials are certainly not turning out for Trump, the swing toward Clinton after Sanders dropped out is underwhelming. As Vanity Fair pointed out, two-thirds of likely voters think Trump isn't qualified to be president. However, a recent Quinnipiac poll noted that a stunning 29 percent of likely voters, ages 18 to 34, would rather turn out for Libertarian party presidential candidate Gary Johnson and 15 percent for the Green party's Jill Stein. Clinton only had 31 percent of the support among those respondents. Her slim lead against third-party candidates is seemingly jaw-dropping.
So, why has Clinton failed to lock down young (and young and female) voters? The answer, in my mind, lies largely in perception, and that manifests in two major ways. The first is an issue of authenticity.
Around this time last year, I was asked to moderate a SXSW Eco session on marketing to millennials, and from the make-up of that panel — three other women — the biggest mystery seemed to be female millennials, specifically. Although the major target in that particular session was brands, I feel that the large takeaway is applicable to presidential politics: Young people are particularly sensitive to disingenuous messaging.
In the SXSW Eco talk, panelists attempted to qualify something that many millennials embrace inherently: that we can sniff out fakeness from a mile away. When brands try to adopt things that they cannot possibly understand, they end up digging a hole for themselves when millennials have any sort of influence. Millennials value things that speak to their interests and values directly. The failure arises when, as the Washington Post's Ana Swanson noted, brands try to lump millennials into one amorphous meme-obsessed blob. With advertisers, reporter Swanson noted, "Unfortunately... appeals to millennials are based on the idea that the generation is some kind of homogeneous entity that only speaks in emojis, rather than the diverse group that millennials actually are." Millennials don't want to be looked at as a collective commodity; we want to be recognized for individualism.
From my perspective, Clinton's second perception problem arises from a shift in feminism. Millennial women have existed in the age of third-wave feminism, an era that with a large focus on remedying the perception (whether accurate or not) that second-wave feminism was for and by white women. Millennial women's awareness and embrace of intersectionality has brought about a vastly different landscape for feminists.
To me, both of these factors — concerns about Clinton's authenticity and her third-wave feminist credentials — are at the heart of Clinton's failures with young women. Many women around my age (at 26, I stand neatly in the middle of the 18 to 34 age bloc that many pollsters rely on) perceive her as the sort of well-intentioned grandma who gets it, but doesn't quite get it. She's progressive, yes, but she doesn't often embrace the kind of no-holds-barred rhetoric that Sanders employed so freely. She's certainly a feminist, but not one who spends a significant amount of time pondering or discussing the complexities of intersectionality in feminism, at least not as much as many millennial women would like her to do so.
As recently as September 2015, Clinton was still having to assure people in an interview with Lena Dunham's Lenny Letter that she was "absolutely" a feminist, something that during her tenure as first lady or maybe even secretary of state would've been an absolute taboo.
In my opinion, there is a vast and rampant misunderstanding from young feminist voters about Clinton and her intentions. One of the most prevalent examples of such a misinterpretation comes from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who in February trotted out something that she has said many, many times before. While she was campaigning for Clinton, Albright said, there is a "special place in hell for women who don't help other women."
When I heard that I laughed, then didn't think about it any further. I was surprised, then, when Clinton and Albright had to spend a week doing campaign recon after the sound bite went viral. As a child raised by a mother who was more likely to buy me a book about the first female secretary of state than a Barbie, I had studied up on Albright's legacy. That line is one of her most famous, one that she has used in many capacities in her diplomatic career.
Talking about it with friends, though, it was clear that many women my age weren't in on the joke. Many people around me took it as a slight against female voters who didn't want to vote for Clinton, something that made them feel like the Democratic candidate would be using the gender card to sucker them to the voting booths. Generally, after an explanation of the quote's history, people I spoke with softened, but it left a bad taste in the mouths of many young feminists.
In a brilliant BuzzFeed profile of Clinton from earlier this year, Ruby Cramer summed up a huge issue with the candidate's communication. "For 50 years, she’s struggled to explain the values that motivate her — in public life, as a candidate, as a person. The one time she really tried to, in the early 1990s, she was brutally mocked. In the view of some of her closest aides, Clinton never fully recovered from the critical backlash," Cramer wrote. Clinton seemed to be afraid, after her experience as first lady, of being perceived an overly emotive woman, someone who would let their own experiences in life affect their governing decisions. However, I believe, as a result, she has often come across as to younger generations, people who were never fully cognizant of her outside of her role as secretary of state, as cold — another white woman who is dictating her idea of what democracy should look like.
It only takes a quick glance at Clinton's current policy proposals and track record to debunk those myths — her "women's rights are human rights" declaration in the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, her introduction of the Global Health Initiative to provide maternal and infant care in foreign countries, and her avid support of abortion access among them.
The narratives of Clinton as another calculating and dynastic politician prevail among millennial voters. In a time when the election seems as if it is all about platitudes, it's time for a little bit of nuance.