Hillary Clinton's Recurring Struggle to Connect With Young Voters

If losing to Obama reached the level of tragedy for the Democratic presidential candidate, failing against Sanders would qualify as farce.

Matt Rourke / AP

Hillary Clinton’s close call in Iowa has given her new reason to reflect on the old adage that history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce.

Surely for Clinton it was one thing to lose Iowa, and the Democratic nomination, to the 2008 edition of Barack Obama, a comet of a candidate, trailing charisma and historical possibility. In that race she was a formidable candidate herself: I remember thinking that, apart from Bill Clinton, the only recent Democratic nominee who might have beaten either Hillary Clinton or Obama was the other. Hillary Clinton’s tragedy was that her chance to become the first woman president was eclipsed by Obama’s opportunity to shatter, arguably, an even more profound barrier.

This time, Clinton is sweating against a candidate conspicuously lacking Obama’s natural gifts. Bernie Sanders is a rumpled 74-year-old Democratic socialist who didn’t call himself a Democrat until last year. His power base is a state that is a national force in maple syrup and funky ice cream flavors (via local heroes Ben & Jerry). He honed his political skills on the mean streets of Burlington. With his elegant and icy cool, Obama evoked comparisons to John F. Kennedy; Sanders has been indelibly impersonated by Larry David. As a presidential candidate, Sanders has displayed genuine political talents. But if losing to Obama reached the level of tragedy for Clinton, failing against Sanders would qualify as farce.

Even after Iowa’s photo finish, that’s not an immediate risk. In Iowa, Sanders managed to advance beyond his initial beachhead of younger voters and well-educated white liberals—the same “wine track” constituency that couldn’t provide enough votes to nominate previous Democratic hopefuls like Eugene McCarthy, Gary Hart, and Bill Bradley. Sanders also ran evenly with Clinton among white voters in Iowa without a college education, according to the election-night entrance poll, making working-class inroads that generally eluded his wine track predecessors. Yet Sanders still must cross two big hurdles before he can truly threaten Clinton. He faced gaping deficits in Iowa among minorities, and also among all voters who identified as Democrats. (Sanders relied on big margins among independent voters who participated in the caucus.) Without substantial improvements on both fronts, he can’t win the nomination. Full stop.

But, whether or not Sanders ultimately defeats Clinton, he has quickly spotlighted a glaring weakness in her candidacy: an inspiration gap, particularly among the young. This may be where Clinton’s 2008 and 2016 experiences most converge. Clinton also lagged badly with young people against Obama. In that race, exit polls across all the contests found Obama beat her by 20 percentage points among voters younger than 30.

In Iowa, Sanders routed Clinton among young voters even more thoroughly than Obama did. Gender was no defense. Breakdowns provided by the CNN polling unit show that among Iowa voters younger than 30, Sanders not only won 84 percent of men, but also 84 percent of women. At a raucous Sanders rally at the University of Iowa last weekend, young women repeatedly told me that they considered the socialist septuagenarian “the best candidate for our generation,” as Kathleen Trombley, a university junior, put it. “I’d rather,” she added, “vote for someone I fully believe in rather than for someone just based on gender.” Ouch.

Clinton can survive that resistance among young people during the primaries, because she enjoys nearly comparable advantages among voters older than 45, who cast nearly three-fifths of all Democratic ballots in 2008. Just as Clinton portrayed some of Obama’s grand plans as “irresponsible and frankly naïve,” once again her principal arguments against Sanders accept and even widen this generation gap. The case that he is stirring unachievable hopes and that she can shoulder more incremental change through the clogged current political system resonates more with older voters who know how often life frustrates grand plans. Likewise, Clinton’s self-portrayal as a fighter with the scars to prove it speaks more to those carrying the disappointments of middle age (and beyond) than to those whose faces are still unlined by care.

Clinton’s generation gap would pose a greater challenge if she wins the Democratic nomination. For the first time, the Millennial generation this year will nearly equal baby boomers as a share of eligible voters, and Democrats need big margins from those young people. Telling them it’s unrealistic to expect transformative change is unlikely to inspire the support—or turnout—that Clinton would need to prevail in the general election, even if they prefer her to the Republican nominee. Clinton’s problem is that “Democrats are being asked to settle and they don’t want to settle,” said Simon Rosenberg, the founder of the Democratic think-tank NDN. “They want to be inspired and they want to fight.” Instead, in her posture toward Sanders’s supporters, especially younger ones, Clinton risks positioning herself as the chaperone at a frat party. Tenacity and resilience are powerful qualities in a president. Yet to win not only the nomination but also the general election, Clinton will likely have to sell something more uplifting than her capacity to take a punch.