Why Aren’t More Young Women Crazy about Clinton?

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton addresses Burmese media at the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon, Burma. Dec. 2, 2011. [State Department photo by William Ng]

IN STARK CONTRAST TO HER 2008 CAMPAIGN STRATEGY, Hillary Clinton is making a strong point of the fact that she’s a woman this time around. And it’s perhaps no surprise that she holds the lead among female voters, many of whom want to see a woman in the White House. In a mid-November NBC News/SurveyMonkey online poll of Democratic and democratic-leaning Independent voters, she had 53% of women’s support over Sanders’ 29%.

However, the situation is reversed concerning young adult voters; 55% in the 18-29 bracket expressed support for Sanders, compared to 33% for Clinton. Results were closer in a Harvard IOP poll of likely Democratic primary voters in that age bracket from this month, showing Sanders with a slight edge of 41% to Clinton’s 35%. A report on the Washington Post/ABC News poll from mid-October made note of a decline in support for Clinton among young female voters in particular.

In recent months, Clinton has employed all manner of tactics in an effort to woo young women to her side. On the pop culture front, she’s become chummy with Katy Perry; she was interviewed by Lena Dunham; writing for this month’s Billboard magazine, she sung the praises of female pop stars including Lady Gaga and Selena Gomez; she’ll be making a cameo on the 2016 season of Broad City. But Clinton is also strategizing in a more substantive way by making issues that appeal to many young women’s interests, some to the interests of Millennial voters generally, key components of her platform, including campus sexual assault, affordable college, paid family leave, reproductive rights, and equal pay.

There are several theories as to why young women may be more skeptical of Clinton than their mothers’ generation. A recent New York Times article suggests that, whereas this may be the only chance in older women’s lifetimes to see a female president, young women aren’t in such a rush, which may incline them to be more critical. Another reason suggested by Lizzie Crocker at the Daily Beast is that Clinton’s brand of feminism is too narrow for some of today’s younger feminists. During her interview with Lena Dunham, Clinton proudly proclaimed herself a feminist, explaining, “a feminist is by definition someone who believes in equal rights!” But the feminism of today has branched out to incorporate not only the rights and needs of women, but of other marginalized groups, including the LGBTQ community and people of color, issues on which Clinton has not been as strong historically or as vocal about during her campaign.

Another important reason for young women’s coolness toward Clinton, which may overlap with those above, is that today’s young adult voters (including myself) show heightened skepticism of establishment politics. Millennials are now the most populous generation in the country, comprising about 30% of the voting-age population. The group is highly diverse, with 15% foreign-born. About half of Millennials identify as Independent, suggesting widespread disillusionment with major parties (or, at least, major party candidates-as-usual). As a generation we lean left politically, caring less about maintaining traditional models of lifestyles and families, more open to diverse ways of being. Our generation is more inclined to see climate change and domestic issues including unemployment, declining incomes, and health care as the most important issues confronting the U.S. rather than terrorism and ISIS; more than any other generation, we question the U.S.’s interventionist policies abroad.

Though used profusely, the terms “establishment” and “anti-establishment” don’t have firm definitions. What does it mean to be a political “outsider,” an “anti-establishment candidate”? For me, a political outsider is one who:

  • unlike his or her fellow politicians, is not beholden to corporate funders;
  • challenges hyped-up dominant narratives in the media;
  • has an established record of holding to his or her beliefs in both word and action, even before said belief was cool;
  • speaks from genuine feeling and conviction rather than talking points crafted by strategists.

Clinton has supported women’s and families’ rights in many ways throughout her political career, and her progressive policy proposals in this vein are similar to those Sanders has expressed throughout the campaign thus far. I have no doubt that, if elected, Clinton would work toward those goals.

But I’m less convinced that she would pursue other progressive causes, including comprehensive criminal justice reform, minimum wage increase, affordable college, an increase in federal protections for LGBTQ individuals, and the reversal of Citizens United. Will her corporate backing get in the way of acting on these promises? Is she espousing these positions, some of which are not consistent with her record (including criminal justice reform and the fact that she accepts corporate money to fund her campaigns), for the sake of enticing voters, or out of genuine desire to make changes? Would her pro-interventionist track record continue, not only further destabilizing the Middle East but distracting from much-needed attention here at home as well?

With Sanders, I don’t have these questions. He has made more strides than any other candidate to hear and respond to the needs and concerns of the black community; he worked for LGBTQ rights before it was popular to do so; he was the first candidate to develop a comprehensive racial justice (not just criminal justice) platform; one of his primary issues is getting big money out of politics, and he’s walking that walk by refusing SuperPAC money for his campaign; economic justice is not only the cornerstone of his campaign, but has been that of his entire career; he challenges U.S. interventionist policies as well as the media’s at times myopic obsession with ISIS, keeping a clear eye on the real and immediate threats to Americans within our own borders.

“I cannot imagine anyone being more of an outsider than the first woman president,” Clinton told John Dickerson on Face the Nation. Well, I can. Though politics is by and large male territory, whether one is a political outsider depends more on how he or she navigates that terrain than on gender. However progressive she may be on certain social issues, Clinton’s track record of support for interventionist policies, her corporate funders, and her position shifts leave me, and perhaps many of my fellow young adult voters, unconvinced. Being a woman makes Clinton different than her Democratic contenders; it doesn’t make her an outsider of politics as usual. And many of us think it’s time for an outsider.

The third Democratic debate will air tonight at 8PM ET on ABC.