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How Hillary Clinton lost young (white) women

Shift in thought

As the Clinton campaign turns its attention to South Carolina, its drubbing in New Hampshire suggests Hillary Clinton's feminist credentials simply don't appeal to young women.

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    Attendees listen as Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spoke during a campaign stop at Manchester Community College in Manchester, N.H., Monday.
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Explaining Hillary Clinton has long been a thriving subculture in American punditry. After New Hampshire, there’s a new wrinkle: Why are young women abandoning her?

As a Wellesley College student in the late 1960s, Hillary Rodham exemplified a brash new model of the young woman activist. Her unscripted graduation speech blasting the commencement speaker – her former mentor and lone black United States senator, Edward Brooke – drew national attention.

But this week, Clinton lost most of the women's vote in her 22-point defeat to Sen. Bernie Sanders, a rival she once led by 40 points in the polls, and the losses cut deepest among young women. 

“She just doesn’t seem as extremely truthful,” says Tayla Schipilliti, a bridal consultant and student at Nashua Community College, after voting in Merrimack, N.H.

Evidence for this view includes “the whole e-mail thing,” the videos circulating on social media sites that challenge Clinton’s claim to have landed in Bosnia in 1996 under sniper fire, and stories Ms. Schipilliti's parents told her about how the Clintons treated people, she says. Like many in the first-in-the-nation primary, she tried to follow the race, including attending candidate events at her college and watching campaign videos on line.

"Personally I obviously support equal pay for woman and all that, but just because that’s her main stance and she’s a woman I don’t feel that I have to vote for her. So I ended up voting for Bernie,” she says.

New Hampshire exit polls show Clinton coming up short in virtually every demographic group, except for voters over the age of 65 or with incomes over $200,000. It's important to note, also, that there are too few nonwhite voters in New Hampshire to register in the exit polls – a demographic that will be much more a factor in the next primary votes in South Carolina, Nevada, and March 1 super primary states across the South.

She is also on the losing slope of a 35-point gender gap with men and a 10 percent gap with women in Tuesday’s returns. On Primary Day, 55 percent of women voted for Sanders, including 69 percent of women under 45.

Voters give Clinton high marks on leadership qualities (54 percent), experience (84 percent), and electability (79 percent), but few think that she cares about people like them (17 percent). While nearly 9 in 10 who voted in the Democratic primary say that Sanders is honest and trustworthy, less than half say the same for Clinton. Two-thirds of voters said they preferred Sanders's positions on the issues to hers.

Polling on the eve of the vote shows an even stronger disaffection for Clinton among the youngest voters. Among women age 18 to 34, Sanders led Clinton 87 to 9 percent, according to final tracking polls. 

A generational groan

That antipathy, fed by social media, may extend to girls below the voting age, as well, if this encounter is any indication: Commenting on the election results, Vana Rizos, a waitress in Brookline, N.H., pulls out her cell phone to replay a video of her mother, Rika, walking into a voting booth on Tuesday. In the video, her daughter, Krysele – who is 14 and holding the camera – calls out to ask who she will vote for. At the answer –“Hillary Clinton, of course!” – the girl groans and stops recording.

So, why the groan? “She thinks that Bernie is authentic and Hillary is fake, because she always travels with a big entourage,” said Vana Rizos, her mother.

Both the Clinton campaign and many commentators were slow to appreciate how faintly Clinton’s persona as a champion of women’s rights would register with younger voters.

One reason is that the electorate has changed since Clinton won the New Hampshire presidential primary in 2008, and young women don't have the same points of reference as Clinton's generation.

“New Hampshire is a different state that it was in 2008,” says Andrew Smith, director of the Survey Center at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.  “Younger voters have a very different set of experiences that affect their political world than we have.”

“Women under 35 probably have had women professors and bosses," he adds. "They haven’t had the experiences that their mothers and grandmothers did. That’s why feminist messages just don’t resonate with younger voters.”

By contrast, Sanders is talking about issues that resonate, “such as not having a job or not making the money you wanted to, or living in your parents’ basement,” he says.

A similar assumption that doesn't pass generational muster is that Americans couldn’t possibly vote for a socialist. “Those that are my age know it’s a political death knell,” he adds. “But there is a significant part of the electorate who weren’t born when the Berlin Wall came down. Younger voters see socialism as their trip to Denmark or Sweden or Paris.”

Feminist icon Gloria Steinem had to walk back a comment on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” that young women back Sanders over Clinton because “that’s where the boys are.” A comment by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, at a rally with Clinton on Saturday, that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support women,” also fell flat among young women voters drawn to the promise of a social movement. They were not only annoyed at being scolded, but affronted by the idea they have to vote for Clinton just because she's a woman.

During the Democratic debate on PBS Thursday night, Clinton shrugged off Ms. Albright's comment, saying, "She's been saying that for as long as I've known her." Clinton said she has "no argument with anyone making up her mind about who to support. I just hope by the end of this campaign a lot more are supporting me.... I am not asking people to support me because I'm a woman," but "because I think I'm the most qualified, experienced, and ready person to be the president and commander-in-chief."

In an essay in Slate after the New Hampshire vote, cultural critic Camille Paglia maintains that one thing that's driving young women to Sanders is Clinton's "over-use of 'I' in the current campaign, in contrast to Bernie Sanders's ego-transcending focus on sparking a populist movement of political reform."

Clinton's strength

Lost in the New Hampshire outcome is the fact that Clinton still has a core of supporters, especially among nonwhite voters, who credit her record as an activist.

A get-out-the-vote rally for Clinton at Nashua Community College last week was packed with supporters waving “NEA Democrats for Hillary,” a reference to the largest national teachers union, which has long done much of the legwork in Democratic campaigns.

“She’s been secretary of State. How could you think someone like that wouldn’t be a good president” says Faith Little, an online instructor of social work at Boston University. Commenting on all the support for Sanders among students, she adds: “She’s being realistic about what she can deliver.”

Clinton also has the support of much of the party establishment. She has been campaigning in New Hampshire primaries since 1991, not only in the four Clinton presidential races (1992, 1996, 2008, 2016), but also to help other Democrats. In the process, she earned the gratitude of many Democrats here,  including US Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, who is running in a tight race to oust Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R).

Critics say that establishment support doesn't count for much in what is an election defined by anger against the establishment. The support of a governor and US senator did little to avert a Clinton defeat in New Hampshire, but it is firing up controversy in the wake of that vote.

Here's the issue: Governor Hassan, Senator Shaheen and four other “superdelegates” are now pledged to support Clinton at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July. Despite her blowout loss to Sanders, Clinton could wind up with as many or more New Hampshire delegates than Sanders in Philadelphia.

If social networking buzz is any indication, the issue is opening a new intergenerational fracture between Clinton and younger voters, who see the move as part of a rigged political system – a leading Sanders talking point. 

In a statement after the vote, Hassan reached out to Sanders voters. “No matter what the ultimate outcome of the nominating process, Senator Sanders has importantly voiced the frustration of many Granite Staters who know corporate special interests in Washington are holding our families and small businesses back,” she said in a statement.

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