Kalyn DaSilva, a student at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H., is all in for Bernie Sanders.
She’s been doing “dorm storms” at her school – knocking on doors, telling fellow students about Senator Sanders, offering bus rides to the polls. Finally over the weekend, just days before Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, Ms. DaSilva got to see the rumpled septuagenarian in the flesh at a raucous rally at her school’s fieldhouse.
“Bernie speaks the truth, and everything he says he believes in now he believed in 30 years ago,” says DaSilva, a psychology major wearing a bright blue “Students for Bernie” T-shirt.
And what if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee?
“I’m not sure. I’ve always been, 'I wouldn’t vote Republican,' but it depends,” she says. “I have one Republican in mind who I’d probably vote for: Marco Rubio. He just kind of seems like the most realistic out of them.”
Such a response is a dagger to the heart of the Clinton campaign. Not only are they counting on young voters to turn out for them in November – including those who go for Sanders in the primary – they are counting in particular on young women to be inspired by the prospect of the first woman president.
Democratic voters like DaSilva are the exception. When push comes to shove, most say they’ll vote for their party’s nominee come November. But the lack of enthusiasm for Mrs. Clinton by many young Democrats could present a profound challenge for the former secretary of State.
Despite her big loss to Sanders among voters under age 30 in last week’s Iowa Democratic caucuses – 84 percent to 14 percent – and an expected loss Tuesday in New Hampshire, Clinton is still favored in national polls to win her party’s nomination. Where she loses among the young, she wins big among older Democratic voters, especially women. And she’ll need all the ground troops she can muster to get out the vote in what is expected to be a closely fought general election. Young voters, a key part of the Democratic base, were critical to Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012, both in turnout and in volunteering.
“Senator Sanders has eroded Hillary Clinton’s appeal to the idealist, sometimes unrealistic, change-oriented young who want to challenge the established order and with it, politics-as-usual,” writes Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, in an e-mail.
“He's accomplished this by successfully associating the Clinton campaign's fundraising from large donors, her speaking fees, and her advocacy of nuanced Wall Street reform with corruptive power arrangements that advantage the ‘upper 1 percent.’ ”
Social media and the lure of outsiders
Historically, young voters have been a particularly tricky bunch, not known for being loyal voters. Today, the so-called Millennials, those under age 35, have little trust in the pillars of society, including the government, Wall Street, and the media, according to a survey released last April by the Harvard Institute of Politics. So for a candidate like Clinton, a Washington “insider” for decades, tapping into youthful idealism has been a stretch – especially with the idealistic Sanders on the scene.
The spread of social media also has been a boon to the top outsiders in the 2016 race, Sanders and Donald Trump.
“There is a common level of frustration, and anger, and so I think that they have captured the first digital response to political activism,” says Andrew Card, president of Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, speaking of the Sanders-Trump phenomenon. “They’re able to speak with very little filter.”
Indeed, young Democratic voters talk about Facebook feeds that are “on fire” with the debate over Sanders vs. Clinton. Shawn Bond, a college student from Louisville, Ky., who is volunteering for Clinton in New Hampshire, says his Facebook feed is mostly Clinton-oriented, though he’s been “unfriended” by a couple of Sanders supporters.
“Having an argument on social media is fruitless, but on Facebook it’s all there,” says Mr. Bond, a student at American University in Washington, taking part in a canvassing event Saturday at Clinton’s Concord, N.H., office. “So it’s very easy for a post to be hijacked by someone who doesn’t believe the same things I do.”
Bond says in his work for Clinton, he asks his peers to look at who’s more capable of “getting things done.”
“That was a big reason why I picked Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders,” he says. “There was a time when I had this existential crisis, and I felt like my friends were supporting Bernie Sanders, and I was supposed to be supporting Bernie Sanders. But once I gave the candidates a real look, it became very clear that one has always been a fighter, one has a record of getting things done.”
One challenge for Clinton, which stems from the social media phenomenon, is the challenge in correcting misimpressions. One Franklin Pierce student said she couldn’t support Clinton because she, Clinton, “was not always pro-choice” on abortion. Clinton, in fact, has a record of supporting abortion rights since she became a public figure.
“Bernie has always been pro-choice and always favored equal pay for equal work,” says the student. “He almost has more feminist ideals that she does.”
'Being a woman is not a reason'
Some young women bristle at the notion that they should support Clinton because she’s a woman.
“I’m waiting for the day when I can vote for a woman president who I can completely support who’s not Hillary,” says Emily Brisson, a social work student at Franklin Pierce. “Being a woman is not a reason to cause me to want to vote for her.”
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a Clinton backer, may not have helped matters over the weekend when she asserted at a Clinton event here that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!”
Still, the frustration by older women over younger women who shrug at Clinton’s history-making potential is palpable.
“Generally, young women grew up with less discrimination, and didn’t have to go through the abortion battles,” says Barbara Landwehr, a lawyer and Clinton supporter in Concord, N.H. “Bernie is more exciting, and for some, she isn’t.”
Some observers also note a double standard in the words and actions a male candidate can take versus a woman candidate. At Franklin Pierce, Sanders at one point theatrically doffs his jacket and hands it to a student sitting behind him.
“I feel like a rock and roll star!” Sanders says to cheers. “Nothing more is coming off, that’s it!”
It’s probably not something a serious female presidential candidate could say.
Some Democrats plead for perspective over the hand-wringing at Clinton’s enthusiasm gap among young voters. Wait for the Republicans to settle on a nominee, and then get the word out on that person’s policy views.
“The choice is going to be very stark no matter who the [Republican] nominee is,” says Democratic strategist Peter Fenn.
He notes, for example, that Senator Rubio does not allow for any exceptions on abortion, including cases of rape and incest.
“I think Hillary is very appealing,” says Mr. Fenn. “She’ll have to work it, and get down to those college campuses and get those folks fired up.”
It won’t be 2008, when Obama lit up campuses with “hope and change,” he adds. But he’s confident Clinton can pull it off.