DURHAM, N.H. – One of the most striking statistics to come of the Iowa caucus entry polling was the enormous skew of young voters away from Hillary Clinton and to Bernie Sanders. Only 14 percent of caucusgoers 17 to 29 supported Clinton, while 84 percent supported Sanders.
On Thursday, I traveled to the University of New Hampshire, site of a debate between Clinton and Sanders that night. Before the debate, I mingled on campus with people rallying for both candidates, with the Sanders rally many times larger than the Clinton one. The energy for Sanders at the school was electric.
For the actually debate, I went to a debate-watching party for Clinton supporters at the Three Chimneys Inn, just off campus. There were more heads of white hair in that room than a jar of cotton balls.
The two scenes so close to each other drove home the point for me: Hillary Clinton has a threatening young-voter problem.
Young folks are facing a warming planet, exploding student debt, stunted mobility, stagnant wages and the increasing corporatization of the country due in part to the increasing consolidation of wealth and the impact of that wealth on American institutions.
Young folks are staring down a barrel and they want to put a flower in it, or conversely, smash it to bits. And they’re angry at those who came before them for doing too little, too late. They want a dramatic correction, and they want it now.
Sanders’ rhetoric plays well to young folks’ anxiety and offers a ray of hope. He wants to fix the system they see as broken, and he’s not new to those positions. He has held many of the same positions most of his life, but they have never had as much resonance as they do now. Never mind that Sanders has been in Congress for decades and doesn’t have the stronger record of accomplishments, as my colleague Nick Kristof put it last week.
Sanders is good at setting the goals, but not so good at getting there.
When people question Sanders on the feasibility of pushing his ambitious policies through an obstructionist, Republican-controlled Congress, he often responds with the broad and loose talk of a political revolution, like he put it in his closing remarks Thursday:
”I do believe we need a political revolution where millions of people stand up and say loudly and clearly that our government belongs to all of us and not just a handful of wealthy campaign contributors.”
What he is saying is that a political revolution, meaning massive numbers of new voters and unprecedented voter turnout by people who support his policies, would result in flipping control of Congress and an easier path to his policies’ passage and implementation.
But if Iowa is any measure, that revolution has yet to materialize, and indeed, may never.
Iowa did see a record number of caucusgoers … for the Republican candidate. The number of Democratic caucusgoers fell significantly, and half of those went to Clinton.
As RealClearPolitics reported:
”The trend line is positive for Republicans (turnout up 54 percent from 2012) and negative for Democrats (turnout was down 22 percent from 2008).”
This doesn’t sound anything like the kind of numbers Sanders would need to push his agenda forward, and he knows that. If anything, it sounds like the budding of another Republican revolution. But these facts are ones that would never pass Sanders’ lips. They would puncture the balloon and end his ascendance.
Clinton, on the other hand, represents much of what they distrust or even despise. There is an aura of ethical ambiguity – from the emails to the Wall Street paid speeches to the super PACs. (There is growing pressure for her to release the transcripts of those speeches and have the content of them compared to her public pronouncement.) There is the legacy of her military hawkishness, including her Iraq war vote. There is the articulation of her positions that are at odds with young folks’ aspirations and sensibilities, like saying Thursday, “I don’t believe in free college,” and saying that she continues to support capital punishment.
But possibly the most damaging of Clinton’s attributes is, ironically, her practicality. As one person commented to me on social media: Clinton is running an I-Have-Half-A-Dream campaign. That simply doesn’t inspire young people brimming with the biggest of dreams. Clinton’s message says: Aim lower, think smaller, move slower. It says, I have more modest ambitions, but they are more realistic.
As Clinton put it Thursday in a swipe at Sanders, “I’m not making promises that I cannot keep.”
But the pragmatic progressive line is not going to help her chip away at Sanders’ support among the young. That support is hardening into hipness. Supporting Sanders is quickly becoming the thing to do if you are young and want to appeal to those who are. Clinton’s time to reverse that is quickly running out, and a strategy of simply holding out long enough so that the heavy black and brown support for her counters it may not be sufficient.