When Hillary Clinton launched her campaign for president this week, I thought, “Yep, there’s the Obama coalition.” Latinos (including a pair of brothers speaking Spanish), African Americans, Baby Boomers from the hippie segment, interracial couples, and a gay couple planning their wedding. My, how things have changed since 2008!
What Clinton learned in defeat in her first presidential run was how much personality mattered to the people she wanted to vote for her. That included the young Millennials—the oldest were not yet 30—who are part of the most racially diverse generation in American history, are profoundly liberal on social issues, and whom Barack Obama helped make solidly Democratic.
And yet, as hungry as they are for a woman president, and as ready as they are to vote Democratic, for these voters, there’s often something that remains off-putting about Clinton—more of the same. She stumbled in her 2008 campaign when she failed to convince these voters to come out for her in a big way, and could easily be challenged by a younger, more liberal, more human-seeming candidate.
Clinton was a terrible, sluggish candidate in 2008, and young voters famously compared her to their nagging mothers. After Obama defeated her for the nomination, she loosened up a bit. After he named her secretary of state, keeping her in the public eye and on his side, she became a little more cool. To win this time, especially the younger voters who swung for Obama—who are now in their late 20s and early 30s—and those too young to have voted for him, she’s going to have to maintain that and be way less stuffy than she was in 2008.
The younger voters are important because they signal future trends, but also because motivating them to get to the polls could make all the difference. In low-turnout midterm elections, Republicans, who do well with older and whiter voters, win. But when the turnout is higher and the younger, browner America is better represented, Democrats can win more handily than expected, as Obama did in both his races.
So Clinton needs to motivate those younger voters to come to the polls and vote for her. How do those young voters feel about Obama now that his presidency is ending? What kind of cohort will Clinton inherit?
Millennials are first of all more likely to be Democratic—51 percent identify as Democratic or Democratic-leaning, as opposed to 35 percent as Republican or Republican-leaning. Millennials are a big generation, and the younger half are more partisan than their slightly older peers: the number who identified as Dem or Dem-leaning inched up from 50 to 51 percent, those who leaned in the opposite direction toward Republicans went up from 13 percent to a still anemic 16 percent. Meanwhile, the number of undecideds fell, which makes sense in our highly partisan climate.
Disappointment comes from various directions: Tom Sanchez, a filmmaker who lives in Los Angeles and is 34, told me he wants more liberal candidates in 2016. “Overall, I have mixed feelings about Obama,” he said. “My main disappointment is with his Wall Street policies—they seem to be pretty much in line with Clinton/Bush.”
It’s tempting to think that Obama disappoints because he promised the moon. I asked Millennials I know—i.e., my friends and people I’ve spoken to for other articles about Millennials—but they told me that, whatever their disappointment level in Obama, it wasn’t enough to disillusion them completely. One friend who is 34 said, “They [politicians] always over-promise. I am not starry-eyed. But I’m basically never going to vote Republican, so....” A woman from my hometown in Arkansas, Cira Abiseid, 31, told me she thinks Obama did the best he could under trying circumstances. “I will never think I was too hopeful for change and progress,” she says. “Whether or not all of the things I wished for happened, I will always maintain hope that we can do better as a country.”
The issues, too, are extremely important to this group of voters, so Clinton is right to subtly hint at those. On first glance, her announcement video seems bereft of policy. But there are hints about some of the policy issues Clinton will broach, they’re just softly indicated by the way the regular-seeming people in the video tell us what they care about. There is a woman who’s been a stay-at-home mom planning to go back to work—that’s child care and gender equity. There’s the gay couple getting married—marriage equality. (“I never expected I’d see a president that outwardly stood up for my right to marry,” a friend, Ben Hall, who is 29 and works in Washington, D.C., told me. “No president has done more for the LGBTQ community than Obama has.”)
More than a couple of business owners make an appearance, and there’s a young soon-to-be college grad searching for jobs—the economy, student loans. There’s a mom who’s moving so her daughter can go to a better school—education. There’s a couple expecting a baby—family planning, about which Millennials care very much. On the interracial couples—more than half of Millennials have dated outside their race. And these kinds of issues—access to birth control, championing the issues female workers care about—will put any Democratic candidate well ahead of the Republican field.
That’s mostly, though, because Millennials really don’t like Republicans. If they prefer Democratic candidates, it’s often by default. The largest ideological grouping among Millennials is “mixed,” at 44 percent. The right Republican could appeal to them with a smart mix of sane economic and social policies. Republicans are going to push on Clinton’s age—she is 67 now—and the fact that she’s been a Washington insider for so long. And, sadly, expect sexism to nibble around the edges of her campaign, worrying voters over her capabilities. Those attacks may still work, even in 2016.
Yet the issues Democrats side with Millennials on are so important to young voters that most of the people I spoke to said they’d vote for Obama again if need be, even if they’ve wanted more from him than his presidency delivered. And that’s the wave Clinton will ride, as long as she maintains it. In fact, a Fusion poll found that Millennials were ready to vote for Clinton as early as February, before she even announced—55 percent said they’d vote for her. “I think that she sees what the country could be,” Hall told me. “I definitely want to know more about policies, but she is the only candidate that makes sense to me right now.”