Political Connections

How Hillary Clinton Could Lose by Winning

She needs to figure out a way inspire young voters who will be crucial in November.

Hillary Clinton signs an autograph for a supporter during a campaign event in Knoxville, Iowa.
AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
Feb. 3, 2016, 8 p.m.

Hil­lary Clin­ton’s close call in Iowa has giv­en her new reas­on to re­flect on the old ad­age that his­tory re­peats it­self—first as tragedy, then as farce.

Surely for Clin­ton it was one thing to lose Iowa, and the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion, to the 2008 edi­tion of Barack Obama, a comet of a can­did­ate, trail­ing cha­risma and his­tor­ic­al pos­sib­il­ity. In that race she was a for­mid­able can­did­ate her­self: I re­mem­ber think­ing that, apart from Bill Clin­ton, the only re­cent Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee who might have beaten either Hil­lary Clin­ton or Obama was the oth­er. Hil­lary Clin­ton’s tragedy was that her chance to be­come the first wo­man pres­id­ent was ec­lipsed by Obama’s op­por­tun­ity to shat­ter, ar­gu­ably, an even more pro­found bar­ri­er.

This time, Clin­ton is sweat­ing against a can­did­ate con­spicu­ously lack­ing Obama’s nat­ur­al gifts. Bernie Sanders is a rumpled 74-year-old demo­crat­ic so­cial­ist who didn’t call him­self a Demo­crat un­til last year. His power base is a state that is a na­tion­al force in maple syr­up and funky ice-cream fla­vors (via loc­al her­oes Ben & Jerry). He honed his polit­ic­al skills on the mean streets of Bur­l­ing­ton. With his el­eg­ant and icy cool, Obama evoked com­par­is­ons to John F. Kennedy; Sanders has been in­delibly im­per­son­ated by Larry Dav­id. As a pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate, Sanders has dis­played genu­ine polit­ic­al tal­ents. But if los­ing to Obama reached the level of tragedy for Clin­ton, fail­ing against Sanders would qual­i­fy as farce.

Even after Iowa’s photo fin­ish, that’s not an im­me­di­ate risk. In Iowa, Sanders man­aged to ad­vance bey­ond his ini­tial beach­head of young­er voters and well-edu­cated white lib­er­als—the same “wine track” con­stitu­ency that couldn’t provide enough votes to nom­in­ate pre­vi­ous Demo­crat­ic hope­fuls such as Eu­gene Mc­Carthy, Gary Hart, and Bill Brad­ley. Sanders also ran evenly with Clin­ton among white voters in Iowa without a col­lege edu­ca­tion, ac­cord­ing to the elec­tion-night en­trance poll, mak­ing work­ing-class in­roads that gen­er­ally eluded his wine-track pre­de­cessors. Yet Sanders still must cross two big hurdles be­fore he can truly threaten Clin­ton. He faced gap­ing de­fi­cits in Iowa among minor­it­ies, and also among all voters who iden­ti­fied as Demo­crats (Sanders re­lied on big mar­gins among in­de­pend­ent voters who par­ti­cip­ated in the caucus.) Without sub­stan­tial im­prove­ments on both fronts, he can’t win the nom­in­a­tion. Full stop.

But wheth­er or not Sanders ul­ti­mately de­feats Clin­ton, he has quickly spot­lighted a glar­ing weak­ness in her can­did­acy: an in­spir­a­tion gap, par­tic­u­larly among the young. This may be where Clin­ton’s 2008 and 2016 ex­per­i­ences most con­verge. Clin­ton also lagged badly with young people com­pared to Obama. In that race, exit polls across all the con­tests found Obama beat her by 20 per­cent­age points among voters young­er than 30.

In Iowa, Sanders routed Clin­ton among young voters even more thor­oughly than Obama did. Gender was no de­fense. Break­downs provided by the CNN polling unit show that among Iowa voters young­er than 30, Sanders not only won 84 per­cent of men, but also 84 per­cent of wo­men. At a rauc­ous Sanders rally at the Uni­versity of Iowa last week­end, young wo­men re­peatedly told me that they con­sidered the so­cial­ist sep­tua­gen­ari­an “the best can­did­ate for our gen­er­a­tion,” as Kath­leen Tromb­ley, a uni­versity ju­ni­or, put it. “I’d rather,” she ad­ded, “vote for someone I fully be­lieve in rather than for someone just based on gender.” Ouch.

Clin­ton can sur­vive that res­ist­ance among young people dur­ing the primar­ies, be­cause she en­joys nearly com­par­able ad­vant­ages among voters older than 45, who cast nearly three-fifths of all Demo­crat­ic bal­lots in 2008. Just as Clin­ton por­trayed some of Obama’s grand plans as “ir­re­spons­ible and frankly naïve,” once again her prin­cip­al ar­gu­ments against Sanders ac­cept and even widen this gen­er­a­tion gap. The case that he is stir­ring un­achiev­able hopes and that she can shoulder more in­cre­ment­al change through the clogged polit­ic­al sys­tem res­on­ates more with older voters who know how of­ten life frus­trates grand plans. Like­wise, Clin­ton’s self-por­tray­al as a fight­er with the scars to prove it speaks more to those car­ry­ing the dis­ap­point­ments of middle age (and bey­ond) than to those whose faces are still un­lined by care.

Clin­ton’s gen­er­a­tion gap would pose a great­er chal­lenge if she wins the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion. For the first time, the mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion this year will nearly equal baby boomers as a share of eli­gible voters, and Demo­crats need big mar­gins from those young people. Telling them that it’s un­real­ist­ic to ex­pect trans­form­at­ive change is un­likely to in­spire the sup­port—or turnout—that Clin­ton would need to pre­vail in the gen­er­al elec­tion, even if they prefer her to the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee.

Clin­ton’s prob­lem is that “Demo­crats are be­ing asked to settle and they don’t want to settle,” said Si­mon Rosen­berg, the founder of the Demo­crat­ic think tank NDN. “They want to be in­spired and they want to fight.” In­stead, in her pos­ture to­ward Sanders’s sup­port­ers, es­pe­cially young­er ones, Clin­ton risks po­s­i­tion­ing her­self as the chap­er­one at a frat party. Tenacity and re­si­li­ence are power­ful qual­it­ies in a pres­id­ent. Yet to win not only the nom­in­a­tion but also the gen­er­al elec­tion, Clin­ton will likely have to sell something more up­lift­ing than her ca­pa­city to take a punch.

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