Against the Grain

Primaries a Preview of Clinton’s General Election Problems

She’s running to re-energize the Democratic coalition, but is performing poorly with President Obama’s strongest supporters.

AP Photo/Pat Sullivan
Feb. 23, 2016, 8 p.m.

If Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, there’s little doubt that she will have Donald Trump to thank. Under any other circumstances, the trajectory of the Democratic nomination fight would be worrisome for the front-runner. Her middling showing with key elements of the Obama coalition—dismal support from young voters, lagging enthusiasm among Hispanics, and underwhelming support among women—would normally be a glaring warning sign for Democratic hopes in November.

But if Trump is the GOP’s nominee, odds are he’d be a one-man turnout machine for the Democrats. He’d galvanize the same constituents who have grown wary of their party’s standard-bearer but would find Trump’s racially tinged, misogynistic rhetoric to be unacceptable for a commander in chief.

There’s good reason why Democratic operatives are privately rooting for Trump, and publicly mocking his more-electable GOP rival, Marco Rubio. If it wasn’t for Trump, the seeds of a Democratic defeat would have been planted in the three early states.

Democratic turnout is noticeably down from its high-water mark in 2008, with significantly more GOP voters turning out in Iowa and New Hampshire. Republicans held a 15,700-vote turnout advantage in Iowa and a 33,000-vote edge in New Hampshire. Meanwhile, Nevada turnout was down 30 percent from the Obama-Clinton clash of eight years ago.

Clinton expected to rely on overwhelming support among women against Bernie Sanders, but only won 53 percent of their support in Iowa, 44 percent in New Hampshire, and 57 percent in Nevada. Among women under 45, she wasn’t even competitive with Sanders in the first two states. She’s still capable of running up the gender gap in a general election, but her surprising weakness in the primary underscores that younger women aren’t buying her message of sisterhood—and it will take more than just gendered appeals to turn them out against a Republican.

Younger voters across the country have outright rebelled against the prospect of a Clinton dynasty. Sanders won a whopping 84 percent of under-30s in Iowa, 83 percent in New Hampshire, and 82 percent in Nevada. Millennials were a critical component in Obama’s victories, casting aside their slacker reputations to turn out in record numbers in support of the president. Without Trump as a nominee, however, it’s very hard to see Clinton coming close to matching Obama’s rapport among this core Democratic constituency.

Meanwhile, despite her campaign’s best efforts to rally Hispanics by passionately advocating for immigration reform, there’s little sign that they’re following suit. Clinton’s campaign is probably right that they won the Hispanic vote in the Nevada caucuses, even with (flawed) entrance polls showing a narrow Sanders win. But she shouldn’t be celebrating too much. A narrow win over Sanders among Hispanic voters is hardly an encouraging sign, since Clinton overwhelmingly won their support in 2008 (64-26 percent over Obama) and has been much more outspoken on immigration than Sanders.

South Carolina will provide a crucial test for Clinton among the most important part of the Obama coalition: African-Americans. She’s expected to easily win the state thanks to strong support from black voters. But if turnout badly lags in the state, it’s a sign that she’s not generating the enthusiasm she’ll need with them in November. And if she struggles to win support from younger black voters, it’s a sign that the Black Lives Matter activists are just as consequential as the old-guard leadership backing her en masse.

Clinton supporters argue that primary struggles with certain groups don’t extrapolate into the general election. But to consistently underperform with these must-win constituencies in a primary can’t be an encouraging sign, either.

One thing all these groups have in common: They’ve all struggled economically during the Obama years, but have been among the most supportive groups backing the president. One reason I was bearish about Obama’s reelection prospects in 2012 was that I found it difficult to believe that groups struggling economically would continue to back the incumbent at the same levels as they did when he was an avatar for change. I was wrong.

But that doesn’t mean that there haven’t been undercurrents of discontent beneath the unwavering support for Obama. The under-the-radar dissatisfaction is being reflected in the Sanders campaign, which notably isn’t embracing Obama’s entire legacy. Students who can’t find work after college are now buying into Sanders’s call for free tuition. Even with Obama’s executive actions on immigration, Hispanics still remember that Obama didn’t prioritize immigration reform when he had a Democratic Congress. African-Americans are rock-solid behind Obama, but their view of race relations has sunk under his presidency.

This is the risk Clinton faced when her campaign decided to go all-in with the liberal Obama coalition instead of moderating her pitch. Such base-pleasing moves did little to inoculate her from a challenge against a true-blue lefty like Sanders, and diminished her appeal to the remaining moderates up for grabs in November. As the primaries have demonstrated, there’s no guarantee that voters’ loyalty to Obama will translate to the Democrats’ next nominee—especially an older candidate trying to tap-dance between the issues animating the base while reminiscing about the economic successes of yesteryear.

With dissatisfaction of the country’s direction at historic highs, that’s not an enviable place to be in. Clinton’s only saving grace may be that Republicans nominate a candidate that will do all the hard get-out-the-vote work for her.

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