Hillary Clinton’s Vanishing Base

She’s losing millennials to Bernie Sanders and failing to energize women and minorities—and why that figures to be a problem for her in November.

Hillary Clinton arrives to speak on April 6 in Philadelphia.
AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
April 12, 2016, 8 p.m.

It’s a safe bet that who­ever emerges as the GOP pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee will have trouble en­er­giz­ing a fac­tion of the party’s loy­al­ists in the gen­er­al elec­tion. Don­ald Trump would be un­ac­cept­able to much of the party’s rank-and-file, Ted Cruz would dis­ap­point Trump fans and es­tab­lish­ment Re­pub­lic­ans alike, and an out­side “white knight” can­did­ate would risk ali­en­at­ing the ma­jor­ity of GOP voters who cast bal­lots for one of the two front-run­ners.

But Hil­lary Clin­ton is fa­cing a ser­i­ous prob­lem with her own party’s base in the on­go­ing primary against Bernie Sanders. She’s be­ing soundly re­jec­ted by mil­len­ni­als, a core ele­ment of Barack Obama’s co­ali­tion, while gen­er­at­ing only mid­dling en­thu­si­asm from His­pan­ics and Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans. Without Obama in the race, Clin­ton ex­pec­ted black voters to once again be a pil­lar of her sup­port. And the more po­lite tone of the Demo­crat­ic cam­paign has turned nas­ti­er in re­cent weeks, with Sanders call­ing Clin­ton “un­qual­i­fied” to be pres­id­ent and Clin­ton’s hus­band re­buk­ing Afric­an-Amer­ic­an pro­test­ers on the cam­paign trail for be­ing ob­li­vi­ous to the crime-fight­ing suc­cesses of his ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The num­bers don’t lie. As my col­league Ron Brown­stein noted, 71 per­cent of Demo­crat­ic voters un­der the age of 30 have flocked to Sanders—even though it’s been clear for a month that he faces near-im­possible odds of win­ning the nom­in­a­tion. For the second straight elec­tion, Clin­ton has al­lowed an in­sur­gent to cap­ture a his­tor­ic share of the Demo­crat­ic Party’s primary votes. She is now stag­ger­ing to the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion with a shrink­ing 1-point lead over Sanders in the latest Real­Clear­Polit­ics av­er­age of na­tion­al primary polls.  

Demo­crat­ic turnout has plummeted in nearly every state from 2008, in­clud­ing in areas with large non­white vot­ing pop­u­la­tions. His­pan­ics stayed home in Texas, con­trib­ut­ing to a nearly 50 per­cent drop-off in turnout from eight years ago. In Geor­gia, Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans didn’t vote in large num­bers, cut­ting the state’s Demo­crat­ic turnout from over 1 mil­lion in 2008 to only 765,000 in 2016. The fast-grow­ing Pu­erto Ric­an pop­u­la­tion cen­ter of Flor­ida—Or­ange County—saw Demo­crat­ic turnout dip by 16,000 voters from eight years ago. Cuyahoga County, the Demo­crat­ic base of battle­ground Ohio, saw a whop­ping 44 per­cent de­cline in party voters.  

No, primary turnout doesn’t ne­ces­sar­ily trans­late in­to gen­er­al-elec­tion res­ults. If Re­pub­lic­ans nom­in­ate Don­ald Trump, he’d be a one-man mo­bil­iz­a­tion ma­chine for many of these con­stitu­en­cies. But when you have a can­did­ate who is con­sist­ently un­der­per­form­ing with core ele­ments of the Obama co­ali­tion, it raises ser­i­ous ques­tions about the can­did­ate’s ap­peal. Clin­ton’s Obama-cent­ric cam­paign strategy re­lies on ral­ly­ing the base be­fore reach­ing out to dis­af­fected mod­er­ates. If tout­ing Obama’s agenda and co-opt­ing ele­ments of Sanders’s stump speech can’t rally the party faith­ful, what will?

In hind­sight, Clin­ton would have been bet­ter served em­bra­cing the cent­rist “Third Way” polit­ics that her hus­band cham­pioned while not pan­der­ing to the lib­er­al con­stitu­en­cies already aligned with Sanders. If she pitched a plan for eco­nom­ic growth in­stead of lament­ing in­come in­equal­ity, sup­por­ted free trade in­stead of sid­ing with her party’s pop­u­lists against Obama’s trade deal, and stood up to the ex­treme voices in her party (like Bill Clin­ton did last week), she’d be in bet­ter po­s­i­tion to win over the in­de­pend­ents and mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans who loathe Trump and are luke­warm to Cruz.  

By veer­ing to the left from the out­set and run­ning on a third term of Obama’s pres­id­ency, she’s made it very dif­fi­cult to win over voters in the middle. She emu­lated the Obama cam­paign’s be­lief that elec­tions are won by ral­ly­ing the base, not by ap­peal­ing to the shrink­ing num­ber of un­de­cided voters. Now, fa­cing res­ist­ance from that very base, she’s be­come de­pend­ent on Re­pub­lic­ans to nom­in­ate someone un­elect­able to get her out of her pre­dic­a­ment.

Iron­ic­ally, if Cruz were the nom­in­ee, he’d have little trouble win­ning over the con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­an base. In­deed, he’d ad­opt a gen­er­al-elec­tion strategy that’s aw­fully sim­il­ar to Obama’s 2012 cam­paign—rally the par­tis­an faith­ful and rely on his op­pon­ent’s neg­at­ives to drive voters his way. But he would face ser­i­ous dif­fi­culty in keep­ing less-par­tis­an voters in his camp. Some of Trump’s dis­af­fected sup­port­ers could end up stay­ing home if he’s the nom­in­ee, and Cruz would also face res­ist­ance from main­line Re­pub­lic­ans.

This pres­id­en­tial elec­tion will be de­cided by which party can best win over con­stitu­en­cies that have been stub­bornly res­ist­ant to es­tab­lish­ment fa­vor­ites: work­ing-class white voters (for Re­pub­lic­ans, if Trump isn’t the nom­in­ee) and mil­len­ni­als (for Hil­lary Clin­ton). Demo­crats are hop­ing that at­tacks on Cruz’s con­ser­vat­ive ideo­logy and unc­tu­ous per­son­al­ity will be enough to turn out their de­pressed base. Re­pub­lic­ans are hop­ing that Clin­ton is re­viled enough to uni­fy the op­pos­i­tion and heal the party’s deep di­vi­sions in the four months after the Clev­e­land con­ven­tion.   

One thing is clear: The gen­er­al elec­tion will con­tin­ue to be a race to the bot­tom.

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