Politics

Hillary’s Play for Millennials

Clinton makes the case that she’s the authentic one.

Democratic presidential nominee former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton greets supporters after delivering a speech at Temple University on September 19, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Democratic presidential nominee former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, after delivering a speech at Temple University on Sept. 19, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

“Politics can be discouraging,” Hillary Clinton said in a speech addressed to millennial voters in Philadelphia on Monday. “This election in particular can be downright depressing sometimes.”

It sure can. And for a lot of millennial voters, that’s not just because Donald Trump’s in the race.

Hillary Clinton is running on the most progressive platform in Democratic Party history. And yet the young liberals and Bernie Sanders supporters are far from ready to support her. In four-way polling of late, Clinton’s running neck-and-neck with Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson among millennial voters and losing plenty more potential youth votes to Green candidate Jill Stein. This situates her dozens of percentage points behind the pace Obama set among young voters in either of his wins.

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“Even if you are totally opposed to Donald Trump,” she acknowledged today, “you may still have some questions about me. I get that.”

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When intra-party reconciliation was the most imminent priority earlier in the summer, the Clinton campaign made a big show of waving around the platform and its proposals on climate change, debt-free college, health reform, criminal justice reform, pay equity, and so on. But with the nomination firmly in grasp, the post-convention target of her persuasions became moderate, suburban Republican-leaners, and the platform seemed to slink back into the archives collecting dust. So it’s hard to blame those young Sanders voters for not falling into line. Monday’s speech, plus an op-ed in Mic, was in part an effort to tell those voters: Yes, I’m still running on those things, and yes, they’re in line with the sorts of policies I’ve fought for my entire career.

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But running through this targeted demographic’s laundry list isn’t enough. It doesn’t get to the core of the problem, which is: character, and Clinton as the embodiment of a political insider. It’s on this fundamental question of trustworthiness where Clinton faces the steepest climb among young voters. Both she and her team were wise enough to understand that in crafting the speech.

A Quinnipiac national poll released last week asked likely voters if they believed Clinton was honest or not. Overall, 32 percent said she was, compared to 65 percent who said she was not. That ugly picture was bad across all age groups, but worst among young voters: Only 21 percent of 18-to-34–year-olds said she was honest, compared to 77 percent who did not. By contrast, 27 percent of those 18 to 34 said Donald Trump was honest. (Which is not to say they all view this as an asset in him.) Another question asked whether Clinton “bases her policies on a set of core values” or “does whatever is politically convenient.” Thirty-nine percent of likely voters overall said “based on core values,” but only 25 percent of 18-to-34–year-olds did. Clinton’s poll numbers suggest she’s outperforming her character numbers among these demographics—i.e., she’s still earning the votes of many young people who believe she’s wholly dishonest. But she needs to repair this image if she’s going to get much further, and there are only 50 days left to do so.

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It never would have worked for Clinton to come out and promise millennials she’s something she’s not. She’s not a good-government, authentic transparency diehard who promises to cleanse the nation’s capital of corruption or transform the system. She’s not selling revolution. She’s a mainstream Democrat, a liberal with caveats, and she harbors no illusions about changing Washington. Instead what her speech sought to do in its most, dare we say, authentic moment was to persuade young people (and anyone else with the same concerns) of her view: that politics is a slog and always will be, and one that requires the work of both insiders and outsiders working mutually, over lifetimes, to make change.

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“I’ve learned in a democracy,” she said, “if you want to help the greatest number of people, you have to push for reform from both the outside in and the inside out. We need activists and advocates, entrepreneurs and innovators, teachers and mentors, people who change lives every day in a million quiet ways.”

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“We also need strong principled leaders,” she continued, “who can win votes, write laws, allocate resources, and do the slow, hard business of governing.”

This is any honest person’s acknowledgement of how American politics works, barring the drafting of a new constitution. Activists organize coalitions to push insiders roughly aligned with them into action, and it doesn’t happen overnight. You vote for the candidate closest to your views who has a chance of winning and then pressure that person into action. That person then does the best he or she can within the confines of checks-and-balances, and sure, the insider might have to shiv you if the energy or political necessity or emergency priority is elsewhere.

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This is exactly how Donald Trump, Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, or Hillary Clinton would operate if he or she became that insider, because it’s what the office is. Of the four, Clinton is viewed as the least authentic by the voters to whom authenticity is so critical, but she’s by far the most honest candidate about the way change happens. Monday’s speech was an effort to show these reluctant voters that they mostly share the same policy views—and to shift their understanding of authenticity so that Clinton can make the case that she’s one of the most authentic politicians around.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.

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