MINNEAPOLIS — It’s not over.
The weekend before the New Hampshire primary, when comments made by Clinton supporters Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright about young women voters offended Bernie supporters and put the Clinton campaign on the defensive, is still reverberating.
On Friday, hours before Hillary Clinton and Sanders both addressed the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor stage here, Albright penned a New York Times op-ed saying she was wrong to repeat on the campaign trail her line about the special place in hell for women who don’t support other women. Clinton, at this juncture, is the candidate struggling so far to connect with young voters, including women — and has recently faced the prospect of a backlash.
This circumstance is deeply frustrating to a specific group of young women: Democratic operatives 45 and under who have spent much of their careers trying to drive their party toward a greater focus on women’s issues and women voters. Many are a decade or more into political careers and have achieved a lot in Washington despite a sexism they argue is pervasive in politics. Like most in the Democratic establishment, most of them think Clinton is their party’s best choice for president, and like a lot of women, they think Clinton’s historic candidacy will help change the culture for American women.
They’re not happy with the Clinton campaign’s apparent failure to split young women off from the larger group of younger progressive voters rallying to Sanders in huge numbers. They’re also not happy with the young women, who they say are foolishly taking a stand that voting for a woman isn’t a big deal in and of itself — they say they know from experience that isn’t the case.
BuzzFeed News reached out to a dozen high-power women Democratic operatives in their mid-40s and under for their take on what’s happening in the Democratic primary with young women in the week following Albright and Steinem’s comments. All but one — the one defending the Clinton campaign — spoke anonymously so they could be honest without diverting attention from their real jobs and bosses.
These are women who work at the senior level in cabinet departments, in top positions on the Hill, at well-known Democratic strategy firms, as department leaders at progressive think tanks, in the highest echelons of presidential campaigns, at women’s groups. They’ve all had campaign experience, and they’re all invested in the idea of activating young women as the next generation of political leaders.
None work for the Clinton campaign. All saw a campaign that’s failing when it comes to young women.
There are two main problems with young women and the primary, the women said.
Problem 1: The Clinton campaign doesn’t get it.
“They should drop the patronizing #ImWithHer hashtag and tell their surrogates — whether it's Lena Dunham, Madeleine Albright, or Gloria Steinem — to lay off the women scolding,” said one strategist in her early 30s experienced in presidential politics. “There are plenty of reasons why young women should consider Clinton's candidacy — her gender just isn't chief among them.”
Clinton needs to do better, said one 40 year-old strategist who works with younger voters. New outreach through new channels like fashion magazines, digital platforms like Dunham’s newsletter, Lenny, Clinton appearing in an episode of Broad City all make good sense, the strategist told BuzzFeed News in an email. But they’re not enough to fix Clinton’s problems when it comes to younger voters period, and especially younger women, she added. Voters born during the 1990s have very little memory of them. The Clinton they know is the Clinton of 2008, the public face of a pitched fight against President Obama, whom many younger Americans loved.
There needs to be a Clinton reintroduction to women voting either their first or just their second contested Democratic primary, several of the women said.
“Hillary has blown recent debate and media questions about her youth support (aside from the excellent line that she wants to earn their vote),” the 40-year-old strategist wrote. “Those questions are an opportunity to talk about getting things done and her experience in doing so; she doesn't need to pander on college affordability.”
Find the young women voters where they are, the strategist told BuzzFeed News in comments that echoed several takes.
“To overcome the perception problem, Hillary needs more unscripted, authentic interactions with real young people,” the strategist said. “They also need to step up outreach to young Latino, African-American, and Asian women; a lot of the platforms they've utilized thus far skew white, educated, and middle-to-upper class.”
Young women voters, of course, share the same desire for idealism and ideological purity all younger progressive voters seek, several of the strategists said. They’re also relatively sophisticated in terms of their relationship with marketing and with political spin.
“She's not cool. But so what?” said one 30-year-old strategist, a veteran of campaigns from the House level to a run for the White House. “Owning the story of who she is and how she's made the decisions she's made would go a lot further than pretending she never held different positions in the past. The result has been a disingenuousness that's hard to overcome.”
Some operatives said Millennial women are starting to solve this problem themselves, pointing to viral posts like a January Bottle article by Jacqui Oesterblad and the recent “all-caps rant” by Courtney Enlow of Pajiba have achieved huge viral followings of young women drawn to their unabashed backing of Clinton because she’s a woman. That’s a model the Clinton campaign could replicate.
Other women said the Clinton-vs.-young women storyline is, at best, overblown.
“This narrative seems to be based off of cherry-picked crosstabs and anecdotes collected from supporters at Sanders rallies,” Marcy Stetch, communications director at EMILY’s List, told BuzzFeed News. “Hillary is best-positioned to win women of all ages beyond the confines of Iowa and New Hampshire — and she is strongest to take on whichever Republican extremist emerges as the nominee.”
Problem #2: Young women who back Bernie don’t get it.
Clinton the candidate (vs. Clinton the campaign), has already been an unabashed success for the goals of Democratic women in politics, several of the operatives said. She’s helped move the party conversation on abortion rights in a direction progressive women have sought for years in their view, for instance.
There were tough words for the women feeling the Bern from many of the Democratic operatives. Pointing to polling that shows Clinton’s support among women rises as their age goes up, several operatives said young women offended by the suggestion supporting a woman is the right thing for women to do don’t really understand what it means to be a professional woman in modern society — and what a woman president would mean for those women.
“I also thought it was dumb to support a woman because she's a woman. So I made the brilliant decision to support John Edwards instead,” one strategist in her early 30s recalled of her experience in the 2008 election. “It wasn't until I started working for women that I fully understood how having women in leadership positions is fundamentally different than working for men — or perhaps more importantly, I didn’t understand how we cannot fully address the issues facing women until we put a woman in the world’s most famous office. Simply put, it's a feature, not a bug.”
Young voters are notoriously “naive,” operatives said, and notoriously difficult to woo with promises of stubborn practicality and slow progress like Clinton has offered.
The young women who refuse to break with that tradition in 2016 could regret it later, the Democratic operatives said.
There’s a reason for that, the 30-somethings said — the real world is not a great place for women often.
“The 22 year-old me very well could have been feeling the Bern (current me cringes at this thought). I think there's a lot of truth to young women being more idealistic and big picture, you want to save the world,” one strategist now a senior member of the executive branch supporting Clinton, wrote in an email. “Once you are in the real world, the rubber meets the road. If you are a successful woman, you likely face a host of different issues your male counterparts do not. It's not that Bernie isn't good on women's issues, they aren't a priority and it's not like he understands the plight of a working mom or constantly being the only woman in the room and being dismissed.”