How Hillary Clinton has a fresh start with young voters

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Say Whitewater to college students today and they think spring break rafting trip in Colorado. The name Billy Dale draws blank stares. And when news of former President Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky came to light in 1998, the 18-year-olds who will be able to cast their first ballots in 2016 were still in diapers.

Young voters don't have the Clinton institutional memory that their parents' have, and for Hillary Clinton — who is expected to officially announce her run for president on Sunday — that just might mean they represent the only voting demographic where she has the opportunity to introduce herself.

"I think she would have a fresh start completely with my generation," said Kourtny Purnell, a 21-year-old junior at George Mason University.


While they've heard about the Lewinsky scandal, it just doesn't matter.

"I don't think it would affect how they look at her," Purnell said.

But the Newark, Delaware native also doesn't think people her age know much about Clinton, period.

Michele Swers, an associate professor in the Department of Government at Georgetown University, agrees.

"Young people are not maybe as aware about the history of Bill Clinton's presidency or even her tenure as a senator," she said, adding that while they might be more aware of Clinton's tenure as secretary of state, foreign affairs are generally "not a top priority for any group of voters."


And while the lack of familiarity may be a boon when it comes to past scandals—Whitewater, Travelgate, Lewinsky—it could also be a problem.

"Hillary, whose name was on every campaign sign [in 2008], is still somewhat undefined," said Lara Brown, an associate professor at the graduate school of political management at George Washington University.


Still, as Carroll Doherty, director of political research for the Pew Research Center, told Fusion, early polling suggests young people "have at least some familiarity with her, unlike other candidates."

Aside from current Vice President Joe Biden, who polls far less favorably than Clinton in early surveys, Doherty said, she's the only potential candidate on many young voters' radar. Just two percent of registered voters have never heard of her, according to an April survey from the Pew Research Center. That number jumps to 10 percent for Jeb Bush and 31 percent for Marco Rubio, two likely Republican contenders. The same polling indicates she's the clear front-runner among Democratic likely voters while Republicans are much more divided.


But whether that familiarity helps her or hurts her, Doherty said, is too early to tell and will largely depend on how she campaigns.

"Hillary Clinton will be seen as the Democratic standard bearer," Brown said, "so I don't imagine she has to spend much time kind of deepening her issue stance."


But, as Brown added, primaries tend to be more about character and likeability than specific issues, and Clinton has work to do when it comes to selling young people on her personality. One college student told Fusion that Clinton is not exactly a woman young voters are probably clamoring to sit down and have a beer with.

"It is a challenge for Hillary Clinton because she has always, always portrayed so much strength," Brown said. "Whether or not she is able to kind of transcend some of who she is, some of that side where she just kind of puts on that suit of armor and goes to work, whether she's able to let that down a bit, is going to be a big question in this campaign."


Where older women see that display of strength as a culmination of the women's movement, young people, young women particularly, may see a lack of warmth, and that may be a deterrent at the polls.

"A lot of the younger generation didn't go through that struggle, so to them, at least at this point in their lives, it appears as though much of the world has and offers equal opportunity," Brown said. "So one of the things that's true is they did choose Barack Obama in 2008, and I think young women still question whether or not they need to support Hillary from a gender perspective."


Clinton has so far been reluctant to talk much about her candidacy, refusing to take questions at appearances and giving bland remarks about economic growth and women's empowerment when she does speak. The strategy has allowed Clinton to avoid significant political risks, but it's also held at bay the opportunity to introduce herself to young voters.

"She has taken a very low profile," Doherty said. "The Republicans are getting out there."


Advisors this time around will be looking to show off Hillary, not the former secretary of state, senator, or first lady. She will likely deploy daughter Chelsea as a surrogate to connect with young people, and she'll tout her joy of being a grandmother on the campaign trail, something she's already done in recent speeches. Expect to see former President Bill Clinton on the campaign trail, as well. He's warm and effusive, qualities she'll need, but deploying him is also a risk since voters may be wary of getting "two for the price of one."

She will need to clearly define who she is and why she is running.

"She has to put together a narrative which describes why her past goals of public service are essentially unfulfilled…and how she hopes that from the job of president, she can accomplish those goals," Brown said.


So while the lack of baggage is a good thing with young people, Clinton has to be interesting enough for new voters to actually want to head to the polls and vote for her. Her last name may not be the turnoff that it is for a certain set of older voters, but is it a turn on? In 2008, it wasn't, and young women flocked to then-Senator Barack Obama.

Of course, it will matter greatly who snags the Republican nomination. A Marco Rubio may give off a more youthful air. A Jeb Bush? Not so much. And the Bush name carries its own, more recent, baggage.


What Clinton does have in her favor, Doherty pointed out, is that most young people vote Democratic when they vote at all. Only about 38 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds cast ballots in 2012, according to a Census analysis, which is in line with recent voting trends, but Obama captured more than 60 percent of their vote. And that recent email flap, the one scandal many young people might be familiar with? Polling suggests it barely even registered, Doherty said. Just four percent of young people aged 18 to 29 followed the story very closely, according to a March Pew survey.

But for the love of all that is that much-maligned term millennial, Clinton and the other candidates need to lay off the gimmicky YouTube and Instagram outreach, young voters say.


"It doesn't appeal to us," Purnell said. "We feel like it's cheesy and that older adults feel like it's the only way we'll pay attention. We're more aware than that."

How should Clinton and her competitors connect with young voters otherwise?

Honestly, Purnell said, some good old-fashioned face-to-face communication would be a very good place to start.


Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.

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