Hillary Clinton’s allies are turning to the very strategy that helped President Barack Obama crush her 2008 White House bid as they work to broaden her appeal to younger voters before another potential run.
With a youth-outreach director targeting future voters as young as 16, a social media-driven campaign populated with hip phrases, and low-dollar fundraisers designed to appeal to a young adult’s budget -- admission, $20.16 -- Clinton’s allies are out to accomplish the improbable.
They’re trying to make the 66-year-old prospective presidential candidate cool.
“Engaging young people has definitely been a huge priority,” says Rachel Schneider, director of the effort for Ready for Hillary, a super political action committee that has raised more than $1 million to promote a presidential run by the former secretary of state.
Schneider, 25, was barely old enough for grade school when Clinton moved into the White House as first lady in 1993 and wasn't in high school when Clinton began her first term as a New York senator in 2001. In 2012, Schneider organized youth support for Obama’s re-election and says his strength among the group was vital then and in his 2008 campaign.
“It’s just been shown over and over again how critical young people are,” she said in a recent interview.
They played a leading role in dashing Clinton’s 2008 chances and continue to be a weak point for her, according to public polls. A Pew Research Center analysis of 2008 Democratic primary exit polls found Obama, 52, trounced Clinton among 18 to 29-year-old voters in the multi-state Super Tuesday contests, with a 16-percentage-point advantage.
Today, with Clinton leading in surveys of the still-unformed 2016 Democratic presidential field and beating all hypothetical Republican rivals in most polls, young voters remain a vulnerability for her.
A Quinnipiac University poll conducted Nov. 19-24 in Ohio found 54 percent of respondents saying Clinton would make a good president, compared to 40 percent who thought she wouldn’t; the youngest voters were the least convinced, with 46 percent of those aged 18 to 29 saying she was well-suited and 43 percent saying she wasn’t.
Clinton hasn’t said whether she’ll run in 2016. She also hasn’t done anything to discourage speculation about her ambitions or dissuade a growing cast of Democratic operatives -- many of them veterans of Obama’s political team -- from raising money or laying the groundwork for such a campaign.
Beyond the $1.3 million Ready for Hillary reported raising as of June 30, the last Federal Election Commission reporting date, the group is organizing a technology-fueled grassroots strategy with the help of 270 Strategies, the firm founded by Mitch Stewart, Obama’s former battleground state director, and his national field director, Jeremy Bird. Along with minorities, young voters were a part of the coalition they helped energize.
Clinton’s “problem in 2008 was they actually ceded it -- they literally weren’t communicating with” so-called millennial voters, said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, who managed the 2004 presidential bid of former Vermont Governor Howard Dean.
“What it says to me more than anything is, wow, they really have learned from the 2008 experience, and they are not going to make that mistake again. They are going to be in there fighting for it to make sure they’re talking to that generation where they are,” Trippi said.
Ready for Hillary has gotten a jump on the process by using Facebook and Twitter to promote a Clinton candidacy. It’s formed decentralized teams on college campuses that will be trained on organizing tactics and empowered to use the Internet to harness voter files for targeting.
The group is also selling Clinton-themed merchandise tailored to young people, and throwing fundraisers aimed at the under-30 crowd at clubs in big cities. After the events in Washington and New York, others are set in the weeks to come in Arizona, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Georgia.
Among the most popular items Ready for Hillary sells is a t-shirt emblazoned with her Twitter avatar, a photograph of her in sunglasses checking her BlackBerry.
“These have been a very successful way to engage a younger crowd in this movement,” Ready for Hillary spokesman Seth Bringman said of the low-dollar events. That engagement translates into real dollars.
Of the 25,000 donors to the group -- including billionaire investor George Soros, who gave $25,000 in October to join the group’s national finance council -- 76 percent have donated $25 or less, Bringman said.
Clinton begins with some advantages. Young people skew Democratic, tending to be more racially diverse and socially liberal in their views including support for same-sex marriage, abortion rights and granting citizenship to undocumented immigrants.
Strategists haven’t seen a rival emerge in either major political party to capture the imaginations of young people, although some have said Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose anti-Wall Street message has touched a populist nerve, could change that.
“If an Elizabeth Warren ran against her, could that person have real appeal with that younger group over her in the Democratic primary? Yeah, but Elizabeth Warren says she’s not running,” Trippi said. “An insurgent, fresh anti-establishment candidate would appeal to them, yes, but I just don’t see today who that is.”
That’s not to say threats don’t exist. Polls show Clinton does least well among millennial voters against newcomers.
In the Quinnipiac Ohio poll, Clinton beat first-term Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul, 50, among all voters, with 50 percent support compared with his 40 percent. Yet 18- to 29-year-olds were about evenly split, with 45 percent preferring Clinton and 44 percent favoring Paul.
A similar pattern emerged with first-term Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz, 42, who lagged 15 percentage points behind Clinton in a head-to-head matchup yet fought her almost to a draw among the youngest voters, with 39 percent of them choosing her compared with 35 percent who backed him.
Matthew Donnellan, the executive director of the College Republican National Committee, said Clinton’s biggest challenge in reaching out to millennial voters is “she is uninspiring to young people,” and associated in their minds with policies they dislike, including the Affordable Care Act.
A recent poll by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics found the majority of 18-to-29-year-olds disapproving of the health-care law, with half predicting higher costs and four in 10 saying it will reduce the quality of coverage.
“Our party needs to, and will, do a better job reaching out to young people,” Donnellan said. “The problem for Hillary Clinton is she has been supportive of many of these policies, like Obamacare, that young people see as really hurtful to them, for as long as they have been alive -- or longer.”
An Oct. 25-28 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll also showed Clinton’s public image slipping in recent months, including with younger voters.
“She has gone from being a secretary of state to being a prospective presidential candidate, and that has taken her out of a nonpartisan role into being potentially a partisan opponent to many people,” said Democratic pollster Peter Hart, chairman of Washington, D.C.-based Hart Research Associates, who co-directed the poll.
Ohio Democratic Representative Tim Ryan, 40, who plans to speak at the Washington and New York Ready for Hillary events, says there’s time for Clinton to connect with younger voters and that they are predisposed to back her.
“Hillary for the last four or five years has been locked into a lot of foreign policy, and those issues don’t generally resonate with young people, so I think she’s going to do much better with them,” Ryan said in an interview. “Young people want a big vision, and they want someone who can implement that vision, and they see that in her.”
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