Clinton’s New Challenge: The Millennials

Millennials are more progressive on LGBT rights than Hillary was in 2008. Can she inspire them to the polls in a 2016 run?

BY Kerry Eleveld

September 03 2014 4:00 AM ET

In the last contested Democratic presidential campaign, for instance, as early as June 2007, all eight Democratic candidates supported repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.” And by August 2007, the big three — Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama — had settled comfortably into a consensus of supporting civil unions, repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” passing ENDA, and overturning the Defense of Marriage Act. Trying to differentiate between their policy positions was a matter of splitting hairs. For the candidates, that meant that wooing the LGBT community was largely about outreach and access; it was more tonal than substantive.

Now we’re in uncharted territory as the LGBT movement pushes past the remnants of its 2008 issues. And Clinton, for the time being, must confront the dual challenges of tone and substance.

The question now becomes, is it possible for her to be a leader and a candidate at the same time? Candidates typically don’t lead. They follow...the polls. They take positions that both they and a majority of the public can feel good about. Then they work on being likable and instilling confidence in their ability to run the country. Obama, for instance, didn’t provide a road map to change in 2008; he offered a vehicle — himself — and asked the nation to trust him.

Beyond name recognition, Clinton’s head start in 2016 clearly lies in her ability to govern. The only candidate who comes close to matching her grasp of foreign and domestic policy or her 360-degree view of Washington from the White House to Congress to the federal agencies is Vice President Joe Biden. Yet even he doesn’t have the benefit of having served as Secretary of State.

But Clinton still needs to inspire people to jump on her bandwagon in the same way Obama did in 2008. And insofar as LGBT issues are concerned in 2016, one of her biggest audiences won’t simply be the queer community; it will be millennials who voted for Obama at a rate of 66% in 2008 and 60% in 2012. If Clinton is to re-create Obama’s voting blocs in the general election, she needs to win their vote by large margins, but she also needs to inspire them to turn out at the polls in numbers similar to 2008 and 2012, when they made up 18% and 19% of the electorate, respectively.

If Clinton wants to do that, LGBT rights is the place to start. Fully 51% of millennials consider themselves supporters of gay rights, according to the Pew Research Center, as opposed to just 37% of Gen X’ers and about a third of older adults. In fact LGBT rights is one of the most galvanizing issues for millennials. By comparison, 49% describe themselves as patriotic, just 36% as religious, and only 32% as environmentalists. This group matters for Clinton in both the primaries and the general election. In Iowa in 2008, Obama took 57 percent of voters under 30, shocking the Democratic establishment with a win that would fuel his eventual victory.

Though some gays are intent on rehashing the ’90s, the millennials likely won’t be. They’ll be looking for authenticity on the issues of today, as will many LGBT Americans. And while LGBT voters have a long history with Clinton, millennials are still just getting to know her. She needs to give them a reason to go to the polls, and looking like a leader on LGBT issues is one way to do it.

It’s unclear that relying on the states’ rights fallback on marriage equality is going to fill the bill. And sooner or later, journalists will start asking the marriage question in a way that forces Clinton to choose between states’ rights and full federal equality.

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