Originally published in print and online by USA TODAY in February 2016.
Bernie Sanders has captured the hearts of Millennial voters with his inspirational and emotional promise to bring the nation “a future to believe in.” Although 74-year-old Sanders is a lifelong politician, his off-the-beaten-path campaign and perpetually disheveled aesthetic seem to be just the fresh (if wrinkled) face many young Democrats are looking for.
That’s even true of the women, and particularly young women. Sanders won women under 30 by about 6 to 1 over Hillary Clinton in Iowa. He nearly matched that Tuesday in New Hampshire and, even more sobering for Clinton, nearly seven in 10 women under 45 chose Sanders. Overall, Sanders won 53% of the female vote in New Hampshire to Clinton’s 46% — a reversal from Iowa, where she carried women, and one that could reflect a troubling trend for her campaign.
Clinton has painted herself as a glass-shattering feminist icon, so these numbers might seem surprising. But considering Sanders’ overwhelming support from Millennial voters who are enchanted by policy proposals that are simply good for young people, it’s no wonder younger women in particular are turning away from Clinton in favor of more radical change.
Born after the Cold War, Millennials don’t feel the sting when Sanders refers to himself as a democratic socialist. In fact, they look on in admiration as he proclaims a dire need for a “political revolution,” chock full of social and economic domestic reforms. His core platforms — universal health care, tuition-free public colleges, a crackdown on irresponsible spending and redistribution of wealth — are all thrilling prospects for a debt-ridden generation who are wary of career politicians and tired of slow progress under the Obama administration.
To these voters, Sanders’ rumpled suits and off-the-script shouting are a form of highly praised authenticity that Clinton’s seemingly out-of-touch demeanor just doesn’t offer. To be fair, Clinton could never pull off a similar look without major criticism for looking tired or ill-prepared.
Last weekend’s remarks from feminist icon Gloria Steinem and former secretary of State Madeleine Albright did not help Clinton’s case. On HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, Steinem implied young women are backing Sanders so they can meet “boys” who also support the candidate. Meanwhile, Albright declared, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”
Though both have argued their quotes were taken out of context, not only are such remarks hurtful to Clinton’s campaign, they also are detrimental to this generation’s feminism. These quotes appear as a desperate attempt to get a woman — any woman — in the White House, just to prove that America is ready for a female president. That is not an example of my generation’s feminism.
Millennial feminists who stand behind Clinton do so because they see her as the best and most qualified candidate for president, not simply because she is a woman. Voting for a candidate primarily on the basis of gender is wrong, but to criticize young women who overlook gender in politics in favor of critical policy consideration is a much worse offense.
As a college-age feminist, I find Clinton’s campaign appealing because of her vast experience, her intricate knowledge of presidential politics and her realistic approach to what she could accomplish if she were to be elected. In my mind, Clinton’s gender is separate from her politics and my decision to vote for her.
In the end, this is not about gender; it is about policy. Put simply, Sanders appeals to young voters because of leftist policies that are relevant to the Millennial situation, while Clinton appears rigid and removed from the younger generation. Whether Sanders can actually make good on his lofty promises is an entirely different issue.