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Clinton vs. Sanders: Which candidate do millennial women want?

Updated: Jun 3, 2020

By Sara Snoddy, Studio M staff

As we head into Super Tuesday, numbers seem to support Hillary Clinton’s status as the Democratic presidential nominee. A divide, however, has persisted between millennial Democrats and older generations, with polls and reports repeatedly suggesting Clinton is having a hard time winning over the younger group.

So, despite Clinton’s power, why have so many young millennial women been jumping on the Bernie Sanders bandwagon?

In February, incidents involving two of Clinton’s supporters, Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem, provided many millennial voters the chance to show their support of her Democratic rival. (Albright told a New Hampshire crowd “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t support each other,” while Steinem implied on Real Time with Bill Maher, that young women were attracted to Sen. Sanders because “the boys were with Bernie.”)

The comments sparked an outcry across social media, resulting in a new hashtag: #Berninhell. Cathy Borges, an administrator of the TNWomen4Bernie Twitter account,  was certain the controversial remarks would hurt the former secretary of state in the New Hampshire primary.

“They know they’re losing the millennial vote, but to try to downgrade and shame young women into voting is disgraceful. It’s going to backfire on Hillary,” said Borges, 56. “Being an undeclared voter is a big deal in New Hampshire, and women are very independent there. People there think it’s your civic duty to vote.”

The Boston native is somewhat of an expert on politics in the New England state. After raising her two kids there for 25 years, Borges moved to Tennessee in order to be closer to her wounded-warrior son, who was stationed at Fort Campbell while serving in Afghanistan, and her new grandson. Seeing how supportive Sanders is of women, she immediately got involved with the Tennessee chapter of Women for Bernie Sanders, which has chapters in all 50 states, making monthly donations and organizing local meetings.

After winning the Iowa Caucus by a smaller margin than predicted, Clinton lost to Sanders in the New Hampshire primary. The win itself was unsurprising, but the margin — 60.4% over Clinton’s 38% — was. Despite the controversy, her recent wins in South Carolina and Nevada came as no surprise, and this could spell trouble for Sanders in the more traditional southern states on Super Tuesday.

Not all millennials are leaning toward Sanders, however.

“I feel like she’s seen the struggle of not just women but people in general,” said 19-year-old Valerie Martinez, who is involved in the Tennessee Democratic Federation of Women. “And she knows that change doesn’t come in big leaps. Change is done through baby steps, and baby steps comes from negotiation and compromise.”

A political science major at East Tennessee State University, Martinez was impressed by how Clinton chose to work with children’s defense funds when the former senator graduated college as a lawyer. To her, Clinton gets “poked at” for being called a professional politician, and that makes her unlike everyone else in the race.

“The main difference between (Sanders and Clinton) is the way they get things done. For instance, what Hillary proposes is affordable college, whereas Bernie wants free public and community college. Hillary wants to give you the opportunity that, if you’re willing to work for it, you can have it.”

Women for Tennessee’s Future, an organization promoting the election of progressive women into office, has been actively supporting Clinton’s campaign. Treasurer Bonnie Dow hopes the talk about young voters won’t “blind us” to the fact that many millennials don’t vote, meaning that Sanders’ millennial following end up failing him.

“Sanders is a candidate that is resonating with voters who are fed up with the political paralysis,” said Dow. “He represents this entirely different kind of voice. For instance, he says we should have single-payer health care, which would be nice, but I don’t think the political process allows for that. Trying to tear down ObamaCare, which was hard-won and has had to stand a number of challenges, is an unrealistic idea.”

So how do millennials in the Volunteer state really feel about the Democratic candidates? A recent poll by MTSU Poll, a non-partisan data-gathering poll at Middle Tennessee State University, sheds some light.

“We start out asking two open-ended questions about the presidential race to get a sense of where potential voters stand,” said Jason Reineke, associate director of the poll at MTSU. “We ask participants to name, off the top of their head, the candidate they would prefer to see win, and then the candidate they would least like to see win.”

While Clinton is the primary candidate Democrats would vote for, she was also the candidate whom voters would “least like” to see win. This suggests that as a candidate she is polarizing: People either love or hate her.

And as for how the camps feel about each other’s rival candidate, the reaction is surprisingly positive — at least, for Bernie Sanders.

“I feel like I have to stress this, especially being so young and one of the few who I’ve seen in support of Hillary: I’m not against Bernie. I’m for Hillary. Hopefully Bernie Sanders’ supporters would find whatever they’re looking for in Hillary, and the same for Hillary supporters,” said Martinez, who thinks that Clinton is exactly who people says she is: a politician who’s “ready to work.”

However, many non-millennial women in support of Clinton think the opposite may happen, believing that the opposition is quick to judge Hillary and might be unwilling to vote for her.

“I don’t think you’re seeing the same attitude from the Clinton supporters,” said Dow. “What I hope is that people who … want a progressive democratic president will vote for the nominee, whomever it may be.”

The question of Clinton’s progressiveness is a hot-button issue among Sanders’ camp, with Steinem and Albright’s statements merely adding fuel to the fire. Many young women have spoken up about the implication that they’re anti-feminist if they support Sanders.

“I see those as very sexist statements,” said 21-year-old Victoria Hewlett, a student at Northeast State Community College, also affiliated with the TDFW. “I believe that I am supporting women by supporting Bernie Sanders. A lot of millennials feel misrepresented. They feel like politicians are out of touch with them and their issues. There was a study by Northwestern University that said that the opinions of the average Americans have a near zero, statistically insignificant, effect on public policy. To me, that sounds like democracy is dead.”

Hewlett particularly takes issue with Clinton’s history with specific issues like equal rights for the LGBT community, believing she has gone “back and forth” on a lot of important progressive points.

Ultimately, there are two things most Democratic women can agree on: first, that if Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) had run for president, it would have been a different race; and second, that only voting for a candidate based on one issue — in this case, gender — is wrong.

As Borges puts it, “It makes us lose everything we’ve gained as women.”

Studio M, a project of the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State Universitydesigned to advance journalism excellence, launched in January 2015. The Studio M project is made possible through generous grants and donations from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Tennessean and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

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