COLUMBIA, S.C. — By the time Maxine Todd returned to the University of South Carolina last month after a semester away, it was too late. Most of the Feminist Collective was supporting Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton. Nothing could change their minds.
“There was so much Bernie support in the room” at a January voter-registration drive, said Todd, who took over as president of the student group in Columbia after a fall internship at the National Organization for Women in Washington. “It was palpable. I was very outnumbered.”
As South Carolina prepares for Saturday’s Democratic presidential primary, Clinton’s quandary is how to win over young voters — particularly women — when the enthusiasm she needs in a general election is so linked to support for her 74-year-old white male opponent. People aged 18 to 29 composed 15 percent of all voters in 2012, according to Census data. In 2016, unmarried women, minorities and millennials together will constitute a majority for the first time, according to the Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund in Washington.
The presidential contests in Iowa and New Hampshire exposed age and gender rifts in the Democratic electorate. The young overwhelmingly supported Sanders in both, and Clinton lost women by 11 percentage points in New Hampshire. In last weekend’s Nevada caucuses, Clinton claimed her second overall victory, backed by a majority of women, though the age gap persisted.
South Carolina, where she led Sanders in a Bloomberg Politics poll of likely primary voters by 22 percentage points this month, could divert attention from handwringing over which voting blocs she can sway to the probability of her nomination.
On USC’s sprawling, leafy campus, the Feminist Collective’s weekly meeting took place in the student union, one floor above where Sanders spoke to an overflow crowd the day prior. After a debate about feminism in video games and pop culture, six members talked politics.
“My gender does shape the issues that most directly affect me,” said Todd, a 21-year-old senior majoring in political science and also gender studies. “I have faith that Hillary Clinton would wake up in the middle of the night and know random things that she’s experienced as a woman that I’ve experienced or am going to experience and make those a priority.”
Even she couldn’t deny Sanders’s appeal: “He is embodying the ideals that a lot of people in this age range and this group care about.”
Sitting opposite was Cynthia Beavin, a 20-year-old junior who created her own major: sexual and reproductive health rights in developing countries. She said she’s been a socialist for three years and sees in Sanders a revolutionary capable of building a government not beholden to the whims of Wall Street and rich white men. With an aghast expression, she recalled Clinton’s claim in a debate that she can’t embody the “establishment” by virtue of her gender.
“I really hate that because, yes, it is so important that we have a woman president but that doesn’t mean I want any woman to be a president,” she said. “To use her vagina to say that that’s somehow what makes her better? To me that’s not feminism. She’s just reducing herself down to her vagina. That doesn’t sit well with me.”
Abby Knowles, a freshman studying biochemistry and daughter of a Clinton fan, said policies and whom they benefit matter most.
“Sanders’s policies will help women more,” she said. “I think that’s more important than just having a female president.”
Still, the Clinton campaign can take heart in one point all the young women agreed upon: They’d back the former first lady over any Republican.
Such die-hard Democrats are a small but determined cohort in South Carolina. Mitt Romney beat President Barack Obama there by almost 11 percentage points in the 2012 general election.
“South Carolina in general and campus in particular is pretty conservative, so it’s very rare I run into someone who’s undecided,” said Bria Burke-Koskela, a Clinton volunteer who presides over the College Democrats at Clemson University.
The campaign is seeking them nonetheless.
Michelle Kwan, 35, the former Olympic figure skater, coordinates the campaign’s surrogate program, which has dispatched Chelsea Clinton and actress Vivica A. Fox in South Carolina. The day after the USC Feminist Collective meeting, Kwan, who was a State Department senior adviser and public diplomacy envoy, visited Newberry College, a school with about 1,200 students an hour’s drive from Columbia.
It was a precarious beginning to a day intended to use her star power to promote Clinton to young women: Fewer than half the 70 chairs were filled, and only seven or eight women looked to be of undergraduate age. Two left just 11 minutes into the hour-long event.
The next event, a 30-minute drive away at Presbyterian College in aptly named Clinton, made more of an impact, judging from the reaction of Cassie Kemmerlin and her friends.
To a crowd of more than 50, Kwan talked about her journey from the daughter of immigrant parents to household name as the most decorated figure skater in U.S. history. She stressed Clinton’s qualifications and pragmatism and cited the candidate’s 1995 assertion that “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.”
Kemmerlin, a bubbly 19-year-old sophomore who grew up watching Kwan compete on television, said she’d arrived undecided but was leaving with a new perspective.
“This is a small college, a small community, there’s mostly females in this room,” she said. “Maybe Hillary’s not here herself, but she sent someone here, and I think that’s very respectable and that makes me want to look into it more. This makes me want to see what she has to say and what she’s for.”
A line had begun to form behind her of young women anxiously awaiting the chance to pose with Kwan in front of a black backdrop for selfies and Snapchat videos. Kemmerlin went to join them.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."