How the Obama Revolution Could Hurt Hillary Clinton

Jul 28, 2016

As Bernie Sanders slowly loses control of his "political revolution," Barack Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention Wednesday night shows he is still wrestling with his.

If Bernie Sanders has started a grassroots crusade for genuine progressive reform, Obama's revolution was more personal: for millions of Americans who supported him in 2008 and 2012, the act of voting became an act of love. His movement wasn't necessarily about a specific agenda or philosophy, it was about a feeling: the idea that a vote is a personal gesture, one that should only be extended, with exuberance, to a candidate you truly love. He transformed voting from a handshake into a hug.

And on Wednesday night, he attempted to project that intimacy and exuberance onto Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee whose name has been periodically booed by Bernie Sanders disappointed delegates throughout the first days of the convention. "Tonight, I ask you to do for Hillary Clinton what you did for me," Obama said at the end of his speech. "I asked you to carry her the way you carried me."

For many young people, that Obama Feeling is the only kind of voting they've ever known. "A lot of the folks I worked with who voted for Obama felt like they were casting a vote for their friend," says Mina Davis, a 23-year old Sanders delegate from Nebraska who worked tirelessly to elect Obama in 2012. "I felt that way with Bernie really strongly."

"Obama keeps it real. He's like a brother in the White House," Davis continues. "So when we move to someone who's not as charismatic, we're like, 'are you sure you can keep it real?'"

"Barack Obama reminded me of the passion behind our vote." said Davante Lewis, a 24-year old Sanders delegate from Louisiana. "I'm not thinking in the older, cynical way. I'm thinking in the way Barack Obama taught us to."

What way is that, exactly? "It should be passion," Lewis says of the democratic process. "For so long, it was about predictability."

Davis and Lewis are part of a generation who have never cast a vote in a presidential election for anybody besides Barack Obama. In the 2008 election, Obama won the highest disparity between young and old voters since exit polling began in 1972, with 66% of voters under 30. That voting disparity opened up a 19-point gap in party affiliation among young people: 45% of 18-29 year olds were Democrats after the 2008 election, compared to 26% who called themselves Republicans (in 2000, party affiliation was roughly equal in that age group.)

And Obama kept that youth vote in the 2012 election, which Mitt Romney would likely have won if young voters had been evenly split. Obama beat Romney with young people 67% - 30%, according to Center for Research and Information on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, and the share of youth voters actually grew over the course of his first term, from 18% of the electorate to 19%.

Clinton herself has acknowledged she is not blessed with the particular brand of magnetism. “I am not a natural politician, in case you haven’t noticed, like my husband or President Obama," she said during a primary debate in March.

Still, for some young people, Hillary Clinton met the emotional standard set by Obama. Brandon Langlois is a 28-year old Hillary Clinton delegate from Nebraska who had epilepsy when he was young. He says the children's health insurance plan Clinton built as First Lady helped him get health care he wouldn't have been able to afford. "Hillary was working for me before I was even born," he said. "The least I could do was support her." Langlois says he stood up and told his story to his entire caucus in Nebraska, convincing every single undecided voter to vote for Clinton, and winning their caucus by 3 votes.

But in 2016, most of the Obama generation voted for Bernie Sanders. By a lot. According to another analysis by the same group, Sanders won more youth votes in the primary than Clinton and Trump combined.

So in his endorsement speech in Charlotte, N.C., on July 5, Obama acknowledged that America's focus on newness and passion sometimes drowned out more experienced voices like Clinton's. He tried to de-emphasize the personal magnetism that had won him the presidency, instead placing extra value on Hillary's strengths, like hard work and experience:

We’re a young country, so we like new things. And I’ve benefited from that culture, let’s face it .... But sometimes, we take somebody who’s been in the trenches and fought the good fight and been steady for granted. Sometimes we act as if never having done something and not knowing what you're doing is a virtue. We don't do that, by the way, for airline pilots. We don't do that for surgeons. But somehow we think, President of the United States, let’s just give -- I don't know -- who’s that guy? .... And so, as a consequence, that means that sometimes Hillary doesn’t get the credit that she deserves.

Again in his speech at the DNC Wednesday night, Obama tried to shine his light onto Clinton's record, urging the crowd and the millions watching on TV to become passionate about pragmatism. "She’s been there for us, even if we haven’t always noticed," he said. "And if you're serious about our democracy, you can't afford to stay home just because she might not align with you on every issue."

Most seemed convinced. One delegate on the floor told another that his "eyelids had goosebumps" after the speech, and many Bernie Sanders delegates went from a grudging acceptance of Hillary Clinton to a lukewarm enthusiasm for her. Davis said she was "dying with happiness" after Obama's speech. "I was electrified. I felt empowered. I think it makes me a little more ready," she says.

But even if Hillary can benefit from the Obama boost, the revolution is complete. "The standard has been raised," Davis says. "It suddenly becomes part of the American narrative to put forward a candidate who can create a movement."

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