So I’ve heard Hillary Clinton has Yale in the bag. She’s a Yale Law school grad (’73), people practically sold their kidneys for tickets to her 2013 campus appearance, and, after all, Yalies are assumed to be universally bleed-blue liberal. But why did campus support group Yale Students for Hillary go dark over a year ago? Has student apathy begun to stall momentum rallied too early? In the age of Facebook and Buzzfeed and feminist blogs — when ideas have short life cycles, and heroes are transient — what does it take for young voters to form an attachment to a mainstream party candidate?
“Everyone knows about Hillary Clinton,” says Charlotte Juergens ‘16, who has worked on gubernatorial and Senate campaigns, and has spoken at the UN on nuclear nonproliferation. She believes Clinton can already count on a formidable — almost unprecedented — base of support. “Thanks to Clinton’s political history, her legitimacy is indisputable. She feels presidential. She has settled into the collective consciousness as a national leader, something few men or women in this country can say.”
During the 2008 and 2012 election cycles, formal student groups sprung up only after Obama declared his campaign. But Haley Adams ’16, a Global Affairs major from California, formed Yale Students for Hillary in 2013, three years before a presumed run. As of this writing, Clinton has not said anything definite about whether the rumors are true. Still, it seems Hillary’s iconicity already resonates strongly with college students. “The only reason I’d become a US citizen is to vote for Hillary,” Ally Daniels ’16, a Canadian citizen, told Adams.
Yale Students for Hillary emerged last year amid preparations for Clinton’s campus visit in October 2013 to receive the Law School’s Award of Merit. At the time, Adams was one of the first college organizers in the country to contact Rachel Schneider, the youth coordinator at Ready for Hillary, with the express purpose of bringing their “grassroots movement” to her school. Ready for Hillary is a Super PAC like any other: it raises large amounts of funds, independently of a candidate’s campaign. But Ready For Hillary also intends to convince its candidate to run in the first place. The home page stridently asks, “ARE YOU READY? Pledge to Support Hillary for President.” Behind the capital letters, a joyful Hillary Clinton is frozen mid-clap. Some might say you can see naked ambition in her eyes. Some might say it’s just a photograph.
On October 5, 2013, the day of the event, nearly a hundred approached a table smothered with Ready for Hillary stickers, and the movement began. Adams formed a club, with an official constitution, around the group of volunteers who had helped her gather signatures. On Facebook, the page currently has 162 likes. One does not have to feign surprise at a Hillary fan club at Yale, an overwhelmingly Democratic liberal arts college in the Northeast, located in a ward of New Haven in which registered Republicans number under 200, out of 3715 total registered voters.
“The List,” as Adams refers to it — containing the names, phone numbers and addresses of those who have authorized any potential Hillary Clinton campaign to contact them — was already longer in November 2013 than it had been at the end of Clinton’s 2008 campaign, with some 3 million members. If Hillary declares she will run, Ready For Hillary has pledged to shut down and transfer the list, through a complicated legal process, to her campaign. You can feel some revolution on the ground, taking place even without the organized political power of a declared run. Are young Americans Ready for Hillary, even if we’re not sure Hillary is Ready for Hillary?
Hillary, for many, embodies the dream of “Madame President.” She’s the icon, the battle-tested Washington pro who got there before this generation of college voters was born. Perhaps Hillary has already chipped the glass ceiling; now she stands the chance of breaking it. When evidence of gender discrimination comes to light, the necessity of action isn’t questioned. Instead, a definite and vociferous clamor arises unified — on change.org, on YouTube, in thousands of Facebook shares, and pressure from a nation of Internet activists. College students with politics on their mind have evolved into a typing-posting-sharing-liking movement that demands a woman in the White House, too.
As a political candidate, Hillary Clinton is much more than the movement’s placeholder. Eve Houghton, ’17, a member of the Yale College Democrats, feels that “greater representation of women in politics is always pretty much unequivocally a good thing. But Hillary has demonstrated a serious and deeply held commitment to improving the lives of women around the world, so I think her election would be more than a symbolic victory.” She showed me a video that summarizes her feeling about the Hillary campaign: an anthem titled “Female President,” by the Korean pop group Girl’s Day. I couldn’t understand the upbeat Korean lyrics, but the synchronized leather-booted stomping and glittery shoulder pads undeniably conveyed some sort of girl power.
Haley Adams believes Clinton’s (hypothetical) platform will appeal to students. “I would say she’s committed to saving the middle class. I think she is principally concerned with the growing income gap and what the institutional reasons for this trend are,” Adams says. “[Hillary’s] ‘Too Small to Fail’ campaign shows her commitment. Where she’ll differ from Obama is in the ideals she emphasizes. I would imagine her campaign would be less about ‘hope and change,’ and more about concrete issues and solutions. I think the public is a tad weary of promises for sweeping reform.”
For students poised to enter a dispiriting job market, economic issues will become as important as they are for their parents. On October 14, 2011, Occupy Wall Street organizer Matthew Siegel told NPR, “Young people are at the helm of this movement. With debt, with joblessness, with living at home with our parents well into our mid-20s, being told that we’re likely to be less better off than our parents, there is a great deal of frustration there.”
I asked Adams what Ferguson will mean for Clinton. In the aftermath, Clinton remarked, “If a third of all white men — just look at this room and take one-third — went to prison during their lifetime… Imagine that. That is the reality in the lives of so many of our fellow Americans.” On a campus where support erupted for Ferguson and protesters held a die-in the length of Wall Street, it’s a sure electoral bet that Yale is Ready for “Candidate Who Takes a Stand on Police Militarization” — fill in Candidate Name as Candidate Appears. But Hillary has been criticized for speaking rarely, too little and too late, and without conclusive policy recommendations, as if she were merely giving lip-service. Are candidates just passive vessels for the issues we demand they care about, attempting to please as much of their constituency as possible?
Yale students are willing to make bold, unapologetic statements about Hillary herself. A dedicated early organizer at Yale Students for Hillary, where he is now treasurer, Adam Gerard ‘17 began interning for his assemblyman Ted Lieu, in El Segundo, CA, at age 13. He has been a political staffer ever since. “Personally, I believe there are no other individuals, in either major party, as qualified as Secretary Clinton for the job,” Gerard says. He cites her experience, eight years in Congress and twelve in the White House. “Clinton has had the opportunity to build relationships from both perspectives — which will be an invaluable skill in a political climate dominated by brinksmanship.”
Though the Yale College Democrats will not endorse a candidate at this juncture, Tyler Blackmon ’16, President of the Dems, says that “on a personal note” he believes “Hillary Clinton would be one of the most well-qualified candidates in American history to run for the Presidency, given her time in the White House, in the Senate, and as Secretary of State.”
But Fish Stark ’17, who campaigned enthusiastically for mayoral candidate Justin Elicker in 2013, considers the fact that Hillary is “seen as an experienced, tactical, powerful figure in American politics a major advantage and major disadvantage.” Her decades as a DC veteran have solidified her love and hate camps. The August 2006 Time magazine cover even superimposed checkboxes labeled “love” and “hate” over her portrait, to let all of magazine-reading America decide. Unlike Obama in 2008 — who was a senator for only three years, a relative newcomer to everyday voters and television audiences — Hillary is undeniably established.
For Clinton, established doesn’t imply out of touch. She takes selfies with another Yalie darling, Meryl Streep. When actor Jason Segel publicly expressed “interest in sharing the big screen” with Clinton, she wrote back a kind note: “I am a little occupied at the moment, but perhaps someday I can help you forget Sarah Marshall … again. My only condition is that there be Muppets involved, and that is non-negotiable.”
As Time magazine put it, while Hillary was secretary of state, she was “a little occupied [negotiating] as a kind of referee between [the] dangerous frenemies” of Afghanistan and Pakistan. She can toss out winning pop culture references, destined for immediate immortalization by Buzzfeed. Like Time, she moves deftly between newspeak and youthspeak.
In 2012, a Tumblr blog called Texts from Hillary popped up. The blog published a series of memes based on Diana Walker’s photograph for Time of Hillary texting from a C-17 jet, en route to Tripoli for negotiations during the Libyan civil war. In one image, President Obama and Vice President Biden text her, “She’s going to love the new Justin Bieber video!” Looking as icily intimidating as a Matrix character, behind sunglasses and a snazzy brooch, Hillary responds, “Back to work, boys.”
In the meme, Hillary is responding sarcastically, snappily, and she’s always in power. Meme-Hillary rejects Mark Zuckerberg’s friend request. She responds to “Who run the world?” with a deadpan “Girls,” as many Yoncé-obsessed college students would. In April 2012, she really did respond, submitting her own post and meeting the founders of the blog. A year later, she solidified her social media celebrity when she joined Twitter. In her first tweet, she thanked the founders of Texts from Hillary, then said, “I’ll take it from here… #tweetsfromhillary.” Bill Clinton later updated his Twitter photo to a similar image to the meme’s photo, tweeting that he was following his leader, passing the torch for all of the Twitterverse to see.
Hillary Clinton’s social media explosion resonates with a generation that hyperventilates when the Wi-Fi is down. For many, she is, as Houghton put in all-caps in a message, “FLAWLESS.” She is no longer known to voters as the “frumpy” or “bossy” harpy the 90’s media made her out to be, when she asserted she wouldn’t stay home, doomed to a life of tea and cookies. It’s a far cry from the “cankles” she’s been teased for — a turn in her charisma that says just as much about her audience as it does about her appeal.
Blackmon makes a point of referring to her as “Clinton” instead of “Hillary.” “We would never regularly refer to a male politician by his first name,” he says. But I don’t think the first-name status implies disrespect. Hillary as a moniker has come to embody an inimitable political pioneer, someone whose “rhino-thick skin,” as she once recommended to young women with political aspirations, has helped her outlast so many who doubted her. Like Beyoncé, one name is enough to call up superstar status.
Charlotte Juergens’s gut feeling is that if Clinton runs for president on the Democratic ticket, the liberal majority at Yale will turn out to support her. “Although some Yalies identify as more radically liberal than Clinton and others as more moderate, I expect that Clinton’s reputation as a fundamentally reasonable and capable person will appeal to Yalies,” she says. Stark agrees, but also thinks Hillary will have to prove her willingness to take a strong stand for those values rather than “just preserve the status quo,” especially if she has a challenger from the left.
In years past, both Juergens and Stark have had many doors remain shut to their Get Out the Vote efforts. Fun and games and memes aside, come Election Day, Hillary may not be immune to intense voter apathy. As Blackmon puts it, “Whether it is for alder, governor, senator, or president, the Dems are always going to be doing work, and people are always going to be upset that we are asking them to walk five minutes to the polls.” Dustin Vesey ’17, for one, avoids the canvassers. “I know it is my responsibility to get involved in the election cycles, but as a resident of a different state I feel a little overwhelmed,” he says. “The only way to make an educated decision at the poll is to spend time researching each candidate independently, since Yale’s political activists won’t give me the full picture of their respective candidates, only why I should vote for them.” Once the canvassers have knocked more than three times (sometimes in one day), many suites without strong political convictions talk quietly amongst themselves, and leave the door unanswered.
Blackmon asserts this trend is not as strong as it may appear. If you look at the numbers, he says, people did go out to vote in 2014. In fact, over 1000 Yale students came out to vote in the gubernatorial election, a surprise to many. And that isn’t even including those who voted absentee elsewhere. So while it seems common-sensical that the presidential election will draw a bigger crowd than the midterms, Blackmon says Yalies have begun voting in every election more consistently since the Yale Dems became a more deliberate organization after 2004. Juergens found that in 2008 and 2012, many Yalies lost their political apathy in the high-stakes excitement of presidential elections; she expects they will do so again in 2016. When I speak with Adams, she’s even more specific, expressing confidence not just in students, but also in students inspired by Hillary Clinton. “There’s a first group of students that doesn’t agree with Hillary, and a second that just doesn’t want to get involved in politics. The second group will shrink when we have someone like [Hillary] run.”
But the Yale Students for Hillary page hasn’t been active for over a year. It has only three posts, all published during a week in November 2013: one photo promoting the national Ready for Hillary organization, another of an event on Cross Campus, and a hip-looking snapshot of Bill and Hillary on a beach bike ride. At this point, as the 2016 candidate speculation approaches a fever pitch, the page remains silent.
Haley Adams insists this doesn’t reflect a waning enthusiasm for Hillary. “[The campaigning] took a backseat to midterm and gubernatorial elections. It seemed to be a waste of energy and momentum to be focusing on Hillary, it wasn’t about her this past semester.” The page organizers are also gathering their strength for the official Democratic nomination that much of America takes as a given. Blackmon believes the organizers should have waited until she declares her candidacy, asserting in an opinion for the Yale Daily News that the national Ready for Hillary “jumped the gun.” “Organizing ahead of 2014 not only distracted from the importance of the midterm elections, but it made it appear as if Clinton were being coronated, implying that she is the default candidate. Clinton is an extremely capable and intelligent leader, and she deserves to make this decision on her own time. I would suggest that anyone who is interested in progressive politics work on legislation this spring and wait until much later to build a movement for Clinton on campus for 2016.”
Adams intends to begin that movement this spring, anticipating an announcement during the semester — more specifically, the unambiguous declaration that Hillary Clinton is Running For President. She tells me the group is in a unique position. “We’re not Students for Hillary, like the groups for Obama in 2008. There hasn’t been a preemptive presidential support group before.” Currently, Adams plans to organize around large student events where more people are likely to sign up to support Hillary in the future. Adam Gerard describes the plan as “demonstrating that Yale is indeed ready for Hillary, and hopefully mobilizing support for Secretary Clinton if she announces her candidacy.”
Yale Students for Hillary has the distinction of being one of the earliest college organizations supporting Ready for Hillary, which now has a presence on most large campuses. It’s a gamble supporting a candidate before she or he even formally joins the race. But Adams and other like-minded students want to improve Hillary’s odds. They understand that elections begin far earlier than four years to election day. Hillary Clinton, #textsfromicon, has inspired a notably early push. Students at Yale and other colleges the generation whose inheritance is Twitter and selfies, are Ready for Hillary. Eve Houghton tells me in an email that “it’s much more satisfying to engage with her campaign when I can actually participate in the political process. For many undergraduates (including me), the 2016 race will be their first time voting in a presidential election; and personally, I think it feels quite satisfying to vote for a candidate who I’ve supported and admired for most of my life.” Much like Beyoncé, queen of the Internet, Hillary Clinton, over a decade of political strategy and social media maneuvers, has accumulated a core group of supporters in college voters — who consider her ***flawless.