PHILADELPHIA—Juliette Comfer, a pink-haired freshman at Temple University, was wild for Bernie Sanders. Now she’s mild for Hillary Clinton. “I don’t love her, but our views are aligned,” she said before Clinton made a pitch for millennial votes at her school on Monday. Orion Tucker, a junior with a nose ring and a hipster goatee, also felt the Bern in the Democratic primary, but he’s also backing Clinton over Donald Trump: “The more Donald runs off his mouth, the clearer the choice gets.” Philip Mattes, a freshman with a scruffy orange beard, is another Bernie Bro who’s transferred to the Clinton train. “If you care about health care, student debt, all the progressive issues, you’ve got to be with her,” he said.
Polls suggest that most millennials prefer Clinton to Trump, but especially among college-aged voters who tend to lean left, her margin isn’t nearly as wide as President Obama’s over Mitt Romney. And you could sense why at her speech on Monday. The carefully curated crowd was clearly on her side—there were only about 200 attendees, many of them members of Democratic campus groups who got tickets from her campaign—but the enthusiasm was not exactly overwhelming
In interviews at the event, many of her millennial supporters, especially the former Sanders revolutionaries, talked about her in the could-be-worse tone they might use to describe a boring but socially appropriate romantic partner. They used words like “capable,” “well-informed,” “responsible,” and “qualified.” They dutifully praised her positions on issues like abortion, student debt, mass incarceration, and climate change, while emphasizing the importance of stopping Trump and his inflammatory rhetoric. But most of them did not sound particularly inspired.
“Bernie was a genuine grass-roots kind of guy, and he really spoke to the younger generation,” said Nicole Brigstock, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania who wore a “NO WAR” pin next to her “Ready for Hillary” pin. “He truly cared about progressive issues. I guess I’d like to believe that she does as well.”
Clinton’s campaign staff acknowledges that after losing millennials to Sanders by blowout margins in the Democratic primary, she’s still underperforming in that age group in the general. They described the Temple speech as an effort to earn the votes of young people who might not know where she stands on issues like equal pay for women, gay rights, the minimum wage, and college affordability. She also appealed to their sense of tolerance and multiculturalism, attacking Trump as a racist, sexist, and generally divisive figure, repeatedly pushing her campaign themes of Stronger Together and Love Trumps Hate.
The conventional wisdom on millennials is that they’re swayed more by passion and emotion than substance—that in politics as well as smartphones, they’re always looking for the shiny new thing. But coming of age with the first black president, very few of them expressed excitement about the prospect of the first woman president. On the other hand, her young supporters here almost all name-checked her more traditional liberal views, in contrast to Trump’s calls to build a wall and undo most of Obama’s work, as well as her knowledge of policy, in even sharper contrast to Trump. In her speech, Clinton admitted she’s not much of an entertainer, but touted her commitment to the “slow, hard business of governing,” pointing out that she knows the interest rate on student loans down to the decimal point.
“She’s showing that she’s experienced, she’s reality-based, she cares about policies we care about,” said junior Mike McDermott, a former Sanders supporter who’s on the executive board of the Temple Democrats. “Young people want to see that kind of positive message. It’s not sexy, but it’s about getting the job done.”
Margaret Strolle, a graduate student in history at Villanova, said Clinton gets a bad rap from starry-eyed Sanders types who think politics is about waving magic wands and making everything better. She said Clinton is a realist, and like Alexander Hamilton in the Broadway musical, has been in the room where it happens.
“People deride her for being part of the system but I like her experience,” Strolle said. “She’s not making big promises about how she’s going to change everything, but she’s committed to getting things done, even if it’s incremental.”
Trump is wildly unpopular with millennials, so the real danger for Clinton is that they could vote for third-party candidates or stay home, and she warned Monday that Trump could win if the youth turnout is stagnant. Judging from the students at her event, that might be her strongest millennial message. Tom Quinn, a nursing student and a registered independent who had considered voting for Libertarian Gary Johnson, says he’s now convinced that only two candidates have a path to victory, and that Trump is unacceptable. “We can’t have a racist president,” he said. Bernie Mann, a diehard Sanders supporter—she noted they even share a name—said she’s realized she can vote for his platform by voting for Clinton: “It felt a lot more real from Bernie, but she’s way, way, way better than Trump.” Vicki Gouvalis, a moderate Republican and voted for John Kasich in the primary, said she was undecided before Clinton spoke, then told me after the event she will vote for Clinton. “I was shocked by how much I agreed with her,” Gouvalis said.
The good news for Clinton is she has room to grow with undecided millennials who loathe Trump and share many of her views. The bad news is that many of them are undecided because they don’t like her or trust her. Several Clinton supporters who showed up Monday said they’re still concerned about her emails, her support for the Iraq war, and her ties to Wall Street. They said most of their Bernie-or-Bust friends are coming around as the election nears, but not all of them.
“Everyone keeps saying she’s a liar, and I’m like, what politician isn’t?” said Jeffrey Fuentes, a junior whose parents are Salvadoran immigrants. “I think people will come around, but they’re not amped up like they were for Bernie.”
At Temple, Clinton tried to reach out to reluctant millennials, telling unusually personal stories about her mother and other women who influenced her, urging them to resist the notion that politics is all corrupt and no one ever changes. And there was one group of millennials at the event whose enthusiasm seemed to defy all the punditry: young black voters, who never felt the Bern in the first place.
James Walton, a 30-year-old buyer for a Philadelphia manufacturing company, said African-Americans appreciate Clinton’s attention to the minimum wage, police brutality, and gun control; he’s lost three friends to gun violence. “We’re millennials, too,” he said. “And she’s speaking to our demographic.”
Jeanmarie Elican, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, said that as a black woman, she appreciates Clinton’s concern about discrimination against minorities, immigrants and gays. But like so many of her fellow Clinton supporters, she said she’s most energized about stopping Trump, a candidate who has dismissed Black Lives Matter, retweeted white supremacists, and argued that blacks should vote for him because their lives are so abysmal they have nothing to lose.
“I have plenty to lose,” Elican said. “Donald Trump doesn’t see black people as people. If that’s not a reason to vote, I don’t know what is.”