Hillary Clinton needs people like Emily Jensen if she’s going to win the White House.
But Jensen, a young DFL activist, is striving to elect Clinton’s rival for the Democratic presidential nomination.
“I think Bernie Sanders has the best record,” she said. The 23-year-old Marshall native started volunteering for the Vermont senator last May and is now his Minnesota caucus director.
Sanders’ surprising surge this winter has been built in part on the enthusiasm of a constituency that once seemed a lock for Clinton — women voters. While the former secretary of state is still winning strong support among older women, she is lagging so far among younger ones.
Results from the Iowa caucuses showed a sharp generational divide: Women 29 and younger voted for Sanders by a margin of roughly 6-1, according to TV and Associated Press entrance polls. Clinton’s support was stoutest among older Iowans at 69 percent. Among married women, Clinton won 60 percent to 33 percent. Among unmarried women, Sanders won 53 percent to 43.
A recent Star Tribune Minnesota Poll also showed that Clinton still has work to do among women voters. The poll showed her dead even among women in the state if her GOP rival is Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, whose fortunes have risen since the Iowa vote. In a matchup with Donald Trump, the poll showed Sanders and Clinton both winning, but Sanders drawing considerably more support from women.
While she was the unquestioned favorite for the Democratic nomination six months ago, Clinton heads into Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary as the underdog, and polls show her trailing among women in that state. Her challenges are triggering familiar anxieties for her many Minnesota supporters, who are openly considering how to build support among Democratic and independent women not yet sold on Clinton.
“I and many other people assumed Hillary would be a shoo-in eight years ago,” said state Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, a Clinton supporter. “What we learned is you can’t take any of this for granted. … Some young women take for granted the challenges we fought … to be accepted into the political realm.””
Even now, Clinton enjoys broad support across the DFL, far outpacing Sanders in high-profile endorsements. Several Twin Cities campaign events last week with Chelsea Clinton drew large crowds, filled with women of all ages.
“She would be the first woman president. For me, that’s a huge part of it,” said Jessica Andrist, a DFL activist from Monticello. The 38-year-old divorced mother likes to read her daughter, 7, a storybook about Clinton’s life.
In 2014, Andrist hired Jensen, the Sanders Minnesota caucus coordinator, for her first campaign job. They are friends, fellow feminists, a mentor and protégé. But Jensen sees Sanders as less beholden to special interests, more likely to radically reshape the economy in favor of the disadvantaged.
Jensen, like all the DFL women supporting Sanders who were interviewed for this story, said they would enthusiastically back Clinton if she beats Sanders. Both candidates are scheduled to speak Friday at a DFL dinner in St. Paul, and both campaigns are aggressively organizing ahead of the March 1 caucuses.
While Clinton won more votes than Sanders from women overall in Iowa, Sanders’ message of economic populism has given him a huge boost among younger women.
“I don’t know if it’s a generational thing, but as a woman it’s demeaning to think that just because it’s a woman I would vote for her,” said Madison Olimb, 29, a student and waitress who lives in Minneapolis.
Olimb said she “never forgave” Clinton for her 2002 Senate vote to authorize the war in Iraq (Clinton now calls the vote a mistake). She’s also annoyed to see Clinton campaign with a parade of famous women, specifically comedian Amy Schumer and pop star Demi Lovato. “She’s seemed to kind of pander to women.”
Clinton’s supporters assert that gender is not the main reason for their support of her. Pappas called Clinton, who before serving as secretary of state was a U.S. senator from New York and the first lady, “the most qualified person ever to run for president.”
“I ended up gravitating toward Secretary Clinton because of her experience in foreign policy, the way she wants to address women’s rights and LGBT equality, and just really her deep history of working for women and children,” said Hannah Quinn, 21, a senior linguistics major at Carleton College, who founded the campus “Carls for Clinton” group.
“Hillary Clinton’s record fighting for paid leave, raising the minimum wage, and for equal pay, are compelling to women and families across Minnesota,” said Alexandra Fetissoff, spokeswoman for Clinton in Minnesota.
DFL women who support Sanders said his fervency and worldview won them over. Becky Lourey, a former state senator who tried and failed twice to be Minnesota’s first woman governor, views Clinton as too close to corporate interests.
“If you truly believe middle of the road isn’t going to work, then you have to be willing to go the whole road,” Lourey said.
In the Minnesota Poll’s general election matchups, Clinton trailed Rubio and was essentially tied with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
“Clinton vs. Rubio, I like the matchup. Hillary, I think, has some of President Clinton’s baggage without the likability factor,” said Amy Koch, a former state Senate GOP leader who’s backing Rubio.
Even non-supporters like Koch say Clinton, like all women candidates, faces double standards. “What’s forthright in a guy might be seen as shrill from a woman,” she said.
Clinton supporters don’t ignore her flaws. State Sen. Terri Bonoff backed Barack Obama in 2008 and Clinton this year, but admits to unease over the way she has handled concerns about her use of personal e-mail to conduct State Department business. “I’d like to hear her own it, and say she would not make this mistake again,” said Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka.
Clinton is a magnet for strong opinions, given her role as one of the central figures in U.S. politics for more than two decades. On Thursday at the Black Sheep Coffee Cafe in South St. Paul, seven different women interviewed for this story had no shortage of them.
“My ears perk up because it’s like, we could have a woman president, and that’s awesome,” said Mandie Kender, 40, a social services director who is closer to Sanders on the issues.
Kender and two colleagues she was meeting at the shop all lean Democratic, but don’t affiliate with the DFL. Mary Pankonien of Maplewood and Jaime Thiele of White Bear Lake, 38 and 39, said they hadn’t tuned closely into the Democratic race and probably wouldn’t make any decisions until November.
Pankonien has trouble embracing Clinton. “She is a politician. She wears it. I don’t know how she gets out of that.”