Young Democrats want Hillary Clinton. Does she want them?
By: Katie Glueck
April 1, 2014 05:01 AM EDT
They’re ready for her. They’re excited about her. They’re planning their next career moves with her campaign in mind.
Young Democrats just have one question: If Hillary Clinton runs for president, will she be ready to make room for them?
In interviews with nearly 20 current and former Democratic activists and operatives younger than 30, there was overwhelming, palpable enthusiasm about the prospect of a second Clinton candidacy and the chance to help elect the first woman president. Yet equally apparent was a sense of doubt and trepidation about piercing the foreboding, multilayered organization known as Clinton Inc. to land a decent campaign job.
Many pointed to Clinton’s existing network comprising decades worth of political relationships; surely, some surmised, those associates would get preferential treatment. They mentioned Clinton’s reputation for historically maintaining a tightknit circle of advisers. And they noted that in the spring of 2014, a campaign, albeit one without an actual candidate, is already well under way on the Democratic side — with two prominent super PACs, Ready for Hillary and Priorities USA, primed for a Clinton run.
Neil Makhija, a Harvard Law School student who has worked for several politicians and is active with Ready for Hillary, said he’s confident that a future Clinton campaign would seek out the best talent. But he’s cognizant of how the world works.
“It can also help to know someone from a previous campaign,” said Makhija, 27. “And with Clinton, everyone knows someone from a previous campaign.”
In 2008, Clinton failed to harness the energy of young Democratic activists, who instead played a central role in propelling President Barack Obama to the White House. Whether she could effectively bottle their enthusiasm in 2016 — when she would be nearly 70 years old — remains an open question, and would be one of her central challenges.
For the generation of young people who came to Washington on the Barack Obama wave, the lore remains vivid: fresh-faced staffers who started off carrying bags or stuffing envelopes and ended up in the West Wing, in some cases becoming D.C. celebrities in their own right. Obama’s lower profile at the outset of 2008 and shorter career in politics combined to create a meritocracy of sorts, in which young, energetic and in some cases inexperienced staffers were given the space and opportunity to shine.
Several of the Democrats interviewed for the story said it’s hard to envision the same thing happening with Clinton.
“Hillary has a lot of establishment coming with her, I’d imagine,” said Ilyssa Meyer, 22, whose excitement for Clinton bubbles over. “I know she’s had a much longer career than Obama [had by 2008]. She brings a lot of experienced candidates, [people from] the Clinton Foundation, all of these people. I wouldn’t vie for a policy position, because she has advisers cultivated who could do a better job than me. I don’t think that it’s a bad thing.”
Meyer is planning to go to graduate school instead of trying to get onto a Clinton 2016 race. One day she hopes to end up in the White House.
For those who do want in, navigating the elaborate Clinton complex — and figuring out where they might fit — is an intimidating task, said one Democratic consultant in his late 20s who would like to work for the “next Democratic president of the United States.”
“Hillaryland feels like, it’s like a 40-year corporation based on political networks that have never had a management consultant come in and reorganize it,” said the source, whose firm has worked with Ready for Hillary. Like many people interviewed for this story, he requested anonymity in order to speak more freely in discussing future employment opportunities. “It’s four decades of a team being built. For young people, it feels really daunting. I know a lot of young people from the Obama world who are like, ‘How the the hell do I engage in this world?’”
Mitch Stewart, who played key roles on both Obama campaigns and now advises Ready for Hillary, pointed to positions tied to field work and technology as natural fits for young people looking to work the next presidential contest.
“The thing I know will be true in 2016, and I hope Secretary Clinton decides to run, is you’re going to want smart, young, ambitious people to help run the campaign,” he said. “It’s so important to reach out and engage through social networking. The folks most conversant in that are young people.”
He added: “Any campaign running in ‘16 is going to be very open and accommodating to young people. They really provide the fuel and energy for a sort of vibrant national effort. … I think the overwhelming majority of total staff hired will be young people right out of college, [including] folks taking a semester off.”
A spokesman for Clinton did not respond to a request for comment.
Clinton has said she won’t make a decision about running until sometime later this year. But if she does, the former secretary of state, senator and first lady would enter the race with a vast network of political contacts — people who have worked for her or her husband dating as far back as their days in Arkansas — who might look to be involved in her campaign.
There is typically plenty of room for young volunteers to work in the field, and, increasingly, there is a need for them in technology roles. But from very young people just hoping for full-time employment on such a campaign, to older operatives hoping for meatier jobs, questions persist about the opportunities that would exist on what already looks like a crowded bus.
“There will be more than enough people around for her campaign,” said an Ivy League law student who has Democratic campaign experience. “But the people who are in a position of having some Democratic political experience, or working in the administration in some capacity, or on the Obama campaign, are concerned about the degree to which that lack of pre-existing Clinton relationship would kind of put a ceiling on the kinds of opportunities they would have on a campaign.”
That concern is compounded by the fact that, should Clinton run, at this point in time she looks poised to be the overwhelming front-runner. While other contenders would likely get in, few young Democrats are itching to sign up with a likely loser.
The Democratic consultant, whose firm has worked with Ready for Hillary, said he would consider other options even if Clinton runs, including working for a House or Senate campaign. That’s only prudent, the person said, given the stiff competition for jobs on a Clinton campaign.
“If there’s one show in town, your choices won’t be that many,” he said. “If you walk into it with that understanding, I think it’s a much healthier mentality. I think a lot of younger people will find time to invest in Senate, House, governors races; a lot of talent will go to those places because not everyone is going to get the job they want if there’s only one show in town.”
During Clinton’s unsuccessful 2008 presidential bid, news reports often characterized her top brass as “insular.”A Democratic aide to a New York member of Congress said that at the time, her campaign as a whole was perceived as very challenging to penetrate.
“From the perspective of someone who wanted to work for Hillary Clinton the first time, it was very difficult to break in,” said the source, who went on to work for a Democratic outside group. “Hillary was the presumptive nominee, as you remember. She had the top-tier talent working for her, [including] from Bill’s presidency. And since they had secured the top-tier talent, it was the major leagues over there.”
It was rare on the Obama campaign for someone with no campaign experience to shoot straight to a senior position, and there are examples in Clinton’s world, too, of young people who worked their way into her inner circle, including longtime aide Huma Abedin. But those relationships often began well before Clinton was running for president, in one of her many other public roles.
Still, anticipation for a second Clinton go-round was on full display at a recent New York City event hosted by Ready for Hillary. The crowd of about 400 mostly young people sipped $18 cocktails with names like “Pantsuit Aficionado” and “Madame President” as they buzzed about Clinton. Some posed next to cardboard cutouts of the former secretary of state.
“Whatever she needs me to do, I’d do it,” one event organizer gushed.
“Eighty percent of the people here want” to work on Clinton’s behalf in some capacity, said Eoin Hayes, a 26-year-old attendee and veteran of Obama’s 2012 campaign, gesturing around the swanky bar perched atop a high-rise hotel in the Meatpacking District.
The existence of groups like Ready for Hillary could play both ways when it comes to campaign opportunities for young people, observers say. On one hand, they offer young people a chance to gain experience, and make connections, with Clinton allies years before any 2016 campaign starts staffing up. On the other, it allows more people to get involved earlier — potentially meaning an even bigger job applicant pool.
“People would hope that involvement, commitment to the cause at this stage would be recognized in the campaign, in an administration,” said Hayes, who worked on data in the last cycle, of the young people looking to get involved at this early point. He added, “It certainly makes it more competitive. You have people with experience working for months on [a] PAC, people like me who worked on [the 2012 presidential race and] on the midterms.”
But volunteering with Ready for Hillary now wouldn’t mean a full-time job opportunity with the group, which intends to “wind down” once Clinton decides.
“If she does decide to run, I know there will be so many supporters of ours who will offer services to the campaign, apply for jobs on the campaign,” spokesman Seth Bringman said. “Certainly the experience now of our volunteer activity would be valuable to a future campaign.”
Several people interviewed for this piece, remembering Obama’s first campaign, pointed to Eric Lesser as an example of a success story they were unsure could be replicated again in a crowded Clinton campaign. Lesser, now running for state Senate in Massachusetts, started out in Obama’s 2008 campaign toting baggage. He ended up at the White House as special assistant to David Axelrod, a job Lesser once described as “channeling people, organizing people and making sure Axelrod does one thing at a time.”
“It certainly was a very unique campaign in the sense that it was so youth-driven, youth-oriented; there was a sense of a generational shift happening,” Lesser said of the first Obama campaign in a phone call from his new campaign trail, in western Massachusetts. “The campaign leadership did put a lot of trust in young people very early on. In that sense, it felt a little bit like a tech startup. But I think that can happen again.”