Hillary Clinton won the Nevada caucuses on Saturday, but she still has a gaping weakness with the young voters that helped delivered the White House to President Barack Obama and the Democrats in 2008. If your presidential campaign had just lost the youth vote by 70 percent to a wild-haired, 74-year-old socialist in two states, you would deploy Michelle Kwan to do something about it too.
Kwan is an accomplished (five-time World Figure Skating Champion), brilliant (Stanford grad), politically astute (she worked as an envoy in the Obama State Department and married the grandson of a senator) daughter of immigrants (the New American Majority!). More important than any of that, she is beloved by young women who once adorned their bedroom walls with posters of Kwan and are now old enough to vote for Hillary Clinton.
And it’s not because she didn’t try. Kwan gave students and administrators a peek inside her world. She told them about her parents’ dreams for her as a little girl, her struggle deciding a college major, and the little-known fact that Olympians are told not to pack anything in their suitcases so they can bring home all of the swag they get in the Olympic Village. She also gave a heartfelt pitch for supporting Clinton.
“It’s hard to imagine we haven’t had a woman president yet,” Kwan said after speaking at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C. “We stand on the shoulders of giants that have come before us and Hillary is paving the way.”
But there is only so much anyone other than Hillary Clinton can do about what’s hurting Hillary Clinton, especially among young voters flocking to Bernie Sanders. No one on the planet can make Clinton’s 23-point “New College Compact” as easy to understand as Bern’s tuition-free college plan for kids at state schools. No surrogate can turn back the clock to the 1990s, the last time the Clintons’ original Third-Way message seemed matched for the times.
Only Clinton can reverse the trust deficit plaguing her in poll after poll. And it’s possible that nobody, not Kwan, not Clinton, not anyone, can convince millennial women that barriers still remain for their gender when they themselves see none.
At Presbyterian College, Kwan did what she could at an event where the Clinton campaign had no signs, no stickers, and no sign-in sheet in case undecided voters wanted to be persuaded to get Read for Hillary. When a student asked Kwan how many doors the campaign had knocked on locally, nobody knew. A student from China wanted to know about Clinton’s China policy. How is Kwan supposed to know that? A casual observer could have mistaken it all for a history seminar.
By the end, the attendees were more than ready to meet Michelle Kwan. Far fewer were Ready for Hillary.
“I haven’t made any decisions, but I really like Jeb,” said Taylor Johnson, a 20-year-old from Kennesaw, Ga., before the former Florida governor dropped out of the race. “My mom is supporting Hillary, so of course I’m interested in what she has to say. I’m just waiting to see how the whole Benghazi thing plays out.” Taylor called Benghazi a “trust issue.” She was there for Kwan, who had been a childhood idol.
A 20-year-old named Catherine said she’s for Clinton, but asked that her last name not be included, to keep her parents from being judged. “I like Bernie’s ideas, I just think Hillary has more qualifications and respect in Washington and will be able to get things done.”
Matt Cain, a staffer in the development office, is also undecided, and remained undecided after Kwan spoke. His girlfriend used to be for Clinton, but now she’s switched to Sanders. “She had Hillary stickers in her office for months,” he said. “I think for her she’s more for Bernie now because of his message about bringing everybody up.”
The challenge for Kwan was obvious and she acknowledged it.
“I hear a lot of young people say, ‘My friends are Bernie supporters. And I tell them, ‘I like free stuff, too. I like some of the things Bernie is saying.’ But it’s about what Hillary will do, and the vision and the comprehensive plans that she has she’ll put into place when she’s president right away.”
But Clinton’s personal sense of resolve seems to pale in comparison to Bernie’s plans for changing the country, especially when for college students graduating with record levels of debt and doubts about how they’ll ever get out from underneath it.
Resolution is tougher sell than revolution any day, even for Michelle Kwan.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for the Daily Beast. Follow her on Twitter at @1patriciamurphy.
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