Hillary Misses Mark With Millennials
From a distance, the visual of students lining up along Bellflower Road in this Rust Belt city's University Circle neighborhood was good B-roll for Hillary Clinton's campaign, seemingly showcasing her appeal to young people.
It also was an opportunity to claim she was building a firewall of supporters for Ohio's March primary, should Joe Biden step in or Bernie Sanders catch up in a meaningful way.
That initial impression was quickly dispelled.
What looked like a block-long line turned out to be a crowd that could barely fill one-fourth of a football field. And the students in attendance? Well, they weren't exactly there to support the former secretary of State.
“I am sort of a Bernie (Sanders) fan. I also had nothing else to do at 10 in the morning,” said Brian Miller, a chemical engineering student from Pittsburgh, waiting with more than a dozen friends for the event to start.
David Lituchy of Morgantown, W.Va., was there on the off-chance he'd see a different Clinton: “I am here for Bill. He would definitely liven things up here.”
He said he's leaning toward Sanders, too.
Such sentiment wasn't anecdotal; scores of students expressed it, and you didn't need to interview anyone to know that Clinton has political problems beyond her email controversy.
The event here wasn't just a failure to connect with millennials, but a fundamental inability to read her audience and adjust her speech — or perhaps laziness, or a sense of entitlement that she shouldn't have to work this hard for support.
Perhaps it was all of that.
“Fired up! Ready to go!” an early speaker shouted as he prepared the crowd for Clinton. He received only a smattering of polite claps, despite several attempts to get the crowd excited.
Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, running for a U.S. Senate seat next year, tried the same line, with the same results.
Strickland also tried some good old-fashioned speechifying that ended with him screaming at the audience. The kids kept asking each other, “Who is this guy?” The applause was sparse, the moment awkward.
A good politician would have noticed when he took the stage that the audience was filled with kids who likely did not grow up in Ohio (19 percent of Case Western Reserve University students are foreign-born) and were barely 12 years old when Clinton battled to win the state in 2008.
Instead, Clinton launched into a memorial for Ohio congressmen who were significant long before these kids were politically aware, then thanked the kids for their votes in 2008. (Again, they would have been 12 back then.)
“You lifted me up when I was down and out,” she said, referring to Ohio voters who got her flailing 2008 campaign back on its feet temporarily.
There wasn't the sound of crickets chirping, but no one picked up what she put down.
Clinton spoke for 30 minutes on voter suppression, gun control, women's reproductive rights; she called Republicans “terrorists” and championed foster care. The only time she caught the audience's attention was with a brief mention of college affordability.
It was as if time had passed her by.
This trip was billed as a grassroots support mechanism, with every attendee required to sign a pledge of support before entering the field.
What it showed was a campaign staff that is underachieving at best or failing their candidate at worst, and a candidate trapped by that staff's arrogance and her own insecurity as a campaigner.
Yet, despite standing in all of this political quicksand, Clinton remains the favorite among her party's elite.
Bellwethers are funny things; pretty much anyone can make the argument that an event, a state, a gathering or a moment is a microcosm of larger events, and pretty much they'd be wrong.
Is what happened in Cleveland also happening at other Clinton events? If so, it is a peek into one of the least talked about aspects of populism: not showing up to vote.
If voters are angry, uninspired, tired of the status quo, and not buying their party's nominee, they usually throw up their hands and stay home.
That is a prospect strategists and reporters often miss, but it could be a very real possibility in 2016 for both parties.