In this turbulent nominating season, one consistent phenomenon has upended the Democratic nominating contest: Young voters have resoundingly rejected Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonHow dealmaker Trump can resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Chelsea Clinton mocks Trump over Sweden incident comments Conway criticized by president of alma mater MORE.
Parading celebrities through Iowa didn't work. Having well-known female surrogates like Gloria Steinem and Madeline Albright ridicule and shame young women didn't work either. In Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders: Trump a 'pathological liar' Buttigieg endorsed by ex-treasurer in DNC race 'SNL' should test Trump, but how about challenging a Dem for once? MORE (Vt.) won this coveted demographic by devastating double-digit margins.
It's a mess for Clinton, and not just for the damage these voters can wreak on her chances. Young people provide energy and dynamism to campaigns. Images of 5,000-plus students at the University of Iowa gathered for your opponent 48 hours before the Iowa caucuses hurt, but the real body blow comes when the same young, smart talent that fueled the data-driven Obama victories isn't interested in being a part of your operation.
But let's assume Clinton wins the nomination — and it’s not exactly a stretch. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), has had her finger on the scale for Clinton since the very beginning by limiting the number of debates, scheduling them on holiday weekends and bullying DNC members out of backing other candidates. In her own words, the party rules are structured to keep outsiders from challenging more established candidates: "Unpledged delegates exist really to make sure that party leaders and elected officials don't have to be in a position where they are running against grassroots activists." Translation: Democrats think Washington elites are more important than you.
Having won on that basis, Clinton will have a sullen, if not angry, base of young Democratic voters who feel like Sanders was forced out on a technicality. I don't speak for young liberals, but good luck selling any member of this generation on the idea that a bunch of unpledged delegates were worth more than the votes of real primary and caucus voters. No one has ever told this generation what to do, and this sort of top-down hierarchy will repulse even the most collectivist-inclined voter.
Why does that matter so much? Young voters decided the last presidential election, and are poised to do so again in 2016. Like other false Clinton narratives, her campaign believed she could count on millennials' blind support.
As of today, more millennials identify themselves as independents than as Republicans or Democrats. This trend has been a huge loss for the Democrats. Self-identified millennial Democrats peaked at 35 percent in 2008 and fell to 27 percent in 2014, according to Pew. Many of these voters were originally independents that identified as Democrats and voted for President Obama in 2008, only to abandon the Democratic Party when "hope and change" fizzled. Democrats have had a popular president to make their case for eight years and are still losing ground.
In her struggles to gain the trust of young Democratic voters, Clinton reveals that she has a more serious problem with young independents. Their distaste for her evasiveness and cronyism is similar to that of young liberals — only on steroids. In a recent focus group, we watched young swing voters recoil in disgust at the very mention of her name. They just don't trust her. And if young liberals didn't buy into her parade of celebrity friends and identity politics, don't expect a much different result from young swing voters in the general election.
Hillary Clinton has a lot of cleaning up to do. Like her email server, this problem needs more than a cynical wipe "with a cloth or something." Young voters are watching. And they can spot a phony a mile away.
Smith is chairman of the College Republican National Committee.