DES MOINES, IOWA—At two campaign events for Hillary Clinton in Iowa on Saturday, speaker Lena Dunham did not shake any hands, nor did she take any questions from the crowd. What does Lena Dunham think of the ethanol mandate? I could not tell you.
Though both events were billed by the Clinton campaign as opportunities to “meet” Dunham, she was promptly whisked away by her entourage (including Audrey Gelman, public relations consultant and former press secretary to Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer) after giving the same 10-minute talk at each. Her speech was strong—she centered it around Clinton’s famous 1995 declaration that “women’s rights are human rights”—but did her impassioned rhetoric convince any undecideds to commit to caucus for Clinton?
“I’m not 100 percent sure if I’m even going to caucus, let alone for who, to be honest,” Ayah Bilbeisi, 28, told me after Dunham’s speech in Des Moines on Saturday. “This one is a challenging year, because honestly I like both [Clinton and Bernie Sanders]. I do. So I’m just not 100 percent decided yet.” When I asked if Dunham swayed her one way or the other, she responded, “Uh, not really. It was kind of brief; it wasn’t um, you know, I didn’t really know what to expect. We’ll see.”
Bilbeisi’s friend Hala Abduljalil, 45, told me that she was a Clinton supporter, but that prior to the event, she did not know who Dunham was.
Clinton could use more millennial support. A December poll from the Harvard University Institute of Politics shows that 41 percent of Americans aged 18-29 support Sanders, while 35 percent support Clinton. Twenty-two percent are undecided. The Clinton campaign’s attempts to reach these young people they’re missing have been deeply corny so far. (Hillary Clinton saying #yas? Jesus.) The campaign is obviously hoping that putting Dunham in front of young voters’ faces will fare better—it booked her this weekend for two events in New Hampshire, one in Chicago, and two in Iowa. (One could also argue that the campaigning began in September when Dunham interviewed Clinton for her newsletter, Lenny Letter.)
Dunham, the 29-year-old creator of HBO’s Girls, is a millennial, and a celebrity. But—despite the frequency with which Dunham is put forward as a representative of her generation—her actual level of fame among millennials is difficult to objectively measure. Girls finished its fourth season with 326,000 viewers in the 18-49 age bracket. According to one source, that number’s not far off from the total number of subscribers to Lenny Letter, which Dunham launched, with substantial accompanying press coverage, last year. Dunham has an impressive 2.3 million Instagram followers. Gigi Hadid, a model famous for being a friend of Taylor Swift and the daughter of a Real Housewife, has 11.6 million.
This is not to deny that Dunham is a genuine star—she, too, has been publicly linked to Taylor Swift’s squad. But Iowa may not be Lena Dunham country. According to Nielsen data, only about 17.5 percent of Iowans have watched HBO or HBOGo in the last week.* When I called Barnes & Noble stores in the state last week to ask how Dunham’s memoir Not That Kind of Girl was selling, one clerk told me it was going “like crazy,” while another said his store had only sold a dozen copies since November.
It may be impossible to count how many Iowans are among Dunham’s people, but there are at least enough to fill two of Iowa’s most twee venues: the backroom of a pour-over coffee house in Iowa City and a graphic design and screen printing studio in Des Moines. At each, Dunham told audiences of mostly young women about her new understanding of the caucus system (“It seems like a cool, sexy way to meet people”), her underwear (it says “feminist” on the butt), and her anger that some people assume she’s only voting for Clinton because she’s a woman (“It’s as if I have some feminist version of beer goggles—let’s call it estrogen blindness—that causes me to go up to the nearest vagina and vote for them.”) She pointed to Clinton’s record on gun control and abortion rights as reason to vote for her, and she made a gesture to the Black Lives Matter movement. (Clinton understands the importance of the movement, she said.)
Dunham also wore a jumper screen printed with Clinton’s name, bright blue tights, and red patent leather flats. This outfit impressed at least one Iowan in Des Moines, who shouted “GREAT DRESS, LENA!” as Dunham exited the venue. Des Moines attendees were given the opportunity to purchase their own screen printed goods for $5: tote bags and t-shirts emblazoned with Clinton’s face and the words “Not That Kind of Candidate,” a nonsensical play on Dunham’s already sort of meaningless book title.
Her “stumping” outfits were an important part of the campaign strategy, apparently: Dunham posted photos of all of her ensembles on both her Instagram account and Clinton’s. She noted the provenance of each outfit in the captions, in case anyone in Iowa wants to buy a “@marcjacobs sweater with custom Hillary knitting by @grantknits” or $500 “shoes by @charlotteolympia.”
Despite this weird pander to...who? Hollywood stylists who might want to work with Dunham in the future?, two young Clinton supporters in Des Moines told me they think Clinton is smart to use Dunham in the campaign. “I like to think [Dunham’s speech changed some minds],” Ann Menner, 21, told me. “There’s a lot of young people that were here that I imagine aren’t necessarily Hillary supporters, probably maybe Bernie supporters. But it’s nice to see if they see Lena, a major player in pop culture, maybe be able to influence some people to caucus for Hillary instead. I hope that happens.” Her friend, Emma Andelson, also 21, added, “I thought that the most interesting and probably most helpful thing she said is that she’s not voting for Hillary just because she’s a woman. And I think that is a common misconception, you get the idea that it’s mostly women voting for Hillary, and maybe that is true, but it’s not why they’re voting for her. So I think it was also cool that she said that.”
Andelson noted that at her liberal arts college one town over, most of her peers say they support Sanders. “I haven’t really figured out why!” she said.
Two such young Sanders supporters, Susan Kenzie, 26, and Paul Ranum, 27, told me they came to the event because they are Dunham fans. They said that while Dunham made some good points, they’ll probably still vote Sanders.
Dunham can certainly relate to young women in a way that Clinton can’t—she talks openly about sex, for one thing. But can she—a successful born-and-raised New Yorker who spent summers in Connecticut—resonate with student debt-laden twenty-somethings enamored of Sanders’ no-bullshit demeanor and socialist platform?
After attending one of the events in New Hampshire on Friday, Time reporter Sam Frizell argued that yes, Dunham speaks to the young audience that Clinton is missing: “Clinton exists in a world distant from the Dunham’s Girls audience. She does not drive a car, rarely speaks off script and almost never overshares her most personal thoughts on social media...”
The thing is, Dunham doesn’t drive, either. She reportedly has a driver in New York; on the trail this weekend, she told People, she was driven by Clinton campaign staffers. “I’m literally being traded off across the state by cool, rad women drivers,” she said.
Still, plenty of young people were excited to see Dunham in Iowa. When she exited the Des Moines venue after her speech, about 15 fans decided that she must still be in the building, hiding in the basement. (A Clinton volunteer was guarding the entrance.) The fans waited, some with Dunham books in hand, for her to reappear. “She’s still literally here,” I overheard one reporter say to another. “They’re trying to get people to leave. She’s not interacting.”
After about 20 minutes, the venue kicked the hopefuls out.
*Nielsen’s market size for Iowa is 1,362,000 people, which excludes mobile HBO users.
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