How a major Democratic group is deploying celebrities to shape the 2016 race

Hillary clinton emily's list
Hillary Clinton and Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Jane Rosenthal’s daughter didn’t mind telling former President Bill Clinton she was on the fence about supporting his wife for president.

Rosenthal, co-founder Tribeca Film Festival and major Democratic party fundraiser, was speaking at a private event for Emily’s List in Manhattan last month when she recalled a recent interaction between her 17-year-old daughter and the former president.

“She was standing next to President Clinton and she said she’s undecided,” Rosenthal said of her daughter. “She said, ‘Just because I’m a family friend doesn’t mean I have to vote that way.”

The producer paused for emphasis: “We have to reach those kids.”

Rosenthal’s experience illustrates a key problem for Hillary Clinton: despite the historic nature of her candidacy and a litany of attractive policy proposals aimed at helping women, many young female voters have been unenthused by Clinton.

Though young voters make up a relatively marginal part of the electorate even within the Democratic primary, Clinton’s campaign and its allies have been dismayed and frustrated by the lack of support from the cohort, particularly among millennial women.

Emily’s List, an organisation dedicated to electing female, pro-choice Democrats, is among trying to help solve Clinton’s problem, but it’s an unlikely stumbling block for an organisation that’s looking to make record gains.

The organisation has one of its best opportunities to elect female candidates on record since it launched in 1985. In addition to Clinton’s White House bid, Emily’s List has thrown its support to nine US Senate candidates.

Emily’s List has also grown significantly since the last open election. Since taking over the organisation from founder Ellen Malcolm in 2010, Stephanie Schriock expanded its membership from 500,000 to over 3 million and raised a record amount of funds.

But Emily’s list also faces challenges to its organizational growth and ability to help its candidates elected.

Though membership has grown significantly, some within the organisation are concerned that it’s not transitioning fast enough to attract younger members. Emily’s List does not release information about its members, but staffers at the organisation are particularly focused on trying to engage younger voters, making pitches on social-media sites like Snapchat and granting exclusives to sites like Refinery29 and Elle.

Emily’s List has also consistently had to work to update dated infrastructure. Schriock told Business Insider during an interview in January that upon becoming the president of the organisation, she inherited a tedious, dated fundraising database that was installed in 1996.

And while the organisation may have more cash than past election cycles, the changing nature of campaigning means that flooding the airwaves with television ads, a major part of the organisation’s role in races, may not be enough.

In an April interview in April, Rep. Katherine Clark, whom the organisation backed in her 2012 congressional race, said Emily’s List was experiencing “growing pains” as it attempts to keep up with the rapidly changing campaign and activist landscape, which now favours viral videos over paid advertisements.

“I think that Emily’s List is really trying to remain on top of those changes and help candidates navigate their social media and how sort of candidates are perceived, what it means to have media buys in 2016 even compared to when I first ran back in 2008,” Clark said. “It’s a very different world. And I think that’s going to be a challenge for Emily’s List.”

Vice President of Communications for Emily’s List Jess McIntosh told the audience at a March New York event that her group “needs to get past the Beltway” to reach new audiences.

“They don’t watch MSNBC or ‘Morning Joe’ or CNN or read Politico,” MacIntosh said of the members it wants to attract.

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Lena Dunham speaking via satellite at the Emily’s List 30th anniversary gala in 2015. Kris Connor/Getty Images for EMILY’s List

So Emily’s List is shifting tactics.

Last year, independent film producer Paul Bernon joined Emily’s List as a board member. Bernon came to the group with a proposal: Leverage the entertainment industry, harness social media virility, and change the way Emily’s List approaches digital advertising and fundraising.

Beginning earlier this year, Bernon and McIntosh worked to enlist a group of celebrity and entertainment-industry surrogates who could both help brainstorm social-media-friendly ideas and promote them on their individual accounts.

“Girls” show creator Lena Dunham signed on as the public co-chair, with other celebrity advocates like mega-producer Shonda Rhimes, “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi, and “Orange Is the New Black” star Uzo Aduba joining as participating members. Emily’s List is remaining in regular contact with the stars with ideas for viral campaigns, and is hosting private events at hip locales.

One goal of enlisting star power is simply to use it as a vehicle to expand the organisation’s reach. Dunham has 4.5 million Twitter followers and often makes news with her social-media posts. Rhimes has over a million Twitter followers and Aduba has over a million followers on Instagram.

Taken together, the creative council will use the stars’ reach to pump out Emily’s List content to a much broader, younger audience than those who follow official Emily’s List or political-campaign accounts.

The day after March’s meeting in New York, Emily’s List dropped an online-only ad titled “Shout Down Sexism,” a 45-second video mocking pundits like MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough for criticising Clinton for shouting during campaign rallies.

The first day after the video premiered on The Cut, New York magazine’s fashion and women’s lifestyle vertical, it quickly racked up over 150,000 views.

Bernon said in an interview that he considered the video’s wide reach a success in humanising Clinton and broadening Emily’s List’s reputation among millennial women.

“They help show people her softer side, and that she’s a real person. I think that we can help her engage millennials and help engage all the candidates that Emily’s List has endorsed. Help get millennial voters and support by talking to them directly and that’s on social media, and through events,” Bernon said.

Bernon told Business Insider that part of the initiative was to galvanize support and interest in Emily’s List in the film and television industry.

“I know a lot of writers, directors, actors — they’re not that political. A lot of them sadly don’t know who are running for local office in their own state.”

“A lot of them know about it, but don’t know what we do.”

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