In the Democratic primaries so far, women have voted in larger numbers than men. In the 13 states that Hillary Clinton has won, she owed her victories in no small part to a majority female vote--a sign that a female president is an important election issue for women overall. Among young women, however, that girl-power momentum evaporates, and Barack Obama is the favored candidate. What happens--or hasn’t yet happened--to young women that explains this gap? The answer can be found on campus.
Articles on youth voting routinely fail to address gender, focusing instead on how young people are picking the candidate who has their “aspirations” and “attitudes.” But it’s important to ask why gender, as an issue, is in a position to be ignored. At colleges today, women receive better grades than men and take home more honors degrees; they are more likely to get internships and be involved in campus organizations. They have stronger college applications than men, and have been outnumbering men in enrollment as a result for 25 years. According to Department of Education projections, by 2012, there will be roughly 142 women graduating for every 100 men. In other words, for four dreamy years, women run the show. And that is hurting Hillary Clinton's quest for young female voters.
Unfortunately, there's no exit poll data that singles out young female voters. But there are statistics that suggest how solidly this bloc supports Obama. Even though a majority of young Democratic voters are female, Obama has won the under-30 vote in most of the primaries. Of the 13 Super Tuesday primary states in which of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), a youth civic-participation research group, analyzed the youth vote, ten went for Obama and three went for Clinton. And in Virginia, the most recent primary in which youth voting data has been analyzed, people under 30 gave Obama a thundering 76 percent of the vote.
Obama’s support gets even stronger as voters get younger. Among college students, it's even stronger. As far back as April 2007, polls showed Obama with a 17-point lead over Clinton among college Democrats. During that same period, Obama’s lead over Clinton was only three percentage points among 18-24 year-olds not enrolled in a four-year school. Fortunately for Obama, this non-college group has abysmal voter turnout. According to CIRCLE, in 2004, the voter turnout for college students and college graduates under 25 was 59 percent; it was 34 percent for non-graduates. In other words, those young voters are mostly college students or recent grads.
Anyone who has graduated in the last decade has anecdotes of guys who come to class late or hungover, while their female classmates seemed to have all their work done. College has become one corner of American life where hardworking females are consistently and fairly rewarded, and they are succeeding there, to a much greater degree than their male counterparts. It’s possible, maybe even likely, to graduate college with little sense and zero experience of institutionalized gender discrimination--with almost complete freedom from the type of covert, daily setbacks that drive blacks to the polls for Obama and older women to vote for Clinton.
In a recent New York Times op-ed, Lorrie Moore used women’s progress in academic settings to entreat voters not to choose Clinton. "The children who are suffering in this country, who are having trouble in school, and for whom the murder and suicide rates and economic dropout rates are high, are boys--especially boys of color, for whom the whole educational system, starting in kindergarten, often feels a form of exile, a system designed by and for white girls," she wrote.
But if you can afford to be there, the college-world of grades and tests is astonishingly more objective than the rest of life--and that’s why women are able to get ahead. The classroom is not political; it’s not a popularity contest. Studies show that women earn their school-years dominance by studying more and trying harder than men. The 2005 National Survey of Student Engagement showed that men were significantly more likely than women to say they spent at least 11 hours a week relaxing or socializing, and more men than women said they frequently came to class unprepared.
From within their girl-positive environment, college women are weighing other factors in the primaries aside from gender. Race is one of them. “There’s a competition among dueling idealisms,” says Yale University political science professor Donald Green, of college voters. “Maybe idealism associated with race is more compelling, has more of a visceral appeal. We're at a moment in our history where there's cause for optimism about gender equality, but less cause for optimism about racial equality. And from [a college student’s] standpoint, the real inequality is likely to be racial or ethnic.”
A less cynical explanation may be that, with sexism off the table, females in college feel less conflicted than other women about their vote. Gloria Steinem, in a now-legendary New York Times op-ed published the day of the New Hampshire primary, wrote that what “worries” her is that “some women, perhaps especially younger ones, hope to deny or escape the sexual caste system.” Steinem’s gloom-and-doom picture of a larger world full of everlasting sexism hasn’t seemed to affect the votes of young women. Still, the advantage women have in college quickly slips away in the working world. Women get paid a lot less than the men they graduate with, no matter how much extra work or hours they put in. One year out of school, women working full-time are earning 80 percent of what their former male classmates are making, according to a 2007 study by American Association of University Women Educational Foundation. And this fact hasn’t budged over the past ten years--despite the advances women have made on campus.
But would a woman who votes for Obama today rethink her choice after graduation, when she sees a man getting ahead in the workplace, or when she has to make a choice between a higher-level career and kids? Americans usually aren’t so if-A-then-B with picking candidates, and Obama’s popularity with voters in their thirties and forties has grown in recent weeks. But, interestingly, Clinton has won 25- to 30 -year-olds in a few primaries, such as New Hampshire, where the under-24 vote went to Obama. It gives weight to the idea that post-grads might shift their preferences after a few years away from campus, but given the minimal data collected during exit polls, it’s impossible to say for sure.
Young people are going to continue to impact this election in unprecedented ways--a force of history that leaves me simultaneously in love with young people’s fervor and optimism and unnerved by their lack of interest in Hillary. For the candidate, the parallels between college and the real world are striking. She has worked hard and done what’s expected of her, but may very well get passed over by a less qualified guy when payday comes.
Elizabeth Cline is an editor at nymag.com.