Age gap cuts into Clinton’s support among female voters

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

As Hillary Clinton pushes toward the White House, she has strong support among women in their mid-30s and older, but her message and historic campaign haven’t resonated as much with younger female voters.

In early June, a CNN analysis of entrance and exit polls during the primaries in 27 states found that the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee soundly beat Sen. Bernie Sanders among all female voters — 61 percent to 37 percent overall. But it wasn’t the case among female voters 18 to 29, where Clinton lost by an average of 37 percentage points to Sanders.

In Michigan, Sanders shocked the Democratic establishment when he narrowly upset Clinton in the March 8 primary, 49.8-48.2 percent. A CNN exit poll found 51 percent of white women voted for Sanders compared with 47 percent for Clinton. Clinton had stronger support among African-American women – 66 percent.

For Audra Flores, a senior at Central Michigan University who started “feeling the Bern” after she saw an interview of Sanders a year ago, he is just the all-around better candidate.

The 22-year-old from Westland said younger female voters recognize the serious discrimination others have faced, but a candidate shouldn’t be chosen “based on gender, race, religion or wealth.” And Flores said Sanders has the best ideas for solving the nation’s most pressing problems.

“The people of this country bailed out the large corporations when they needed it, and now its their turn to bail us out,” she said. “Bernie Sanders is genuine and is one of the few politicians that still speaks the truth.”

Political scientists say the generational gap among female voters comes down to life experience. Older women who have experienced prejudice in the workforce can relate to Clinton, while younger female voters who haven’t yet faced those challenges can’t, some say. Sanders’ message about college affordability resonates with younger voters.

“Their preferences are being shaped by their personal experiences,” said Julie Walters, an associate professor of political science at Oakland University who teaches a class on women in politics.

Researchers have found that millennials – those 18 to 29, though the definition can vary – were hardest hit by the great recession, which affected job opportunities, Walters said.

“They have a very personal connection with student debt,” she said. “That’s infusing their perspective of the candidates.”

Laura Marsh of Augusta, near Kalamazoo, is vice chair of the University of Michigan College Democrats. Marsh, 20, a history major, saw Sanders when he visited Ann Arbor in March. Supporters lined up hours in advance of the Vermont senator’s arrival.

“I think he was more visible among young people,” Marsh said. “He had a lot of stances that resonated with people like college affordability. But both of them had strong stances on those issues.”

Marsh said she supports Clinton. She said she liked that Clinton was one of the first people to take a stance on sexual assault on campus.

“She really made reproductive choice a priority and for me, those kinds of things are very important,” Marsh said. “I liked a lot of what Bernie had to say, too, and I know a lot of people on our campus did.”

Millennial women voters have come of age in a very different context than older female voters, said Susan Carroll, a senior scholar with the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

“For them, they really see opportunities for women being largely open,” Carroll said. “They have not yet experienced or confronted discrimination personally on the job or in the workplace. ... I think they look at their lifetimes and say, ‘Of course we’re going to have a woman as a president. It’s not a big deal.’

“The older women say it’s been a real struggle. They identify with Hillary more and identify with the stuff she’s been through — the resistance, the way she’s been treated and we want to see this happen in our lifetime.”

So how does Clinton bridge the gap? She already has adjusted her position on certain issues critical to Sanders’ supporters, including supporting a proposal that would create a free college education at public institutions for students from households earning up to $125,000 annually.

But Clinton can’t recreate herself, Carroll says. She has been part of the political establishment as long as many millennial voters have been alive.

“I don’t think she can present herself as new and novel and outside,” Carroll said. “That’s just not going to work.”

The Rutgers scholar argues that Sanders and other Clinton “surrogates” such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts eventually will help bring younger voters, especially women, into the fold. Both Warren and Sanders were scheduled to address the convention Monday evening, but Sanders’ backers booed and jeered the Vermont senator earlier Monday when he told a rally that they should vote for Clinton, arguing that “Trump is a danger to the future of this country and must be defeated.”

“Now that he’s (Sanders) come on board, I think that will really send a signal,” said Carroll.

It hasn’t changed Flores’ mind. And it isn’t a big deal that Clinton is the first female presidential nominee of a major party, she said.

“I think there are other women in politics far more deserving of it and respectable than her,” Flores said.

Sanders’ endorsement of Clinton has made a difference with some of Marsh’s friends who were Sanders’ backers. But the biggest factor working in Clinton’s favor is Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his rhetoric, she said.

“A lot of us are really scared about Trump,” Marsh said. “The Bernie people who have seen what Trump has said and what he’d do to the country I think they realize what they need to do is support Hillary Clinton and work for her.”

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