The Obama/Clinton divide you haven’t been hearing about

It’s a story (followed by an argument, followed by facts) about the biggest split within the Democratic Party. It starts with two groups.

Group A is a social minority whose political and cultural power exploded during the 1960s. As that decade went on and certain factions within Group A grew more militant, Congress pushed to extend voting rights to millions of disenfranchised people in Group A. Today, Group A is shrinking as a share of the population, though its leaders remain visible and outspoken – and though its members increasingly dominate pop culture and the entertainment industry.

Group B, by contrast, holds sweeping political power. Much of the machinery and benefits of government have therefore aligned in Group B’s interest, despite the fact that Group B’s members are about half as likely to live in poverty as those of Group A.

Though they’ve often joined the same political coalitions, Groups A and B face a deep cultural divide on issues from the war in Iraq to gay marriage. In this year’s Democratic presidential primary, those fissures have showed up in state after state across the country, with Barack Obama winning Group A by colossal margins almost everywhere he goes and Hillary Clinton winning Group B by margins almost as big. It’s such a clear split that it seems to threaten the party’s unity.

Oh, by the way: Though no member of Group A has ever been elected president, more than half our presidents have belonged to Group B.

Group A is adults under 30. Group B is adults over 60.

We’ve all read that Obama has young supporters. But given the oceans of ink and wastelands of airtime devoted to Obama’s race and Clinton’s gender, few people probably realize how vast the age divide is in this election.

Friends, it’s staggering.

Here’s how I measured it: I took the 11 states for which the New York Times has comparable exit-poll data across both age and sex: Mo., Pa., Md., Ga., Calif., Tex., Ohio, Va., Conn., N.Y. and N.J.

And here’s what I found, Harpers style:

States Obama won: 5
States Clinton won: 6
States in which Obama won voters under 30: 11
States in which Obama also won voters under 45: 10

Even when he loses, he wins young people – every time. In case you’re wondering, there was no such trend on the GOP side; for them, voting trends by age were all over the map. Speaking of which, compare Obama’s consistency among the young to his showing in these other categories (some uncertain, thanks to incomplete data):

States in which Obama won white voters: 2
States in which Obama won white men: 4
States in which Obama won rich people ($100k and up): 7 or 8
States in which Obama won Protestants: 6 to 8
States in which Obama won Catholics: 2 to 4
States in which Obama won liberals: 7 or 8
States in which Obama won college grads: 9

Obama’s victories among the young aren’t just consistent. They’re colossal. In Ohio, for example, he won under-30s by a 35-point margin despite losing the state by 10 points overall. Her wins among her strongest constituencies, such as white women, are almost never so lopsided.

Average margin by which Obama won voters under 30: 28 percentage points
Average margin by which Clinton won white women: 23 percentage points
States in which Obama’s margins among young people exceeded Clinton’s margins among white women: 7

Of course, Obama’s success with the young isn’t the whole story. Old people luuuuuv Hillary Clinton. She’s at least as popular among the elderly as among white people:

States in which Clinton won voters over 60: 9
Average margin by which Clinton won voters over 60: 13 percentage points
States in which Clinton’s margins among old people exceeded her margins among white people: 6

Finally, Obama’s advantage among “liberal rich eggheads” – that’s the phrase Clinton aides use to describe people with four-year degrees – is probably exaggerated by his strength among the young. Yes, he won college grads in most states. But people between 25 and 35 are about 50 percent more likely to have bachelor’s, professional or graduate degrees than people aged 65 and up. That’s certainly skewing the figures, especially since the people least likely to have degrees – elderly women – are at the core of Clinton’s support.

What does this all mean? It means that, now that the race is over, the Democratic Party is poised to lock in young voters for three national elections in a row, which political scientists say is enough to breed a lifelong partisan allegiance. It means that we could see a round of age-identity politics that hasn’t existed since 1972. It means that there’s a big divide between the political beliefs of the young and the old — one mostly unexplored by the breathless, race-obsessed major media outlets. It means — as I think some militant young person once said — that you shouldn’t trust any pundit over 30.

-posted by Mike


8 Responses to The Obama/Clinton divide you haven’t been hearing about

  1. Mary says:

    I have decided (after much soul-searching and hand-wringing) to vote for Obama. I can tell you though, speaking for my people (seasoned white women), both “eggheads” and working class, are Hillary supporters (if they are) because of her historical attention to health care. Women live longer and these women are approaching or are at the place where this is a major concern. Some of them have been stay-at-home moms for at least a portion of their adult lives which affects retirement income. My widowed neighbor has a live-in boyfriend who she would prefer to marry, but she can’t afford to lose her late husband’s insurance.

    Many also have twenty-something kids who are still finding their way and in the post-dependent but pre-gainfully employed stage. Hillary’s stance on health care is also appealing to these moms and don’t think Obama’s plan is going to be helpful for them. I think if we do think about this in terms of demographics, it’s important to figure out why things are breaking down this way rather and figure out how to bring people together. This is supposed to be what Sen. Obama ia about, right?

  2. Rick says:

    The most important question is not what proportion of the young vote Obama pulled in in the primary. After all, McCain is probably pulling in a real high proportion of the young vote in the Republican primary. (Though if I had to guess, and I do because I’m too lazy too look up the information, I’d suspect that both Huckabee and Ron Paul’s zombie support comes disproportionately from young people.)

    The question, at least now that Obama’s probably won the nomination, is how many young people _voted in the democratic primary_. Is turnout increasing across the board, or is it focused on the young?

  3. terrorfirma says:

    Mary: I’ve always thought of Obama and Clinton’s health plans as very similar. What makes Clinton’s more appealing?

  4. Dana says:

    I don’t know if health care is really the main/only factor among older women, Mary. My grandmother, a very outspoken person, is definitely voting for Hillary, and it is pretty much entirely because her life was shaped by feminisms struggles and the fight for the ERA. She desperately wants to see a woman president before she dies, and she will not consider voting for anyone else. She is adamant enough about this that all the other vociferously political people in the family take care not to say anything about why they’ve all chosen to vote for Obama instead, based on policy, for fear of drawing her ire.

    Also, for Rick, Mark and I had to drive through UNC’s campus on our way somewhere else last Friday afternoon, and the campus was surprisingly and distressingly overrun with Ron Paul people. All young, all preppy, all inconceivably unembarrassed to be putting up signs every 5 feet. It was creepy.

  5. Kevin says:

    Mike, this is a completely fantastic post. You confirmed a lot of the suspicions that I hadn’t quite fully formulated into a coherent thought yet. Perhaps the so-called mainstream media should include you in it.

    With everybody talking about “what’s good for the party” or whatever these days, do you have a particular conclusion one way or the other on that score? How much of this is a result of who these particular candidates are? If it’s just about the candidates, is this merely a one-election cleavage then? If it’s not, will the old stop voting or turn to the dark side? So many questions….

  6. Mike says:

    Mary: Good point about health care being a bigger issue for older folks and women. Like Terrorfirma, I’m under the impression that there isn’t a huge difference between their two plans, but it’s clear that health is a bigger part of Clinton’s brand and agenda.

    Rick: Good point. I’m usually quick to argue that primary electorates aren’t general electorates. Problem is, there just weren’t enough competitive Democratic primaries in the last two cycles for us to conclude much about turnout. I’m the drunk looking for his keys under the streetlamp, not because he dropped them there but because that’s where the light is.

    We might be able to learn a little from New Hampshire and South Carolina, the two most competitive primaries in 2004. In New Hampshire, turnout under 30 increased from 14 percent of the Democratic vote in ’04 to 18 percent of the vote in ’08. This was amid an overall increase in the Dem electorate; in raw numbers, under-30 turnout grew from 30,500 to 51,800.

    In South Carolina, Democratic youth turnout jumped from 9 percent of the vote to 14 percent amid a huge well of turnout overall: in raw numbers, youth turnout almost tripled from 26,200 to 74,500.

    I think you’re misreading my argument about margins, though: the point is not that Obama is winning the young by huge margins, but that he’s winning the young by huge margins in the same states that he loses the old by equally huge margins.

    I started this, like you, expecting there to be a much stronger age trend among the GOP candidates than there was. In fact, the pattern is surprisingly weak, though McCain does clearly have an edge among the 60+ crowd, especially after Romney drops out. Huckabee’s support does lean young, especially in Southern states, but it’s not overwhelming or consistent.

    The exception, as Dana and Mark observed, is Paul, who usually breaks into double-digits among under-30s but rarely does so in other age groups.

    My central point, I think, is more about the divide within the Democratic Party than about the party’s prospects in November. Maybe I shouldn’t have muddled things by bringing up the latter.

    Speaking of which: Kevin, thanks very much. I’m honestly unsure what’s good for the party — I just want to know if it’s good for the kids. 🙂 On the one hand, a party wants to invest in the future; on the other, there are going to be more and more and more old people for a long time, right until you and I get there.

    OK, how about this? The party should factor out what’s causing this divide. On values that today’s young people are unlikely to shed as they age — gay rights and post-racial identity are the obvious ones — the party should go whole hog. Meanwhile, it should stick with the issues that will always appeal to old people — say, health care and the home-mortgage deduction.

    Heh. That’s a Clintonian analysis if I ever heard one.

  7. Mary says:

    I think it’s not one or the other. If everything goes to hell for the “kids,”…jobs, etc, where are they going to pick up the pieces? And if everything goes to hell for the old people, parents, grandparents, where are they going? And if you’re in your 40s or 50s, you’re likely worried about both your parents and your kids. If things work out for my kid, they work out for me. If things work out for my mom, they work out for me.

    The difference in the Obama and Clinton plans is the Obama plan (and again, I will be voting for him, but this worries me) leaves too much wiggle room for people to not be covered (like some 20-somethings who think they’re invincible, and if they’re not, whose going to cover those costs?). The Clinton plan says, oh, yes, like Social Security, you WILL participate.

  8. Mike says:

    I like the Social Security analogy, Mary. Do you know if she’s been using that on the road? I guess maybe Social Security has a bad brand these days. Too bad.

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