Alison Piepmeier

(WOMENSENEWS)–Leigh Dekle, 19, a sophomore at the College of Charleston, describes herself as a feminist and believes a female president would benefit young women.

But she still doesn’t know who she will vote for among the Democrats in South Carolina’s Jan. 26 primary.

Dekle says she would love to see a female president who has a lot of experience. But then Obama, she says, is “so likeable.”

And then there is the factor of Obama’s powerful appeal to younger people.

“There is political peer pressure to like Obama,” says Dekle, who says Obama is the most visible candidate on Facebook, the immensely popular social networking site. “He is hip and young. It’s like you are breaking from your generation if you don’t vote for him.”

The contest between Democratic front-runners New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is often boiled down to a symbolic choice between an African American male or a woman.

But in interviews, students and professors on campuses in South Carolina say that for young women it often seems more like a choice between generation and gender.

“Students are very torn,” says Laura Woliver, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina-Columbia. “A lot of young women have told me they are very excited about Hillary’s candidacy and seem very eager to vote for her. Others are excited about Obama as the JFK of their generation who inspires hope and attracts young people to politics.”

Clinton Leads the Count

As a result of the primaries that have been held in January, Clinton holds an 87-delegate lead over Obama.

But in South Carolina Obama is widely expected to win the majority of the state’s 54 delegates. A victory in the first primary state with a substantial black population could provide crucial momentum going into Feb. 5, when Democrats hold contests in 22 states.

Young women are poised to make a significant impact on the outcome of the South Carolina race because of the higher-than-usual turnouts so far among two sets of voters: younger people and single women.

Research commissioned by Women’s Voices, Women Vote, a Washington-based group focused on spurring unmarried women to the voting booth, found that unmarried women have been voting in historic numbers in the early primary states. They accounted for 22 percent of Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire, proportionately equal to their share of the overall state. In Iowa, they accounted for 28 percent of all Democratic caucus goers, while they only make up 22 percent of the state overall.

While Obama has done better with the general youth vote, he has so far only captured the single-women vote in Iowa, where 40 percent went for him, 27 percent for Clinton.

In New Hampshire, Clinton won single women by a 19-point margin.

Youth Vote Swings to Obama

Overall, though, the under-30 vote has significantly swung in Obama’s favor. In the Iowa caucuses Obama led Clinton 5-to-1 among young voters, according to the Harvard Institute of Politics. The following week, in New Hampshire, he captured 60 percent of the vote among 18- to 24-year-olds, versus Clinton’s 22 percent, according to the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, an organization at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy that studies youth voting patterns.

In Nevada, Obama again dominated voters under 29, garnering 59 percent of their vote.

Annie Boiter-Jolley, 20, a junior at the University of South Carolina in Columbia and the president of the College Democrats, plans to vote for Clinton.

She says that when young women express support for Clinton it’s usually based more on specific issues than when they say they’re for Obama.

“The support for Obama seems to be based a lot on rhetoric, while Clinton supporters are voting for her because they agree with her on the issues and less because they think she is cool,” says Boiter-Jolley.

“I like that her health care plan makes it mandatory to have health insurance and that she will start bringing troops home within 60 days of taking office,” adds Boiter-Jolley.

Clinton’s health care proposal would offer insurance to all Americans by creating a tax credit for small businesses and families to lower the cost of paying for it. Insurance companies would not be able to drop coverage for those with pre-existing conditions and people would be able to keep their coverage if they switch jobs. Clinton’s plan also emphasizes efficiency to reduce costs and would limit the amount people pay for premiums to a percentage of their incomes.

Obama’s plan would mandate health insurance coverage for children and create a national health plan to guarantee affordability for all. Employers who do not offer coverage would pay a tax to subsidize coverage through the national plan. Obama’s plan also emphasizes efficiency to reduce costs as well as preventive care and increased competition in the pharmaceutical industry.

On Iraq, Clinton’s plan is to start to withdraw troops within 60 days of taking office and aims for all troops out by 2013. Obama says he would withdraw one or two brigades a month to finish within 16 months of taking office.

Women’s Issues a Lure for Some

Alison Piepmeier

Alison Piepmeier, director of the women’s and gender studies program at the College of Charleston, says that most of the young women she works with are pro-Clinton. “I know that Clinton’s role in making emergency contraception available over the counter has been a big selling point,” she says.

Sharon Jones, a professor of political science at Columbia College, an all-women’s school in South Carolina, says that Clinton’s chance of breaking the top of the political glass ceiling matters to female students.

“Young women see Hillary as someone that can buck the good-old-boys’ system and as someone that was very active in women’s rights as a lawyer. They see that she can stand up to the guys and that has impressed many young women.”

But Sarah Kinney, 20, a junior at the University of South Carolina-Columbia and an Obama supporter, says Obama has the advantage in intangibles.

“When you look at Obama, there is just that thing that Simon Cowell, the ‘American Idol’ judge, calls the ‘X factor,'” Kinney says. “I don’t think he would be a front-runner if it weren’t for that X factor.”

Kinney sees a generational divide among female voters. “I get a lot of e-mails from older woman talking about symposiums going on in support of Hillary and campaign parties, but I think the young student population is more in support of Obama.”

Kiosha Gregg, 19, an African American student at Columbia College, is planning to vote for Obama.

“I want to see the first black president. I was sold by Obama’s speeches and the Oprah event,” she says, referring to the TV talk show host’s December campaign appearance, which drew close to 30,000 people to the University of South Carolina-Columbia’s football stadium.

But Gregg doesn’t think her candidate has the obvious upper hand at her school. “I’m seeing a pretty even split of support between Obama and Clinton.”

Hannah Seligson is a freelance writer based in New York. Her book, “New Girl on the Job,” was published by Citadel Press in 2007. More about her work can be found at

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For more information:

Women’s eNews Spotlight on 2008 Presidential Election:

CIRCLE: Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement:

Generation Engage: A nonpartisan youth-civic engagement initiative that connects young Americans to political leaders: South Carolina State Election Commission:

Women’s Voices Women’s Vote:

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