Highly educated women may be only a sliver of the American electorate, but they could hold the presidency in the palm of their hands. Here's why: There are more of them than ever and they seem to have different taste in political parties than their male counterparts. I'll call this group the "Smart Alices."
Pew has been tracking the electoral trends for years. And they just released another snap shot of the electorate on April 7, 2015, just in time for the batch of newly announced presidential campaigns of Cruz, Paul, Clinton and Rubio. In this latest data dump, Pew helpfully breaks down the electorate from many vantage points including age, ethnicity, religion, education level and party affiliation.
Of course, there is a gap between how people self-identify to pollsters and how they act as voters. And no matter what the demographics say, all that counts is who shows up to vote, and increasingly, whether that voter has an ID that satisfies the local poll worker. So when a big part of the electorate sits out an election, or cannot vote because of restrictive state voting laws, elections do not reflect the raw demographics of the American population.
Still Pew's data should give the 2016 slate of contenders much to think about. One of the things that caught my eye in the latest Pew data was the education level and gender data. Pew's data tracks larger trends that we can see in the U.S. Census. The good news is more men and women are getting higher education degrees (measured from 1940 to the present). But women's attainment of advanced degrees jumped a whopping 52.5 percent according to the U.S. Census between 2004 and 2014. In other words, there are more Smart Alices than a decade ago.
According to the U.S. Census, in 2013 in the United States approximately 11.3 percent of men aged 25 and older and 11.1 percent of women aged 25 and older have professional or graduate degrees. That means men and women are attaining advanced degrees at near parity. However, they are not choosing political parties equally. According to Pew, "The Democrats' advantage is 35 points (64 percent-29 percent) among women with post-graduate degrees, but only eight points (50 percent-42 percent) among post-grad men." Thus, if Pew is right, and the women with higher degrees really do prefer one party over the other, then this group of high achieving women might be a key target demo in the next election.
What the Pew data does not do is give a state by state break down of this data. So predicting how this slice of the electorate might impact the presidential map is impossible. Also it doesn't give a sense of how frequently women with higher educational attainment are sitting out elections.
Since the presidential election is mediated by the electoral college, a candidate can win the popular vote for president and still lose the White House. Just ask Al Gore. The results of the 2000 election hinged not on the national popular vote, which was clearly in favor of Gore, but rather it hinged on the winner take all electoral votes in Florida. When Mr. Gore lost Florida's (then) 25 electoral votes, he lost the presidency.
In 2012, those with post-graduate levels of education (both men and women) made up 18 percent of the electorate. So that's a small slice, but even a small slice of the electorate is important if they live in a few swing states and show up to vote. Recall if you will some of the narrow margins by which candidates for president have won electoral votes in key states in the past: In 2000, Bush won Florida by 537 votes and he won New Mexico by 366 votes.
So I wonder if the 2016 presidential candidates might actively seek the votes of women with Masters, JDs, MDs, and PhDs for once. Instead of seeking to please "the soccer moms" or the "Reagan democrats," candidates should try to win over the "Smart Alices."
Super educated women are not an easy group to pander to since all of those higher degrees didn't fall out of cracker jack boxes. The Smart Alices can run their own regressions, interpret Supreme Court jurisprudence, and call shenanigans on junk science. But this demographic shift does open a very interesting opportunity to talk about more than just reproductive health, which has stunted the conversation about the role of professional women by reducing them to their reproductive organs.
I, and I'd wager other Smart Alices, would be fascinated to hear presidential candidates' thoughtful approaches to women's issues like accessible and affordable child care, pregnancy discrimination, equal pay for equal work, diversity on corporate boards as well as diversity on the federal bench. I'd also love to hear their views on fiscal policy, how candidates would deal with ISIS and their views on campaign finance reform.
Given that the last presidential race devolved into an endless discussion of "legitimate rape," I'm not optimistic that American voters will hear much on the substantive topics I've outlined from those vying for the presidency. But a woman with a Juris Doctor and voter registration card in a swing state can dream, can't she?
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy is a Brennan Center Fellow and an Associate Professor of Law at Stetson University College of Law. She is the author of The Democracy We Left Behind in Greece and McCutcheon, 89 NYU Law Review Online 112 (2014).