February 7, 2008
"I was surprised that so many voted for Clinton. In our discussions, Obama’s name came up much more often."
Nicole McCabe teaches social studies at St. Augustine Catholic School in the South Bronx. She was evaluating the results of the school’s own primary election, which it held on Monday. This column went to press before the national tallies for Super Tuesday (or Mardi Gras Madness) were in, so you’ll have to judge for yourself if the students read the pulse of the country.
St. Augustine’s, a major force in primary education in the Bronx since 1886, has a total enrollment of 253, pre-K through eighth grade. All of its families live in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, one of the most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods in New York City; 96% of them are at or below the poverty line. The student body is 59% Hispanic (mostly immigrant families from the Dominican Republic, with others from Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Honduras), and 40% Black (9% of whose parents are immigrants from Africa). One family is from India. There are no White children in the school.
Students in the fourth through eighth grades — 106 in all — participated in the primary. They had been preparing for this day, directly or indirectly, since school opened in September. Week by week in their social studies classes they had discussed and debated six domestic issues central to the presidential campaign: health care, education, immigration, energy and the environment, the economy, and abortion. For their writing assignments and in-class activities, they were asked to critically evaluate information they obtained from TV and radio, the daily papers, and the internet. They were as prepared for their vote as every citizen should be.
"How are you going to vote?" students would ask McCabe. "I won’t tell you," she would reply. "I don’t want to influence you. You’ve got to look over the issues and the candidates and make your own decision. That’s what real democracy and American citizenship are all about."
On the morning of the vote, the teachers reviewed what primary elections do, the background of each candidate, and the major differences between the Democratic and Republican parties on the six domestic issues. Then they handed out the ballots.
In addition to the candidates’ names, the ballot contained check-boxes to identify the race and gender of the voter; it also asked the question: "Which of the 6 issues were most important in determining your vote?"
The students took their civic responsibility seriously, working quietly and following instructions precisely. Only two of the ballots were disqualified, for voting for two candidates.
And here are the results: Of the 104 valid votes cast, Clinton received 63 (61%) and Obama 34 (33%); Republicans McCain, Romney and Huckabee got four, two, and one votes respectively (6% total). On the issues, 46% checked health care as most important, followed by education (22%), abortion (19%), energy (11%), the economy (9%), and immigration (4%).
"The voting on the issues was very interesting," McCabe remarked as she reviewed the numbers with her colleague Michael Brady, the school’s development director, who collaborated with her on the project. (Both are 2005 graduates of Manhattan College in the Bronx and are working towards master’s degrees, McCabe in special education at Manhattan and Brady in public administration at New York University.) "With so many immigrant families here," she told me, "you’d never imagine immigration to end up at the bottom of the list. But the kids don’t think of themselves as immigrants — they’re Americans like everybody else. What mattered most to them was health care and education, things that more directly affect them."
As for the candidates, the overwhelming vote for Democrats was expected, since almost all the voters in this district are registered Democrats. "Parental influence is a large factor," Brady noted. "Many students tell me that politics are discussed often at home." McCabe agreed: "Lots of times during our discussions, kids would say, ‘Yes, but my mom says . . . .’"
The voting breakdowns by race and gender were revealing. Of the 63 votes for Clinton, 33 were from Blacks and 30 from Hispanics; of the 34 votes for Obama, 25 were from Blacks and 9 from Hispanics. Girls cast 39 of the 63 votes for Clinton, and boys, 24; of Obama’s 34 votes, boys barely outnumbered girls, 18 to 16.
"It’s the same with the Democratic population at large," noted Brady. "Since the policy differences between Clinton and Obama are negligible, the vote came down to whom they identified with the most. Many of these kids come from homes where the mother is the matriarch, which may be the reason they chose Hillary."
The vote from the eighth grade bucked the school trend, however. Of 22 students, 12 Black and 10 Hispanic, 16 chose Obama and 6 Clinton. "I think that’s because these kids are old enough to connect with Obama’s ‘change’ campaign and his ability to electrify a room of young people," Brady observed.
The large number of Clinton supporters among the Black students suggests that race was a lesser factor in their decisions. But even among children, the "Bradley Effect" — the theory that people will tell pollsters they’ll vote for a Black candidate and then mark their ballots differently — may be in play here. Brady noted that two Black students had assured him they were for Obama, but as he picked up their ballots, he noticed they’d voted for Clinton. And McCabe and Brady told me they were taken aback when one Black sixth-grader remarked to them, "You won’t vote for Obama because he’s Black."
Beyond race and gender, truths came out that only children could tell. "I’m voting for Hillary because she has better commercials," one student told McCabe. Perhaps the best comment of all came from a seventh-grade Black girl: "I won’t vote for Obama because I don’t understand what he means when he talks. And he’s so loud. When I yell in a crowded room in this school, I get yelled at."