RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Political observers like to say this sentence about Hillary Clinton. The first time she ran for president, she ran as a man.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
What the observers mean by that is that she took tough positions on security issues and did not always play up the historic nature of her candidacy. In 2016, Clinton is most certainly running as a woman whose victory would break a barrier for all women. So let's see how that is affecting women's votes. NPR's Asma Khalid is in our studios. Asma, good morning.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: So what do the exit polls in the many primaries so far say about Democratic women voters?
KHALID: Well, Hillary Clinton is doing better with some of those Democratic women than with others. Bernie Sanders does amazingly well with young women. I don't think that's a big surprise. He does well with young voters across the board, and by that, I mean women between the ages of 18 to 29, even into their early 30s.
INSKEEP: This has been really frustrating for some of Hillary Clinton's biggest supporters, hasn't it?
KHALID: Exactly. You might remember some of those SCAFUs early on where Madeline Albright and Gloria Steinem made some comments about young women. But this age group - millenials, we can call them - you know, they just don't vote in huge numbers. So if you look at women as a block - as a whole group, all different age groups - Clinton actually has a major advantage. You know, there aren't exit polls for every single state that has voted so far. But all the data from all the exit polls we have show a common thread. They show that most women are voting for Clinton. That's a - you know, sort of the thing we're seeing across all states. They're supporting her over Bernie Sanders in primaries and caucuses across the country. And, you know, Steve, there are a couple of exceptions. You know, we should point out Vermont, Bernie Sanders' home state...
KHALID: ...His home turf, where he won women there by more than 60 points. New Hampshire - also another exception - and then, you know, Wisconsin on Tuesday night, that was also a - sort of not a great night for Hillary Clinton. Both her and Bernie Sanders essentially broke even with women voters.
INSKEEP: Is that an ominous sign for Hillary Clinton on the women's vote?
KHALID: So I don't think so. I mean, I think Wisconsin was an outlier for a number of reasons. I think there are some regional politics at play. Wisconsin borders Minnesota. That's a really progressive state; Bernie Sanders won. But the next big state is New York, and those demographics favor Clinton. You know, there could be some more exceptions going forward, but if we look at the exit polls as a whole, so far Hillary Clinton has a safety net, and it's essentially a web of women. So we went out on the campaign trail and met a cross-section of these women to talk to them about Hillary Clinton. Let's take a listen to what they had to say.
ANDREA STEINBERGER: She speaks intelligently. And she talks about rights for women, such as reproductive health.
CHANTEL MOSES: I identify with her immensely. You know, she's a woman. I'm a woman.
KATIE LAMBERT: She really sticks up for women in politics. And I think she's just someone to really look up to.
KHALID: That's Andrea Steinberger - she's a rabbi in Wisconsin - Chantel Moses, an entrepreneur in New York, and Katie Lambert, who's a college student majoring in biology. Women often say they like Clinton because she understands women's issues. But what that means kind of depends on who you're talking to. Take Angel Suit. She's a single mom in South Carolina who told me she gets up before dawn to deliver newspapers for minimum wage.
ANGEL SUIT: I mean, we need better paying jobs. And that's one of my biggest issues - especially, you know, the minimum wage in South Carolina.
KHALID: Women are also talking a lot about equal pay and paid family leave. I met Mary Metz recently at a Hillary event on a college campus. She's a retired professor, and she says women's concerns are complex.
MARY METZ: Jobs, retirement, education, health - all the things we need to do to raise a family and take care of elders.
KHALID: And it's not just domestic issues.
METZ: They're interested in not having a lot of wars - trying to work things out.
KHALID: Whenever I ask women why they like Hillary Clinton, they insist it's not because she's a woman. But they inevitably admit it would be cool to elect the first woman president. Mary Strickland works in the investment industry. It's dominated by men, and she says, yeah, gender matters.
MARY STRICKLAND: I do feel that women carry the water for women's issues, whether it be reproductive rights, whether it be employment programs for women, whether it be daycare. We should have daycare provided for families throughout the United States
KHALID: And Clinton, for her part, is not shy about playing the gender card. Here she is earlier this week in New York.
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HILLARY CLINTON: We still have a long way to go before we can honestly say to our daughters, yes, you can be anything you want to be, including president of the United States.
KHALID: For Clinton, women are not just key in the primary. They could be crucial in a general election. Here's the calculus. Polls show Democrats already have a built-in lead with single women. But Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg said there's another group that's highly coveted.
ANNA GREENBERG: Independent women tend to be one of the most important persuadable blocks in the electorate. They also tend to be a little more socially liberal and a little more economically conservative.
KHALID: And social issues often include abortion. Lisa Camooso Miller is a Republican strategist. She says when the Republican front-runner has a major misstep and says that women who seek abortions should be punished, that benefits Democrats.
LISA CAMOOSO MILLER: I think now more than ever the Republican Party is in a deficit because of the words and because of the actions that Donald Trump has taken in the primary.
KHALID: She worries that Trump is repelling women voters. Clinton is trying to pull them in and talks about reproductive rights pretty frequently.
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CLINTON: And of course we've got to stand firm on behalf of a woman's right to make her own reproductive health care decisions.
KHALID: And it's not just the rhetoric. Miller says she also worries about the tone of the GOP campaign.
MILLER: That back-and-forth between the candidates, whether it's Donald Trump or anyone else, is really unattractive and unappealing to women because we are looking for solutions.
KHALID: And Steve, Lisa Camooso Miller - that's the Republican strategist we just heard - she told me the tone and the message coming from the Republicans - you know, she's really worried that that could turn that traditional gender gap that the Democrats have into a gender gulf for Hillary Clinton come November. And that's a big worry.
INSKEEP: What about other side of the gender gap? What about men?
KHALID: You know, Steve, that's a really interesting question. Exit polls show that Clinton's had a much rockier path winning male voters so far, especially white men. In Wisconsin on Tuesday night, Bernie Sanders won resoundingly with men. He beat Clinton by about 30 points. But, you know, I will say it is important to remember here, Steve, that women make up a vast majority of voters in the Democratic primary. So, you know, maybe that doesn't matter at this point.
INSKEEP: Maybe, maybe not, although, of course, you'd also worry about the general election if you're a Democrat at some point. And the electorate'll be somewhat different there, right?
KHALID: Of course.
INSKEEP: So that'll be a battle - men versus women. Asma, thanks very much.
KHALID: Thank you.
INSKEEP: NPR's Asma Khalid covers the presidential campaign, and her focus is on the intersection of demographics and politics. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.