Every four years since 1940, America’s schoolchildren have gone to the polls, casting ballots in a mock presidential election that has uncannily predicted the outcome of nearly every race — including all 13 contests since 1964.
This year about 153,000 students cast ballots. Their candidate?
Hillary Clinton, in a landslide.
The Democratic former first lady and U.S. senator garnered 52% to Republican real estate developer Donald Trump’s 35%. In all, Clinton, who is surging in the grown-up polls, carried enough states to win an eye-popping 436 electoral votes to Trump's 99.
Clinton needs just 270 electoral votes to win, and the poll-tracking website fivethirtyeight.com on Monday put her total as high as 345 electoral votes.
Among schoolchildren, Clinton carried nearly every battleground state: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Ohio. She also carried Alaska, Idaho, Texas and Utah, all traditionally red states.
Trump, who this week trails in virtually every real-life poll, carried Iowa and 15 reliably red states.
But this year’s fraught election cycle brought a few unexpected results. “Other” candidates — write-ins as well as third-party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein — garnered 13% of the vote, an unusually high percentage. In years past, they've never risen above 5%. “Other” candidates this year actually edged out both Clinton and Trump in the District of Columbia to earn three electoral votes.
“They’re more popular than they have been in the past two or three elections,” said Stephanie Smith, editorial director of Scholastic Newsmagazines for elementary school-aged children. “A lot of kids have parents who have been talking about not wanting either one of these candidates for president,” she said. Scholastic sponsored the elections, which took place in elementary through high school classrooms, both in print and online, from early August through Oct. 12.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Independent candidate who engaged Clinton in a bruising primary fight last summer, earned just 1%, probably because his name didn't appear on the ballot — as with Johnson and Stein, it required writing in.
Smith also said the contest generated fewer ballots than in years past — in 2012, nearly a quarter million children voted — probably because many teachers have struggled with how to teach about an election that has for the past year brought forth prominent mentions of racism, xenophobia and both genders' sexual organs.
“We’ve had a couple of teachers write us and say they feel so uncomfortable with the tenor of the election that they just don’t feel they can cover it,” she said.
Going into the 2016 election cycle, the straw poll boasted an impressive, if not perfect, record stretching back 76 years. Scholastic says children have called 16 of the last 18 presidential contests, including every single one since 1964. The only exceptions came in two Cold War-era races: In 1948, young voters chose New York Gov. Thomas Dewey over Harry S. Truman — Truman actually won by 4.5 percentage points in real life. And the kids weren’t the only ones who got it wrong — on Election Day, the Chicago Daily Tribune (now the Chicago Tribune) erroneously printed the bold-type headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
The last black eye came in 1960, when children chose Richard M. Nixon over John F. Kennedy. JFK ultimately defeated Nixon by a razor-thin margin of fewer than 113,000 votes, or about 0.2 percentage points. Even the bellwether state of Ohio got that one wrong, voting for Nixon over Kennedy by 6.6 percentage points.
The children who cast those 1960 ballots, mostly Baby Boomers born in the 1940s and 1950s, are now at or near retirement age. The oldest are pushing 75.
“The kids are almost always right,” said Smith.
Though it’s tempting to believe that the results reflect children simply emulating their parents, the reality is not that simple, said Christopher Ojeda, a postdoctoral scholar at the Stanford Center for American Democracy.
While many kids ultimately identify with their parents' political views, he said, recent research suggests this transmission “is not as fluid as we once thought.”
For one thing, about one-third misidentify their parents’ political parties and beliefs. “Even for those children who are just repeating what their parents say,” he noted, “what they are actually repeating is what they think their parents said.”
Another one-third — those who get it right as well as those who get it wrong — tell researchers they reject their parents’ political views.
The result: fewer than half of children actually end up espousing political beliefs and candidate preferences that are truly aligned with their parents'.
Ojeda suggested this scenario: a child believes her parent is an Independent and, in a bid to reject that label, chooses to be a Republican. “Their parent was a Republican the whole time,” he said.
Parents are still influential, Ojeda said, but children “are also independent thinkers." That independence tends to kick in around high school, even if parents have strong beliefs.
Children, he said, “tend to see what’s going on, on TV or on the Internet, and make conclusions for themselves.”
Follow Greg Toppo on Twitter: @gtoppo