In elections, education, like demographics, is now political destiny | Mark O’Keefe

Temple University's campus in Philadelphia (Philadelphia Tribune photo)

Americans are more divided politically now than at any time since the Civil War.

Democrats mostly live in cities or nearby suburbs. Republicans live primarily in small towns and rural areas. Democrats also are more generally more affluent than Republicans, who are drawing more low-income residents, especially under President Donald Trump.

Another big difference is that white college graduates are increasingly voting for Democratic candidates, especially for president. That’s a significant change from 25 years ago when most college-graduates were Republicans.

The political website fivethirtyeight.com noted that in the blue wall states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, which President-elect Joe Biden recaptured, voters were deeply divided by education, particularly among white voters.

The website noted that across the most highly-educated counties in these states, including some populous suburban areas — Biden improved substantially on Clinton’s margins.

In Wisconsin, for instance, Biden won by 0.6 points statewide after Clinton lost by a similarly slim margin in 2016. A big part of that came in Waukesha County, by far the largest GOP-leaning Milwaukee suburban county. Trump won the county by 21 points, but that was a 6-point drop from his 2016 advantage.

And that was partly because of how white voters with a four-year college degree broke (around 40 percent of Waukesha’s population is white and college-educated). In other words, areas that were once pretty Republican, like Waukesha, moved away from Trump.

The same was true in Oakland County, a populous Detroit suburb with a hefty share of educated white voters where Trump’s deficit increased from 8 points in 2016 to 14 points in 2020.

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But nowhere was that more true than in Pennsylvania. Consider Chester County, a wealthy suburb of Philadelphia, which has the highest number of college graduates in the state. It went for Biden by 17 points after going for Hillary Clinton by nine points in 2016.

Overall, of Pennsylvania’s 17 counties with the largest number of college graduates, 12 went for Biden. All are predominately white.

Montgomery, Centre, Allegheny, Bucks, and Delaware counties are ranked second through six. Next were Montour, Dauphin, Northampton, Leigh, Lackawanna, and Erie counties ranked 10, 11, 12, 14, 16, and 17, respectively.

The only outlier was Philadelphia, which went for Biden despite ranking 34th in college graduates.

The five Republican counties that went for Trump were Butler, Cumberland, Westmoreland, Washington, and Pike. They ranked 7th, 8th, 9th, 13th, and 15th in the number of college graduates.

These counties lie in rural areas, where Trump maintained his electoral strength. It’s noteworthy, though, that in those five counties, Trump drew a smaller percentage of the vote last month than he did in 2016.

  • In Washington County, his margin dropped from 25 to 22 percent;
  • In Butler County, it declined from 37 percent to 32 percent;
  • In Westmoreland County, it dropped from 32 percent to 28 percent;
  • In Pike County, it dropped from 26 percent to 20 percent;
  • In Cumberland County, it dropped from 18 percent to 11 percent.

Overall the election results last month confirm a 2019 Pew Research study which showed that the Democratic Party had made significant gains among voters with a college degree or more education. This group leaned toward the GOP 25 years ago. Meanwhile, the GOP now runs even with the Democratic Party among voters without a college degree. It trailed voters in this group back in 1994.

The study pointed out that these shifts in party preferences occurred as the number of voters with a college degree has grown from 24 percent in 1994 to 35 percent today. Registered voters with a high school degree or less education have fallen sharply over the past 25 years, from 48 percent to 33 percent.

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By contrast, the study noted that white voters with a college degree had moved decisively toward the Democratic Party, with significant changes occurring in just the last several years. In 2015, college-graduate white voters were equally likely to identify with or lean toward the GOP as the Democratic Party.

The Democratic Party opened up a 4-point edge among this group in 2016, and that advantage has grown to 12 points in the current data (54-42). This margin marked a reversal from 1994 when the GOP held a 54-38 advantage in leaned party identification among white voters with a college degree.

The Democratic Party now has a 19-point lead, 54-35, between white voters with a college degree and those without one. In 1994, white voters without a college degree were 2 points, 40-38, more likely than those with a degree to associate with the Democratic Party.

In general, that pattern shows a big challenge for Republicans. White voters without a college degree are shrinking as a proportion of the broader population, the number of white voters with a college degree are growing,

While there are many reasons for the shift, it’s clear that college-educated voters tend to be more liberal on social issues, and Democrats speak to those views. Education tends to increase one’s exposure to different viewpoints and people, fostering tolerance – a fundamental basis for social liberalism.

In contrast, white non-college-educated people living in rural areas or small towns tend to the most socially conservative voters in America – and have become a core pillar of the GOP base.

Who knows how this trend will hold up over the next 25 years. After all, no one could have predicted back in 1994 how voters would be casting their 2020 ballots. But it seems inevitable, for now anyway, that education levels will take their place among gender, race, and income levels in determining how elections are won and lost.

Opinion contributor Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the former editorial page editor of the Uniontown Herald-Standard. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.