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Growing up in a conservative white household outside Atlanta, Brendon Pace says he always thought of himself as a Republican. But after attending college and starting medical school in Virginia, he became unhappy with the GOP under President Donald Trump, and recently cast a ballot for Joe Biden. Maybe someday he’ll vote Republican again, he says – but for now, “they’ve definitely lost me.”
The “diploma divide” in U.S. politics predates Mr. Trump. But like many partisan fault lines, from gender to religion, it has gaped wider under his presidency, sending into hyperdrive a decadeslong realignment of the Democratic and Republican parties.
In 1996, Republican voters were more likely than Democrats to have a four-year degree, according to a Pew study of party identification. Today, college graduates make up 41% of Democrats, compared with 30% of Republicans.
The shift is scrambling everything from long-standing party policy positions to traditional advantages and disadvantages when it comes to campaign cash and the electoral map. It also reflects the extent to which cultural issues – as much as pocketbook concerns – shape voting behavior.
“Education is a stronger predictor [of voting than income] because it correlates with your underlying values,” says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University who studies polarization.
Four years ago, Donald Trump’s path to the White House ran through Rust Belt states with higher-than-average numbers of white voters without college degrees.
That strategy paid off, seeding a narrative of a working-class revolt from the right led by a billionaire Republican, who is seeking to turn out those voters again on Nov. 3.
But what also happened in 2016 now looks arguably more significant: College-educated voters, who once leaned Republican, swung hard to the Democrats, including voters in suburban districts who then helped flip the House of Representatives in 2018.
The polarization among white voters by educational levels has since grown wider, putting more pressure on Republicans to turn out non-college-educated white voters, a demographic that is shrinking within an increasingly diverse and educated electorate. To gain a second term, President Trump likely needs to get even more of these voters to the polls, as well as win back some disaffected college grads.
The “diploma divide” in U.S. politics predates Mr. Trump. But like many partisan fault lines, from gender to religion, it has gaped wider under his presidency – sending into hyperdrive a decadeslong realignment of the Democratic and Republican parties. These shifting partisan coalitions, in turn, are scrambling everything from long-standing party policy positions to traditional advantages and disadvantages when it comes to campaign cash and the electoral map.
“One of the great political divides in this country is the existence of a college degree. [If] you have a college degree, you’ve been drifting Democrat. If you don’t, you’ve been drifting Republican,” says Scott Jennings, a GOP strategist. “What was true in 2016 is true today. It’s been exacerbated.”
This divide has also reshaped political coalitions in European democracies. Populist right-wing politicians have won over working-class communities that used to vote reliably for center-left parties, which are now more oriented toward more affluent and educated voters. In multiparty systems like the Netherlands, college graduates make up the base of Green parties.
In 2016, the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum slashed across party lines as less educated voters chose to leave the European Union, against the wishes of college graduates. Last year’s election saw Boris Johnson, leader of the pro-Brexit Conservatives, flip dozens of seats in England’s equivalent of the Rust Belt, while center-left Labour held onto university towns.
In the United States, education is a proxy for class in a society that aspires to be classless. In fact, some non-college-educated white voters – who made up 42% of the electorate in 2016 – are relatively affluent, which is why researchers control for income when studying their voting patterns.
By that measure, Mr. Trump’s popularity among the white working class is less impressive than the myth: They made up 31% of votes he received, a similar share to Mitt Romney, a more traditional Republican, in 2012.
Where Mr. Trump did better, however, was in attracting votes from non-college-educated white people with higher incomes, a factor that many pollsters missed in tracking the 2016 race.
These increasing margins reflect how cultural issues like same-sex marriage and race relations, as much as pocketbook concerns, shape voting behavior, says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University who studies polarization. “Education is a stronger predictor [than income] because it correlates with your underlying values,” he says.
“They’ve definitely lost me”
Growing up in a conservative white household outside Atlanta, Brendon Pace absorbed the values of his family and its well-off community. “The idea of supporting the Democrats or anyone liberal was ridiculed,” he says.
In 2016, Mr. Pace, by then a college undergraduate in Virginia, cast his first ballot. “I thought of myself as a Republican and I voted for Trump in 2016,” he says, ruefully.
Since then, he’s shifted left, to the dismay of his family, and recently cast an absentee ballot for Joe Biden. Mr. Pace, who is now in his first year at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Virginia, says he’s unhappy with Mr. Trump’s presidency and how Republican lawmakers fell in line behind him. And while he says he may consider voting again for the party in the future, for now “they’ve definitely lost me.”
For this election cycle, polls show Republicans holding college educated white people in Georgia, while losing this demographic to Democrats in battleground states like Michigan and Pennsylvania. Among white voters without college degrees, Mr. Trump runs up large margins in states like Texas and North Carolina. (Nonwhite voters overwhelmingly tilt Democratic.)
While Mr. Trump’s crossover appeal has been exaggerated – white working-class voters also helped put George W. Bush into office – he did flip some Democratic strongholds in 2016, including Johnston, Rhode Island, where Democrats dominate local and state politics.
Stephanie Muravchik, a social historian at Claremont McKenna College, studied Johnston and two other Trump-voting districts in Iowa and Kentucky that otherwise rarely or never voted for Republicans, for her co-written book, “Trump’s Democrats.” In all three places, most voters are white, without college degrees.
In Johnston, self-identified Republicans were so thin on the ground, says Ms. Muravchik, that when a Trump surrogate was proposed for an election debate in 2016, Democratic Mayor Joe Polisena didn’t recognize the name. “And he knows everyone in town. I mean, everyone,” she says.
Yet in many ways, Democratic officials like Mr. Polisena share some stylistic similarities with Mr. Trump’s brash, nationalist candidacy, says Ms. Muravchik, who calls it “boss politics.” That type of politics holds a certain appeal to non-college-educated voters, particularly men, who respect toughness over formality.
Local bosses “promise to take care of their supporters and help them out, and expect loyalty in return. So Trump seemed familiar to people in these areas,” she says.
Since 2016, Republicans have built an electoral base in Johnston, even as voters remain loyal to local Democrats like Mr. Polisena, a former state senator. “Now they’re watching Fox News,” says Ms. Muravchik.
Still, these GOP conversions are swimming against the general demographic tide, in which non-college-educated white voters are a declining portion of the electorate. Analysts calculate that the president needs to increase their overall turnout by 5 percentage points from 2016 simply to offset this decline – as well as win a larger share of their votes.
“If you’re writing off white college graduates and nonwhites, you’re appealing to a shrinking share of the electorate,” says Mr. Abramowitz, referring to the Republican base.
Brian Hern, a tax attorney who lives in an affluent town outside Boston, is a fiscal and judicial conservative who voted twice against former President Barack Obama. “I don’t like big government. I don’t think the government does anything well,” he says.
In 2012, he voted enthusiastically for Mr. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor. But he didn’t support Mr. Trump and has been appalled by his chaotic leadership and how it’s warped the Republican Party. “It’s like a cult following,” he says. “I think he’s destroyed the party’s image.”
Mr. Hern says he won’t vote for Mr. Biden or Mr. Trump, though he hopes Mr. Trump will lose and “the fever will break,” encouraging Republicans to steer back to a politics that plays down cultural divisions. “Our politics keep getting ramped up to extreme levels,” he says.
A new high
A generation ago, college graduates like Mr. Hern split fairly evenly in voting behavior. In 1996, Republican voters were more likely than Democrats to have a four-year degree, according to a Pew study of party identification. Today college graduates make up 41% of Democrats, compared with 30% of Republicans.
In 2016, the diploma divide among white voters hit a new high, with Mr. Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, winning a higher margin of college-educated white voters than Mr. Obama in 2012. The divide was even higher among more affluent voters, a trend that has since accelerated. This narrows the path to victory not only for Mr. Trump but also for vulnerable down-ballot Republicans.
It also has had a significant effect on campaign fundraising. According to a recent analysis by The New York Times, Mr. Biden out-raised Mr. Trump $478 million to $104 million in ZIP codes where two-thirds or more of the population were college graduates, primarily on the coasts. In the rest of the country, meanwhile, Mr. Trump outpaced Mr. Biden by $630 million to $591 million.
But the divide also risks defining the party as a vehicle of metropolitan elites and nonwhites that has lost touch with less-educated white voters. Over the past four years, the party has moved further left on issues like climate change and LGBTQ rights, making it harder to bridge the gap with traditional Democrats in places like Johnston. (Liberal donors also tend to push these priorities.)
“If they want to be the party of the working class, they have to include the white working class – who are still a majority of the working class,” says Ms. Muravchik.
Still, Democrats see themselves as carrying the New Deal torch and governing for the less advantaged, notes Thomas Patterson, a professor of government at Harvard. “Even if their coalition doesn’t look like it, their philosophy tips it,” he says. That gives the party a chance at retaining or even growing some of their working-class support.
He’s more skeptical that the Republicans can close their education gap by wooing back disenchanted “managerial and business-oriented” Republicans. “The base is more symbolically and culturally oriented,” he says. “That’s going to make it hard for the two sides to get together, because they care about different things.”