If we look at voting patterns by education level over time, a striking transformation has occurred in the period from the Reagan years to today. While those with a college degree or higher were firmly in Republican hands in the two Reagan victories (by approximately 17 points) and continued to support the GOP with George Bush (13 percent), a sizable shift occurred with the election of Bill Clinton, with a five percent lead among these voters in 1992 and a four percent lead in 1996. Gore and Kerry lost that small advantage, with parity between the two parties in 2000 and 2004, but Obama again gained the upper hand, even surpassing Clinton, with an 8-point advantage in 2008 and a smaller 2 points in 2012. Now, however, Clinton holds an astounding 20 to 25-point lead over Trump with the more educated amongst us.
This is clearly good news for Clinton and the Democrats, as this group turns out at the polls at a much higher rate. That rate grows stronger the higher the education level goes, as can be seen in the chart below. Not surprisingly, the more formal education a person has, the more likely they are to vote, and the more likely they are to support Clinton. In fact, while the percentage of Republicans who have a college degree has barely changed over the past 24 years (28 to 31 percent), the percentage of Democrats with at least a college degree has increased precipitously from 21 to 37 percent over the same period.
However, all the news is not good. While Democrats have gained college graduates, they have been losing high school graduates since at least 2009. That constituency is, of course, much higher than those with a college degree and could shift the election toward Trump if just a marginally higher percentage of them actually voted (FivethirtyEight). However, as Wasserman argues in the same article, there is little evidence to indicate they will actually show up at a higher rate.
The rub in the numbers is that the changing demographics of the country can no longer be counted on alone to win the Oval Office for Democrats, as they did for Obama in the last two cycles. Democrats must also find ways to send a message that resonates with these voters who were once firmly in their camp. Reagan obviously found a rhetorical strategy that moved enough of them to his camp to win two rather large electoral victories, but many now realize the rhetoric and reality of the right is quite different. The problem for Democrats, in my estimation, is that the triangulation strategy of Clinton, while good in the short term, might well have turned an increasingly cynical and struggling white working class against them. At the time of the Gingrich revolution, it was surmised that social issues were trumping economic interests in many of the voter’s minds.
However, Obama showed that economics can still sway many Americans to vote along a more progressive line. At issue today, it appears, is whether voters believe that establishment Democrats will actually represent their interests. There is scant evidence to support this belief, even as Obama’s attempts since Health Care Reform to do so have consistently been blocked by the Republican-controlled Congress. The popularity of Sanders shows that many might support a Democrat, or even a Socialist, if they believe he or she could turn around their economic fortunes. That message must feel more authentic than the one currently being sold by Hillary Clinton and many other establishment Democrats.
Clinton might very well win this election without turning many of those white working class votes her way, but it is certainly a possibility the Republicans now have another route back to the White House. The incendiary and poorly run campaign of Trump might make this less likely, though still possible, but the future could turn on who can better galvanize the less well-educated, white voter to their cause; or whether the Republicans can convince them to vote at all! Democrats beware! Or better yet, return to the progressive routes that allowed you to control Congress from soon after World War II until 1994, while still controlling the White House for 12 of the 20 years between 1960 and 1980.