Opinion | The ‘Diploma Divide’ Is the New Fault Line in American Politics7 min read
The legal imbroglios of Donald Trump have lately dominated conversation about the 2024 election. As primary season grinds on, campaign activity will ebb and wane, and issues of the moment — like the first Trump indictment and potentially others to come — will blaze into focus and then disappear.
Yet certain fundamentals will shape the races as candidates strategize about how to win the White House. To do this, they will have to account for at least one major political realignment: educational attainment is the new fault line in American politics.
Educational attainment has not replaced race in that respect, but it is increasingly the best predictor of how Americans will vote, and for whom. It has shaped the political landscape and where the 2024 presidential election almost certainly will be decided. To understand American politics, candidates and voters alike will need to understand this new fundamental.
Americans have always viewed education as a key to opportunity, but few predicted the critical role it has come to play in our politics. What makes the “diploma divide,” as it is often called, so fundamental to our politics is how it has been sorting Americans into the Democratic and Republican Parties by educational attainment. College-educated voters are now more likely to identify as Democrats, while those without college degrees — especially white Americans, but increasingly others as well — are now more likely to support Republicans.
It’s both economics and culture
The impact of education on voting has an economic as well as a cultural component. The confluence of rising globalization, technological developments and the offshoring of many working-class jobs led to a sorting of economic fortunes, a widening gap in the average real wealth between households led by college graduates compared with the rest of the population, whose levels are near all-time lows.
According to an analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, since 1989, families headed by college graduates have increased their wealth by 83 percent. For households headed by someone without a college degree, there was relatively little or no increase in wealth.
Culturally, a person’s educational attainment increasingly correlates with their views on a wide range of issues like abortion, attitudes about L.G.B.T.Q. rights and the relationship between government and organized religion. It also extends to cultural consumption (movies, TV, books), social media choices and the sources of information that shape voters’ understanding of facts.
This is not unique to the United States; the pattern has developed across nearly all Western democracies. Going back to the 2016 Brexit vote and the most recent national elections in Britain and France, education level was the best predictor of how people voted.
This new class-based politics oriented around the education divide could turn out to be just as toxic as race-based politics. It has facilitated a sorting of America into enclaves of like-minded people who look at members of the other enclave with increasing contempt.
The road to political realignment
The diploma divide really started to emerge in voting in the early 1990s, and Mr. Trump’s victory in 2016 solidified this political realignment. Since then, the trends have deepened.
In the 2020 presidential election, Joe Biden defeated Mr. Trump by assembling a coalition different from the one that elected and re-elected Barack Obama. Of the 206 counties that Mr. Obama carried in 2008 and 2012 that were won by Mr. Trump in 2016, Mr. Biden won back only 25 of these areas, which generally had a higher percentage of non-college-educated voters. But overall Mr. Biden carried college-educated voters by 15 points.
In the 2022 midterm elections, Democrats carried white voters with a college degree by three points, while Republicans won white non-college voters by 34 points (a 10-point improvement from 2018).
This has helped establish a new political geography. There are now 42 states firmly controlled by one party or the other. And with 45 out of 50 states voting for the same party in the last two presidential elections, the only states that voted for the winning presidential candidates in both 2016 and 2020 rank roughly in the middle on educational levels — Pennsylvania (23rd in education attainment), Georgia (24th), Wisconsin (26th), Arizona (30th) and Michigan (32nd).
In 2020, Mr. Biden received 306 electoral votes, Mr. Trump, 232. In the reapportionment process — which readjusts the Electoral College counts based on the most current census data — the new presidential electoral map is more favorable to Republicans by a net six points.
In 2024, Democrats are likely to enter the general election with 222 electoral votes, compared with 219 for Republicans. That leaves only eight states, with 97 electoral votes — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — up for grabs. And for these states, education levels are near the national average — not proportionately highly educated nor toward the bottom of attainment.
The 2024 map
A presidential candidate will need a three-track strategy to carry these states in 2024. The first goal is to further exploit the trend of education levels driving how people vote. Democrats have been making significant inroads with disaffected Republicans, given much of the party base’s continued embrace of Mr. Trump and his backward-looking grievances, as well as a shift to the hard right on social issues — foremost on abortion. This is particularly true with college-educated Republican women.
In this era of straight-party voting, it is notable that Democrats racked up double-digit percentages from Republicans in the 2022 Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania governors’ races. They also made significant inroads with these voters in the Senate races in Arizona (13 percent), Pennsylvania (8 percent), Nevada (7 percent) and Georgia (6 percent).
This represents a large and growing pool of voters. In a recent NBC poll, over 30 percent of self-identified Republicans said that they were not supporters of MAGA.
At the same time, Republicans have continued to increase their support with non-college-educated voters of color. Between 2012 and 2020, support for Democrats from nonwhite-working-class voters dropped 18 points. The 2022 Associated Press VoteCast exit polls indicated that support for Democrats dropped an additional 14 points compared with the 2020 results.
However, since these battleground states largely fall in the middle of education levels in our country, they haven’t followed the same trends as the other 42 states. So there are limits to relying on the education profile of voters to carry these states.
This is where the second group of voters comes in: political independents, who were carried by the winning party in the last four election cycles. Following Mr. Trump’s narrow victory with independent voters in 2016, Mr. Biden carried them by nine points in 2020. In 2018, when Democrats took back the House, they carried them by 15 points, and their narrow two-point margin in 2022 enabled them to hold the Senate.
The importance of the independent voting bloc continues to rise. This is particularly significant since the margin of victory in these battleground states has been very narrow in recent elections. The 2022 exit polls showed that over 30 percent of voters were independents, the highest percentage since 1980. In Arizona, 40 percent of voters in 2022 considered themselves political independents.
These independent voters tend to live disproportionately in suburbs, which are now the most diverse socioeconomic areas in our country. These suburban voters are the third component of a winning strategy. With cities increasingly controlled by Democrats — because of the high level of educated voters there — and Republicans maintaining their dominance in rural areas with large numbers of non-college voters, the suburbs are the last battleground in American politics.
Voting in the suburbs has been decisive in determining the outcome of the last two presidential elections: Voters in the suburbs of Atlanta, Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Phoenix determined the winner in the last two presidential elections and are likely to play the same pivotal role in 2024.
These voters moved to the suburbs for a higher quality of life: affordable housing, safe streets and good schools. These are the issues that animate these voters, who have a negative view of both parties. They do not embrace a MAGA-driven Republican Party, but they also do not trust Mr. Biden and Democrats, and consider them to be culturally extreme big spenders who aren’t focused enough on issues like immigration and crime.
So in addition to education levels, these other factors will have a big impact on the election. The party that can capture the pivotal group of voters in the suburbs of battleground states is likely to prevail. Democrats’ success in the suburbs in recent elections suggests an advantage, but it is not necessarily enduring. Based on post-midterm exit polls from these areas, voters have often voted against a party or candidate — especially Mr. Trump — rather than for one.
But in part because of the emergence of the diploma divide, there is an opening for both political parties in 2024 if they are willing to gear their agenda and policies beyond their political base. The party that does that is likely to win the White House.
Doug Sosnik was a senior adviser to President Bill Clinton from 1994 to 2000 and is a senior adviser to the Brunswick Group.
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