Education Has Become the Dividing Line in American Politics

College graduates vote Democratic. Non-college voters prefer Republicans.

Cleveland Ohio
Downtown Cleveland, Ohio (Shutterstock/Pedro Gutierrez)

America’s two major parties continue to trade voters based on education.

An analysis by Pew Research of the 2018 electorate found that one in ten voters have switched parties since the election.

Of the 2018 Republicans who now call themselves Democrats, most are college-educated. Of the 2018 Democrats who have become Republicans, most are not.

This reflects a longer-term trend of white Americans sorting into the two parties according to their educational attainment. (Education is less predictive of party affiliation for voters of color.)

New swing states

In 2016, Hillary Clinton bested Donald Trump by an estimated 17 points among white college graduates.

Clinton won the national vote. But Trump prevailed in the Electoral College thanks to working-class defections in key industrial states: Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Once safe for trade union-friendly Democrats, these have become presidential swing states.

Trump also maintained the support of higher-educated, suburban voters in Arizona, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina.

That’s changing. Once reliably Republican (with the exception of Florida), these have become swing states as well. In 2018, suburbanites in all four threw their support behind Democratic candidates.

It helped that Democrats nominated pragmatic, center-left politicians like Kyrsten Sinema, who won the Arizona Senate seat vacated by Republican Jeff Flake, and Stacey Abrams, who would have won the governorship in Georgia if her opponent, incumbent secretary of state Brian Kemp, hadn’t suppressed the black vote.

In off-year elections in 2019, the same type of voters gave Democrats control of the suburbs around Philadelphia, both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly for the first time since 1993 and the Kentucky governorship. (Trump won Kentucky by 30 points in 2016.)

Diversity and immigration

The Democracy Fund Voter Study Group found that party switchers were mainly motivated by their comfort, or discomfort, with immigration and racial diversity.

Trump has put anti-immigrant rhetoric into action, banning travelers from Muslim countries, including Syrian refugees, separating migrant children from their parents at the border with Mexico (six have died in detention), suspending visas for foreign workers and slow-walking the renewal of existing visas, so that nonimmigrants with a job in the United States can be deported.

Democrats have become outspoken in their support of diversity and immigration. 85 percent believe ethnic and racial diversity makes the country stronger against 65 percent of Republicans. 77 percent of Democrats believe such diversity has a positive impact on American culture. Only one in two Republicans agree. Only 20 percent of Democrats believe immigration threatens American customs and values. 67 percent of Republicans do.