One of the most striking patterns in yesterday’s election was years in the making: a major partisan divide between white voters with a college degree and those without one.
According to exit polls, 61 percent of non-college-educated white voters cast their ballots for Republicans while just 45 percent of college-educated white voters did so. Meanwhile 53 percent of college-educated white voters cast their votes for Democrats compared to 37 percent of those without a degree.
The diploma divide, as it’s often called, is not occurring across the electorate; it is primarily a phenomenon among white voters. It’s an unprecedented divide, and is in fact a complete departure from the diploma divide of the past. Non-college-educated white voters used to solidly belong to Democrats, and college-educated white voters to Republicans. Several events over the past six decades have caused these allegiances to switch, the most recent being the candidacy, election, and presidency of Donald Trump.
The Democratic and Republican Parties looked a lot different in 1952, when the American National Election Studies—surveys of voters conducted before and after presidential elections—were in their infancy. The Republicans, to some extent, were still regarded as the party of Lincoln, even though they had shifted their focus to courting southern white voters, causing black people to leave the party. Meanwhile, the Democrats were the party of a coalition that pushed for social services—the party of the New Deal. There were far fewer college-educated Americans at the time, but the white Americans who did have degrees tended to vote Republican, and those who didn’t sided with the Democrats by a significant margin.
This split was relatively stable for decades and then, steadily, it began to change. “The shift in whites without a college degree away from the Democratic Party begins as the Democratic Party becomes identified as the party of civil rights,” starting in the 1960s, Robby P. Jones, the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, told me. Disaffected white southern Democrats, in particular, fled in droves.
But in 2008, the election of Barack Obama, a black man, signaled that the Democrats were becoming the party of progressive racial politics. “Obama’s presidency simplifies the politics of race,” Michael Tesler, an associate professor of political science at UC Irvine, says. “If you were a low-educated white, you were much more likely to know about the partisan differences on race [after Obama] than you were before.”
That change didn’t show up in the party-affiliation data right away, but that’s common, Tesler says. It often takes more than one election for someone to switch their party identification. But by 2012, white voters without a college degree were distinctly more likely to vote Republican than those with college degrees.
There’s a question that splits Americans neatly in two. Every year, on its American Values Survey, the Public Religion Research Institute asks Americans whether they “think American culture and way of life has mostly changed for the better, or has it mostly changed for the worse?” 50 percent of Americans say that it’s gotten better in this years poll, and 47 percent say that it has gotten worse.
But for white voters, the answer to that question is split by education level. Fifty-eight percent of college-educated whites this year say that America has gotten better since 1950, while 57 percent of non-college-educated whites say that it’s gotten worse. When President Trump says “Make America great again,” the again is instructive. He’s capitalizing on the nostalgia that non-college-educated white voters have for America’s past. “That harkening back to a supposed golden age where things were better has a really, really strong appeal for whites without a college degree,” Jones said.
David N. Smith, a professor at the University of Kansas, came to a similar conclusion when he and Eric Hanley took a dive into the 2016 American National Election Survey. They found that demographic data such as education are important predictors of which party someone votes for. But “when you bring the attitudes variables into account as well, what emerges is that attitudes loom even larger than demographics,” he told me.
Here’s how he put it: If you look at white people who voted for Trump—both those with college degrees and those without—and identify everybody with a high level of resentment toward minorities, women, and Muslims, as well as those who want an arrogant, assertive leader, there’s almost no one left. The vast majority of Trump voters share those sentiments, the researchers found, regardless of education level.
Smith told me that from 2015 to 2017, the Weidenbaum Center at Washington University in St. Louis conducted a monthly panel survey—where the same statistically significant number of people are interviewed each month—that catalogued Republican attitudes toward Republican candidates. Over time, those who supported Ted Cruz, who called Trump a “sniveling coward” during the campaign, and those who supported Marco Rubio, who called him a “con man,” tended to come around to Trump.
But the voters that stand out, Smith said, are those who initially supported John Kasich. “They, in many instances, agree with Trump on policy issues, but the best data indicates that they are uncomfortable with him personally,” he said. “There are key aspects of his rhetorical style, of his governing style, that they don’t like.”
Kasich has been on a crusade in recent weeks combatting the Republican rhetoric around the migrant caravan. “The Lord doesn’t want” America to build walls around around itself, he told CNN. And that wasn’t the first time he’d expressed concern about the state of the Republican party, and its rhetoric, as it has eked closer and closer to Trump. “If the party can’t be fixed,” Kasich told Jake Tapper in October 2017, “then I’m not going to be able to support the party. Period. That’s the end of it.”
Jones argues that the logic is simple. “The risk that the Republican Party runs by becoming the party that’s opposed to immigration, that’s worried about the country becoming more diverse,” he said, “is that they will turn off college-educated whites.”
But the consequences of the diploma divide are not just evident in the demographics on Election Day. Hidden in that gap is a threat to higher education itself. Last year, Pew issued a sobering survey. “Republicans have soured on higher education” the survey declared, and it threw people into a frenzy.
Sixty-seven percent of Republicans, the survey found, had “some” to “little” confidence in colleges as institutions. A number of factors contribute to this distrust, the rising cost of tuition and the perception of a liberal bent at colleges among them. And if one major party believes that higher education is an engine of liberal indoctrination, and that party’s voters are increasingly likely not to have attended college, the political benefits of an anti–higher education stance are obvious.
That puts the budget lines for public colleges, in particular, at risk. Decades of funding cuts by state governments have already hit the institutions had. And these cuts, in turn, have driven an increase in tuition costs and more animosity toward higher education. As Michael Grunwald recently wrote in Politico, “the next big Republican culture war will be a war on college.”
As the Republican party continues to cozy up to Trump, whose political career began by questioning the legitimacy of the first black president, and who rests his laurels on hostile anti-immigrant sentiments, more moderate Republicans—who, often, are college educated—will likely continue to flee. And the GOP will have even less of a reason to try to cater to the college set, or to embrace higher education–friendly policies. The diploma divide is wide, and the closer Republicans embrace Trump, the wider it may get.