The Diploma Divide

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.

Last night’s results confirm that the diploma divide is likely here to stay—especially if the GOP maintains its alignment with Trump and the nationalist, anti-immigrant sentiments he hangs his hat on. The gap is likely to be one of the most powerful forces shaping American politics for decades to come.

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.

Party realignment doesn’t happen overnight. Just because a voter swings across the aisle in one election doesn’t mean that they’ll quit the party they’ve identified with their entire lives. Still, strong support for the Democrats among whites without a college degree, borne out of economic incentives—and racial resentment—began to wane. In their book, The Rise of Southern Republicans, the scholars Merle Black and Earl Black call this shift the “Great White Switch.”From the mid-1990s to 2008, the diploma divide was small, if not negligible. Even though the Democrats had become the party of civil rights and a broad, multicultural coalition, they were also still the party of unions, which were largely made up of nondegreed whites. Therefore, white people with and without college degrees were equally as likely to be Democrats or Republicans.

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.

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