Sort by

America's Most Educated Voters Play a Huge Role in Elections

David Callahan

Perhaps the most striking fact from the exit polls last Tuesday is just how well Democrats did among highly educated voters. In Virginia, Terry McAuliffe won voters with a postgradudate degree by 22 points. In New Jersey, the Democratic candidate lost high school and college grads by double digit margins, but nearly drew even with Chris Christie among the postgrad crowd. Forty-eight percent of these voters went for Barbara Buono, compared to 36 percent of voters with just a high school degree.

Once upon a time, if you had a law or medical degree, or an MBA, and if you lived in an upscale suburb, you were very likely to be a Republican. Now you're more likely to be a Democrat in many parts of the country. Meanwhile, if you're white and never went to college, chances are that you're a Republican -- which is also a reversal of how things were decades ago. 

It's not exactly breaking news that Democrats struggle to win the working class while attracting strong support among educated voters. But what's less understood is how big the educated vote is. Voters with a postgraduate degree made up 24 percent of the electorate in New Jersey and 29 percent of voters in Virginia. In both those states, the postgrad slice of the electorate was larger than the working class slice.

New Jersey and Virginia are more educated than many states, but not by such huge leaps and bounds. Nationally, postgrad voters made up 18 percent of the electorate in 2012. That's not a notable increase from twenty years earlier, when post-grad voters made up 16 percent of the electorate. 

The big portion of the electorate that have postgraduate degrees reflects much higher turnout rates among this group: in 2012, around 80 percent of eligible voters with advanced degrees went to the polls; only about 52 percent of those with only high school diplomas did -- a nearly 30 point gap in turnout.

As Demos pointed out in our report, "Stacked Deck," the affluent and educated don't just dominate politics through campaign donations; they dominate through much higher voting turnout rates. 

But an electorate bulging with postgrad voters -- particularly in places like northern Virginia -- also reflects rapidly rising educational levels. According to the Census, the percentage of Americans with a master's degree rose by 43 percent between 2002 and 2012. The population with a doctorate rose by 45 percent. 

The elections in Virginia and New Jersey show that postgrad voters tend to run screaming from Republicans with hardline social views or Tea Party connections. Not surprisingly, super educated voters really don't like the "stupid party." 

But run a social moderate like Chris Christie, and the postgrad vote is up for grabs. Christie won this group -- albeit by a very slim margin in a landslide election. 

It's not hard to imagine a future in which the GOP turns more moderate and begins picking up more postgrad support -- while Democrats turn more populist and begin finally winning back the white working class. Indeed, if somebody like Elizabeth Warren ran against Chris Christie in 2016, we could go back to the future sooner than we think.