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As Americans become more educated, the GOP is moving in the opposite direction

As Americans become more educated, the GOP is moving in the opposite direction
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President Trump celebrates with congressional Republicans after Congress passed a sweeping tax overhaul on Dec. 20, 2017. (Reuters)

Americans are pursuing higher education at growing rates, but those without a college education are increasingly finding a home in the GOP.

According to new data released by the Pew Research Center, higher educational attainment is increasingly associated with Democratic Party affiliation and leaning:

“In 1994, 39% of those with a four-year college degree (no postgraduate experience) identified with or leaned toward the Democratic Party and 54% associated with the Republican Party. In 2017, those figures were exactly reversed.”

More than half of registered voters who identify as Democrat have a bachelor’s degree, while fewer than 4 in 10 registered voters who identify as Republican have a bachelor’s degree.

Those with graduate degrees are even more likely to find their political home in the Democratic Party, according to the survey:

“In 1994, those with at least some postgraduate experience were evenly split between the Democratic and Republican parties. Today, the Democratic Party enjoys a roughly two-to-one advantage in leaned partisan identification. While some of this shift took place a decade ago, postgraduate voters’ affiliation with and leaning to the Democratic Party have grown substantially just over the past few years, from 55% in 2015 to 63% in 2017.”

Meanwhile, the GOP has increasingly become more of a political destination to Americans who lack a college degree, according to Pew:

“Among those with no more than a high school education, 47% affiliate with the GOP or lean Republican, while 45% identify as Democrats or lean Democratic. Democrats held a significant advantage among voters with a high school degree or less education for much of the late 1990s through early 2000s, and as recently as 2014 (47% Democratic, 42% Republican).”

This may not bode well for the GOP long-term as the American public becomes increasingly educated.

According to Census Bureau data, more Americans have a college degree now than they did a year ago — the highest number ever measured by the Census.

More than a third of American adults have a four-year college degree or higher, the highest level ever measured by the Census Bureau. In 2010, fewer than 3 in 10 Americans age 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree or higher.

“The percentage rose to 33.4 percent in 2016, a significant milestone since the Current Population Survey began collecting educational attainment in 1940,” said Kurt Bauman, chief of the bureau’s education and social stratification branch. “In 1940, only 4.6 percent had reached that level of education.”

These numbers are expected to increase particularly among women and people of color, who already are more likely to vote Democratic than Republican.

As the Republican Party increasingly becomes the party of those without degrees, their leaders may feel pressure to champion policies that benefit working class voters — often defined as those lacking a degree — more than those with professional careers resulting from a college education. However, not all working-class voters lean Republican. Those without college degrees who are also ethnic minorities tend to vote for the left.

So this means that if GOP policy proposals reflect their party members, then it would not be surprising if the ideas proposed disproportionately address the concerns of white working-class voters.

The Pew data shows that the educational makeup of the two major parties’ electorates also has changed substantially over the past two decades — particularly when factoring in race:

“When race and education are taken into account, white voters who do to not have a college degree make up a diminished share of Democratic registered voters. White voters who do not have a four-year degree now constitute just a third of Democratic voters, down from 56% two decades ago. By contrast, non-college white voters continue to make up a majority of Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters (59% now, 66% in 1997).”

This may sound like good news to white Americans with no degree — having fewer demographic groups in your party to compete with when trying to advance policy proposals. And those who argue that President Trump won the 2016 election by primarily responding to the economic and cultural interests of white Americans with no college degree may make this case.

But this could be bad news for the GOP long-term as the demographics of the country and the electorate will increasingly look less like their party. It could be increasingly difficult to win sizable numbers of support — and thus elections — from more educated Americans in the future. In recent elections in Virginia, Alabama and elsewhere, the GOP won the white, working-class vote — but, ultimately, the party lost.

Some top GOP officials have attracted attention for their desire to win women and people of color to their party. Perhaps moving forward we’ll see more emphasis on what can be done to win the highly educated.



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