The Democrats’ Shifting Coalition
Unlike Trump, They Love the Highly Educated
No doubt about it. The Democrats are doing better. They have enjoyed a stretch where the economy has done a bit better and, most importantly, other issues have come to the fore to take the focus off of the many ways voters are still quite unhappy with the Biden administration and the state of country (NBC poll: 68 percent say we’re now in recession; 74 percent say the country is off on the wrong track).
The key issue here is clearly the Dobbs decision on abortion rights. That decision put the Democrats on the popular side of public opinion and they have taken full advantage of that (aided by Republicans’ inability to keep a leash on the most militant anti-abortion forces within their party).
The Dobbs decision came down on June 24. At that point, Republicans led the generic ballot by a little over 2 points, where they had been resting comfortably for some time. After that date, the generic quickly closed and now the Democrats enjoy a four-tenths of point lead on that measure. That’s not great but it indicates that the Democrats are moving out of “shellacking” territory. Cook Political Report now projects only a 10-20 seat loss for the Democrats, down from a 20-35 seat loss projected pre-Dobbs.
Things look even better in the Senate, where polling consistently shows Democrats leading in all the states where their incumbents are defending competitive seats (AZ, GA, NH, NV) and leading solidly in Pennsylvania, which would be a pickup. When Dobbs came down, the 538 model was giving the Democrats only a very slight edge in holding the Senate. Now they give Democrats an astonishing 64 percent probability of keeping the Senate. That’s hardly certainty but they’ll take it.
Finally, Democrats post-Dobbs have been strongly outperforming the partisan lean of districts in special elections, including the upset this week by Democrat Pat Ryan in NY-19. Pre-Dobbs, it was Republicans who were overperforming. Now the shoe is on the other foot.
So: what’s going on? Consistent with polling data and geographical voting patterns in special and primary elections, it appears to be the Democrats’ new best friends, white college graduates, who are answering the bell. While it’s not widely appreciated, it was really this voter group that delivered the 2020 election to the Democrats. As I noted last August:
Biden’s improvements in performance relative to Hillary Clinton in 2016—the improvements that enabled him to beat Donald Trump while Clinton lost—are almost entirely attributable to improved support among whites, especially white college-educated voters. That is, the proximate reason for Biden’s victory had little to do with the race-ethnic diversification trends highlighted by the Census.
According to Catalist data, on a national level white college voters moved over 8 margin points toward Biden in 2020 (based on the two party vote), greater than Biden’s gains among white noncollege voters (3 points) and starkly different from nonwhite voters who actually moved toward Trump.
In 2022, it appears that white college graduate voters are reporting for duty once again. These voters are less sensitive to economic problems and more likely to be moved by a social issue like abortion rights, which looms large in their world view. In short, they are the perfect voters for Democrats in the current environment.
An average of the last month of public polls (where crosstabs are available) finds Democrats leading the generic ballot among white college graduates by 12 points while trailing among white working class (noncollege) voters by 25 points. Hispanic margins for the Democrats are about half what they were in the last midterm and lag behind 2020 as well, which was a relatively poor year for the Democrats among this group.
Similarly, a merge of 2022 NBC polling data finds Democrats leading the generic among white women college graduates by an astounding 27 points while getting crushed among white working class women by 22 points. Now that’s a gap.
Paraphrasing Donald Trump, Democrats might say: “We love the highly educated!” But will this implicit bet on white college graduates actually pay off on election day? As Sabato’s Crystal Ball notes:
The Republican hope, and it’s not an unreasonable one, is that their voters will show up in more force compared to these lower-turnout specials. Part of the trade going on in the broader electorate is that Democrats have been picking up more white college graduates while losing more whites who do not have a 4-year degree to Republicans. Analyst Lakshya Jain wrote about this in the Crystal Ball last year. College graduates are generally higher-propensity voters, which may help Democrats in these lower-turnout special elections.
That’s another nice thing about the highly educated: they vote a lot. But, as Henry Olsen points out, they are not exactly randomly distributed, which could undercut the effects of this mobilization come election time:
[T]he Supreme Court’s overruling of Roe v. Wade might have a demographically limited impact. Election guru Dave Wasserman points out that Democratic overperformance in post-Dobbs special elections has been in places with large numbers of college-educated White voters. That may be good news for Democrats like Michigan’s Elissa Slotkin, whose district includes Michigan State University. It’s likely to be cold comfort for those running in Texas’ Hispanic-dominated Rio Grande Valley or those seeking White, working-class seats such as Maine’s 2nd Congressional District or Ohio’s 9th. It’s probably not coincidental that the Democratic incumbents in the Maine and Ohio seats explicitly distance themselves from President Biden and aren’t focusing on abortion.
We shall see how it all nets out. But regardless of where the votes are from, Democrats will surely be happy for anything that delivers a relatively good election result in the current terrible national environment. It did not appear to bother them in 2020, nor does it appear likely to bother them in 2022, that their party’s character and coalition keep skewing toward white college graduates. Consciously or not, this is the track the party is currently on—the cultural left turn of the party makes no sense outside of that context.
Between 2012 and 2020, the Democratic advantage among nonwhite working class voters declined by 19 points, while the Democratic advantage increased among white college graduates by 16 points. Stay tuned for more of the same.
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