White College Graduates Are the Democrats’ New BFF
And That’s a Problem
It’s not a secret that Democrats have been doing ever better with white college graduate voters, even as they have been slipping with nonwhite and working-class voters. Between the 2012 and 2020 elections—two elections with essentially identical popular vote margins—Democrats’ performance among white college graduates improved by 16 points, while declining by 18 points among nonwhite working-class voters.
Less well-appreciated is how polarized white college graduates have become in their political views as these trends have unfolded. Patrick Ruffini’s analysis of data from the 2020 Cooperative Election Study (CES), an academic survey with over 60,000 respondents, demonstrates this vividly. Across 50 policy items, white college Democrats are highly likely to give consistently liberal responses, while white college Republicans give consistently conservative responses.
[G]iving the conservative or liberal answer more than 75 percent of the time places you in [ideological] camps. Otherwise, you’re in a non-ideological middle ground. The 75 percent cutoff is an important one. Above we find Assad-like margins for Donald Trump or Joe Biden in 2020 of more than 98 percent. If you’re above this threshold, you’re not persuadable in the slightest. In the middle, your vote is basically up-for-grabs, progressing from one candidate to other in sliding scale fashion according to your policy views.
This approach leaves relatively few white college voters—38 percent—in an ideological middle ground where their responses are significantly mixed across the 50 items. In contrast, black, Hispanic and Asian voters are much less polarized, including within education groups, and have far more voters of mixed orientation in their ranks. This middle ground includes 83 percent of black voters, 77 percent of Hispanic voters, 69 percent of Asian voters, and even 58 percent of white non-college voters, despite the fact that they skew conservative.
Putting this together with the trend data, this means that, as the Democrats have picked up more white college voters, they are adding many more ideologically consistent liberals, while shedding less ideological nonwhites with mixed policy preferences. Strikingly, among the most liberal voters—those who agree with liberal positions more than 90 percent of the time—there are 20 times more white college than black voters.
These developments can only push the party toward being uncompromisingly and uniformly liberal in its policy orientation and that is indeed what we’ve seen. Moreover, the cultural outlook of highly liberal white college graduates, given the heavy weight of this group in the Democratic party infrastructure and in sympathetic media, nonprofits, advocacy groups, foundations, and educational institutions, has inevitably come to define the culture associated with the party.
Here are some other findings that underscore the salience of Ruffini’s analysis:
Among white Democrats, there has been an astonishing 37-point increase in professed liberalism between 1994 and today according to Gallup. White Democrats are now far more liberal than their black and Hispanic counterparts, who are overwhelmingly moderate to conservative.
White liberals are now more liberal on many racial issues than black and Hispanic voters.
White liberals now outnumber the nonwhite working class among Democratic voters.
Recent Pew data found that of the 21 policy priorities tested, protecting the environment and dealing with global climate change ranked 14th and 17th, respectively, on the public’s priority list. But among liberal Democrats, these issues ranked first and third, respectively. The story was basically the same among white college-educated Democrats who, as noted, are heavily dominated by liberals.
Gallup data indicate that two-thirds of white college Democrats are liberal while 70 percent of black working-class and two-thirds of Hispanic working-class Democrats are moderate or conservative.
By 13 percentage points, white college liberals disagree that there are just two genders, male and female. But moderates and conservatives from the nonwhite working class agree by 31 points that there are in fact just two genders.
White college graduate liberals support providing government financed health insurance to immigrants who enter the country illegally by 22 points while this is opposed by 16 points among the moderate and conservative nonwhite working class.
On granting reparations to the descendants of slaves and reducing the size of the US military, white college liberals are solidly in favor, while nonwhite working-class moderates and conservatives are not.
While the Democratic party is a complex entity, it really is true that it has increasingly become a party whose positions and image are defined by the burgeoning ranks of white college-educated liberals who have made the party their political home. In the process, it has become much harder for many working-class voters, white and nonwhite, to feel comfortable in the party, given their more mixed policy views.
This is a problem. As Ruffini remarks:
[White college graduates are] less than 30 percent of the American electorate. If everything seems polarized these days, it’s probably because of the circles you run in. Not everyone is like this. And the people that aren’t—the multiracial working class—are wildly underrepresented in political media.
True that. Democrats would be well-advised to look past the political media they typically consume and set the controls for the heart of the multiracial working class. That’s the way—the only way—out of the current political stalemate.