The Educational and Age Dimensions of the 2016 White Vote

I often hear a refrain in politics that posits that younger people tend to be more liberal and vote more Democrat than older folks. It also many times is framed as a longstanding trend in politics, which is not the case, as this more liberal hue to the youth’s political belief system only developed in the last one to two decades. For example, see the second graph on an old post of mine here. It shows that for the 18-29 age group, vote choice was very split if not more Republican from 1968 to 1988, but gradually shifted more Democratic since then. In 2012, according to ANES time series data, the Democratic margin among the youth vote was the largest since 1964.

So are young people becoming gradually more left-leaning in their voting behavior, a phenomenon attributable to age? For the most part, I would disagree with that idea, and I spell out the reasoning behind this claim in a blog post here. As with income and education, it’s practically impossible to look at age as a variable for breaking down vote choice–or other political behavior metrics–without also including race. Once you split the entire population by race and age, you can see, for example, that while overall the youth vote trends more Democratic, the white youth vote remains fairly Republican. The same goes for party identification and political ideology: youth as a whole are more Democratic and liberal, but whites are majority (or plurality) Republican and conservative while non-whites are the opposite. This idea is made possible by varying racial compositions of different age groups. Younger age groups, and the 18-29 year-old bracket in particular, are much more racially diverse than older ones. Given that non-white race is highly (positively) correlated with Democratic vote choice, identification, and other left-wing attributes, that makes the youth group as a whole more liberal.

However, there is something to be said about younger age groups espousing more liberal beliefs–even after controlling for race. The recently released CCES 2016 data sheds important new light on this topic. With it’s huge sample (n = 64,600, n = 52,899 for people interviewed after the election), I can drill down to small subgroups and still get a large sample. I had an exchange over Twitter about this same topic, and another important variable came to my attention: education. This could possibly explain the youth Democratic shift compared to other age cohorts–after controlling for race–as younger groups have had higher rates of educational attainment. Pair that with ample evidence of higher levels of education becoming increasingly correlated with Democratic and liberal political beliefs in recent decades, and this could easily be a part of the story for this youth dynamic. In that vein of thought, I introduce education in this analysis.

The below graph shows vote choice–for Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, or another candidate–broken down by education (high school or less, some college, college degree, and postgraduate degree) and age group (18-29, 30-44, 45-54, 55-64, and 65+). I restrict this to whites only, as this is where the “controlling for race” hypothesis is most relevant.


This breakdown makes for 20 different subgroups, which all have considerable sample sizes that make for more certain vote choice estimates. By doing this, I can essentially control for (in the loose sense) education, age, and race to look at vote choice. Among whites, age and education are both related to vote choice–moving across one variable results in close to a monotonic increase or decrease in Clinton/Trump vote choice.

Moving from left to right across each row means looking at differences in age while holding education constant. In the first row, looking only at respondents with a high school degree or less, Clinton vote gradually decreases as the age group gets older. The same roughly holds for each educational group, as 18-29 year olds consistently vote more Democratic than the other four age groups. Thus, age is negatively correlated with Democratic vote choice.

Moving from top to bottom on each column shows what happens when you hold age constant, and examine vote choice changes by education. For example, in the first column looking at only 18-29 year olds, Clinton vote gradually increases as the level of education goes up (from HS or less to postgraduate degree attainment). The same dynamic occurs for every other age group: as education goes up, so too does Clinton vote. In this sense, I can say education is positively correlated with Democratic vote choice.

However, while two independent relationships exist with vote choice, one is stronger than the other–education. A bigger change in Clinton vote occurs moving from least to most educated for each age group than when moving from youngest to oldest age group for each educational level. The average absolute difference (not paying attention to direction of the relationship) between the highest and lowest age groups is 12.9 points; between the highest and lowest educational groups, it’s more than double at 26.6 points. Moreover, as someone mentioned on Twitter to me, Clinton and Trump vote doesn’t change much across different educational levels for the three oldest age groups. All in all, both variables seem to be related to vote choice among whites only, but education appears to be more strongly associated with it than age is. To better suss out all these different effects, I’ll soon regress vote choice on different variables such as these and check what significant effects come up. I’ll hopefully have that model ready to present and explain in another blog post in a few days.

The Educational and Age Dimensions of the 2016 White Vote

2 thoughts on “The Educational and Age Dimensions of the 2016 White Vote

  1. […] Notably, the defection away from the Republican Party shrinks as age group gets older (looking from the top to bottom of the graph). The trend isn’t as perfectly gradual on the Democratic side, but the 12 percent of the oldest Democrats who defect four years later–eight percentage points more than Republicans in the comparable situation–offers a good indication of a partisan reorientation with respect to age. Moreover, pure Independents age 65 or older in 2010 shift in greater amounts to the GOP (25 percent) than to the Democratic Party (11 percent) when evaluated four years later.  Importantly, this individual level panel data approach can confirm a age-based partisanship shift that’s not tied up with increasing non-white shares of the youngest population (more on this here). […]


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