Historical Trends in White Political Behavior Along Educational Lines, and Where 2016 Fits In

A longstanding topic of interest, the voting behavior of working class white population–and socioeconomic divides in voting patterns more broadly–once again attracted considerable attention during and after the 2016 election. Some assessments that have historically contextualized the low SES white vote have showed that this group voted more Republican than it ever had in recorded history. These accounts often center on defining socioeconomic status in terms of college degree attainment. Older related analyses make distinctions between definitions of SES, and importantly demonstrate that SES divides play out differently across different areas of the country (distinguishing between voting pattern evolution in and outside the South, for example).

With some of these recent and older considerations in mind, I turned to the American National Elections Study, which allows for demographic breakdown of important political behavior metrics going back decades. This will serve as more of a quick, descriptive account of historical trends, and contextualization of the 2016 election year. The first section will compare voting and partisanship trends among whites of varying educational attainment. The second section will filter down to only whites without college educations, and look at the same political outcomes but separated by whether ANES respondents hail from a Census-defined Southern state or not.

1) Documenting the White Educational Divide

The below graph shows the progression of vote choice among whites from 1948/1952 to 2016, divided by whether the white ANES respondent’s highest level of education was a college degree or less than that.


Among college-educated whites, the general trend is toward greater vote choice for Democratic candidates and movement away from Republican candidates. The pattern starting in 1980 is clearest, as during that year 26 percent of college whites voted Democrat. That number has gradually climbed to 46 percent in 2016, which also is the same percentage of college-educated whites that voted Republican. Over the entire time span, the Republican decline is even steeper, dropping from a 72 percent share of the college white vote in 1952 to 46 percent in the last election. The same type of distinct trend is less obvious among non-college whites. From 1948 to 1976, the vote choice of this group fluctuates wildly, with blue swings also returning during Bill Clinton’s elections. The 2000 election starts a gradual bifurcation, as more non-college whites vote Republican and fewer vote Democrat. That culminates in 2016, when Donald Trump had a 30 point margin of victory among this group over Hillary Clinton.

The below graph takes a similar approach but tracks partisanship rather than vote choice over time.


Trends in partisanship exhibit greater stability across election years, but tell a similar story to the one above: an educational divide in political behavior grows over time, only in this case it proves more evident among the non-college-educated. After holding a partisan advantage over Republicans from 1952 to 1980, Democrats suffer from realignment that sees a steady non-college white flight from their party. 59 percent of this group identifies as Democrat in 1952, but only 35 percent does so in 2016. Interestingly, Republicans do not fully reap corresponding rewards from the Democrats’ losses in identification. Republicans gain 12 percent more non-college whites in 2016 compared to 1952, but so too does the “Independent” classification during this same period. College-educated whites, on the other hand, showcase much more stable aggregate partisanship over time, as the Republican advantage for this group hovers around 10 percentage points in each election year. This likely owes to this group’s greater political sophistication–a function of their greater education–which has been shown to produce more stable political preferences and predispositions (e.g. Zaller 1992; Gilens and Murakawa 2002).

College whites’ partisanship stability and non-college whites’ movement towards Republicans should beg an important question in a context where partisanship heavily shapes vote choice: how do Democrats stay competitive in elections? I won’t touch on this much here, but the short answer is that the increasing racial diversification of the electorate roughly grows in tandem with the white behavioral dynamics described above. Given many of these non-white entrants into the political sphere were much more disposed to favoring the Democratic Party, these developments together changed coalition compositions but preserved the electoral balance between the major parties.

2) A Regional Split among Low SES Whites

The above two graphs make clear that the movement and realignment in political behavior among whites is more pronounced among its non-college-educated population. Such greater year-to-year swings and over-time developments often translate to more consequential impacts on political events in the country. With this importance in mind, the below analysis cuts down to only evaluating whites without a college degree to better parse out historical trends in their political behavior. Namely, the same over-time outcomes are shown–starting with vote choice below, and partisanship later on–but broken up by region: respondents from the South and outside the South.


The above graph showing this breakdown for vote choice reflects an important claim made by Larry Bartels (2006) about a decade ago: most of the non-college white movement change in vote choice occurs among Southerners. It’s indeed clear that outside of the South there does not appear a strong, uniform movement in vote over time. (Though over the last three elections there is some steady movement towards Republican candidates and away from Democratic ones.) That contrasts from the story on the right-hand side of the graph, where save for the Clinton years, non-college whites in the South shift decidedly more Republican in voting behavior starting in the 1980 election. From 2000 to 2012, this Republican advantage stays constant. But the 2016 election ushered in an even greater divergence: Republican margin among Southern non-college whites grew from +37 in 2012 to +57 in 2016. That has further accentuated the regional split in vote: while Trump won non-college whites outside the South 55-39 in 2016, he won non-college white Southerners 76-19.

To round out this analysis, the below graph shows how partisanship trends among non-college whites break down by region.


The most astounding phenomenon that unfolds here is the precipitous decline in Democratic identification among non-college white Southerners. This group once self-identified as Democrat at a 79 percent rate back in 1952. In about every year thereafter, Democratic identification drops, plummeting down to 26 percent in 2016. Conversely, 36 percent more non-college white Southerners identify as Republican from the first to last point in this time period; 13 percent more also identify as Independent with no lean towards either party. Non-college whites living outside of the South also flee the Democratic Party, but not nearly to the same degree–from 1952 to 2016, Democratic identification drops 13 points from 53 to 40 percent, paling in comparison to the 53 point comparable drop in the South. This difference in rate of movement provides further (and more recent) evidence for one of Bartels’s (2006) conclusions. Changes in the non-college white vote–and white partisanship, as I introduce here–are certainly evident over time, but concentrate to a large degree among people in the South.

Note: For some years, and especially older ones, there are smaller weighted sample sizes for the above group breakdowns. I didn’t insert confidence intervals for each year-group-vote data point to avoid messy graphs, but the noisy nature of some of these estimates should be kept in mind (this imprecision might explain some of the more violent year-to-year swings, particularly earlier in the graph timelines, though partisan realignment around this time period also provides a compelling explanation). However, none of the weighted sample sizes for the year-demographic groups ever dipped below 100 (few reached that low anyway), so subgroup size problems are far from egregious.

Historical Trends in White Political Behavior Along Educational Lines, and Where 2016 Fits In

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