The College Degree Conundrum: Democrats’ Path Forward with Non-College Voters

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Historically, Democrats have represented the working class. As the party of labor unions and social welfare policies, working-class voters flocked to Democratic candidates for decades, scoffing at Republicans as the party of big business and tax breaks for the richest Americans.

In recent years, however, the tide has shifted. Democrats have won elections with an evolving coalition, consisting primarily of college-educated voters, especially college-educated women, and racial and ethnic minorities. This coalition was enough to carry the White House, Senate, and House in 2020. But there are warning signs that if Democrats want to hold their majorities long term, they cannot afford to leave some core components of their previous coalition behind. Specifically, they need to maintain a critical share of non-college educated voters, who, according to exit polls, made up 59% of the country’s electorate in 2020.

It is no secret that Democrats have struggled with white non-college-educated voters in recent years. Hillary Clinton suffered deep losses with these voters in 2016, losing them by 37 points. Joe Biden, despite his working-class roots and appeal, lost these voters by 35 points. But white non-college voters are only part of the picture; while Democrats show enduring strength with non-white voters in general, they may be moving in the wrong direction with non-white voters without a college degree. These non-white non-college voters increased their support for Trump in 2020. In fact, he won nearly a third of non-white non-college men.

In key Senate races that Democrats need to win to hold or expand their narrow Senate majority in 2022 and 2024, the problem is worse, as larger shares of the state electorates are made up of non-college voters. And Democrats have performed even worse with non-college voters in these swing states than they have nationally in recent contests.

While Democrats’ eroding support with non-college voters is a serious problem, some recent Democrats have provided a model for how to hit the necessary benchmarks with these voters. By learning from those Democrats who have won a critical mass of this group and investing in appealing to non-college voters of all races over the next two cycles, Democrats can turn the tide and solidify their winning coalition.

Diagnosing the Problem Nationally

National exit poll data over the past few cycles paint the clearest picture of Democrats’ declines with non-college voters. Under Barack Obama, Democrats won this group in both 2008 and 2012. But while Obama won non-college graduates 51-47% in 2012, Clinton lost these voters 44-52% in 2016. In 2020, Biden split the difference with a narrow 48-50% loss.

Looking at non-college voters by race, it appears at first glance that Democrats’ only problem is with white non-college voters. Clinton lost white non-college voters by a whopping 37 points, and Biden lost them by a similar 35 points. And this margin does not account for the high turnout among white non-college voters that propelled Trump’s margins.

But Democrats’ problems are not exclusively with white non-college voters. While Biden won non-white voters without a college degree by 46 points, the trend with these voters is not in Democrats’ favor. From 2016 to 2020, Trump increased his support with non-white non-college voters from 20% to 25%. While this may not look like a large share, because of the centrality of non-white voters to Democrats’ coalition, any slippage with this group does not bode well for future elections and requires attention.

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Diagnosing the Problem in Key Senate States

Digging beneath the national numbers, Democrats’ problems with non-college voters appear more pronounced in the key swing states where they need to win Senate races in 2022 and 2024 to maintain or grow their majority. While 59% of the country’s electorate in 2020 was made up of non-college voters, that share is higher in most key Senate swing states for 2022 and 2024. The chart below lays out non-college voters’ share of the electorate in these states in 2020.

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Where Do We Go from Here? Democrats’ Benchmarks and the Way Forward

Not only are there particularly large shares of non-college voters in these key states, but Democrats underperformed their national numbers with non-college voters in these states in 2020. This is likely because the non-college populations in nearly all of these states are whiter than the national non-college-educated population.

While Democrats’ current numbers and trajectory with non-college voters raise warning flags, some Democrats have shown in just the past two election cycles how to hit the necessary benchmarks with non-college voters to pull off victories nationally—and in the toughest swing states.

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In Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Arizona, Biden hit benchmarks with non-college voters that, combined with his strong performance with college-educated voters, were enough to hand him victories. While he did not win majorities with non-college voters, he won a large enough share to win statewide. In these states, Democrats need to maintain their current standing and ensure that they do not slip further with non-white non-college voters or fall further behind with white non-college voters in the midterms and beyond.

In states where Democrats’ weakness with non-college voters contributed to their statewide losses in 2020, they do need to play catch-up. But recent election results show that this is possible. In North Carolina, where Biden lost in 2020, he needed only to match Governor Roy Cooper’s 45% with non-college voters to break 50% statewide. In Ohio, which has slipped from Democrats’ grasp in several races in recent years, Democrats do not even need to come close to Sherrod Brown’s impressive 52% with non-college voters in 2018. Rather, they need to hit 47% with non-college voters to break 50% of the vote statewide, though that significantly exceeds Biden’s performance of 40% with these voters in 2020.1

The table below includes benchmarks that Democrats need to hit with non-college voters in key Senate race states for 2022, if they manage to hold Biden’s 2020 performance with college-educated voters constant.

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The table below indicates Biden and Trump’s actual vote shares in Ohio and North Carolina, and their theoretical vote shares if Biden had hit Governor Roy Cooper’s numbers with non-college voters in North Carolina and Senator Sherrod Brown’s numbers with non-college voters in Ohio.

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It is worth noting that Democrats may lose some support with college-educated voters in the post-Trump era, particularly in areas that have supported Republicans in the past and may simply have been turned off by Trump. To be confident in their electoral future in these swing states, Democrats should aim to exceed these benchmarks with non-college voters. This would mean making gains with non-college voters across the board, not just in Ohio and North Carolina, and investing in non-college voters of all races at a national level.

Looking at Cooper and Brown’s strategies for appealing to non-college voters may be useful for Democratic campaigns in their states in the future, as well as in states with similar demographics makeups. In Ohio in 2018, Sherrod Brown appealed to non-college voters in his state by hammering home his slogan around “the dignity of work” and highlighting policies that would make work pay for all Americans. He urged Democrats to speak about manufacturing policies, including job training and community college accessibility, trade policy, and energy policy. He has also been a strong advocate for raising the minimum wage. Brown proved to Ohio voters that he was fighting to keep good-paying manufacturing jobs in their communities. He spoke about progressive Democratic priorities like fighting climate change, but he did so by focusing on areas where climate policy can directly benefit American workers, such as green manufacturing jobs that would be created by investing federal money into building solar panels and wind turbines in America.

Finally, Brown is a staunch defender of unions, and he ties Republicans directly to their anti-worker policies that give tax breaks to large corporations, diminish the power of unions and leave working people behind. His outspoken commitment to unions and his outreach to non-college educated voters might explain his impressive overperformance in Ohio union households, where he won 62% of the vote, compared to Biden’s 43% in 2020.

In North Carolina, Cooper rolled out a jobs plan in 2016 directly targeted at blue-collar workers, who he argued the previous Republican governor had left behind, especially in rural areas. Once in office, Cooper took aggressive action to improve North Carolina’s infrastructure, investing $3 billion to expand and improve state roads. He also prioritized education, pushing to expand per-student funding in low-performing public schools, expand pre-K options, and raise teacher salaries. He also focused on job training to help students prepare for modern blue-collar jobs.

While upping Democratic margins with non-college voters is no easy feat, certain Democratic candidates’ recent records of success prove that the party should not give up hope. Rather, it should double down on its efforts, paying close attention to those successful campaigns’ investments, policy priorities, and political playbooks to solidify and bring back a critical mass of non-college voters of every race.

Conclusion

Democrats’ recent losses with non-college voters are cause for real concern and focus, despite Democrats’ overall success over the past two election cycles. Because of their weak performance with white non-college voters, and recent slippage with non-white non-college voters, it is clear that Democrats’ strategies and messaging are not resonating as well as they have in the past with voters without a college degree. But this trend is not irreversible, and Democrats are not doomed to continue losing with these voters. Rather, Democrats should heed their needed benchmarks with non-college voters and pay close attention to those candidates who have overperformed the party by hitting those benchmarks, who may help chart a path forward.

Endnotes

  1. Because of third party candidates and write-ins, in some states Democrats won statewide without receiving 50% of the vote. That is why Democrats still won in Arizona without quite hitting their necessary threshold with non-college voters.