WASHINGTON – Joe Biden described the presidential race as “Scranton versus Park Avenue.” He slammed tax cuts for billionaires. He touted that he would be a state school graduate, not another Ivy Leaguer, in the Oval Office.
Months before Election Day, the Biden campaign adopted an economic populist message aimed directly at white working-class voters, convinced they could peel off a small portion of President Donald Trump’s base.
Yet despite Biden’s election victory, this demographic – white voters without college degrees – remained just as loyal as ever to the president, defying public polling before the election that suggested Democrats were poised for small inroads.
For Biden, wins in battleground states came thanks to growing support in affluent suburbs around cities like Atlanta, Philadelphia and Detroit where the president-elect expanded margins with a new Democratic stronghold: white voters who graduated college.
The 2020 election widened the education polarization – a largely urban-rural divide that has come to define American politics, producing a mixed bag for Democrats.
“The biggest thing that came out of this election was that education polarization – the gap between college-educated voters and (non-college-educated voters) – actually increased, rather than decreased like the polls predicted it would,” said David Shor, a Democratic polling and data expert who advised liberal political action committees this cycle. “(Democrats) basically treaded water in the least-educated areas and gained a lot in the educated areas.”
Even as Biden beat Trump in the popular vote by more than 6 million votes, Democrats aren’t expected to gain control of the Senate, lost several House seats and failed to flip a single state legislature. Their rejection among white working-class voters, particularly in rural areas and small towns, helped lead to the disappointments. Once viewed as the party of working people, Democrats now rely on the Whole Foods shopper.
At the same time, Democrats saw support slip among Black voters, their most loyal constituency, and Latino voters.
Although Biden won Black voters overwhelmingly 87%-12%, Trump grew his support by 4 percentage points from 2016, according to exit polls.
The shift was more significant among Hispanic voters. While Biden still won Latino voters overall, Trump performed 7 percentage points better than four years ago. He improved his margins in 78 out of 100 majority-Latino counties, according to an analysis from POLITICO.
For years, Democrats expressed confidence that the country’s increasingly diverse, less-white electorate would give them an edge long-term over Republicans. Now, some in the party have concerns: That relying so heavily on urbanites and suburbanites puts them at a disadvantage electorally to capture the Senate, hold on to the House and retain the presidency.
‘We don’t really have a choice’
Shor, who built Barack Obama’s campaign forecasting system in the 2012 election, said the demographics are stacked against Democrats under the party’s current coalition.
Because the Electoral College and Senate representation is “biased” toward voters in less populated states where Republicans dominate, Shor said Democrats would need to win 54% of the popular vote for the next six years to gain control of the Senate and keep control of the House. Democrats must start winning rural, mostly white states like Iowa and Montana to change that trend. Shor predicted this year Biden would need to win the popular vote by 4% for a comfortable Electoral College victory.
Biden won the popular vote 51%-47.2%.
“It is mathematically almost impossible for our current coalition to wield electoral power,” Shor said. “There’s a lot of people in the party who are uncomfortable with the implications of the idea that we really have to adopt a maximalist attempt to appeal to (white) working-class voters.”
“But we don’t really have a choice,” he added. “Our path to holding power is that we have to get somebody who voted for Donald Trump twice in Montana to vote for us. And if we don’t, we won’t be able to pass any laws.”
Quantifying the divide made trickier by range of polls
How much the education divide widened is hard to quantify.
Exit polls from Edison Research found Trump won white voters who never attended college 68%-31% over Biden, four years after Trump beat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton 64%-28% among that demographic. Biden won a majority of Black and Latino voters regardless of their education background.
Biden won college graduates regardless of race 57-41% and white college graduates 51%-48%, according to post-election surveys from the Associated Press. Trump won voters with no college degree regardless of race 51%-47%.
But because public polling missed wildly across the country, post-election polls likely failed to capture the extent of the education shift, according to election data experts.
Exit polls didn’t track the record number of Americans who voted by mail. And experts now believe some Trump-leaning supporters declined to take part in phone surveys before the election. County- and precinct-level data offers a more accurate snapshot: Rural counties with low populations of educated voters stayed with Trump at margins as high as 85%-15% while Biden surged in more educated suburbs.
The phenomenon isn’t new.
Democrats’ share of white voters who lack college degrees has decreased since the 1960s, when Democrats lost their grip in the Deep South during the Civil Rights era. The rural-urban divide reached new heights in 2016 after Trump campaigned on a hardline stance against illegal immigration.
Cultural views override economic arguments
Matt Grossman, who heads the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University, said he believed Democrats in 2020 were smart to adopt class-based message after Clinton didn’t. Historically, voters respond favorably to the idea of Democrats representing the middle class, he said, and negatively to Republicans as the party for the rich and big business.
“But I think we should learn from the 2020 election that Biden at least made some effort to do that and it doesn’t seem to have made much difference,” Grossman said. “So, maybe messaging is not enough to move the needle on these broad social changes.”
The fact Biden still struggled with non-college-educated white voters, according to Grossman, reflects the overall shift toward politics based on social and cultural divisions rather than economic. The same trend is found in European nations like the United Kingdom.
With his cultural – not economic – brand of populism, Trump fanned fears about racial equity protests that erupted in cities. He pushed for “law and order” during the campaign, slammed the Black Lives Matter movement, and accused Democrats of being soft on violence and anti-police. He warned Biden would turn the U.S. into a “socialist” country and accused the Democrat of wanting to take away Americans’ guns. Trump even said, “There will be no God” if Biden were elected.
“Voters are more associated with the party that they share social and cultural views with rather than necessarily economic policy opinions,” Grossman said.
Reasons for Democratic optimism?
Despite potential warning signs for Democrats, other experts say college-educated voting blocs should only benefit Democrats down the road.
William Frey, a senior fellow at Brookings Institute and author of “Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America,” said Democrats’ continued support from white college educated women and men is likely to continue to give them an edge in suburbs.
“The Democrats have a good foothold in the suburbs as well as in urban areas, especially among these younger people, especially among white college educated men and women, and also people of color – those are all growing groups,” Frey said. “And older white non-college educated men are kind of a declining population, especially in the rural areas.”
While Republicans did make some gains among Black voters and Latino voters, Frey noted that the bulk of Republican voters – white non-college-educated voters – is becoming a smaller voting bloc each election cycle.
“They’re still sort of embracing slow growing parts of the population rather than faster growing parts of the population,” Frey said.
Robert Griffin, a political scientist and research director for the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, said the deepened educational polarization presents “a plus and a minus” for both parties.
From the Republican perspective, most adults lack college degrees. White voters without college degrees made up 44% of voters in 2016. Because this group is evenly distributed geographically across the country, according to Griffin, Republicans benefit in terms of representation in the electoral college, Senate and House.
On the other hand, he said, the country is becoming more racially diverse and educated. The share of voters who are white and didn’t attend college drops around 2 to 4 percentage points every year, he said.
“It’s sort of this short-term game that can really juice up your coalition and pays huge dividends in terms of their geographic distributions, but it continues to be a smaller and smaller share of the electorate,” Griffin said. “So that’s kind of the twofold problem and opportunity, I think, that both parties have with the education divide.”
Down-ballot Democratic losses set off finger-pointing within the Democratic Party after Election Day. Establishment Democrats like Rep. James Clyburn said the progressive slogan “defund the police” – used in Republican attack ads to put Democratic candidates on the defense – cost Democrats House and Senate seats. Many progressives, in turn, blamed Democratic leadership for not being bold enough on several issues, such as climate change and Medicare for All.
In the presidential race, Democrats hoped to expand the electoral map to states like Iowa and Ohio that have large white working-class populations. But Trump won both by around 8 percentage points.
“The president’s a really good salesman,” Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, told ABC News. Brown, who has defied the state’s rightward shift by winning three elections, had predicted a backlash among workers against Trump after General Motors sold its plant in Lordstown, Ohio, despite the president’s promises about adding manufacturing jobs.
“He’s found really fertile ears in places like the Mahoning Valley,” he said, referring to the working-class northeast part of the state. Trump flipped Mahoning County red after Clinton won it in 2016.
In a post-election interview on CNN, Andrew Yang, who ran for president in the Democratic primary, said the electorate breakdown shows that Democrats need to confront their issues with “working class voters,” though he did not specify if he was talking about white non-college educated voters.
Yang said when he was running for president and was out on the campaign trail, when talking to Americans, like “a truck driver, retail worker, waitress in a diner” that they would “flinch” when he told them he was running for president as a Democrat.
“There’s something deeply wrong when working-class Americans have that response to a major party that theoretically is supposed to be fighting for them,” Yang said. “So you have to ask yourself, what has the Democratic Party been standing for in their minds? And in their minds, the Democratic Party, unfortunately, has taken on this role of the coastal urban elites who are more concerned about policing various cultural issues than improving their way of life that has been declining for years.”
“So, if you’re in that situation, this to me is a fundamental problem for the Democratic Party, because if they don’t figure this out — this polarization and division will get worse not better,” Yang warned.
Shor, who worked for the progressive research firm Civis Analytics for the past eight years, believes there’s hope for Democrats to reconnect with white working-class voters.
They agree with Democrats on “a wide swath of issues,” he said, pointing to an expansion of the minimum wage, health care and college affordability.
“But there are a lot of ideas they don’t agree with us on, and we have to decrease the extent to which we talk about them,” Shor said. “We probably have to go further to meet the median voter where they are.”