Opinion

Not a total loss: GOP picked up college-educated voters in 2012

Photo of Brandon J. Gaylord
Brandon J. Gaylord
Editor-in-Chief, HorseRacePolitics.com
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      Brandon J. Gaylord

      Brandon J. Gaylord, the editor-in-chief of HorseRacePolitics.com, is a graduate of George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. Brandon got his start in politics as an intern in Vice President Richard Cheney’s Office of Political Affairs.

While much was made (and is still being made) of the GOP’s lackluster performance among Latinos, African Americans and women in November, the party rebounded strongly from its 2008 performance among voters with college degrees. Nationally, Mitt Romney performed a net six points better than John McCain among voters with four-year degrees and five points better among voters with graduate degrees. Those two groups made up a combined 47% of the electorate.

The numbers are even more striking in the key battleground states. In Pennsylvania, the Republican performance was a net 21% better among college graduates and 13% better among voters with graduate degrees. Romney netted an 11-point improvement over McCain among Ohio college graduates and an eight-point improvement among Ohio voters with graduate degrees. Romney also improved on McCain’s performance by double digits among post-graduate voters in New Hampshire, Florida and Missouri, while gaining 11 points among college-educated voters in Wisconsin. Still, Romney got a smaller share of the educated vote than George W. Bush did in 2004.

Despite liberal snarkiness about low-education voters voting Republican, it’s long been the case that the least-educated voters lean Democratic and voters with college degrees lean Republican, though voters with graduate degrees lean Democratic. In 2012, Obama won voters without a high school education by a 64-35 margin and voters with graduate degrees 55-42, while Romney narrowly won four-year college graduates.

The bellwether group now appears to be voters with either a two-year degree or some college education but no formal degree — a group that includes current college students. Obama won this group in 2012 by the narrowest of margins, 49-48, while George W. Bush carried these voters 54-46 in 2004. Republicans have reason to hope that today’s college students will grow more GOP-friendly over time. Exit polling shows that as voters age, get married, have children and buy property, they tend to become more sympathetic to conservative views.

While Republicans need to gain ground with Latinos, African Americans and single women, they can take solace in knowing that in some areas they gained significant ground in 2012. Romney’s weak performance among voters who never attended college was likely more a reflection of his gaffes and general inability to connect with these voters than a reflection on the GOP as a whole.

Republicans should be able to gain even more ground among the college educated in 2016. To do that, they’ll have to focus on addressing issues important to this group: student loan debt, rising tuition costs and the economy.

Brandon J. Gaylord, the editor-in-chief of HorseRacePolitics.com, is a graduate of George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. Brandon got his start in politics as an intern in Vice President Richard Cheney’s Office of Political Affairs.