Mellman: Changing patterns

Mellman: Changing patterns
© Greg Nash

As a wise and wizened reporter once pointed out: “Buried deep inside that word ‘newspaper’ is the word ‘news.’ And inside that, you’ve got ‘new.’ ”

This aphorism explains why some trends evident in this election are described as radical departures from recent history, when in fact they are part of a continuing process of change in our party coalitions that began years — if not decades — ago.

Much has been written about the increasing proportion of the electorate that is made up of minorities: African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and others. While Republicans’ grassroots hostility to diversity makes life very difficult for the GOP at the presidential level, important and under-discussed transformations have impacted white voters as well. 

The share of noncollege-educated whites has been cut in half since 1980. When Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter, nearly two-thirds of the electorate was made up of noncollege-educated whites. By 2012, that number had shrunk to just 37 percent.

Meanwhile, as minority participation has risen, white college graduates’ share of the electorate has remained stable, so that in 2012, white voters divided about evenly between college and noncollege graduates. 

That dramatic change in educational attainment presents profound political implications. 

Pew’s recently published compendium of party identification data helps sort through the numbers.

In 1992, whites without college experience were more likely to identify as Democrats than as Republicans by a 9-point margin. 

In the quarter-century since, party identification among noncollege whites was closely contested, with Democrats holding on to a few more in some years and Republicans edging ahead in others. 

Beginning in 2008, the GOP margin with noncollege whites increased substantially, reaching 26 points this year.

Despite what some would have you believe, this is not wholly an effect of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump and Kim fight PR war as summit talks collapse Trump appears to confirm deal on Chinese firm ZTE Judge rejects Manafort's attempt to throw out some charges MORE. While the GOP advantage reached its current zenith this year, it had been moving strongly in that direction for the past eight.

At the same time, a wholly opposite process is at work among whites who have graduated from college.

In 1992, whites with a college degree were even more Republican than whites without a degree were Democratic.

College-educated whites identified with the Republican Party by an 11-point margin when Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonTrump must move beyond the art of the deal in North Korea talks To woo black voters in Georgia, Dems need to change their course of action 2018 midterms: The blue wave or a red dawn? MORE defeated George H.W. Bush. But, beginning in 2004, that gap narrowed substantially — today, Democrats enjoy a 1-point edge with college-educated whites.

That margin is fueled, importantly, by those with post-graduate experience. What was an even split in 1992 has grown into a 12-point Democratic advantage among those with a post-graduate education.

So while Republicans are, and have been, making gains with noncollege whites, they are suffering continuing — albeit smaller — defections from whites who hold a college degree.

In the long run, that’s bad news for the GOP, because while whites continue to shrink as a proportion of the electorate, noncollege whites — Republicans’ real base — are shrinking, too. 

Over the last 20 years, the percent of whites with a bachelor’s degree or more increased at about two-thirds of a percentage point a year, or 2.7 points every four years.

Before conservatives start yelling about the liberal academic elite, it is worth noting that there is significant controversy about the magnitude and mechanism of what happens to political attitudes on campus.

Some recent research suggests that only attitudes toward civil rights and gender equality are meaningfully affected. Other data suggest students became more conservative economically. Some say it’s the professors; others say it’s the students. Still others maintain that it’s not what happens in college at all, but rather that liberal high school students are more likely to go to college.

Whatever the mechanism, the increasing ethnic diversity of the electorate is not the only change afoot. White voters are changing, too, with the noncollege-educated headed to the GOP and the growing number of college-educated whites moving toward the Democrats. 

If Republicans don’t change their stripes, they may find themselves sitting atop a very small party composed of a declining share of a declining segment.  

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the minority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.