Education & The Election

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, December 13, 2016.)

There is plenty of analysis on why Trump narrowly won the crucial states that gave him an electoral college victory—Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan—even though Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2.5 million votes.  But what was particularly striking was how, even if we control for race and income, educational levels best predict how people voted in the election.  Of course this was expected, but I was shocked by how much a difference education made in terms of voter preference.

Nate Silver provides the overwhelming statistical evidence for the effect of education in “Education, Not Income, Predicted Who Would Vote For Trump.” In 48 of the 50 most educated counties in the country—almost all of which lean Democratic—Clinton did better than Obama did in 2012. And this holds true even in those educated counties than lean Republican. But in 47 of the 50 least educated counties in the country—almost all of which lean Republican— Clinton did worse than Obama had done in 2012. And this held true even in those less educated counties than lean Democratic.

Now you might think that income levels rather than education was more important. In reply Silver notes:

How do we know that education levels drove changes in support — as opposed to income levels, for example? It’s tricky because there’s a fairly strong correlation between income and education. Nonetheless, with the whole country to pick from, we can find some places where education levels are high but incomes are average or below average. If education is the key driver of changes in the electorate, we’d expect Clinton to hold steady or gain in these counties. If income matters more, we might see her numbers decline.

And what did Silver find? In high-education, medium-income white counties Clinton did better than Obama, while high-income, medium-educated white counties Clinton did worse than Obama. In addition, highly educated majority-minority counties shifted toward Clinton, while medium-educated majority-minority counties shifted toward Trump. Thus Silver concludes:

In short, it appears as though educational levels are the critical factor in predicting shifts in the vote between 2012 and 2016. You can come to that conclusion with a relatively simple analysis, like the one I’ve conducted above, or by using fancier methods. In a regression analysis at the county level, for instance, lower-income counties were no more likely to shift to Trump once you control for education levels. And although there’s more work to be done, these conclusions also appear to hold if you examine the data at a more granular level, like by precinct or among individual voters in panel surveys.

This conclusion was confirmed and expanded on by exit polls as described in Harry Enten’s piece, “Even Among The Wealthy, Education Predicts Trump Support.”  Exit polls of white voters show clearly that every bit of education means less support for Trump as can be seen here:

High school or less 27% 69% +42
Some college or associate degree 29 65 +36
College graduate 40 54 +14
Postgraduate study 54 41 -13
Trump did much worse among white voters with more education



<$30,000 +32 +2 -30
$30,000-$49,999 +38 -6 -44
$50,000-$99,999 +49 +9 -40
$100,000-$199,999 +34 +10 -24
$200,000-$249,999 -1
≥$250,000 -2
Education, not income, was the main driver of vote choice

(Because of a small sample size, there is no breakdown of the vote among non-college graduates earning $200,000 or greater. Based on the other crosstabs, it can be estimated that Trump won this group by about 40 percentage points.)


The conclusion here is straightforward. The more educated you are, even controlling for income and other factors, the more likely you were to vote for Clinton, and the less educated you were the more likely you were to vote for Trump.

5 thoughts on “Education & The Election

  1. Along the lines of education, one of the most disappointing aspects of the outcome of the national election is that it represents another missed opportunity to have a national leader help address the educational inequality that exists throughout the country. Without national leadership, the inertia of local and state politics keeps many areas of the country at an educational disadvantage. This reinforces the kind of local and regional economic disparity that then leads to political polarization.

    For example, in one solidly red state in which I lived for 6 years as a young adult, the November ballot initiatives included one that would add a penny to the sales tax to improve teacher pay and one that would expand alcohol sales in convenience stores. Of those two, guess which one passed? (Hint: not the one to ultimately help improve education.) For me, it was only the dumb luck of job location that led me away from that entire region of the country to a community that valued quality education, tolerance and civility. When I see the results of my children’s education now being passed on to my grandchildren, I’m struck by how much the dumb luck of location plays a role in educational and subsequent economic success in this country. It really shouldn’t be that way.

  2. Thanks Jim for your comments. I agree with everything you say. And luck plays such a big role in our lives. How I detest those who were born on third base and think they hit a triple. “There but for the grace of God go I.” Thanks again.

  3. As you point out, this simply magnifies the gulf between the two warring communities that comprise our nation. There’s no way that educated people can accept the dominance of the uneducated and, having established control of the government, the Trump people will go to great lengths to insure that they never lose control. They’ve gotten very good at voter suppression and I think that we can expect even more refined methods in the future.

  4. Why do you point out White voters? The two least educated voting blocks in America are Blacks and Hispanics. They voted overwhelmingly for Clinton.

    Clinton won 97% of the non high school graduates among Blacks.

    Etc. Etc.

    This is what many of the analysts still ‘Dont get’.

    Stats can be cherry picked to prove what exactly…Trump voters are less intelligent redneck bumpkins? But uneducated Blacks vote Democrat because….?

    Why not state the more obvious. Clinton’s policies appeal to Blacks. Trump’s policies appeal to Whites. White males identify wih Trump’s message…Black females identifiy with Clinton’s message, etc. Instead cherry pick stats.

    I’m a White female. Like most White females, I voted for Trump. White females are better educated than Black or Hispanic females. Someone on the right could cherry pick that stat.

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