TRENDS: Diploma divide: Educational attainment and the realignment of the American electorate

Published date01 June 2022
Date01 June 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2022, Vol. 75(2) 263277
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129221079862
TRENDS: Diploma divide: Educational
attainment and the realignment of the
American electorate
Joshua N Zingher
The divide between college graduates and non-college graduates is an increasingly important political cleavage. In this
paper, I document the rise of the diploma divide on the micro and macro levels. First, I use ANES and CES data to assess
the relationships between educational attainment, partisanship, and vote choice. I f‌ind that post-2000, educational
attainment is an increasingly strong predictor of partisanship and, in turn, vote choice. I demonstrate that differences in
racial and culture war attitudes between college graduates and non-graduates drive the diploma divide. I then show that
the increasing salience of education at the individual level has reshaped the macro-level political alignment. Between 2000
and 2020, the percentage of a countys population with a BA is one of the strongest predictors of changes in vote share,
with highly educated counties becoming more Democratic and less educated counties becoming more Republican.
Finally, I demonstrate that county-level educational context conditions the effect of degree-holding on indivi dual-level
behavior. Having a college education is a stronger predictor of Democratic partisanship in counties where a larger
proportion of the population holds a college degree. Overall, these results demonstrate the diploma divide is one of the
dominant political cleavages in contemporary American politics.
diploma divide, partisanship, vote choice, education, realignment, polarization
Joe Bidens victory in the 2020 presidential elections is
often framed as a return to normalcy. Biden, the longtime
Senator, vice-president to Barack Obama, and committed
institutionalist, defeated the incumbent president, populist
billionaire Donald Trump in a contentious election.
While Biden might embody a normal politician,Bidens
path to victory was anything but ordinary. Many observers
thought Biden was a viable candidate because he would
appeal to working-class Whites and ethnic and racial
minorities. However, Biden only marginally improved
upon the Democratsprevious performances among the
White working-class and even lost ground among some
ethnic and racial minority groupsLatinos in particular.
Perhaps unexpectedly, Biden exhibited considerable
strength among professional class Whites. Biden won
mainly because he improved upon Hillary Clintonsmar-
gins in a wide range of highly educated suburban areas,
both in traditionally blue and traditionally red states.
It was once common wisdom that the GOP was the
party of aff‌luent, White college graduates (Stonecash
2000, 101107). Flanigan and Zingales (1998, 90)
classic political behavior text states, Typically, lower-
status people, those with less education, those with low
incomes, recently immigrated ethnic groups, racial mi-
norities, and Catholics are more likely to vote Democratic.
Higher status people, the college-educated, those with
high incomes, whites of northern European stock, and
Protestants are more likely to vote Republican.Repub-
licans dominated Americas suburban areas while the
Democrats were strong in urban cores and many rural
areas. However, these stereotypes are badly outdated.
Bidens strength in many of the nations most well-to-do
suburban areas combined with the Democratic Partys
Department of Political Science and Geography, Old Dominion
University, Norfolk, VA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Joshua N Zingher, Department of Political Science and Geography, Old
Dominion University, 7016 Batten Arts & Letters, Norfolk, VA 23529,

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