The Democrats Lost the ‘Poorly Educated’ and They Need Them Back

In any election as close as the one we had last November, countless variables could have decided the outcome. People will tend to seize on the ones that serve their ideological goals. It’s a somewhat different question, however, to figure out why the polls (particularly the state polls) were off by so much. At The Upshot, Nate Cohn takes a whack at trying to answer that question. There is evidence that a lot of late-deciders went for Trump which is a thing the pollsters can’t be faulted for failing to predict. This could be explained by the so-called Comey Effect, named after former FBI Director James Comey’s decision to link Anthony Weiner’s sexting with minors to Clinton’s private email server in the last week of the election. It could also be explained by the Shy Voter Theory that postulates that people were a little ashamed to admit they were going to vote for Trump and weren’t truly undecided. Maybe it was a little of both.

But there’s a more potent explanation available about why the polls were wrong, which is that they may have been incorrect all along due to a failure to anticipate the importance of educational attainment in candidate preference. Poorly educated people are less likely to respond to surveys which results in them being underrepresented in most polls. But, until the 2016 election, this didn’t tend to skew the results because the correlation between education and how people vote wasn’t all that strong.

The tendency for better-educated voters to respond to surveys in greater numbers has been true for a long time. What’s new is the importance of education to presidential vote choice. Mrs. Clinton led Mr. Trump by 25 points among college-educated voters in pre-election national polls, up from Mr. Obama’s four-point edge in 2012.

This made it a lot more important to weight by education. In the past, it barely mattered whether a political poll was weighted by education — which is probably part of why so many didn’t do so.

It’s a pretty simple theory to understand. If surveys exclude a population that is fairly evenly divided in its voting preference that is not likely to have a big impact on the results, but if they miss a segment of the electorate that is heavily skewed in one direction, then that could cause a large error. Just as a pollster might have to give more weight to Latino respondents in a poll if they haven’t succeeded in contacting enough of them, they may have needed to weight poorly educated respondents more heavily in their surveys.

If this theory is true, it could provide guidance for better polling in the future, but it also tells us something about how the Democrats should respond to their traumatic losses. I’ve had people tell me that rural and working class voters want higher education for their children just as much as anyone else, but it should be intuitive that educational attainment is a lower priority for parents who haven’t gotten a higher education themselves.

The Democrats, going all the way back to Bill Clinton on the campaign trail in 1992, have responded to the impact of globalization on manufacturing and job loss by talking about retraining and access to education. Of course, the cost of college has soared in the intervening years so now the Democrats are competing to come up with the most generous affordable college plans. Setting aside the merits, these appeals are least likely to have political success among people who don’t have a higher education and resent the hell out of the fact that their kids will need one.

What they’d wish for if they thought their wish would be granted is that their kids could practice the trades and professions they practiced and have the same standard of living. They don’t want their kids to leave home for a college education if that means they’ll come to question their values and never come back.

Donald Trump said he loved the poorly educated because they supported him in such high numbers. That sent a signal to a lot of people that Trump thought they were A-okay the way they were. He wasn’t going to listen to their problems and then tell them that the answer was to leave home for some liberal college town and a job in the suburbs or big city.

The free college idea which was pushed most heavily by Bernie Sanders ought to be a winner with these folks, and it’s certainly something that would greatly benefit them. But it comes with an unspoken condemnation. And it sounds like another tax giveaway to “other” folks who either don’t need the financial assistance or don’t share the same race, religion or working class values of former auto workers, coal miners or steel workers. Trump said he’d make America great again and bring back the old jobs. People wouldn’t have to make changes because Trump would make the changes.

It was easier to see why highly educated people gravitated to Clinton. It was in large part because they were repelled by Trump’s disdain for the values people learn when they get a good education. But that same disdain was a way of validating that people don’t need a bachelor’s degree to count. What actually happened was a sorting and realignment of the electorate where poorly educated people suddenly showed a vast and unpredicted preference for Trump.

Obviously, race played a big part in this, but the damage done to Clinton in rural counties and working class neighborhoods was among a lot of folks who had voted for a black president once if not twice. That Trump was insulting elites and angering highly educated people was probably more important because it created a kind of cultural war zone based on class and educational attainment.

That the Democrats walked into this milieu with a message about the importance of education was ill-fated even if well-intentioned. What people really wanted was an economy where a higher education wasn’t necessary. The Democrats quite reasonably thought they should offer something based in reality with a real chance of enactment and good prospects for improving people’s lot. What they missed was that the battle was being fought on different turf. People were sick of losing in the modern economy. They were sick of seeing their traditional way of life slip away. They were tired of being condescended to and told that they weren’t smart or educated enough to compete. What the Democrats were offering was in some ways just further confirmation that they were losers who were going to continue to lose. Trump might not have been able to explain how he’d fix things, but he met them at the level of their desire.

So, now the Democrats need a plan for how to make it so these folks can compete again on terms in which they want to compete. They need an indigenous left movement, not one crafted to appease folks’ racism or cultural conservatism on sexual mores. They need to help these folks compete again, and that means that they have to go after the monopolization of the economy that has swallowed up every local pharmacy, hardware store, bank, and hobby shop in the country. They need to steal away the votes of the small businessperson, the would-be entrepreneurs, and the small town go-getters. What killed small-town America wasn’t just the loss of industrial jobs. More important was the absolute decimation of the private business owner. People can’t compete with the big monopolies so their communities lose leadership and dignity and choice and opportunity. A true leftist movement that can compete in the areas that Trump carried in unprecedented numbers has to be based on bringing these things back, and it can be done by getting back to the kind of antitrust enforcement we used to have in this country. People need to believe that their kids can grow up and succeed without leaving home and abandoning their way of life.

The Republicans have a gigantic advantage in these communities right now, but it’s all about signals and code and tribalism. The GOP doesn’t actually have any answers for them and their policies are almost universally designed in ways that will accelerate their losses and take away what little they have left. About the best Trump can do for them right now is to get them more work in fracking and other dirty energy jobs. But that’s only appealing because the Democrats aren’t offering anything they want as an alternative.

Tomorrow, we’ll publish a piece I have in the new issue of the Washington Monthly on how liberals can win rural and working class votes without compromising on their values. A lot of that article is dedicated to convincing you of the political and moral necessity of accomplishing this, and a lot is dedicated to revisiting our nation’s history to show you how it has been accomplished in the past. I hope you’ll check it out.

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