The angry, populist tone of the seemingly endless battle for the GOP presidential nomination may cripple the Republican Party in building a long-term connection with the fastest growing group of swing voters in the overall electorate: college graduates.
While the candidates focus their attention on the white working class as the key battle ground in their frantic struggle for advantage within the GOP, it’s actually more privileged voters who’ve earned four year college degrees who will play the key role in defeating or re-electing Barack Obama.
In 2008, an unprecedented 44 percent of all voters held bachelor degrees or higher, compared to just 28 percent of the electorate in Ronald Reagan’s landmark victory of 1980.
The Gipper, however, crushed Jimmy Carter among college grads (52 to 35 percent) while John McCain lost this segment of the population to Barack Obama (45 to 53 percent). In other words, the Republican candidate went from a seventeen point advantage (in both ’80 and ’84, as it turns out) to an eight point loss among those who completed college—a crippling swing of 25 full percentage points. George W. Bush represented something of a mid-point in this alarming decline in Republican appeal to the most educated element of the electorate, splitting college grads evenly with both Al Gore (2000) and John Kerry (2004).
Projections indicate that the segment of the population with undergraduate and advanced degrees will continue to rise sharply in 2012, and could conceivably represent a majority of all voters in 2016. This growth in the proportion of university-educated adults extends to every ethnic group in the country and represents inarguable good news for the American economy, but bad news for clumsy and misguided Republicans who seem determined to hand Democrats the advantage when it comes to educational issues.
Rick Santorum provided only the most egregious example when he went out of his way to insult college educated voters by questioning the value of their university experience and attacking President Obama as a “snob” for seeking to open higher education to more of our fellow citizens. No wonder Mitt Romney soundly defeated Righteous Rick among college graduates in hotly contested Ohio, winning their votes 43 to 35 percent. And even in the famously blue collar Buckeye State, college grads represented a full 45 percent of the GOP primary electorate.
Those with postgraduate study also amounted to a surprisingly significant voting bloc in Ohio – 18 percent of all Republican voters. And this nearly one-fifth of the electorate tilted even more decisively against Santorum – preferring Romney by a margin of 46 to 36 percent.
Appealing more successfully to the most educated segment of the population need not undermine the efforts of Rick Santorum or any other candidate to rally support among blue collar urbanites, ethnic minorities, farmers or anyone else. More than half of American adults may currently lack college degrees but virtually all of them want such credentials for their children.
In his stump speech, Romney has been trying out a good line about seeing the success of others as a spur to “ambition, not envy” and that formulation should apply to educational as well as economic success. After all, achievement in higher education correlates powerfully with performance in the workplace. Recent numbers indicate that those with university degrees face only one-fourth the unemployment rate of those with no high school diploma (4 percent to 16 percent).
Ironically, this field of Republican contenders amounts to the best educated crop of major candidates in the history of American politics: each of the Final Four holds at least one prestigious post-graduate degree. Dr. Ron Paul earned his MD from Duke and Dr. Newt Gingrich won a PhD from Tulane; Mitt Romney holds both law and business degrees (JD and MBA) from Harvard, while Rick Santorum got the same two degrees from Dickinson School of Law and University of Pittsburgh, respectively.
What’s more, Santorum’s family background shows the profound value of education in lifting the disadvantaged into the middle class and beyond. Contrary to the deliberately misleading impression that he grew up in the “coal fields of Pennsylvania,” young Rick actually came of age as the son of a father who earned a PhD and worked as a clinical psychologist while his mother toiled outside the home as well-credentialed administrative nurse; it was his immigrant grandfather who worked the coal mines.
It makes no sense for the former Senator to downplay or denigrate his own family’s success story because his parents’ progress exemplifies the sort of achievement that all mothers and fathers want for their children. Sure, it’s important to talk about protecting and growing manufacturing jobs because so many hard-pressed people depend on them, but those same workers dream that the next generation can do even better than industrial employment.
By the same token, when Newt Gingrich rails endlessly about malevolent “elites” he seems to deny his own elite educational background as a college professor and historian. It’s neither an accident nor an embarrassment that an America eagerly embracing meritocracy has elected four presidents in a row with degrees from either Yale or Harvard (or, in the case of George W. Bush, from both venerable institutions).
The American people instinctively respect elite achievement in academia at the same time they admire elite achievement in the world of business. Just as wealth creation by corporate leaders harms no one and promotes prosperity for the nation at large, so too advanced learning at top universities serves to open, rather than close off, opportunities for the populace. Republicans rightly slam Democrats for “class-warfare”–spreading resentment rather than respect for those Americans who achieve economic success. It makes no sense for those same GOPers to turn around and promote “anti-intellectualism” – encouraging similar spite for those who compile enviable educational records.
The GOP can’t possibly build a winning coalition by appealing only to the rich, but Republicans can definitely prevail by connecting with all those who want to get rich. Those who earn over $100,000 a year represented only 26 percent of the electorate in 2008 but those who intend to earn at that level at some point in the future could easily comprise a majority.
On a similar note, people with their own college degrees don’t yet dominate the voting public, but families willing to save and sacrifice to provide such credentials for their children surely constitute an overwhelming majority.
Appealing to such aspirations, rather than ignoring or dismissing them, will enable conservatives to honor the best American traditions of upward mobility and self-improvement. And with more and more of our fellow citizens seeking and completing college degrees, it’s also the only way that Republicans can win.