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WASHINGTON – Joe Biden described the presidential race as "Scranton versus Park Avenue." He slammed tax cuts for billionaires. He touted that he would be a state school graduate, not another Ivy Leaguer, in the Oval Office.
Months before Election Day, the Biden campaign adopted an economic populist message aimed directly at white, working-class voters, convinced they could peel off a small portion of President Donald Trump's base.
Despite Biden's election victory, this demographic – white voters without college degrees – remained loyal to the president, defying public polling before the election that suggested Democrats were poised for small inroads.
For Biden, wins in battleground states came thanks to growing support in affluent suburbs around Atlanta, Philadelphia and Detroit where he expanded margins in a new Democratic stronghold: white voters who graduated college.
The 2020 election widened the education polarization – a largely urban-rural divide that has come to define American politics, producing a mixed bag for Democrats.
"The biggest thing that came out of this election was that education polarization – the gap between college-educated voters and (non-college-educated voters) – actually increased, rather than decreased like the polls predicted it would," said David Shor, a Democratic polling and data expert who advised liberal political action committees this cycle. "(Democrats) basically treaded water in the least-educated areas and gained a lot in the educated areas."
Though Biden beat Trump in the popular vote by more than 6 million votes, Democrats aren't likely to gain control of the Senate, lost several House seats and failed to flip a single state legislature. Their rejection among white, working-class voters, particularly in rural areas and small towns, helped lead to the disappointments.
At the same time, Democrats saw support slip among Black voters, their most loyal constituency, and Latino voters.
Although Biden won Black voters overwhelmingly, 87%-12%, Trump grew his support by 4 percentage points from 2016, according to exit polls.
The shift was more significant among Hispanic voters. Though Biden won Latino voters overall, Trump performed 7 percentage points better than four years ago. He improved his margins in 78 of 100 majority-Latino counties, according to an analysis from Politico.
For years, Democrats expressed confidence that the country's increasingly diverse, less-white electorate would give them an edge long-term over Republicans. Some in the party have concerns that relying so heavily on urbanites and suburbanites puts them at a disadvantage electorally to capture the Senate, hold on to the House and retain the presidency.
'We don't really have a choice'
Shor, who built Barack Obama's campaign forecasting system in the 2012 election, said the demographics are stacked against Democrats under the party's coalition.
Because the Electoral College and Senate representation is "biased" toward voters in less populated states where Republicans dominate, Shor said, Democrats would need to win 54% of the popular vote for the next six years to gain control of the Senate and keep control of the House. Democrats must start winning rural, mostly white states such as Iowa and Montana to change that trend. Shor predicted this year that Biden would need to win the popular vote by 4 percentage points for a comfortable Electoral College victory.
Biden won the popular vote 51%-47.2%.
"It is mathematically almost impossible for our current coalition to wield electoral power," Shor said. "There's a lot of people in the party who are uncomfortable with the implications of the idea that we really have to adopt a maximalist attempt to appeal to (white) working-class voters."
"But we don't really have a choice," he said. "Our path to holding power is that we have to get somebody who voted for Donald Trump twice in Montana to vote for us. And if we don't, we won't be able to pass any laws."
Quantifying the divide made trickier by range of polls
How much the education divide widened is hard to quantify.
Exit polls from Edison Research found Trump won white voters who never attended college 68%-31% over Biden, four years after Trump beat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton 64%-28% among that demographic.
Biden won college graduates regardless of race 57-41% and white college graduates 51%-48%, according to post-election surveys from The Associated Press. Trump won voters with no college degree regardless of race 51%-47%.
Because public polling missed wildly across the country, post-election polls probably failed to capture the extent of the education shift, according to election data experts.
Exit polls didn't track the record number of Americans who voted by mail. Experts said some Trump-leaning supporters declined to take part in phone surveys before the election. County- and precinct-level data offers a more accurate snapshot: Rural counties with low populations of educated voters stayed with Trump at margins as high as 85%-15% while Biden surged in more educated suburbs.
The phenomenon isn't new.
Democrats' share of white voters who lack college degrees has decreased since the 1960s, when Democrats lost their grip in the Deep South during the civil rights era. The rural-urban divide reached new heights in 2016 after Trump campaigned on a hard-line stance against illegal immigration.
Cultural views override economic arguments
Matt Grossman, who heads the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University, said he believed Democrats in 2020 were smart to adopt a class-based message after Clinton didn't. Historically, voters respond favorably to the idea of Democrats representing the middle class, he said, and negatively to Republicans as the party for the rich and big business.
"But I think we should learn from the 2020 election that Biden at least made some effort to do that and it doesn't seem to have made much difference," Grossman said. "So maybe messaging is not enough to move the needle on these broad social changes."
The fact Biden struggled with non-college-educated white voters, according to Grossman, reflects the overall shift toward politics based on social and cultural divisions rather than economic. The same trend is found in European nations.
With his cultural – not economic – brand of populism, Trump fanned fears about racial equity protests that erupted in cities. He pushed for "law and order" during the campaign, slammed the Black Lives Matter movement and accused Democrats of being soft on violence and anti-police. He warned that Biden would turn the USA into a "socialist" country and accused the Democrat of wanting to take away Americans' guns. Trump even said, "There will be no God" if Biden was elected.
"Voters are more associated with the party that they share social and cultural views with rather than necessarily economic policy opinions," Grossman said.
Reasons for Democratic optimism?
Despite potential warning signs for Democrats, experts said college-educated voting blocs should benefit Democrats down the road.
William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and author of “Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America,” said Democrats' support from white, college-educated women and men is likely to give them an edge in suburbs.
“The Democrats have a good foothold in the suburbs, as well as in urban areas, especially among these younger people, especially among white, college-educated men and women, and also people of color – those are all growing groups,” Frey said. “And older, white, non-college-educated men are kind of a declining population, especially in the rural areas.”
Though Republicans made some gains among Black and Latino voters, Frey noted that the bulk of Republican voters – white, non-college-educated voters – is becoming a smaller voting bloc each election cycle.
“They're still sort of embracing slow-growing parts of the population rather than faster-growing parts of the population,” Frey said.
Robert Griffin, a political scientist and research director for the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, said the deepened educational polarization presents "a plus and a minus" for both parties.
From the Republican perspective, most adults lack college degrees. White voters without college degrees made up 44% of voters in 2016. Because this group is evenly distributed geographically across the country, according to Griffin, Republicans benefit in terms of representation in the Electoral College, Senate and House.
On the other hand, he said, the country is becoming more racially diverse and educated. The share of voters who are white and didn't attend college drops 2 to 4 percentage points every year, he said.
"It's sort of this short-term game that can really juice up your coalition and pays huge dividends in terms of their geographic distributions, but it continues to be a smaller and smaller share of the electorate," Griffin said. "So that's kind of the twofold problem and opportunity, I think, that both parties have with the education divide."
Down-ballot Democratic losses set off finger-pointing within the Democratic Party after Election Day. Establishment Democrats such as South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn said the slogan "Defund the police" – used in Republican attack ads – cost Democrats House and Senate seats. Many in the party's far-left wing, in turn, blamed Democratic leaders for not being bold enough on issues such as climate change and "Medicare for All."
In the presidential race, Democrats hoped to expand the electoral map to Iowa and Ohio, which have large white, working-class populations. Trump won both by about 8 percentage points.
"The president’s a really good salesman,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, told ABC News. Brown, who defied the state's rightward shift by winning three elections, had predicted a backlash among workers against Trump after General Motors sold its plant in Lordstown, Ohio, despite the president's promises about adding manufacturing jobs.
“He’s found really fertile ears in places like the Mahoning Valley," he said, referring to the working-class northeast part of the state. Trump flipped Mahoning County red after Clinton won it in 2016.
In a post-election interview on CNN, Andrew Yang, who ran for president in the Democratic primary, said the electorate breakdown shows that Democrats need to confront their issues with “working-class voters,” though he did not specify whether he was talking about white, non-college-educated voters.
Yang said that when he was on the campaign trail, talking to Americans, such as “a truck driver, retail worker, waitress in a diner,” they would “flinch” when he told them he was running for president as a Democrat.
“There’s something deeply wrong when working-class Americans have that response to a major party that theoretically is supposed to be fighting for them,” Yang said. “So you have to ask yourself, what has the Democratic Party been standing for in their minds? And in their minds, the Democratic Party, unfortunately, has taken on this role of the coastal urban elites who are more concerned about policing various cultural issues than improving their way of life that has been declining for years.
“So if you’re in that situation, this to me is a fundamental problem for the Democratic Party, because if they don’t figure this out, this polarization and division will get worse, not better,” Yang warned.
Shor, who worked for the left-leaning research firm Civis Analytics for the past eight years, said there's hope for Democrats to reconnect with white, working-class voters.
They agree with Democrats on "a wide swath of issues," he said, pointing to an expansion of the minimum wage, health care and college affordability.
"But there are a lot of ideas they don't agree with us on, and we have to decrease the extent to which we talk about them," Shor said. "We probably have to go further to meet the median voter where they are."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: As education divide deepens, Democrats worry about future power