Politics these days is all about divides — cultural, racial, urban versus rural. There’s the growing gender gap in voting. But a new post-primary poll of Washington state highlights a different gap, one that now trumps them all (pun intended).
It’s the diploma divide.
Republicans have of late been desperate to win something, anything, in this state. So recently, a California winery owner named John Jordan, who has financed a slew of quixotic conservative pursuits over the years, decided to fund a series of polls to plumb for places where the GOP might score a rare breakthrough.
These are states like Colorado and ours. Places that, if you squint hard enough, can look not deep blue, but purplish.
So in the only publicly released poll of the entire state since the Aug. 2 primary, the GOP firm McLaughlin & Associates found that President Joe Biden, while of mixed popularity here, would beat former President Donald Trump in a rematch, by 13 points, 54% to 41%.
The mid-August poll found a tighter race for U.S. Senate this November, with incumbent Sen. Patty Murray leading GOP newcomer Tiffany Smiley 49% to 43%.
These top-line results aren’t what stands out, though. The poll, like a few before it had hinted, highlights how Washington state is fracturing more than ever along an educational fault line.
Remember Trump’s “I love the poorly educated” gaffe? Well, it came true. This poll found that education, or relative lack of it, has become the best predictor of your vote — as strong, if not more so, than where you live or how much money you make.
Trump leads in the poll among the roughly 55% of the state that lacks a college degree, by about 5 points. But Biden is ahead among the college grads and those with advanced degrees by a blistering 37 points, 66% to 29%. That’s an enormous diploma divide between the two parties of 42 points.
This is a Republican poll, remember, and yet it shows, buried in the cross tabs, that only 14% of college grads in this state identify with the GOP. It gets more extreme when the gender and diploma gaps are combined. The poll found that only 10% of college-educated women in Washington think of themselves as Republicans, while 55% side with Democrats — a massive 45-point gap.
An earlier poll by Seattle pollster Stuart Elway, for the local news site Crosscut in July, likewise found that 75% of college-educated voters here now hold negative views of the GOP — most of them deeply so.
The political scientist Ruy Teixeira says this diploma divide is the main force fundamentally re-sorting the political parties. Democrats are shedding noncollege voters in droves — he says because the party has become too “woke” and politically correct. It’s morphing into the house of the educational elite.
That shift accelerated this summer. The economy was the biggest issue until the U.S. Supreme Court began bulldozing the modern cultural landscape.
“[College grad] voters are less sensitive to economic problems and more likely to be moved by a social issue like abortion rights,” he writes — or by science-based concerns like pandemics or climate change. “In short, they are the perfect voters for Democrats in the current environment.”
It’s electoral gold for Democrats in a state like ours, though not so much for winning the national Electoral College. Washington ranks 12th in the U.S. for college grads, and grads also vote at high rates. In 2016, Massachusetts became the first state in which a majority of the vote was cast by college grads (it’s since been joined by Colorado, Maryland, Connecticut and a few others.) Washington is likely nearing that threshold now.
The top 15 states on the college grad list are all blue states.
This sorting cuts both ways. An academic “we know best” sense often breezes from Democratic politicians, which may be pushing some working-class voters — including an increasing share of minority voters — into the arms of Republicans. This is new because the GOP was for decades the party of white people, big business and the rich. Call it the Trump realignment.
You can hear this shift in the language of front-line MAGA candidates, like Southwest Washington’s Joe Kent:
“The current green agenda is a stalking horse to make America weak. All these renewable sources that we’re talking about, it’s a payday for the Chinese Communist Party, electrical vehicles,” Kent said recently at a debate. In other forums he has called it “green, cosmopolitan, technocrat, utopia crap.”
You can also hear it coming back the other way from top Democratic politicians.
“There isn’t a single Republican in my state who has lifted a finger on climate change,” said Gov. Jay Inslee, in a spike-the-football interview this past week in The New York Times titled “Gov. Jay Inslee Is Taking a Well-Earned Climate Victory Lap.”
“And until the Republican Party starts to develop a positive effort, the only solution is for them to stay out of public life — to remain in private life, where they can’t do any harm.”
All of this is light years away from Barack Obama’s vision of a “purple state” America.
Of course Obama undermined that with his professorial comments about how the embittered working class “clings to guns and religion.” Then came Trump, who made that a badge of honor. The setup is almost perfectly crafted for more polarization: We are now the Know-Nothings versus the We-Know-Better-Than-Yous.
Your reaction to all this? It probably depends on whether you, yourself, are out there right now clinging to your electric vehicle and your college degree.