Education as a Watershed

5 october 2017

Why Did Trump Win and What Now?

Ivan Safranchuk is an associate professor at the Department of Global Political Processes of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). He holds a Doctorate in Political Science.

Resume: For all the importance of Trump’s victory, it is too early to say that the long-term liberal trend has been broken. A basis exists for a conservative correction, probably deep and long, but not for a complete turnaround.

The election of Donald Trump as U.S. president in November 2016 has fueled heated debate in American society. Many people believe that Trump’s victory was an accident and a tragic mistake, but just as many insist that the election of the New York billionaire had to happen. In fact, both are right and wrong at the same time. Social trends that had slowly developed in the U.S. made “the Trump phenomenon” possible, but those trends did not necessarily mean that it had to happen in the way that it did. In order to understand this phenomenon and its causes better, let us look at Trump’s victory in a broader historical context using statistics starting from 1952, which cover almost three generations. Such an approach should help us correct, or maybe even reconsider, the “feelings” many people think are quite obvious. 


It is hard to agree with that simple explanation that Donald Trump owes his victory solely to white Americans and their racial mobilization, even though this is exactly what many people think. White voters remain the biggest electorate in the U.S. Republicans have historically been their favorites and have lost only twice since 1952. Naturally, the share of white voters is decreasing (from more than 80% fifty years ago to about 70% now and to an expected 50% by 2050) and this is a long-term trend. In the 1990s and 2000s, Hispanic voters played a crucial role as the most rapidly growing electoral group in the U.S. But a Republican candidate could never become president if he lost the white vote, while Democrats could achieve the presidency, either by winning white voters (as Lyndon Johnson did in 1960 and Bill Clinton in 1996) or losing by a narrow margin (John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Bill Clinton in 1992 by 2%, Jimmy Carter in 1976 by 6%).    

Barack Obama broke this trend and beat Carter’s record twice in 2008 (losing 12% among white voters) and in 2012 (losing 20%). This created the impression that Democrats could win even if they were well behind their competitors among white voters. But it is not clear whether this is true or if Obama was just an exception. What is true is that Republicans cannot win unless they have an advantage among whites.

So, success among white voters is a rule for any Republican president. Trump is not unique in this respect and neither is his 21% advantage among whites. Nixon won whites by a 36% margin in 1972, and Reagan by 20% in 1980 and 32% in 1984. But Republicans always lost these votes afterwards. George H. W. Bush had an 18% advantage in 1988, but in 1992 and 1996 white votes split almost evenly. George W. Bush won twice by a margin of 14%. John McCain outdid his opponent by 12% among white voters in 2008, and Mitt Romney by 20% in 2012. Trump’s results fall within the habitual range, but he outperformed Romney among African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans by 7%, 8%, and 11%, respectively. He did this despite accusations of having adopted an approach bordering on racism. So it appears that non-white voters simply ignored racial issues during Trump’s campaign.   

But this does not mean that there is no racial tinge to the 2016 election. Hillary Clinton won a majority in all non-white groups (65% among Asian Americans and Hispanics, and 87% among African Americans), while Trump was ahead among whites (58%). Officially, the biggest split on racial grounds was registered in 2008 and 2012, but it was slightly less pronounced during the last election campaign.

Other differences between the electorates of Trump and Clinton also fit into historical “norms.” Women are slightly more inclined to vote for Democrats, while men tend towards Republicans. This gap widened considerably in the 2016 presidential election, but still not enough to draw far-reaching conclusions. Since 2000, the results of voting have always depended on age: the older a voter is, the more inclined s/he is to support a Republican candidate. Hillary Clinton won among voters under the age of 39 (the margin increased with the age of voters), while Trump led among all voters over the age of 40. Clinton won by a margin of 10% among low-income Americans and the lower middle class (with an income under $30,000 and $30,000-$49,900 a year, respectively), but she lost 4% to her opponent among members of the “middle” middle class ($50,000-$99,900), the biggest electoral group (31%) all candidates struggle to win. Voters in the upper middle class ($100,000-$200,000, $200,000-$249,900, over $250,000 a year) were split almost evenly between the two candidates (Clinton lost by a mere 1-2% in these groups). 

So, neither sex, age, nor income played a crucial role in the 2016 election campaign. The racial divide was not very pronounced either. Whites voted for the Republican candidate as usual, and non-whites gave more support to Trump than they did to Romney in 2012. By and large, the racial factor per se was not so essential, but it is an important element in the more complex equation (distribution of votes by education among whites and non-whites) to be considered below.  


We believe that voter preferences by education were most interesting. To get a better grasp of our logic, let us look at the structure of American education: primary school (incomplete secondary education), secondary school (complete secondary education), two-year college with vocational training (an approximate analogue of Soviet technical schools), four-year university (a Bachelor’s degree), and university (a Master’s degree). 

After 1952, Democrats almost always won among the least educated voters (who had attended only elementary school), with two exceptions— in 1956, when their votes were split evenly and in 1972, when the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, beat his opponent in this group by a mere 2%. But neither case exceeded the margin of error. Thus, the least educated Americans always preferred to vote for Democrats and this was particularly the case in the 2000s (John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 won by a margin of 30%. In the second half of the twentieth century, only Lyndon Johnson could get as many votes in 1967). Trump’s lead among the least educated voters was 2%. This is unusual in a broader historical context and quite unexpected considering the massive advantage the Democrats used to have in this electoral group until only recently.

The most educated voters (with a Master’s degree) have largely voted for Democrats over the past several decades, giving them an advantage of 5-10%. Trump lost 21% in this group. This is not the biggest defeat (McCain lost 30% to Obama in 2008), but it is well below the historical norm.

Educated voters (with a Bachelor’s degree) historically have voted for Republicans. Before the 1988 presidential election, Republican candidates lost this group only once, in 1967, when Johnson edged out his opponent by 4%. In all the other instances, Republicans always won this category, normally by a large margin of 20-30% (Kennedy, too, lost in 1960, with 20% of votes behind his rival). But the Republicans’ advantage among educated voters was rooted in the latter’s better financial position. In other words, these people supported Republicans because of their social and financial status, with education being only part of the equation rather than the deciding factor. Since 1992, educated people have voted more evenly and income considerations have become less relevant. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush each won twice among educated voters, but by a narrow margin of 4-5%. Obama had a 10-percentage point lead over his opponent, but lost in this group in 2012 (albeit by a mere 2%). One would think that educated voters were ready to support Republicans despite the overall preference for Democratic candidates. But Trump lost in this group by 4%. From a historical perspective, his result can be interpreted differently.

On the one hand, this creates a negative precedent for Republicans. Democratic presidents have lost in this group before, but Republican presidents have never lost. On the other hand, 4% is not a huge gap and more or less fits into the general trend that became widespread after 1992. Since educated Americans began to vote more evenly, sooner or later a Republican candidate simply was doomed to experience the same failure Democrats had suffered before (Kennedy in 1960, Carter in 1977, and Clinton in 1996).

Voters with a secondary education level (a high school or vocational training diploma) switched from Democrats to Republicans and then back again. What is important is that people in these groups almost always voted with the majority and almost always for the candidate who eventually won the election. In other words, education, as a rule, was not the deciding factor that affected their choice. There have been only two exceptions. In 2008, voters with a secondary education supported the candidate who did not win the election, but voted contrary to the majority. This group gave McCain 6% more votes than Obama. In 2000, voters with vocational training supported the winning candidate even though the majority voted otherwise (George W. Bush lost the popular vote, but won the Electoral College and outdid his opponent in this group by 6%). So the fact that Trump received 7-8% more votes in this group than his opponent is unusual, but is within the historical norm. Trump’s victory in these groups is consonant with the general trend observed in the past decade. Their voters are feeling increasingly pro-Republican. Significantly, two times in one decade this group broke the long-standing tradition to vote with the majority for the winning candidate and twice gave their votes to Republicans.  

The only thing that is truly striking is the Republican candidate’s success among the least educated Americans. The most educated voters habitually supported the Democratic candidate, and yet Trump lost in this group with a result that was much worse than the historical norm. The results of voting by people with secondary and higher education were at odds with the general trend, but were not entirely unique. Trump is the first Republican president who did not get a majority among educated voters, but then there was every indication after 1992 that this had to happen at some point. The same is true of people who have completed secondary education programs. Their voting patterns did not fit into long-term trends, but this has already happened twice in the past ten years. 


The education factor developed over the past several decades and became fully manifest in 2016. But let us see how this happened in electoral groups of different financial standing as well as among white and non-white voters.

Hillary Clinton won easily in 39 out of 50 districts with a population of more than 50,000 and where college-educated voters account on average for 51.4% of registered voters (ranging from 45.6% to 75%). The districts are located in different parts of the country, with an average income ranging from $49,000 to $124,000 a year. She was far ahead of her opponent in most of them: by more than 50% in 11 districts, by over 30% in 27 districts, and by less than 10% in only three districts. It is noteworthy that in 28 of those 50 “most educated” districts Clinton performed much better than Obama did in 2012 and received more votes in 11 of 13 “Republican educated districts” (where Obama lost in 2012). The situation was almost identical in 50 districts (also with a population of at least 50,000 and more) with the smallest share of college-educated voters (8% to 13.6%, averaging 13.3%). These districts are scattered around the country and report an average income of $25,000 to $56,000 a year. Trump won in 42 of these districts: by a large margin of more than 50% in 19 districts, by more than 30% in 29 districts, and by less than 10% in only one district. In 27 out of 50 “least educated districts” Trump achieved better results than Romney did in 2012.

This clearly indicates that education influenced voter preferences much more strongly than their financial situation. Hillary Clinton was leading among the more educated voters in the “middle” middle class, which on the whole she lost to Trump, but she fell far behind among less educated voters in the lower middle class, which on the whole she won.

As far as we can judge, it took approximately one generation for the education factor to outweigh the income factor. Over the past 20-25 years Republicans have lost their significant long-term advantage in the upper middle class and the rich, staying only slightly ahead. Republicans also lost the substantial advantage they had always had among educated voters. The 2016 election clearly showed that Republicans can lose in this group. But it also revealed things that previously were not so obvious. Although Republicans are losing their advantage among both well-off and educated Americans and that these processes are apparently interconnected, their popularity is sagging more among the former than the latter.

In the same generation Democrats have kept their advantage among the poor, but it shrank considerably in the last election. Their positions among the least educated Americans were also shaken, but Democrats’ popularity suffered more among the least educated voters than among the poor.    

The education factor played out differently among whites and non-whites. The latter’s preferences did not differ much depending on the level of education. Hillary Clinton had a huge advantage among both educated (with a Bachelor’s degree and higher) and the least educated (without any degree) non-white voters. And yet she received 55% among the least educated non-white voters and slightly less, 48%, among the more educated non-white Americans. 

If we look at the level of education, the differences in white voter preferences is more pronounced. Trump won among the least educated Americans by a huge margin of 39%. He won among educated Americans too, but only by four percent. The education factor had never affected white voter preferences so strongly before. Both the more educated and least educated white voters supported Democrats in the 1990s, with Bill Clinton leading the race, and the gap between them was quite small. In 2000, white voters turned towards the Republicans, with George W. Bush winning, and the gap between educated and uneducated Americans began to widen.

Bush received 7-10% more of the votes among the least educated whites than among educated whites. In 2008, when Barack Obama was running for his first presidential term, white voters, both educated and the least educated, turned away from Republicans, but to a different extent. Obama received almost as many votes among the more educated whites as Clinton did in the 1990s, and slightly more than Al Gore in 2000. Among the least educated voters, Obama received slightly less than Gore and much less than Clinton.

In 2012, both the more and least educated voters favored Republicans. Romney won more votes than Bush in 2000 and 2004. But again, Romney’s advantage among the least educated Americans was more noticeable than among the more educated ones. During Trump’s campaign, white voters split clearly along educational lines, with the least educated voters gravitating even more towards Republicans: 39% is an all-time record. However, the preferences of more educated Republicans shifted in the opposite direction: only George H.W. Bush in 1992 scored worse than Trump among the more educated white Americans (McCain in 2008 was just as bad as Trump, and George W. Bush in 2000 performed a bit better, but not by much). 

The hitherto invariable link between the level of education and financial status has become looser in one generation. In 2016, the majority of both the more and least educated Americans of similar financial background voted differently. This difference is so manifest statistically that it prompts the following conclusion. For a significant number of voters, education has become a separate factor determining their choice and it is no longer linked to their financial position. But this is applicable mainly to white voters. Note the difference in how the more educated white and non-white Americans voted. The former voted for Hillary Clinton more actively than whites in general, while the latter were more supportive than non-whites in general of Trump. This clearly indicates that education was less of a separate determinant of choice among more educated non-whites who voted primarily along racial and partly along financial lines.


For the first time ever, education played a distinct and significant role in determining the choice of so many voters (albeit white) that it became clearly visible. This is the result of slow shifts in voter preferences in different electoral groups over the past 20-25 years. It took a long time for the very possibility to vote this way to emerge. But it was just a possibility, not something one had to do. Why did it happen in 2016 and not at some other time? 

Voters did not like what the press was doing, but most importantly, for the first time since 1988 they did not like the choice of candidates. Public opinion polls clearly indicated voter displeasure with the substance of the candidate debates. Moreover, there was a lot more mud-slinging during the campaign than ever before. And yet, 81% of voters thought they had received enough information to make up their minds, and this is comparable with the previous eight election campaigns. One might find it strange that people were largely dissatisfied with the campaign and candidates, yet at the same time were quite confident that they were making a conscious and rational choice. 

There are two possible explanations for this. A simple one is that educated Americans reacted personally to Trump, which is true. But there is also a more complex explanation. Displeased with the candidates and their campaigns, voters consciously chose not so much between the contenders as between ideas. The role education played when voters made their choice in 2016 was in part their personal reaction to Trump, but mainly it was an instrument for mobilizing voters in line with their beliefs. 

Seventy-two percent of Trump’s voters said they could be described as “traditional” (although the category was not defined in the poll and respondents understood it intuitively and probably differently). There were 31% of such voters in Clinton’s camp. Seventy-two percent of Trump’s supporters called themselves “typical Americans,” compared to 49% among Clinton supporters.

Eventually two groups formed. One comprised those who considered themselves traditional/typical Americans. We will call them “traditionalists.” The other one brought together their opposites, who view America as part of the global world and believe that the U.S. is the natural leader of the free world. Some of them also refer to themselves as typical and traditional Americans, but not in the same sense as “traditionalists” do. We will call these voters “internationalists.”

Internationalists see numerous opportunities in the global world. Traditionalists view the world as a source of economic competition and security risks. Internationalists want an open world and for that purpose they are ready to keep the U.S. open to economic competitors, immigrants, and to a certain extent even to risks. Traditionalists believe that they are losing out from openness and want to shield themselves from the rest of the world. This is now the main dividing line in American society.

Like dozens of other countries, the U.S. has reached the point where the destruction of traditional society is entering a new stage. As in Europe, this has helped to consolidate traditionalists in the U.S. But this consolidation did not occur on an ideologically conservative or purely economic basis. Traditionalists want the U.S. to be secure, for which it must be strong, and they want its strength to be respected around the world. They do not need isolationism, rather they prefer a more mercantile country where mercantilism serves the interests of midsized business and ordinary Americans. Traditionalists are not racists, but they want new Americans to embrace American values, the American way of life, and American mentality. A combination of pragmatic and worldview issues cement the solidarity of traditionalists. Trump was able to control this energy and focus it on building opposition to Obama’s presidency. Trump’s supporters were critical almost of everything Obama had done and said he had made things worse in the following seven areas: the economy (71%), unemployment (69%), the terrorist threat (70%), crime (78%), U.S. positions in the world (87%), immigrants (68%), and racial problems (78%). Although their criticism was largely personified, the problem is not Obama, but the social trends that reduce the economic and social space for traditionalists.

A traditionalist counterattack was probably inevitable. The long-term liberal trend prevailed throughout the 20th century and particularly in its second half. Growing wellbeing and new technologies (not only sophisticated ones, but also those that are now widely used in everyday life) transformed social relations. The women’s rights campaign, a new spirit of freedom among young people, and the civil rights movement all changed society. The liberal trend seemed to have gained momentum by the end of the twentieth century and started shifting people’s voting habits, producing unusual voting practices in different social groups.

However, the borders of what was considered possible in the social and political spheres expanded so much that society sought to moderate the liberal trend. The election of George W. Bush reflected societal demand for some kind of conservative correction, but it was inconsistent and unsuccessful. General disenchantment with Bush’s policy gave Obama a chance for a triumphant victory. But after two terms in office, demand for a correction was back on the agenda. It is not just that the gap between the winners and the losers from the liberal trend widened or that the most traditional part of American society started to feel uneasy in the overly liberal environment. There was something else at play. A feeling of hopelessness, despair, and fear emerged that the laggards were losing not relatively or temporarily, but completely and permanently. Trump unintentionally stirred up traditional attitudes and offered a clear and pragmatic agenda of protectionism, bringing traditionalists almost to the verge of revolt.

Their defiance shocked the internationalists. Only a minority of voters in Hillary Clinton’s camp registered negative dynamics on six of the above seven counts, whereas Trump’s supporters confidently claimed things had gotten worse. Clinton voters said that the economy and unemployment had actually improved (60% and 67%, respectively). On other issues, the majority of Clinton’s supporters had noticed no change. Internationalists could not understand the reasons for the protest from the traditionalists. In their mind, the economic situation was quite good and some progress had been achieved in solving social issues, even though it was obviously not enough. In any case, it was necessary to move forward, not wind things up.

The internationalists did not just fail to understand the traditionalists, they rejected them. Eighty-four percent of Clinton voters said they did not understand Trump’s system of views and where exactly he wanted to lead the country. But 87% of those who voted for Trump claimed that they had a very clear idea of his intentions. With such a high level of misunderstanding and mutual resentment, the campaign could hardly be very substantive. And each sought to consolidate his own electorate. 

Traditionalists united along both pragmatic and worldview lines, fueling a traditionalist drive. Economic protectionism served as a pragmatic basis, while political patriotism, individual freedom (including freedom from excessive political correctness), and Christian values provided an ideational basis. Trump won in all Christian groups, getting the votes of the most religious people (the more they went to church, the more votes they gave to Trump).

The main marker and instrument of consolidation for internationalists was the level of education and the liberal ideas it inculcated. This allowed them to overcome divisions in society (especially along property and partly racial lines) and consolidate likeminded people among the poor and the rich, in the middle class, among whites and non-whites. We believe this mobilization along educational lines was not a well-planned part of Clinton’s strategy, but rather a natural ability of internationalists to self-organize and stick together.

In some cases, however, the mobilization of the more educated citizens was an obstacle. In fact, poor Americans preoccupied with their own everyday problems could hardly understand those who convinced 66% of Clinton’s voters that climate change was “a big problem.” Needless to say, Democrats never forgot egalitarianism and social justice, which had always attracted the poor to their side, and 72% of Clinton supporters said inequality between the poor and the rich was “a big problem.” And yet poor Americans could hardly share the outlook behind the internationalists’ hectic self-organization. They turned away from the “know-it-alls” and voted for the Republican candidate much more eagerly than usual. Having consolidated their flock in all property and racial groups, internationalists established, without really meaning to, a sort of an “educational test” that divided society into “smarties” and all the rest. Having brought their likes together on the basis of beliefs and views that were clear to them, internationalists pushed some of the poor (faithful supporters of Democrats) away from Clinton, which exacerbated the impact of education on the vote.

*  *  *

The U.S. presidential election of 2016 clearly exposed a contradiction between traditionalists and internationalists. This divide had been developing over the course of a generation and was overshadowed by more obvious problems, yet it finally surfaced during the last presidential campaign. The division afflicted predominantly white voters, since non-white voters (mainly African Americans and, to a lesser extent, Hispanics and Asian Americans) voted in most cases with the internationalists, albeit for different reasons. Non-white and white Americans voted in 2016 for different agendas, but the white agenda and the dispute between the internationalists and traditionalists became the deciding factor, which probably created a common feeling of a racial slant. Interestingly, more educated non-whites supported traditionalists slightly more than uneducated non-whites.

Trump’s personality became a catalyst, but the division between the traditionalists and internationalists would have manifested itself in voter preferences anyway, if not in 2016, then most likely in 2020. If it were not for Obama, this contradiction would probably have been fully exposed in 2012. For the most part, the American elite was unprepared for such a deep split, but, faced with it, had to realize how profound and important its impact was. People in both the Democratic and Republican establishment are trying to assess the division between the traditionalists and internationalists. 

The two leading parties will have to go back to their ideological roots. The number of Republicans who want their party to become more conservative has been invariably large (60%) since 2008. Over the same period, the number of Democrats who want their party to adopt a more progressive agenda has increased from 33% to 49%. The 57% Democratic majority that urged the party to pursue a more moderate policy and which seemed quite solid only a decade ago is gone (with only 47% still supporting the idea and 4% undecided).

George W. Bush was the first Republican who sensed his party’s need to return to its ideological roots. Apparently, both the Republican and Democratic establishment missed the point. Republicans launched the Tea Party movement and other conservative groups that are pulling the establishment away from centrist positions. Democrats seemed to have more order, but the self-organization of internationalists during the 2016 election and their mobilization along educational lines are continuing in the post-election period. For example, the Resistance Movement is focusing its criticism on Trump personally, but if it survives, it could occupy a bigger niche in public life and represent the interests of educated internationalists. Both Republican and Democratic activists would like their respective parties’ establishment to show more ideological consistently and keep reminding the party leadership of its “basis.”  

Party bosses will have to tackle one more and even more complex task. It is necessary to not just return to the “basis,” but also revise the borders of the political spectrum; that is, determine where and how far the “basis” should send its political signals. The Republican leadership needs to determine from which social and economic groups its should receive feedback in order to take their interests into account when formulating policy. Political experience will be needed to avoid overstepping invisible limits.  

For all the importance of Trump’s victory, it is too early to say that the long-term liberal trend has been broken. A basis exists for a conservative correction, probably deep and long, but not for a complete turnaround. The latter could be possible if the internationalists turn their educated force, which is ideologically well wrapped, but lacking in pragmatic ideas, against the traditionalists, who lack fancy ideological garb, but have practical ideas (albeit primitive and protectionist) and who can give their opponents a good thrashing. If both Republicans and Democrats start exploring their ideological peripheries, reformat the political spectrum, correct the “basis,” return to the center, and regain the ability to maintain bipartisan consensus on national issues, thing will probably not go any further than a routine correction.   

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