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.