ecently released data from the Bureau of the Census now reveal a
picture of the voting public in 1996 that is substantially different from the
one that was available immediately after the election. Initially, analysts
believed the electorate was dominated by upscale, college-educated voters. The
census data show that view was wrong and suggest that political strategies based
on that perception may not work.
There are three powerful sources of data on national elections in the United
States: the Voter News Service (VNS) exit polls released on election night; the
National Election Study (NES) conducted at the University of Michigan and
released in April 1997; and the census survey of voter participation, conducted
in November 1996 and released in full in October 1997. Each of these sources has
its strengths and limitations. Used judiciously, they allow some fairly
definitive judgments on voters and voter behavior in the last election.
In the immediate wake of the election, based on exit polls, the press
reported that 43 percent of voters were college graduates. That "fact"
appeared to support the New Democrats' strategy of moderate, values-based
politics, since it is precisely such a politics that appeals to college-educated
winners in the new economy.
But the census data say the true proportion of college graduates in the
electorate was only about 29 percent. [See "The Census Shows a Different
Electorate," below.] Conversely, more than seven in ten American voters (71
percent) lacked a four-year college degree, far outnumbering college graduates.
More American voters (42 percent) had a high school education or less than had a
four-year college degree or more. And the 29 percent in the middlewho have a
junior college degree or "some college"are closer in wages and income
to high school graduates than to those with college degrees or more. In other
words, Americans without college degrees are not just a majority, but a
supermajority of voters.
hy the huge difference between the exit poll and census results? The
answer lies in a chronic bias of the exit polls: The highly educated are much
more willing to fill out survey forms in polling places. The resulting
overrepresentation of better-educated voters in exit polls is, literally, not to
be believed. If 43 percent of 1996 voters really had college degrees, that would
imply a turnout rate for college graduate citizensbased on their number in the
populationof 102 percent. (Do they vote early and often?)
Of course, the census results are themselves open to criticism since they
rely on self-reports of voting, and we know that more people say they vote than
really do. But the census could overstate the fraction of noncollege-educated
people in the electorate only if lower-education respondents were more likely to
overreport voting. In fact, the validated vote data from the Michigan National
Election Study show exactly the reverse: High-education respondents are more
prone to overreport voting.
So the exit poll data should not be relied upon to tell us about relative
numbers of college-educated and noncollege-educated voters. The exit polls are
useful, however, for their original, and still most valid, purposeanalyzing the
attitudes and voting preferences of different groups of voters. Conversely, the
census, with its much larger sample (about 90,000 respondents of voting age) and
rigorous sampling methods, is a superb source for analyzing the demographic
characteristics of voters and no use at all for assessing their attitudes and
preferences (because the Census Bureau collects no such information).
nother widely reported "fact" about the 1996 election was a
sharp increase in Hispanic turnout. That estimate also came from exit polls, but
the census data say Hispanic turnout actually went down by a couple of
percentage points. Yet because Hispanics had increased their proportion of the
population since 1992 and because Hispanic turnout went down less than
the rest of the population in an abysmally low turnout year, Hispanics still
modestly improved their representation among voters from 4 percent to 5 percent.
In the long run, the growth of the Hispanic population could significantly alter
the electorate andgiven current voting patternsprovide a substantial boon to
the Democrats. But in the 1996 election the magnitude of the change was not
large and in the short run does not radically alter our picture of American
Some analysts, particularly within the black community, also argued that
black menpresumably mobilized by the Million Man March and related activitiesvoted
in larger numbers in 1996. That too would be a development welcomed by the
Democratic Party. But this finding, also based on exit polls, is contradicted by
the census data, which show that black men suffered a decline in turnout (down
four points) that was actually greater than the decline in turnout among black
women (down three points). The representation of black men among voters hardly
changed in 1996.
So what explains Clinton's relative success in 1996? The answer is implicit
in the data about the preponderance of Americans with less than a college
education. Consider the following results from 1996 exit polls: Clinton's support increased by about
eight percentage points (over 1992) among the noncollege educated, but by only
four points among the college educated. And among women, the disparity was even
greater: Clinton's support went up more than 11 percentage points among voters
without college degrees and just five points among college graduates. While
Clinton may not have delivered much to them, the voters who have most often lost
out in the new economy saw the Republicans as having even less to offer.
Interestingly enough, the class disparities among women were actually
greatest among married women with childrenthe ones most closely resembling the
fabled "soccer moms." Noncollege-educated mothers increased their
support of Clinton by 17 points, compared to just three points among college-educated
mothers. Other breakdowns make the same point even more starkly:
Compared to 1992, working mothers without a college education increased their
support of Clinton by 20 points, while their college-educated counterparts did
so by only two points. The median household income of noncollege-educated women
was just $34,000 in 1996. Thus the true swing voter starts to look less like an
affluent Volvo driver and more like a Cavalier driver struggling to get by
economically and build a better life. Clinton deserves credit for reaching so
many of these women with his defense of such programs as Medicare, Medicaid, and
public education. This is the success Democrats might effectively build on. The
Volvo drivers, in contrast, responded only tepidly to Clinton, and there is
little reason to build a political strategy around them.
So current and future success for the Democrats depends, most plausibly, not
on increasing black turnout (now 11 percent of voters, just about their
representation in the adult population) or even on increasing Hispanic turnout
(now 5 percent of voters, just one percentage point under their representation
among adult citizens) or on seducing the college-educated winners in the new
economy. Instead it lies with the strugglers: the overwhelming majority of U.S.
voters who lack a college degree and, more particularly, the huge pool of
noncollege-educated white voters (57 percent of the electorate) whose
support for the Democrats has improved substantially but remains shaky (just 44
percent for the President and 47 percent for the House in the 1996
The Democrats especially need to increase support among nonunion
whites without college degrees. The unionized noncollege whites are already
solidly in the Democrats' camp: They voted 65 percent Democratic in the 1996
House elections. Partitioning the electorate into several groups underlines the
challenge [see "Strengths and Weaknesses in the Democrats' Base,"
below]. While unionists, nonunion blacks, and nonunion Hispanics made up 33
percent of voters and supported House Democrats at rates of 63, 80, and 69
percent respectively, nonunion noncollege whites made up 45 percent of the
electorate and only supported House Democrats at a 44 percent rate. Clearly,
Democrats will need to win this group in 1998 and beyond if they are to take
back the Congress.
|Group||Percent of Voters|
|Nonunion noncollege whites||45||44|
|Nonunion college whites||21||36|
|Source: Author's analysis of 1996 VNS Exit Poll and 1996 Census Voter Supplement data.|
If the Democrats can simply break even among this group, they would increase
their share of the House two-party vote to 53 percent. That would almost
certainly be enough to win a majority of seats and would bring popular support
for House Democrats back to pre-1994 levels. (The Democrats averaged 53 percent
of the two-party vote throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.) The hardest part of
achieving such a split among nonunion whites without college degrees will be
moving the men. While 48 percent of the women supported Democrats in 1996, only
40 percent of the men did so. Of course, if women move up more than two points,
men could move up fewer than ten and still produce an even split among the group
as a whole.
What could move these voters? Consider some economic data. The median wage of
noncollege white men at the end of 1996 remained 10 percent below its 1989 peak,
even in the seventh year of an economic expansion. And the median wage of
noncollege white women, while showing less erosion over this period, was still 3
percent below its 1989 peak. Household income has risen overall for three years
running, but for noncollege white men, the median household income at the end of
1996 was 2 percent lower than in 1989 and, for women, the corresponding figure
was 3 percent. So, the material basis for a populist message among these voters
And the political basis for that message may be emerging. One can argue about
the economic merits of fast-track legislation, but the politics should be clear.
Public opinion, particularly among nonunion noncollege whites, has been hostile
to the measure. In a recent poll, 70 percent of nonunion noncollege whites
opposed fast track and 69 percent opposed expanding NAFTA to other Latin
American countries [see "Why the Democrats Might Win Back More Reagan
Democrats," below]. Thus, contrary to what many commentators said at the
time, Democrats in Congress shored up their credentials with swing voters by
opposing fast track. It was a vote that may help them prevail among precisely
the voters whose support they need to take back the House.
|Oppose fast-track legislation||70%||69%|
|Oppose expanding NAFTA||66||72|
|Support improved education via national testing and raising school standards||58||67|
|Support increasing spending on public schools||57||65|
|Favor increasing investment in programs like education with higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations||62||77|
|Favor eliminating subsidies to big corporations and closing tax loopholes for the wealthy||64||77|
|Support protecting Medicare and Social Security||76||87|
|Source: Author's analysis of July 18-22, 1997,
Hart/AFL-CIO survey (fast track, expanding NAFTA to Latin America); 1996
National Election Study (increasing school spending); October 12-16, 1997,
Lake/Greenberg/EMILY's List survey (raising school standards, eliminating
subsidies, protecting Medicare and Social Security); and November 5-8,
1996, Greenberg/Campaign for America's Future survey (increasing
investment in domestic programs).
The polling data suggest several other areas where nonunion noncollege
whites, both women and men, are particularly open to Democratic
initiatives. On education issues, while women in the group have stronger views,
the men show support for a more activist approach. Both men and women in this
group exhibit strong hostility to corporate welfare and attach a very high level
of importance to protecting Medicare and Social Security.
Thus, not only are nonunion noncollege whites critical to the success of the
Democrats, these voters can be reached with the right program. And this
especially includes the men; Democrats who cede them to the Republicans are
accepting permanent minority status. Will the Democrats take up the challenge of
speaking to this group's interests or continue to rely on platitudes about the
virtues of the new economy? The 1998 elections should begin to tell the
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