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By Janel Davis November 5, 2012

Is education level tied to voting tendencies?

With the presidential election upon us this week, PolitiFact Georgia decided to examine a statement about national voting trends.

In a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, political analyst Larry Sabato commented on the constituency of the political parties, particularly among white voters. We already checked part of his statement that "Virginia’s educational level among whites is higher than Georgia (voters’ educational level)." We rated it true.

In the article, Sabato goes on to explain more of the characteristics of the political parties’ faithful.
"... The higher the education level, the more likely they are to vote Democratic," he said in the story.

We decided to take a closer look to determine whether there were facts to bear this out. And if so, did this claim include voters nationwide? And what about Georgia, where conservative, white voters have been a solid base for the GOP?

We asked Sabato about the basis for his comments. Like his first statement, Sabato used CNN’s 2008 exit polls to substantiate his claim, according to his political analyst and media relations coordinator, Kyle Kondik.

Based on the 2008 exit polls of Georgia, Virginia (where Sabato works) and nationally, whites with a college degree supported Barack Obama at a higher rate than whites without a college degree, Kondik said.

Looking at CNN’s 2008 national election poll of almost 18,000 respondents, 44 percent identified as college graduates. Of those college graduates, Obama had an 8 percentage point advantage over then-Republican presidential nominee John McCain.

Of voters with a postgraduate degree, Obama had an 18-point advantage over McCain.

In Georgia, the GOP maintained a strong foothold. All white voters at each education level -- except of course, white Democrats -- overwhelmingly voted for McCain. The GOP nominee had a 48-point advantage over Obama among Georgia’s white college graduate respondents. At the postgraduate level, the margin between the candidates shrunk, but McCain still beat out Obama by 1 percentage point. (The postgraduate voters were not identified by race.)

The Pew Research Center released data in August 2012 about GOP gains among working-class white voters that found: "Lower-income and less educated whites also have shifted substantially toward the Republican Party since 2008."

Among whites without a college degree, the GOP now holds a 54 percent to 37 percent advantage among non-college whites, who were split about evenly four years ago. The partisanship of white college graduates, by contrast, has not changed, the analysis found.

Back in March of this year, political scientists and authors of the Monkey Cage blog examined the voting patterns of white voters in America. Their findings also support Sabato’s analysis.

When viewed in the context of educational attainment alone, without also examining income level, the blog authors concluded that high school graduates are more Republican than non-high school graduates. But after that, the groups with more education tended to vote more Democratic. At the very highest education level tabulated in the survey, voters with postgraduate degrees leaned toward the Democrats.

To reach the conclusions, the political scientists (professors at East Coast colleges such as George Washington University and Georgetown) used data from Annenberg pre-election polls for 2000 and 2004 and Pew pre-election polls for 2008.

With white, highly educated voters being a key demographic for the Democratic Party, political observers, such as conservative columnist Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner, are predicting Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney could carry several swing states if he can sway these voters to the GOP.

But the Democrats seem intent on keeping this voting bloc. Last week the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), which conducts research on civic education and on youth voting and political participation, published an analysis of about 1,110 young voters based on their educational experience.

CIRCLE, which is based at Tufts University and was founded in 2001 by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, found that youths with college backgrounds were about three times more likely to have been contacted on behalf of the Obama campaign. The Romney campaign and supporters appeared to have contacted more non-college youths.

In Georgia, the numbers are harder to examine. The secretary of state does not keep statistics on voters’ education levels.

The GOP in the Peach State and in the Deep South in general still has a stronghold on the white voters, regardless of the education level, said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University and co-author of the book "The Rise of the Southern Republicans."

"In a state like Virginia where you have a lot of Northern migrants and people coming in from outside the state, things may be different," he said.

The GOP stronghold in Georgia is evidenced by the overwhelming number of Republicans in power at  the state level, as well as the strong support for McCain four years ago and early polling data showing support for Romney this year.

Sabato said that "the higher the education level, the more likely [voters] are to vote Democratic." Sabato bases his claim on 2008 exit polls showing this national trend. Several polls and analysis done on data from presidential elections dating back at least a decade support Sabato’s claim.

Still, looking at data for Georgia, the trend remains for white voters -- regardless of educational level -- to vote Republican.

For many areas of the country, Sabato’s claim holds true. But in Georgia and the Deep South, the GOP is still firmly in control. We rate Sabato’s statement Mostly True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "White voters solidly in for GOP in Georgia," Aaron Gould Sheinin, Oct. 16, 2012

Email exchange with Kyle Kondik, political analyst and media relations coordinator, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, University of Virginia Center for Politics, Oct. 30, 2012

CNN Election Center, national exit poll, 2008

Phone interview, Merle Black, political science professor, Emory University, Oct. 19, 2012

Pew Research Center, "A closer look at the parties in 2012," released Aug. 23, 2012

PolitiFact Georgia, "Georgia, Virginia’s education levels under microscope," Oct. 22, 2012

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Georgia Statewide Poll, conducted by telephone, Oct. 8-11, 2012

The Monkey Cage blog, "Voting patterns of America’s whites, from the masses to the elites," March 23, 2012

The Washington Examiner, "Can Romney bring upscale suburbs back to the GOP?" Timothy Carney, Oct. 31, 2012

The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), CIRCLE blog, Outreach to Youth survey, Oct. 29, 2012

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