US election

Turnout Series: Education levels determine turnout

By October 13, 2016 No Comments

By Alex Lange, JKL Political Analyst

In the second of our series on turnout in American presidential elections, we take a look at turnout rates and the shape of the electorate viewed through the lens of education levels. The exercise matters, because it gives campaigns and analysts a sense for which education groups are the most reliable voters, and also have the most impact.

There is a clear difference in turnout rates among the American electorate based on education level, which is almost exactly linearly proportional, meaning the more education a voter has, the more likely that voter is to turn out to vote. Barely a third of voters with less than a full high school education turn out to vote, while voters with post-graduate education (more than a bachelor’s degree) regularly turn out at more than 80%.

Turnout Rate By Education Level

There is some difference in how volatile each group is, with those who have some college education deviating from the mean by a standard deviation of about 4% while those with less than a high school education are comparatively stable at a standard deviation of just 2%. High school graduates and those with post graduate degrees have a standard deviation of 3.1% and 2.6% respectively.

Motivating a share of the electorate to come out and vote at higher turnout rates is usually a function of higher turnout rates across the board, rather than one education group moving counter to others. For the campaigns, this means that while there is the most potential to gain from mobilizing voters with no college education it is also very difficult to do so independently of somehow driving up turnout for all education levels.

But this year, Donald Trump has placed much of his hopes into doing exactly that. His best poll numbers are with white voters who have no college education, with whom a recent poll showed he was leading Clinton at 63% to 32%. Conversely, Clinton leads with white voters who have at least some college education at 50% to Trump’s 45%, a group that historically tended to be more Republican.

Share of the Electorate by Education

The Trump campaign seems to think that thanks to the unusual nature of his candidacy, he can break out of the mold and drive up turnout among voters with no college education. But as a share of the electorate, that part of the electorate has been in decline from nearly 50% in 1988 to merely 32% in 2012, despite turnout rates being relatively stable. The change is largely attributable to more American voters attaining education beyond high school in the last 25 years.

To break out of the mold, the Trump campaign would have to achieve something extraordinary, namely to get the least reliable demographic by education level to turn out at unprecedented rates. There is some evidence that Trump’s supporters are more enthusiastic than Clinton’s, but it remains to be seen whether that will actually materialize on Election Day, and it’s a fight against historical currents.

Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign is counting on her college educated supporters to turn out for her as a way of opposing Trump, while framing Trump as completely unacceptable for those college educated voters who usually vote Republican.


[Data: United States Elections Project at the University of Florida]