WASHINGTON — The last few weeks have brought Democrats some good news about the 2022 midterms. There have been better poll numbers and surprising election results in some races, such as this week’s close race in a Minnesota House district that went heavily for Donald Trump in 2020.
Democrats still face an uphill battle in November and oddsmakers say they are likely to lose control of the House of Representatives, but the numbers raise questions about whether 2022 might defy the early expectations of a Republican wave.
On top of a long list of 2022 issues (from the Dobbs decision ... to some improving economic news), there are two larger structural factors to consider. First, is the changing nature of the GOP. And second is the impact of Donald Trump not being on the ballot.
In the last few years, the composition of the nation’s two major political parties has changed, particularly around educational attainment. The GOP is increasingly made up of voters without a college degree, while the reverse is true for the Democrats. The data show a pretty clear pattern.
Back in 1996, 27% of Republicans had at least a bachelor’s degree, according to data from the Pew Research Center. That number rose to 32% in 2004 and 34% in 2012. But the number dropped back down to 29% in 2019.
For Democrats, the growth in college degrees has been more consistent and larger. Back in 1996, only 22% of Democrats had at least a bachelor’s degree, according to Pew. By 2004, it had grown to 30%. By 2012, it was 36%. And by 2019, the Democratic figure was 41%.
Those are remarkable shifts. In 1996, Republicans were more likely than Democrats to hold a bachelor’s degree, by about 5 points. By 2019, Democrats were more likely to hold a bachelor’s than Republicans by 12 points. And, that decline in bachelor’s degrees among Republicans has come as the number of people with bachelor’s degrees in the general population has been climbing.
The numbers are about more than education, they matter because not everyone votes at the same rate in the United States. Broadly speaking, the higher someone’s level of educational attainment, the more likely they are to vote. And the impact in midterm years can be especially sharp.
The first thing that jumps out of those numbers is how different they are. For instance, in 2020, about 51% voted among those whose highest level of educational attainment was a high school diploma. For those with some college or an associated degree, the “voted” figure was almost 67%. And among those with a bachelor’s degree or more, the “voted” figure got up to 74%.
The exact differences between those groups may vary from year to year, but the pattern is consistent. Higher education attainment tends to equal higher rates of voting. So when a party’s percentage of college grads falls, that may make it harder to get the desired voter turnout numbers.
But also important is the drop off from presidential to midterm elections. There is always a decline in turnout between presidential and midterm years, but it tends to be lower among those with a bachelor’s degree. Comparing 2018 to 2016, the “voted” number dropped 7.1 points among those with college degrees, but it dropped 8.3% among those with some college or an associated degree and it dropped 8.6% among those with just a high school diploma.
In other words, as the Republican and Democratic parties change, the GOP is trading people who vote more frequently for people who vote less frequently, while the Democrats are doing the opposite — and that trade-off may be magnified in midterm elections.
And beyond that change, there is a larger impact of the Republican Party tying itself closely to former President Donald Trump. Trump can be a strong vote motivator, but there is the question of what the electorate looks like when he is not on the ballot and they are not going to the polls to vote specifically for him.
We’ve already had one test of what the electorate might look like in 2018, the results showed a steep drop.
In 2016, Donald Trump received 62.9 million votes for president. In the 2018 midterms, Republican House candidates received 50.9 million votes. That is a difference of 12 million votes.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton received 65.8 million votes for president. In the 2018 midterms, Democratic House candidates received 60.7 million votes, a difference of 5.1 million.
That’s not a perfect match of course. Democrats may have had closer races and/or more populous districts in 2018 driving that advantage, but the size of the difference is still notable.
Republicans will argue that a lot of that difference in 2018 was complacency. Democrats were fired up that year and they were not — at least not as much. Plus the out-of-power party always does better in first-term midterm elections especially. Both those points are true and both seem to favor Republicans this year.
But because the GOP is still Trump’s party, the 2018 comparison (what does the Republican vote look like without Trump on the ballot?) may be more salient than it normally would be.
There are still a lot of factors that could impact the 2022 vote — the abortion issue, January 6 hearings, this week’s FBI raid of Mar-a-Lago — and next month, the midterms may look like a Republican wave again.
But as the parties both change and voters realign, these larger structural issues aren’t going away. The question is how much they will matter this fall.