The SES Factor

Feb 19, 2008 10:00am

My last couple of items have looked at race and sex as factors in the Democratic presidential campaign (and separately we've examined the role of ideology and religious belief on the Republican side). The Clinton-Obama contest includes another crucial variable to watch: socioeconomic status.

With remarkable consistency, Hillary Clinton has done better with lower-education and -income groups, Barack Obama with higher ones. It may matter in Wisconsin today, in Texas, and perhaps more than anywhere else, in Ohio on March 4.

It shows up best when we look at vote preferences by educational attainment. Overall, combining all primaries to date, voters who hold a college degree have voted for Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton by an 8-point margin, 51-43 percent, while those who haven’t been graduated from college have favored Clinton by 10 points.

Breaking it down by sex sharpens the picture: Obama easily has won college-educated men, while Clinton has just about as easily won women who’ve not been to college. The battle’s among two other groups – less-educated men and more-educated women, both of which have divided evenly between Clinton and Obama in primaries so far. (It’s a point on which Ron Brownstein, political editor of the National Journal, has been justifiably fixated all season.)

It gets even more interesting when we take the next step and look at race as a factor as well. Obama’s been winning more-educated white men by a 17-point margin, and losing less-educated white men by 19 points – a dramatic 36-point education gap. Clinton’s been winning more-educated white women by 13 points, while winning less-educated white women by a whopping 38 points – not quite as big an education gap, at 25 points, but hefty nonetheless.

As a result, among whites overall, to date Clinton’s won the less-educated by 30 points, while the college-educated have split evenly.

There’s also an education gap among Hispanics, men and women alike. But there’s been much less of a division among African-Americans, given their very broad overall support for Obama. The tables below tell the story:

             All          All men      All women         College  No    College  No    College  NoClinton    43%    51      36     46      48     54Obama      51     41      57     46      47     39

          All whites     White men     White women         College  No    College  No    College  NoClinton    47     59      37     52      53     64Obama      46     29      54     33      40     26

          All blacks     Black men    Black women         College  No    College  No    College  NoClinton     14    18      14     15      14     20Obama       81    78      82     81      81     75

         All Hispanics  Hispanic men  Hispanic women         College  No    College  No    College  No Clinton     55    65      48     59      59     69Obama       42    32      47     38      39     28

         College/No college difference               Clinton   ObamaAll              -8      +10All whites      -12      +17All blacks       -4       +3All Hispanics   -10      +10White men       -15      +21White women     -11      +14Black men        -1       +1Black women      -6       +6Hispanic men    -11       +9Hispanic women  -10      +11

One conclusion is that Obama has run so competitively overall in part because the primaries attract better-educated people. Among all Democratic primary voters, 48 percent have been college graduates; among whites, 54 percent. Compare that with all Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents in the country: In aggregate 2007 data from ABC News/Washington Post polls, just 29 percent held college degrees. The disproportionate participation of better-educated voters in the primaries has paid off for Obama big-time.

And looking ahead? In Democratic primary exit polls from 2004, 46 percent of whites in Wisconsin and Texas alike held college degrees; in Ohio fewer did, 39 percent. Those figures don’t predict who’ll turn out this year. But it’s clear that along with race and sex, the education level of Democrats who show up to vote will be a critical factor in the outcome of these primaries.

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