How Is America’s Electorate Changing?

  • August 13, 2018
  • by Charles Babington

A Pew Research Center survey highlights a wide gender gap and growing education divide in voters’ party identification.

Political chatter may be changing faster in college dorms—or alumni events—than anywhere else in America. When George W. Bush was elected president, college-educated voters clearly favored the Republican Party, while voters who never attended college leaned Democratic. Today, those groups have swapped loyalties.

It’s part of a remarkable shift that has made the Republican and Democratic electorates less alike demographically than at any time in the past quarter century.

Democratic voters have become notably younger, less white, less religious, less rural, and more educated. Two decades ago, white voters without a four-year degree accounted for more than half (56 percent) of all Democratic voters. Now they account for only one-third.

The Republican electorate hasn’t changed as dramatically over this time. But compared to the Democrats, the GOP relies more heavily on older, rural white voters, and especially those who never attended college.

These are among the findings from a Pew Research Center study released in March that interviewed more than 10,000 registered voters in 2017. It also draws on tens of thousands of interviews conducted in previous years.

The study paints a portrait of two political parties growing further apart demographically. A generation ago, Republican and Democratic voters looked more similar in terms of gender, age, and education level.

Although the survey finds some groups—notably young, college-educated women—clearly shifting toward the Democrats, many voters still show little affinity for either major party. In the 2017 interviews, 37 percent of registered voters identified as independents, 33 percent as Democrats, and 26 percent as Republicans.

When the partisan leanings of independents are taken into account, however, exactly half of all voters identify as Democrats or lean Democratic, and 42 percent identify as Republicans or lean Republican. The Democratic advantage is the largest since 2009.

Republicans note that they still control the House, Senate, White House, and most state governments. And they have extended their support among voters without college degrees, who far outnumber those with college diplomas.

“The research shows a picture of two very different parties—and parties that are very different now from what they were 20 years ago,” says Carroll Doherty, the Pew Research Center’s director of political research.

Only a decade ago, for instance, more Democrats identified their views as “moderate” as opposed to “liberal.” Now the reverse is true, with 46 percent of Democrats describing their views as “liberal,” 37 percent as “moderate,” and 15 percent as “conservative.” Republicans remain heavily “conservative” in outlook (68 percent).

Today more than in recent decades, Doherty says, the Republican and Democratic parties “are made up of very different kinds of people.”

A widening gap among the college-educated

In 1994, 39 percent of voters with a four-year college degree (and no postgraduate experience) identified with or leaned toward the Democratic Party, and 54 percent associated with the GOP. In 2017, those figures were reversed.

One-third of registered voters now have a four-year college degree. The much larger group of voters without a four-year degree is more evenly divided in partisan affiliation, but voters with no college experience have been moving toward the GOP. Nearly half (47 percent) identify or lean Republican, up from 42 percent in 2014.

“College graduates have become more politically liberal over the years,” Doherty says. Their increased identification with the Democratic Party is helping to pull it to the left.

Persistent gender and racial gaps

Women’s preference for the Democratic Party is not new, but it’s growing. Today, 56 percent of female voters identify as Democrats or lean Democratic. That’s 4 percentage points higher than in 2015, and it marks one of the highest levels since 1992.

Meanwhile, 37 percent of women affiliate with or lean toward the Republican Party.

Men’s political loyalties haven’t changed much since 2014. Nearly half (48 percent) identify or lean Republican, while 44 percent identify or lean Democratic.

The partisan racial divide in America remains fairly static. About half of white voters (51 percent) identify or lean Republican, while 43 percent identify or lean Democratic. These figures are little changed from recent years.

Non-Hispanic whites remain the largest group of registered voters by far, at 69 percent, but their share keeps falling. They made up 83 percent of the electorate in 1997.

African-American voters remain overwhelmingly Democratic, with 84 percent identifying with or leaning to that party. African-Americans continue to make up about 11 percent of the electorate.

Hispanic voters align with the Democrats by more than 2 to 1 (63 percent Democratic, 28 percent Republican). Asian-American voters have a similar divide.

The increase in Hispanic voters has slowed, standing at about 10 percent of the U.S. electorate for the past decade. In 1997, they made up 4 percent.

Asian-Americans, who made up a tiny share of voters 20 years ago, now constitute 2 percent.

Five percent of voters describe their race as “other.”

Millennials tilt more Democratic

Millennial voters are more likely than older generations to affiliate with the Democratic Party. Nearly 6 in 10 Millennials (59 percent) identify as Democrats or lean Democratic. So do about half of Gen Xers and Baby Boomers (48 percent each) and 43 percent of voters in the Silent Generation. (Millennials were born from 1981 to 1996; Gen Xers from 1965 to 1980; Boomers from 1946 to 1964; and the Silent Generation from 1928 to 1945.)

A growing majority of Millennial women (70 percent) affiliate with the Democratic Party or lean Democratic. That’s markedly higher than the 56 percent from just four years ago.

About half of Millennial men (49 percent) align with the Democratic Party, little changed in recent years.

Rutgers University political scientist Ross K. Baker says Millennial women’s growing affiliation with Democrats won’t necessarily change election outcomes. Many women—especially those without college degrees—continue to feel alienated from what they view as a liberal establishment, he says, and they may provide enough votes for Republicans to win elections, as Donald Trump did over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

“The receptivity of women to the politics of grievance is considerable,” Baker says. “Grievance is a strong incentive to voting.”

White evangelical Protestants are reliably Republican

The Republican Party’s advantage among white evangelical Protestants continues to grow: 77 percent of these voters identify or lean Republican, compared with 18 percent Democratic.

White mainline Protestant voters are more politically divided. A little over half (53 percent) identify or lean Republican; 41 percent identify or lean Democratic.

Black Protestant voters remain solidly Democratic in their partisan loyalties (87 percent).

Overall, Catholic voters are about evenly split between the two major parties. But white Catholics and Hispanic Catholics diverge politically.

White Catholic voters now are more Republican (54 percent) than Democratic (40 percent). Hispanic Catholics, who represent a growing share of the U.S. Catholic population, are substantially more Democratic in orientation (64 percent Democratic, 27 percent Republican).

Mormon voters remain solidly Republican (72 percent). 

By about 2 to 1, Jewish voters continue to identify or lean Democratic.

The religiously unaffiliated, a growing share of the U.S. population, have moved steadily toward the Democratic Party. Today, 68 percent identify or lean Democratic. Religiously unaffiliated adults account for about one-third of all Democratic voters, but only about one-eighth of Republicans.

Democrats’ urban edge grows

The Democrats’ advantage among urban voters has grown. Today, twice as many urban voters identify or lean Democratic (62 percent) as identify or lean Republican.

Overall, voters in suburban counties are about evenly divided (47 percent Democratic, 45 percent Republican), little changed over the last two decades.

Rural voters have trended more Republican over the past several years. From 1999 to 2009, rural voters were about equally divided in their partisan leanings. Today, the GOP holds a 16-percentage-point advantage.

Baker warns against assuming that changes in party-identity statistics automatically lead to changed election results. A millennial woman happy with her career might prefer Democrats, but it won’t matter if she doesn’t vote.

“Broad demographic trends as expressed in poll numbers don’t translate well into likelihood of voting,” Baker says.

Charles Babington, who covered national politics for The Washington Post and the Associated Press, last wrote for Trust about Pew’s research on American families’ financial security.