- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 21, 2003

What every campaign looks for is a good predictor of success. While sometimes those predictors are as simple as a ballot test (“If the election were held today, for whom would you vote?”), the most robust and durable predictors tend to be proxies, such as approval ratings, confidence in the economy, etc. These predictors are important, in part because they help inform the campaign operations, and in part because they influence how people think about the progress (or regress) of the campaign.

Consequently, in every election cycle smart people try to guess which demographic group will be the key predictor of success. Will it be the angry white males? The soccer moms? The office park dads?

Let’s take a quick look at two perennial candidates for election cycle predictors, and see how they compare to reality. For some time, pundits have suggested that Republicans in presidential races need to watch how they are received by women.

Let’s examine how women have voted in recent national elections. In 1952, the earliest year for which there are probative records, the University of Michigan’s National Election Study (NES) indicated that Eisenhower received about 59 percent of the female vote, compared with about 55 percent of the overall population. Similarly, in 1956, Gallup’s results suggest that Dwight Eisenhower did better among women (61 percent) than among all voters (58 percent).

Subsequent elections tell much the same story. In every presidential election except two between 1952 and 1988, women gave either a majority or plurality of their votes to Republicans. The two exceptions were 1964 (when almost 70 percent of the women rejected Barry Goldwater) and 1976, when women voted narrowly for Jimmy Carter. In 1988, women appeared to have either split down the middle or tilted slightly to George W. Bush.

Then in 1992, the bottom fell out for the Republicans among both men and women nationally. President Bush received only about 38 percent of the women’s vote, matching his percentage among the total. In 1996, Sen. Bob Dole did not substantially improve on this performance, again getting about 41 percent of the general vote, and a bit more than a third of the female vote. In 2000, Geeorge W. Bush’s opponent outperformed him among women by 12 points even as the Governor won about 49 percent of the total popular vote.

Whatever one’s feelings about those elections, it is clear that gender is a poor predictor for the campaigns.

Some would say that the suburban vote is the key demographic. Let’s look to the electoral patterns in the suburbs.

Again, with data beginning in 1952, the NES indicates that the Republicans won an outright majority of suburban voters in every Presidential election from 1952 to 1992. Only in 1964 did a majority of suburban voters vote for the Democratic candidate.

In 1992, Bill Clinton managed to win a plurality — 44 percent of the suburban vote, and in 1996, he improved on that, receiving 50 percent of the suburban vote, according to the NES. In 2000, Governor Bush managed to eke out a victory in the suburbs (49-47 percent according to exit polls), and his numbers there closely matched his total among the general population.

Some say that the pattern is clear: continuing deterioration of the Republican vote in the suburbs. That may be true, but complicating any assessment of the value of the data about suburban voting patterns is the lack of clarity surrounding it. It is not at all clear how “suburbs” are defined, nor is the geographical shift of the suburbs addressed. Whatever the merits of these points, it is clear that the suburban vote is also a poor predictor for the Presidential campaigns.

Well, then, what might be the key demographic and the best predictor?

Without question, the best predictor of Republican performance in presidential elections is … those voters who have high-school degrees, but who have not attended college. It does sound unlikely, but the numbers confirm it — the voting preferences of high school graduates are perhaps the best predictors of Republican performance in Presidential elections.

In 1952, high school graduates voted for Eisenhower by a margin of 55-45 percent. Eisenhower won with 55 percent of the vote. In 1956, high-school grads voted 58-42 percent for Eisenhower. He won, 58-42 percent.

Indeed, in every presidential election from 1952 to 2000, except one, the percentage of high-school graduates who voted for Republicans very nearly precisely matched the Republican share of total votes (see table). Only in 1996 was there a significant divergence. This precision is not because the cohort overwhelms the other cohorts by sheer number; in fact, only about one in three (32.6 percent in the 2000 Census) Americans fits into this demographic group.

What does that mean for the Republican Party? It means simply that what many have intuitively believed has some basis in the data; namely, that Republicans succeed nationally when they speak to blue- and pink-collar workers; folks in the Rust Belt, Wallace Democrats; Reagan Republicans, bubbas, etc. When Republican rhetoric and action are grounded in concern for the truly average American, the party reaps electoral rewards. When the rhetoric and action diverge from the very real concerns of Middle America, it does not.

Year% of all voting% high school grads % women voting

Republicanvoting Republican Republican

195255%55% (Gallup)59% (NES)

58% (Gallup)

195658%58% (Gallup)63% (NES)

61% (Gallup)

196050%48% (Gallup)53% (NES)

51% (Gallup)

196438%38% (Gallup)31% (NES)

38% (Gallup)

196843%43% (Gallup)49% (NES)

43% (Gallup)

197262%66% (Gallup)61% (NES)

62% (Gallup)

197648%46% (Gallup)49% (NES)

51% (Gallup)

198051%51% (Gallup)48% (NES)

49% (Gallup)

198459%57% (Gallup)55 % (NES)

55% (Gallup)

198854%54% (Gallup)50% (NES)

52% (Gallup)

199238%38% (Gallup)33% (NES)

39% (Gallup)

199641%34% (Gallup)34% (NES)

39% (Gallup)

200049%49% (Gallup)42% (Gallup)


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