Why Are the Educated More Likely to Support Obama?

Why Are the Educated More Likely to Support Obama? October 7, 2010

This week I have offered a series of posts reflecting on Gallup’s stunning recent survey on approval ratings for the Obama presidency. The results are chock-full of bad news for Democrats, but not all of it is bad or unflattering. Democrats might be encouraged that young folks support Obama at a higher rate than older folks — a result I discussed here — and that the more educated a person is, the more likely he or she is to approve of Obama’s performance.

Those with only a high school degree, or less, approve of Obama at a rate of 42%.  45% of those with some college experience approve, and 46% of those who finished a college degree.  Of those who have earned a post-graduate degree, however, 53% approve of Obama.  53% is not a huge number, but there is a clear slope here, and it does require explanation.  What are we to make of this?  Does it mean that those who are most educated individuals in American society better understand Obama and appreciate his accomplishments?  Or does it reflect more on the ideology prevalent on American campuses?

There are several reasons to prefer the latter interpretation.

(1) Level of education does not, as we all know, perfectly correlate with level of intelligence.  Advanced degree programs also tend to reward certain kinds of intelligence instead of others.  What is interesting is that while Obama approval goes up for the more educated, it goes down for the more wealthy.  Now, those with degrees in law and business and medicine tend to be more wealthy, while those with advanced degrees in education, the humanities and even many of the social sciences tend to make less.  This would suggest that those with professional degrees, especially the most lucrative ones, have a lower approval rating for Obama than those with degrees in education and the humanities.  This raises the question: how many advanced degrees are awarded each year, and how many are in fields, such as education, law, humanities and the social sciences, strongly associated with liberal ideology on American campuses?

(2) Post-graduate degrees include master’s degrees (including business degrees) and doctoral degrees, and what are called first-profession degrees such as law, medicine, pharmacy, and ministerial degrees.  In 2007-2008, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 625,000 master’s degrees and 63,700 doctoral degrees were awarded, and 91,300 first-profession degrees.

The most significant category by far, then, are master’s degrees.  And in master’s degrees, the largest percentage are education degrees — the kind of degrees that many teachers acquire before going into teaching, or in order to bolster their training and credentials mid-career.  Of the 625,000 master’s degrees awarded in 2007-08, 175,000 were in education.  I don’t have any statistics on hand for this, but Schools of Education are notoriously liberal.  Moreover, of the 175,000 master’s degrees awarded in education that year, 77% went to women, who typically support Democratic candidates by rates around 55%.  This has to be balanced against roughly 156,000 master’s degrees awarded in business, where there is less of a preference for liberalism, or (some argue) even a preference for conservatism, but then again the next largest category are master’s degrees in health services (master’s in nursing, etc.), of which 81% go to women, and 33,000 receive degrees in public administration and social services, 75% women.  Overall, 60.6% of all master’s degrees go to women.

Amongst doctoral degrees it is difficult to discern much of a politically significant pattern, but amongst first-profession degrees the largest number by far (47%) are in the field of law.  Law schools too are famously liberal.  In a survey of 2008 campaign contributions of 635 law professors, for instance, 95% of the money went to Obama and only 5% to McCain.  At many top law schools such as Harvard, Stanford, Michigan, Chicago, and Penn, 100% of the contributions went to Obama and other Democratic candidates.  This was not a rigorous study, but given the 90-point difference in this case it’s hard to believe that the political affiliations of law professors would be anything but overwhelmingly Democratic and liberal.

(3) Apart from the political predilections of particular fields, the education industry in general has given overwhelmingly to Democrats; in 2008 and 2010, money from the education industry went to Democrats over Republicans by about 5-to-1.  Employees of educational institutions, in fact, now consistently rank amongst the top supporters for Democrats and particularly Democratic presidential candidates, donating enormous sums of money to defeat Bush in 2004 and to install a Democrat (and their clear preference was for Obama) in 2008.  Even in these 2010 midterms, significant and wildly disproportionate amounts of money are going toward Democrats.  According to campaignmoney.com, when all political contributions from professors are added together from 1999 to the present, roughly 75% went to Democrats and only 10% to Republicans.  However these numbers fit together, the trend is abundantly clear.

It strains credulity to the limit to believe that students who spend some of their most intellectually formative years under the tutelage of an overwhelmingly liberal body of authority figures would not find their political views pushed toward the Left.

4.  It’s also worth mentioning that there are many more advanced degrees awarded today than there were, say, 10, 20, or 40 years ago, meaning that the number of those with post-graduate degrees will cluster toward the younger side of the age spectrum.  As already explained, the young tend to be more liberal and more likely to support Democrats.

IN CONCLUSION, the 53% approval rating amongst those with post-graduate degrees speaks less to intelligence or education per se, in my view, than to (1) the demographics of that group, which trend toward two groups already likely to trend liberal: young people and women, and (2) the years of exposure to authority figures who are overwhelmingly liberal in their politics.

So much for the Gallup poll and what it tells us about those who approve and those who disapprove of the performance of the Obama administration!  Tomorrow we turn to a new subject – the suicide of Tyler Clementi.

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  • Lots of assumptions here that I’m not comfortable acknowledging. A few questions:
    Why not assume business schools are overwhelmingly conservative? All the MBA’s I know voted for Bush.
    I would like to see a breakdown of the demographics by school. Might not doctoral graduates from, say, Baylor’s or Pepperdine’s poli-sci program be more conservative, while those from Yale or Harvard be more liberal? I base this reasoning on the professors that teach at the respective universities, and their reputations.
    Wouldn’t prospective graduate students have already formed their base political ideology by the time they reach grad school, thus minimizing the influence of a prof’s views? I’m not saying students aren’t influenced by teachers, they almost certainly are, but when you get to that level it seems to me that most intelligent folks will already have formed strong beliefs/stances.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Jason, yes, those leaving Baylor and Pepperdine with doctoral degrees will generally be more conservative than those leaving Harvard and Berkeley. The question is how it all adds up. I don’t have figures for the political views of students in different fields and at different schools. But we do have figures that reflect the political views of the faculty, and while those views are more conservative in Alabama than they are in California, the whole adds up to a strong predominance of political liberalism.

      B-schools may well be strongly conservative. My point was that even if they are, they are overwhelmingly counter-balanced by education and law and health services and the arts, humanities and social sciences.

      And yes, I’m sure many will already have developed strong political views by the time they enter graduate study. But remember that many enter graduate study at 22 — still quite young. We only need to explain a difference of a few percentage points. Look at it this way. Take three groups of 100 people. The first 100 never went to college; the second 100 finished undergrad only; the third 100 achieved graduate degrees. In the first group, 43 will approve of Obama; in the second group, 3 more (46) will have; in the third group, 7 more still (53) will. Are the demographic differences (group 3 will be younger than 2, and more female), plus the 4 years for group two and 4+ years for group three, and perhaps a different set of values that tends to lead people in the first place to seek graduate degrees, enough to explain those different percentage points?

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  • Jared

    Tim, you’ve done some good thinking on the topic, none of which I’m here to refute.

    I would add a bit of nuance, though.

    First, polls like the one you’re analyzing, and indeed our electoral and political system, offer an essentially binary choice: in this case, either support Obama or do not. I doubt many who voted for Obama or even who express support now have been satisfied with 100% of his choices. Compared to the alternatives proposed by Republicans, however, his vision for government’s role in our lives seems preferable.

    Secondly, as one of those who hold a masters degree in education and prefer Obama, I would suggest a factor in our intellectual and moral formation that you did not mention. You alluded to the influence of ‘authority figures who are overwhelmingly liberal in their politics,’ and I will not dispute that–though the exceptions in my experience are myriad and powerful.

    What you neglected to mention was that people in careers such as education may often define our professional lives not in terms of lucre but in terms of contributing to the needs of individual students or clients and to the good of society as a whole. We are often community-minded people, frequently motivated by compassion, hopeful of the good that can be made within the admittedly faulty structures our society. We have to believe in those structures, or our work lives would range from the cynical to the miserable.

    These ways of thinking are not inimical to Republicans, of course. We do see liberal politicians articulating our concerns and hopes for the work we do, whereas conservatives generally seem to bash it.

    When people like us observe the scorn with which the GOP in 2008 sneered at Obama’s record as a community organizer, as we endure the deadly combination of both de-funding schools and holding them ‘accountable’ for the parenting of the children whom they serve, it’s clear the GOP does not see the realities of the people we serve every day.

    I think educated folks who work for people tend to support Obama because the alternative looks so much worse.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Good points, Jared. Yes, I was attempting to explain the different rates simply of “approval” and “disapproval,” which are certainly blunt terms of measurement, and I’m sure many such as yourself have mixed feelings regarding Obama or view him as the less objectionable of two imperfect alternatives. It’s the same of course on the other side, as many conservatives had to hold their nose to vote for McCain (for instance).

      I think it is wrong to view Democratic policy preferences are more community-minded; personally I believe that many degrade community. The conservatives I know are no less mindful of the common good, but they have a different vision of the common good and how it is best served. We could go on like this for some time. But I’m sure you’re correct that such is a common perception, and of course it’s true that the group at of those with advanced degrees is self-selecting. So let’s imagine you’re right that the higher measure of liberals in education is not a reflection of the ideology prevailing in schools of education but of the self-selecting nature of the group — or, more likely, that it’s some of both. Then the explanation for the higher approval rating for Obama would be, in addition to demographics, but the prevailing ideology within universities and the self-selecting nature of that group, that people who pursue degrees in education and law do so in part because of the ‘liberal’ views they already hold. It’s not surprising that a higher percentage approve of Obama, then, because a good number of those who pursue advanced degrees do so because of beliefs and values and inclinations that are generally thought to have a better home in the Democratic party.

      That’s not quite the point you make — but it seems to be an implication of what you’re saying, and a very good point.

  • rjs


    This last conclusion is insulting – according to you highly educated people lean toward Obama because they have been molded by authority figures and have not learned to think for themselves. Give me a break – you know better than this.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      RJS, thanks for visiting, and taking the time to leave a note. A few points:

      First, I point to two causes: demographics (a younger and more female group) and ideology, not merely to ideology.

      Second, I do not use the language or the logic that you do. Even if I had pointed only to ideology, saying that a higher percentage of those with advanced degrees approve of Obama because of the ideology of the universities is not the same as saying that those with advanced degrees approve of Obama because of the ideology of the universities. The former is a claim about percentages – an attempt to explain the difference of a few percentage points between those with advanced degrees and those with merely undergraduate degrees; the latter is a universal claim. The former points to the ideology of the universities as one factor that influences some, while the latter points to the ideology of the universities as an explanation for the political leaning of all. I know this universal not to be true, since I have advanced degrees and I do not lean toward Obama.

      Finally, I don’t think there’s anything insulting — or even controversial — in the claim that people in general are shaped by the views of those around them, especially authority figures. I have no doubt whatsoever that I have been influenced by the beliefs of my father, my pastors, and (yes) my professors. Does this mean I cannot think for myself? Of course not. To be influenced is not to be determined. If we took two groups of 18-year-olds, placed one with strong proponents of political conservatism for four years, and another with strong proponents of political liberalism for four years, do you honestly doubt that there would be a higher percentage of 22-year-olds who, in the end, lean toward conservatism and liberalism respectively in those two groups? Being in communities with peers and authority figures who profess (and, perhaps more powerfully, take for granted) a shared worldview will shape our plausibility structures, what we perceive to be facts, what we perceive to be important, etc.

      I know many highly educated people who think for themselves, and some like myself who are contrarians (which of course is another way of being influenced). But I know very few who are utterly uninfluenced by the views of authority figures around them. Especially when those authority figures are honored and celebrated by the broader culture. (It might be a different matter, in other words, if the students were aware that those ‘authority figures’ were roundly mocked outside their little bubble.) Is that influence, together with demographic differences, enough to explain the different rates of Obama approval? That is my claim.

      In any case, I’m sorry you found it insulting, but you’re really simplifying what I’m saying. Highly educated people are influenced in their political views by many things, but it seems obvious to me that one of those influences would be the political views to which they were exposed throughout their student careers.

  • Chris B. Behrens

    The academy provides an environment where propositions are never tested, except in the forensic sense – i.e., through argument. This will strongly favor propositions which rely on articulated knowledge. Where truth/reality/however you want to slice it is too complicated to hash out in an hour-long debate, that reality will slip through the academic cracks.

    It is precisely these realities which are too complicated to address adequately in discourse and analysis which are the conservative rubric. Marriage for example…I think it was Chesterton who said that it is one of those things which only works if you don’t think about it too much.

    On paper, you can come up with compelling arguments why it doesn’t matter that much, but the fruits of tearing it down speak for themselves. Libertarianism has this problem as well, though not to the same degree. Libertarians tend to have actually done something in their lives besides argue…

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  • Hi Tim,

    I’m an avid reader of your blog, and reading your blog has helped me see that there is indeed still an opportunity for compassionate, thoughtful, humble conservatism…

    This entry was helpful and well founded in stats and studies, but for me, the question that kept ringing in my head was: doesn’t this just push the question back one more step? Shouldn’t you also address why the educators and professors of “liberal” institutions are themselves more liberal in thinking?

    I think it would be safe to assume that most professors of elite and influential universities are on the whole even more educated than the students. In this entry, you weren’t really making an argument for or against the intellectual foundations of liberal political ideology, but someone could easily build an argument based on your analysis that liberalism is more prevalent in the intellectual elite, therefore lending it more weight.

    Make any sense?

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      It does make sense, Aaron. You make a fair point.

      While I do not have enough time at the moment to construct a careful argument here, my own impression is that a certain ideology gradually gained the upper hand in American universities from the 1970’s and progressively afterward. After the 1960’s, universities came to be seen, especially by those on the Left (since the anti-war movement grew so much out of the universities), as primary vehicles for societal transformation. Liberals were more likely to pursue academic careers and conservatives more likely to pursue business careers; and even within universities, liberals were more likely to pursue careers in law or education or arts and humanities, and conservatives in business or in Christian colleges and seminaries (at least for a while). As those with liberal persuasions came in the 1970’s more and more to predominate on the faculties, it became more difficult for conservatives to endure the environment, to resist the pressure to conform for the sake of their careers, or even to receive their doctoral degrees, their first teaching jobs, and certainly tenure.

      If you’ll pardon the pun, this is not merely an academic issue for me. My own decision to (at least) take a break from academia was informed at least in part by my weariness with the constant assault upon conservatives and conservative Christians. When I first arrived at Stanford as an undergraduate, I was deeply concerned with the opinions of my professors. If they conflicted with my own opinions, it worried me. They had spent their lives examining these things (I thought), surely they strived for neutrality and truth; surely they had sought to expunge themselves of their prejudices and false opinions; and surely these were exceptionally intelligent, even wise, people.

      The longer I spent amongst the faculty, even faculty I respected and cared for, the less it concerned me what they thought. It became clear to me that academia actually rewarded (and thus delivered these professors to their exalted positions at top schools) a very narrow set of skills and intelligences; that these professors were no less influenced, and in some cases more thoroughly infested, by prejudices and fashions and in some cases demonstrably false opinions; that many were (overtly) less concerned with discovering the truth (an outmoded concept, for some) than with the exertion of power toward desired social goal; and many had ceased seriously examining the fundamental matters a very long time ago, and were now just layering on justifications for positions they adopted as graduate students or even earlier.

      Again, this is true even of professors I greatly respect and care for — because they are just human. And in some ways academia rewards and incentivizes the wrong things. But that’s another story for another time.

      I really appreciate that you follow the blog and I hope you continue to leave comments.

      • Great thoughts… Thanks for the input, and I do plan to visit very often.