In Defying the Odds, we talk about the social and economic divides that enabled Trump to enter the White House. In Divided We Stand, we discuss how these divides played out in 2020. College degrees have become a major dividing line.
In state after state, fast-growing, traditionally liberal college counties are flexing their muscles, generating higher turnout and ever greater Democratic margins. They’ve already played a pivotal role in turning several red states blue — and they could play an equally decisive role in key swing states next year.
One of those states is Michigan. Twenty years ago, the University of Michigan’s Washtenaw County gave Democrat Al Gore what seemed to be a massive victory — a 60-36 percent win over Republican George W. Bush, marked by a margin of victory of roughly 34,000 votes. Yet that was peanuts compared to what happened in 2020. Biden won Washtenaw by close to 50 percentage points, with a winning margin of about 101,000 votes.
Name the flagship university — Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Ohio, Texas, Virginia, among others — and the story tends to be the same. If the surrounding county was a reliable source of Democratic votes in the past, it’s a landslide county now. There are exceptions to the rule, particularly in the states with the most conservative voting habits. But even in reliably red places like South Carolina, Montana and Texas, you’ll find at least one college-oriented county producing ever larger Democratic margins.
The American Communities Project, which has developed a typology of different kinds of counties, designates 171 independent cities and counties as “College Towns.” Of those 171 places, 38 have flipped from red to blue since the 2000 presidential election. Just seven flipped the other way, from blue to red, and typically by smaller margins.