Educational differences between Democrats and Republicans

Educational Differences between Self-Identified Democrats and Republicans – by Joe Fried, December 8, 2013

A chapter in my 2008 book, Democrats and Republicans – Rhetoric and Reality, is devoted to educational differences between self-identified members of the two major United States political parties. At the time it was written, a massive amount of statistical evidence showed that Republicans:

  • were more likely to answer basic political questions correctly (such as, “who are your state senators?)
  • appeared to have much more “apparent intelligence,” in the view of National Election Studies interviewers
  • had more average years of education
  • were more likely to have, at the least, a high school diploma
  • were more likely to have, at the least, a r-year college degree

When it came to post-graduate degrees, however, the Republican advantage was already slipping. Surveys by the National Election Studies (up to the year 2004) showed that Republican men were still slightly more likely to have post-graduate degrees; however, Republican and Democratic women were virtually tied. Surveys of the General Social Survey were more favorable to Democrats, showing a post-graduate tie among men and a statistically significant lead among Democratic women. Clearly, the educational gap between Democrats and Republicans was evaporating – particularly with respect to post-graduate studies.

That’s where it stood, based upon the many surveys available when I wrote my book. So, how do Democrats and Republicans now compare with respect to education? To answer this question I analyzed more recent survey data of the National Election Studies (NES) and the General Social Survey (GSS), using statistical tools available on the SDA Berkeley web site. Here is what I found.

NES surveys were conducted in 2008 and 2012, and each shows that Republicans cling to small leads when it comes to high school diplomas and 4-year college degrees. See Figures 1 and 2, below. (In each case the confidence level is 99+ percent.) Both NES surveys (2008 and 2012) also show a lead among Republicans with respect to post-graduate degrees. However, it was so small as to be statistically insignificant.

The General Social Survey (GSS) conducted surveys in 2008, 2010, and 2012, and those surveys could be accessed on a cumulative basis. Like the NES surveys, the GSS surveys  show that Republicans are slightly more likely to have, at the least, a high school diploma (90.8% vs. 85.5%, with a confidence level of 99+%). However, the Republican advantage with respect to 4-year college degrees (31.4% vs. 28.0%) is just outside the range of statistical significance. Further, Democrats hold the lead with regard to post-graduate degrees by 11.4 to 8.6 percent, with a confidence level of 98%. (See Figure 3.)

All surveys show that Republicans have more years of formal education, on average. The NES survey for 2008 shows that the average Republican has 8.5 months more education than does the average Democrat. NES did not release figures for 2012 to the public, due to confidentiality concerns. GSS surveys conducted from 2008 through 2012 show that the average Republican has a smaller advantage – just 4 months.

In prior NES surveys the interviewers were asked, at the end of each session, to give an assessment of the interviewee’s “apparent intelligence” and “general level of information about politics and public affairs…”. In my book I charted the responses for the years 1996 through 2004. To those results I have now added the results from the 2008 survey. (It appears that these questions were not asked in 2012.) See Figures 4 and 5, below.

Of course, NES interviewers are not trained psychologists, so we should not assume this assessment of “apparent intelligence” is akin to an IQ test. It is not. It probably is more of a judgment regarding the respondent’s willingness and/or ability to answer questions. Indeed, the results somewhat correlate to the judgment of political knowledge, shown in Figure 5.

The NES assessment of political knowledge is not at all surprising. In my book, Democrats and Republicans – Rhetoric and Reality, I show the results of dozens of political questions that were asked in numerous surveys. In the large majority of cases, Republicans were more likely to answer correctly. This tendency appears to be holding. In April, 2012, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported the results of a survey it conducted for the purpose of assessing public knowledge about “issues of the day.” Pew’s conclusion was:

Republicans fared substantially better than Democrats on several questions in the survey, as is typically the case in surveys about political knowledge.

To see the PEW survey report, click here.


On average, self-identified Republicans have more years of education (4 to 8 months each, depending on the survey) and are probably more likely to hold, at the least, a 4-year college degree. (One major survey indicates that they are more likely, while the results of another survey are statistically insignificant.) It also appears that Republicans continue to out-test Democrats in surveys that assess political knowledge and/or current events. With respect to post-graduate studies, the educational advantage is shifting towards self-identified Democrats. They are now more likely to hold post-graduate college degrees. (One major survey indicates that they are more likely, while the results of another survey are statistically insignificant.)


Figure 1 (sample sizes are 1368 and 3616; confidence = 99+%)











Figure 2 (sample sizes are 1368 and 3616; confidence = 99+%)











Figure 3 (sample size is 3489; confidence = 98%)











Figure 4 (sample sizes are 1099, 814, 927, 970, 707, & 1365; confidence =99+%)












 Figure 5 (sample sizes are 1101, 814, 1068,  970, 707, & 1365; confidence = 99+%)