I have done many plots in the past, showing the connection between Obama's margin in the 2008 election, and college graduation rates. After having done a number of these, I thought it would be worthwhile to go the whole distance, and get the data for every one of the United States' 3300+ counties, and see what it revealed.
As I wrote in the summer of 2008, the window of attack available on Obama during the campaign was narrow, and McCain's campaign chose not to portray Obama as a populist demagogue appealing to uneducated minorities. Instead, they did the more acceptable thing of painting Obama as a "celebrity" favorite of the Latte-sipping crowd. And even within the liberal camp, this was kind of accepted as truth: Obama was the favorite of the young, the college educated, and the urban, as well as of the poor and minorities.
But what does the data say? By looking at county-level data, we have a tremendous amount of datapoints to look at. This many data points deals with much (but not all) of the limitations of working with only two variables. One of the biggest problems with looking at college graduation numbers is that they often occur in urban areas that also have large numbers of poor, minority voters. Did New York County (also known as Manhattan) have a wide margin for Obama because it is one of the best-educated counties in the country, or because it is one of the most ethnically diverse? With enough datapoints, the answer emerges. (Although, of course, the answer is the somewhat predictable, and somewhat disappointing, "both"). Of course, looking at county level data has its own problems: my data includes Loving County, Texas, population 56, and Los Angeles County, California, population 10,000,000, and both are given equal weight. This is especially a problem because certain areas of the country, (mostly in the south and east), have lots and lots of little counties, whereas many of the Western states have much fewer counties. For that reason, I will be breaking these figures down into regions in upcoming posts.
Also, of course, the fact that as a counties college educated population goes up, that it becomes more politically liberal, doesn't "prove" that it is the college educated people that are becoming more liberal. However, with 3300+ data points, it certainly is a hard case to argue against.
With those caveats in mind:
The first thing this shows is what every student of American politics should know: there are few fast and easy rules of American politics. There are counties that Obama won that are above the national mean for college graduation (25%), counties below it, and the same is true for McCain.
However, Obama did seem to do better than McCain amongst the most elite-educated counties. Of the 11 counties where more than 50% of the people are college graduates, McCain won only one: Douglas County, Colorado, and that was a relatively narrow victory. Above the 40% line, and even the 30% line, the situation is a bit more murky, although Obama still seems to be ahead. This is especially interesting because college graduation rates often coincide with affluence, meaning that these counties should not be all that difficult for Republicans to win, based on economic self-interest. Also, the high-education counties that McCain did win by large margins tend to cluster in one region of the country: the south, with some in the midwest. (Which will be explained further when I break this down by region).
Of the low education counties that Obama won, the most extreme examples, located in the lower right, tend to be heavily minority. They include Hispanic areas (Starr and Zavela, in the Texas border region), Native American counties (Shannon and Buffalo, in South Dakota), and African-American counties: (The Bronx, Baltimore City). There actually are some low-education white areas that Obama won as well: Eliot County, Kentucky and Anaconda/Butte, Montana, for example. Also, large chunks of the upper midwest are not highly college-educated, are white and rural, but tended to go for Obama.
This diagram also reveals some of the political constraints that are put on Obama's policy decisions. Obama won through a coalition of some of the most educated, affluent people, and some of the least educated and least affluent people. Even if we are cynical enough to discard the idea of being President for all the people, Obama (and the Democratic Party), have to somehow manage to keep a coalition that includes Pitkin County, Colorado (one of the country's wealthiest counties) and Baltimore City happy. There are often large differences in economic interests, worldview, and values between the high and low-educated counties of the US.
The Republican party also has the same problem: it certainly wants to win back those affluent suburban counties, but it has to at the same time keep its base (that gigantic sea of data points below the 20% mark), which is largely white, rural and low-education, happy.
And this is one way that 2012 will be fought.