Special Report

Iowa Election 2023

Unveiling the Influence of College Education on Voting Behavior

Image Courtesy of ‘xavierarnau’on iStock by Getty Images

In the last 8 years, Iowa has shifted to a more conservative state. Republicans have unified control over the state government, the entire delegation of Congress, and all but one of the statewide elected offices. The Blue (2008), Blue (2012), Red (2016), and Red (2020) voting pattern seemingly fluctuates along with college enrollment. Increases in college enrollment have occurred during blue years, and decreased during red years. This, along with a struggle to retain college graduates, leaves favorable conditions in terms of voter base for Republicans. 

Starting in 2008, total college enrollment in Iowa increased by 1.3 percent at two and four-year colleges and universities, as measured in the Fall semesters of 2007 and 2008 by the Institute of Education Sciences and the Education Department. 

In 2008, Iowa was won by Democratic nominee Senator Barack Obama by a 9.54 percent margin. Republican candidate John McCain earned 44.39 percent of the votes, while Obama earned 53.93 percent of the votes according to voting records. 

Education was an important part of Barack Obama’s campaign strategy. Promises to bridge the achievement gap led him to talk about education inequity and increase voter outreach on college campuses. This increased his appeal among college-educated voters, according to a poll conducted by global analytics firm Gallup. Iowa resident and educator, Reverend Lisa Locoh, is a longtime Democrat who comes from a family of mixed politics. Citing her faith as a reason for her voting choices, she and her husband both worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign. She has a college degree, and together they campaigned on university campuses where they would ask students if they were, “registered to vote at their home address.” 

By the time of the election, 30 percent of voters were enrolled and had already completed some college, while 27 percent had finished earning their degree. Out of the voters who were enrolled, 52 percent voted for Obama and 46 percent voted for McCain. 49 percent of voters who finished earning their degree voted for Obama, and 50 percent voted for McCain. There was an upward shift in the education status of democratic voters according to Edison Media Research. 

There has been a decline in college enrollment since 2010. 

In 2012, Iowa’s Board of Regents reported a marginal 0.7 percent increase in enrollment from 2011.

That year, Barack Obama was elected by the state again. He secured 52.1 percent of the votes, while his opponent Mitt Romney secured 46.5 percent of the votes. 

Iowa State Luken Political Scientist Professor Dave Peterson, who’s studied American politics, campaigns, and elections agrees that there has been a shift in the education status of eligible voters: “It’s a striking change from where we were.” 

This combination of Iowa’s loss of citizens with a college degree, along with the ability for partisanship, impacted voting outcomes. 

Peterson says having a college degree back in 2012 wasn’t a strong predictor of how the public  voted. But by 2016 it was. “Donald Trump’s candidacy changed everything,” he said.

Voter analyst and postdoctoral scholar at Vanderbilt University Michael Sances verified that the partisan divide by education was the highest ever in 2016, referencing a study published in the American Political Science Association Journal titled How Unusual Was 2016? Flipping Counties, Flipping Voters, and the Education–Party Correlation since 1952.

Peterson also says Iowa has difficulty retaining graduates: “Iowa has a large proportion of its public who are white voters without a college degree…other states have higher populations without degrees but there is more racial and ethnic diversity.” 

A report from the National Bureau of Economic Research also confirms that Iowa is below average at retaining college graduates.

The “brain drain” Iowa experiences has caused conflicting comments from legislators and officials, especially since politics are a large factor in what attracts and retains students. Governor Kim Reynolds signed an education bill during the 2023 legislative season that orders the removal of books that discuss gender identity, anything LGBTQ-related, and sex topics from elementary and high schools. Despite counter statements from officials such as House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, who believes, “We need all Iowa trans kids to know, LGBTQ kids to know, that you belong here,” the state is still experiencing a decline in enrollment. 

Monday, Jan. 15, 2024, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, was when Iowa’s Republican Party caucuses were scheduled. In a statement from July when the date was arranged, Republican Party Chairman Jeff Kaufmann said, “We remain committed to maintaining Iowa’s cherished first-in-the-nation caucuses and look forward to holding a historic caucus in the coming months and defeating Joe Biden come November 2024,” 

The marginal closeness of past elections in the state mimics the recent win for Republican candidates who took control of the House in 2022 for the first time in four years. This vote divided congressional leadership and shifted the balance of power in favor of Republicans who now hold a 3.16 percent majority with 221 seats, while Democrats hold 213 seats.

The change has resulted in a shift in Iowan culture, one that has to do with a strong commitment to public education. In recent years, conservative ideologies have influenced policy decisions. Republican lawmakers have advocated for measures like tax cuts and reduced government spending, which have impacted education funding. Iowa’s Area Education Agencies (AEA) will lose about $30 million in the state budget. This was approved by Republican lawmakers in May despite an overall $8.5 billion budget. The emphasis on accountability and standardized testing has also increased, with measures like the Iowa Assessments and tests of basic skills being implemented. 

Overall, Iowa’s state’s economy is reliant on agriculture, which oftentimes does not require a college degree. This makes agricultural policies and trade agreements key concerns for many Iowans and politicians. The decision to convert to sustainable farming techniques and technology instead of using fossil fuels is compounded in that. 

The battleground state has a relatively balanced mix of Republican and Democratic voters. However, the recent shift towards conservative politics, as reflected in local elections, the election of Republican governors, and increased support for Republican candidates at the federal level, will continue to impact voters and education. Simultaneously, education will continue to impact elections and the future of Iowans and the country.