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Conservatives 'the party of the uneducated?'

Michael Taube on the fallout from a now-infamous tweet.

Various academic studies in the U.S. have examined a voter’s level of education and juxtaposed it with his/her political preferences. In most cases, voters with more education tend to lean liberal rather than conservative.

The Pew Research Center noted in a March 2018 study, for instance, that 54 per cent of college graduates either identified or leaned Democratic, and 39 per cent either identified or leaned Republican. This was an exact reversal of Pew’s findings from 25 years ago.

Sadly, this pseudo-debate has now made its way into Canada.

On July 6, University of Ottawa professor Amir Attaran tweeted out a link to an Abacus Data study that highlighted expected voting behaviour for the October federal election. He included a line from the market research firm’s analysis, “Conservatives have a strong lead among those who have not attended college or university, while the Liberals have a lead among those with university education.”

If Attaran had left it at this, no one would have paid attention. Instead, the academic doubled down and included the following line about the Tories: “The party of the uneducated. Every poll says this.”

That raised the ire of some conservative politicians (Michelle Rempel Garner, Lisa Raitt, Ed Fast), pundits (Kathryn Marshall, Andrew MacDougall), pollsters (Darrell Bricker) and columnists (Lorrie Goldstein, Matt Gurney).

A few pushed back with solid arguments.

Bricker suggested in one tweet that “CPC voters more college-technical, Libs more Uni. Tendencies not rules. Differences aren’t absolute.” He also correctly stated in another, “The CPC out-performed the LPC among most educational categories in 2011. That’s another level of complexity.”

Gurney had a Twitter thread that covered a few components. “High school only educated voters do prefer the CPC to the Liberals. But it’s still barely a third of that group,” he wrote. “College educated voters slightly prefer the CPC. Voters with one university degree slightly prefer the Liberals.”

That’s correct. The Abacus study has the Tories with a large lead over the Liberals with high school or less (37 to 25 per cent) and tiny lead with college-educated voters (32 to 31 per cent). Meanwhile, the Liberals have a small lead over the Tories with a bachelor’s degree (35 to 31 per cent) and a large lead with voters with a postgraduate degree (51 to 25 per cent).

If you then take margin of error into consideration, as Gurney did, it’s “[b]asically +/- two per cent. A bit less but let’s use round numbers. That would mean LPC and CPC strength is roughly equal among voters with a college or university degree.”

I don’t dispute the study’s findings. The pattern isn’t as historically consistent as Attaran and others might hope. Older studies, and Bricker’s tweet, point this out. Still, the numbers are consistent with modern political behaviour.

That being said, who cares?

Every vote matters in an election, from a garbageman to a neurosurgeon. Political parties have to run on campaigns that sell their political messages to every walk of life. A person’s educational background simply doesn’t factor into the equation of constructing a party’s principles, platform or policies.

A voter’s level of education also has nothing to do with his/her intelligence. There are intelligent Canadians with less education and fewer university degrees, and some surprisingly dumb people with plenty of education and multiple letters behind their names.

One has to take into account the fact that a person may not have either the financial means or interest to go on in university. There are also many bright people who have college degrees and enter the trades – and they lean Tory.

Finally, we shouldn’t be surprised that individuals with bachelor’s degrees slightly favour the Liberals, and those with postgraduate degrees are heavily in that camp.

I have two university degrees. A fair chunk of my old classmates were idealistic, had little to no business sense, didn’t mind paying high taxes, and were fine with the state taking care of them.

Conversely, people with college and high school degrees tend to be more realistic, grounded, financially conscious and furious when the state wastes their money.

What does all this mean?

A voter’s education level is interesting as an element of academic research but impractical when it comes to synthesizing the many nuances of actual voting behaviour.

If the Liberals focus on this trait and start calling the Tories the “party of the uneducated” on the campaign trail, trust me, they won’t get very far.

Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.

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