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By Janel Davis October 22, 2012

Georgia, Virginia’s education levels under microscope

With less than three weeks to go before the presidential election, the voting trends of Georgia’s residents took center stage last week in a story by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The article explored why Georgia’s white voters cast ballots for GOP candidates. The story is similar to a fact check completed earlier this election season by PolitiFact Georgia on which party has more supporters. Election results and the recent makeup of the state Legislature suggested that more Georgians consider themselves Republican.

But why is that?

Political analysts in the story cited several factors, including culture, organization and demographics, specifically educational achievement. In other states such as Virginia and North Carolina -- both of which went for President Barack Obama in the 2008 election -- large groups of highly educated non-Hispanic white voters tend to be more liberal and vote Democratic.

But in Georgia the educational achievement level and voting persuasion of white voters is different.

"I’m pretty sure, despite Atlanta, that Virginia’s educational level among whites is higher than Georgia," Larry Sabato, a national political expert at the University of Virginia, said in the AJC story.

From a previous fact check, we knew that more voters in the state identified as Republicans. And an AJC poll released last week showed that Obama had the support of just 22 percent of Georgia’s likely white voters.

But is Sabato correct? Does Virginia have a more highly educated white voting population than Georgia?

Georgia’s secretary of state does not keep statistics on voters’ education or income levels.

Through his political analyst and media relations coordinator, Sabato told us his statement was based on 2008 exit polls conducted by CNN.

Reviewing the exit poll of 1,973 Georgia respondents, 31 percent of those polled were white college graduates, compared with the 40 percent of white college graduates among Virginia’s 2,466 respondents.

Drilling down further into the numbers, of Georgia’s white college graduate respondents, 73 percent voted for then-Republican presidential nominee John McCain, compared with 25 percent for Obama. Among the same demographic in Virginia, the gap between those voting for McCain and Obama was much smaller than in Georgia. Fifty-five percent of Virginia’s white college graduates voted for McCain and 44 percent voted for Obama.

At the postgraduate level, the numbers are even closer. Eleven percent of Georgia’s exit poll respondents identified as postgraduate. Half of those postgraduate voters cast ballots for McCain; 49 percent voted for Obama. Virginia had more postgraduate respondents: 23 percent. Of those, 52 percent voted for Obama, 47 percent for McCain. (That poll did not break down those statistics by race.)

This pattern of voters in Georgia and the Deep South of voting for Republicans has been steady despite the education level, said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University.

"In a state like Virginia where you have a lot of Northern migrants and people coming in from outside the state, things may be different," he said.

Looking at the 2008 exit polls, the highest number of McCain votes came from voters with lower education levels, but the main point is that McCain won at every education level, Black said.

Using just the exit poll data, Sabato’s statement has merit, but exit polls are one source. Voter data from the secretary of state and census data are probably more reliable, said Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University.

And as far as education and voting, "the traditional finding from the research is that college graduates are more likely to vote Republican, possibly due to higher incomes, but those with advanced degrees (master’s level and higher) tend to go in the other direction and vote Democrat."

Three-year estimates of census data from 2008 through 2010 published in April by the Southern Regional Education Board showed that Virginia (36.5 percent) had a higher percentage of whites over age 25 with bachelor’s degrees than Georgia (30.3 percent).

Three-year averages of census data from 2007 through 2009, reported by the National Center for Education Statistics, of whites over age 25 with high school completion and a bachelor’s or higher degree also showed a larger percentage of Virginia residents in that category (37.1 percent) than Georgia residents (31.3 percent).

In a news story about Georgia’s white voters and the tendency to cast ballots for GOP candidates, Sabato described the differences in Virginia and Georgia. "Despite Atlanta, Virginia’s educational level among whites is higher than Georgia," he said. Based on exit polls and census data, Sabato’s statement is correct. Examining the data further shows that Georgia’s white voters at any education level are more likely to vote Republican.

We rate Sabato’s statement True.

Our Sources

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "White voters solidly in for GOP in Georgia," Aaron Gould Sheinin, Oct. 16, 2012

Telephone interview with Kyle Kondik, political analyst and media relations coordinator, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, University of Virginia Center for Politics, Oct. 17, 2012

CNN Election Center, Georgia and Virginia exit polls, 2008

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Georgia Statewide Poll, conducted by telephone, Oct. 8-11, 2012

National Center for Education Statistics, Educational Attainment charts, July 2011

Public Agenda, 2010 state-by-state SAT and ACT scores

Southern Regional Education Board table, Education Attainment of the Adult Population based on 2008-2010 census data, published April 2012

National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress, The Nation’s Report Card: Mathematics 2011, Nov. 1, 2011

PolitiFact Georgia, "Which party has more supporters," Eric Stirgus, Sept. 10, 2012

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Georgia, Virginia’s education levels under microscope

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