Donald Trump loves 'poorly educated' voters. Just who is he talking about?

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Donald Trump blew away his competitors to win the Nevada Republican caucuses, but it was a comment in his victory speech that took some people by surprise:

“We won the evangelicals,” Trump said. “We won with young. We won with old. We won with highly educated. We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated.”

So what does Trump, who graduated from Wharton in 1968 with a degree in economics, mean by "poorly educated"? And will these voters return the love by going to the polls?

In Trump's own lifetime, the definition of what it means to be "educated" in America has changed dramatically. In 1940, only 25% of the population had a high school degree or higher. Today, 88% of the population has earned a high school degree or higher, while 32% of Americans have completed college.


If by "poorly educated" Trump means people without a high school degree, that represents 11.6% of the population today, or about 1 in 10 Americans. If he means people who do not have a college degree but have some college, a high school degree or less, that number represents 68% of the population. In other words, most of us.

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(Source:, Current Population Survey Data on Educational Attainment, 2014.)

As a group, people with lower levels of education have some real concerns. Not only do those with a high school degree or less represent a large swath of the population, they have felt the brunt of globalization and technological disruption the hardest.


The Bureau of Labor Statistics tries to estimate job earnings by education level. Its latest projections show that the unemployment rate is nearly five times higher for workers with less than a high school diploma, and three times higher for workers with a high school diploma and/or some college. The unemployment rate for these workers is estimated at 9% and 6%, respectively, compared with 1.9% for workers with professional degrees.

The disparity in earnings is just as wide. Is it any wonder that many voters feel disgruntled?

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(Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections. Last updated Feb. 12, 2016.)


The mainstream answer to this growing jobs crisis has been more college and more STEM (science, technology, engineering, math). The idea that more education will lead to greater prosperity for more Americans is a mainstay of Hillary Clinton's and Bernie Sanders' stump speeches:


But it's not clear that education alone is the answer to unemployment. In fact, the jobs that employers most need to fill are not necessarily jobs that require higher levels of education. Take a look at this 2015 survey from Manpower Group on the top 10 jobs that American employers are having the most difficulty filling:

  1. Skilled trades
  2. Drivers
  3. Teachers
  4. Sales representatives
  5. Secretaries, PAs, receptionists, administrative assistants, office support staff
  6. Management/executive (management/corporate)
  7. Nurses
  8. Technicians
  9. Accounting and finance staff
  10. Engineers

Trump has a different theory of what it will take to bring jobs back, and it isn't focused on making college more accessible or affordable. In fact, his most recent tweet mentioning college education is a complaint:


So what does a billionaire with a business degree think will bring jobs back? His policy positions focus on creating better trade deals with China, support for veterans (he attended a military academy for high school), a simpler tax code, and immigration reform that "puts the needs of working people first."

Will the "poorly educated" voters Trump loves help him seal the GOP nomination? According to entrance polls reported by NBC, Trump enjoyed the greatest share of support among Nevada voters with a high school degree or less: 57% of them supported Trump, compared with 42% of voters with a college degree.


Historically, though, voter turnout rates are lower among people with lower levels of education. Here's a breakdown, adjusted for survey error, from a professor with the University of Florida Department of Political Science.

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(Source: United States Election Project, Michael P. McDonald, Associate Professor, University of Florida, Department of Political Science.)

But lower turnout may not matter. As Trump himself pointed out, and as the entrance polling supports, he not only won in Nevada among voters with lower education levels, he won with voters across all education levels.


Daniel McLaughlin is a creative technologist exploring the 2016 presidential election. Before joining Fusion, Daniel worked at the Boston Globe and graduated from MIT with a BS in urban studies and planning.

Kate Stohr is a data journalist and community builder based in San Francisco, CA.

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