Partisanship at Denison, 2010-2018

By Paul A. Djupe

The 2016 elections were remarkable for many things, but one of which was the huge gulf separating college-educated voters from those with less education. Until 2016, the two groups had basically tracked together, but significantly parted ways over Trump. What have partisan trends looked like among the aspiring-to-be-college-educated voters on campus?

Collapsed down to three partisan groups, the trend has looked like this below. Democrats largely held steady until 2016. During election season, their numbers shot up to the mid 60s. Republicans have steadily declined from November 2010 to the present (the 2013 sample is a little funky), so now Republican identifiers number less than 20%.[1] Some like to say that millenials are the “independent” generation but the numbers of pure independents does not support that conclusion on campus. They numbered about 16% in October, 2018.

If you were curious about how each element of the standard seven-point scale of partisanship has tracked over the last 8 years, here you go. Strong Democrats have largely been on the rise and their numbers are what accounts for the gains the Democrats have seen in this period. On the other end of the spectrum, strong Republicans have not had many identifiers (single digits) and the weak identifiers appear to have left – each category (R and IR) has been halved in these 8 years. (There are some “other” in there – I combined them with the independents for the graph above).

Note: “S” stands for strong; “I” stands for independent; when attached to a D/R, “I” means independent, but leaning D/R.

We can see these conclusions more clearly if we just look at partisans. Democrats first – the independent, leaning Democrats and Democrats have remained pretty stable. Strong Democrats have about doubled in number, on average.

On the other hand, Republicans and Republican leaners have been cut in half in this period. Strong Republicans have remained at roughly 3% consistently.

Of course, we’ve long known that college campuses are much more Democratic and liberal than the rest of the population, which has occasioned quite a bit of hand-wringing asking why. Some blame liberal professors for this. However, there’s just no evidence that students become more liberal in college. Studies drawing on random assignment of students to first year roommates find that partisan changes have more to do with social interaction patterns among students, results consistent with a very wide range of behaviors roommates affect. Nathaniel Nakon reached the same conclusion with Denison data tracking cohorts across their 4 years – college does not eat conservative brains at Denison.

The more pernicious answers may be that conservatives are either choosing not to attend college or they are being steered away from seeking higher education by conservative elites. On the latter front, conservative talking heads are regularly beating the drums making a case against college: how leftist/PC campuses are, how unfair they are to conservatives, how spoiled and entitled students are, how wasteful campuses are, and how worthless a liberal arts degree is today. We know that these claims are way off base, but as with much of our society today too few conversations are guided by facts. In a 2017 Pew survey, 58% of Republicans said that colleges and universities were having a negative effect “on the way things are going in the country.” Anyway, the upshot is that colleges and society are self-segregating along ideological lines through some push and a lot of pull.

These data represent a dedicated (near) decade of polling work from Dr. Mike Brady and I. Putting these surveys together is a massive amount of work in the middle of the semester, especially when we are facing collective action problems assembling questions and modules from student groups. It’s been work we have been happy to do for the benefit of our students – there is just nothing like planning a project from the ground up and testing your own hypotheses. This blog is one way that I’ve been trying to pay it back to the Denison community for continuing to participate in our survey projects, but it wouldn’t be possible without Mike doing his share of the hard work – thanks Mike Brady.

Paul A. Djupe is a local cyclist and Denison political scientist. You can learn more about his work at He aspires to ride in the Alps one day.


1. Partisanship has been asked pretty consistently this way in our surveys: “Generally, which of these party labels bests describes you?” With response categories: Strong Democrat, Democrat, Independent, but lean Democrat, Independent, Independent, but lean Republican, Republican, Strong Republican, Other. For the first figure, I included the independent “leaners” with the partisans since their voting behavior looks very much like a partisan’s. This is a standard political science measurement choice.

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