The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New poll shows GOP nullifying Democrats’ edge on education

The poll shows Republicans coming near-even with Democrats on an issue that historically favors Democrats by a wide margin

Former Republican Virginia governors Robert “Bob” McDonnell and Jim Gilmore and Winsome Sears (R), the incoming lieutenant governor, attend a rally for Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin on Nov. 1. (Al Drago/Bloomberg News)
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Exactly how much education factored into Republicans’ win in the Virginia governor’s race about two weeks ago isn’t totally clear. Terry McAuliffe stepped in it by stating that parents shouldn’t be telling schools what to teach their children — a quote that his Republican opponent played on repeat for the remainder of the campaign and that surely did the Democrat no favors. Exit polls showed a huge majority of voters disagreed with that sentiment.

At the same time, McAuliffe didn’t do disproportionately worse with parents than with other voters, compared with a normal election year. And the fuller picture of election results nationwide shows a pretty across-the-board shift toward the GOP.

All of that said, a new data point suggests the Democratic Party has indeed lost some significant ground on education at a time when the issue is rising in prominence.

The Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sunday asked voters which party they preferred, including on several issues. The big headline is that registered voters prefer the GOP by 10 points on what’s known as the generic ballot — a choice between generic, unnamed candidates from each party. That’s an unprecedented and somewhat unthinkable number that would suggest massive GOP gains in the 2022 midterm elections.

But it’s not the only area in which Democrats seem to be taking on some water; so, too, is education. The poll asked which party voters preferred on that issue, and while 44 percent chose Democrats, 41 percent chose Republicans.

That’s still a narrow edge for Democrats, albeit within the margin of error. What’s key here, though, is how this compares to how this issue polls historically.

Some issues traditionally poll better for one side or the other. The GOP usually has issues like fighting terrorism, crime and immigration, while Democrats usually have ones like health care and education.

Not so much on education anymore, according to this poll. The last time the Post-ABC poll surveyed this issue was in the mid-2000s; at the time, Democrats led by more than 20 points.

There have been times in which this poll showed Republicans even or with an edge. Most recently, that was the case shortly after the passage of George W. Bush’s bipartisan No Child Left Behind education bill in 2001. It was also the case in 1991, when the elder George H.W. Bush was still riding high and made a point to call himself the “education president.” In each case, the GOP benefited from having a very popular president who focused on the issue — something that doesn’t really apply to today.

Polling from the Pew Research Center in the middle of the 2010s — both at the tail end of the Obama administration and the start of the Trump administration — showed Democrats with a double-digit edge. In 2012, Democrats led by 26 points. In 2008, they led by 29 points.

NBC News-Wall Street Journal polling released last month showed Democrats had had an edge on this issue in every single survey it has done since 1989 — two dozen in total. Only on five occasions was the edge less than double digits, and never was it less than six points.

That survey provides a worthwhile caveat. Conducted in the closing weeks of the 2021 campaign, it still showed Democrats ahead on the issue by double digits, 39 percent to 29 percent. (The pollster allows a “both about the same” option, which 15 percent opted for.) That was shy of Democrats’ average historical advantage on the subject, but not as close as just a three-point gap. It’s possible that things changed a bit more once people tuned in to the 2021 elections and its aftermath.

One thing is for sure: This is a gap that is worth watching, as Republicans have signaled they plan to put education front and center in the 2022 campaign, largely through decrying how schools teach about the history of racism in the country, as Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin (R) did.

McAuliffe accused Youngkin of using a “racist dog whistle” by promising to ban critical race theory in schools. That theory — an intellectual movement that examines the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism — is something schools don’t generally teach, but conservatives have successfully used it as a blanket term for schools teaching about the effects of racism in history and society.

To the extent that Republicans can come close to nullifying Democrats’ traditional advantage on education, it could be a major subplot for 2022.