Democrats Have Lost Public Confidence on Education, but Republicans Haven’t Gained It

One in five voters don’t trust either party
Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin
The Virginia gubernatorial contest in fall 2021 was ultimately—fairly or not—treated by many pundits as something of a referendum on current fights in education. In that contest, Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin defeated former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in a state that President Joe Biden won by double digits in 2020.

Going back a half century or more, Democrats have generally enjoyed a substantial lead on education. The party’s broad support for more education spending, outspoken embrace of public education, and close ties to teachers unions and the education establishment have usually added up to a hefty advantage, one that became more significant in recent decades as education assumed a more visible, national profile.

Today, though, Democratic stances on education may be playing differently. Fierce debates over school closures, school masking policies, critical race theory, gender policy, and student-loan forgiveness appear to be producing headwinds for Democrats on an issue they’ve long owned. Polling by Morning Consult found that the Democratic lead on education shrank to seven points in November 2021 from 20 points in January 2021. The Washington Post–ABC News poll put the Democratic lead on education at just three points in the fall of 2021. And a recent Wall Street Journal poll found that lead had declined to just five points in March 2022 from nine points in November 2021.

There’s also anecdotal evidence that Democrats are facing challenges on education. In uber-progressive San Francisco, over 70 percent of voters supported a recall effort that ousted three school-board members who were seen as unduly focused on social justice and insufficiently concerned with managing the budget and reopening schools. Likewise, the Virginia gubernatorial contest in fall 2021 was ultimately—fairly or not—treated by many pundits as something of a referendum on current fights in education. In that contest, of course, Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin defeated former Governor Terry McAuliffe in a state that President Joe Biden won by double digits in 2020.

Ruy Teixeira, political scientist at the Center for American Progress and coauthor of The Emerging Democratic Majority, argues that Democrats are facing a “common sense problem” whereby they are “losing the plot relative to the median voter.” Regarding education, Teixeira has suggested that too many influential voices on the left have grown uncomfortable with broadly supported notions of merit, high standards, and personal responsibility. For example, he notes that even in deep-blue Massachusetts, voters—including Black voters—overwhelmingly believe that racial achievement gaps “are not due just to racism” and that “standards of high achievement should be maintained for people of all races.”

All of this raises timely questions: How does the public feel about Democrats and Republicans when it comes to education? Has the Democratic Party actually lost voter confidence on education in recent years? And, if so, has the Republican Party been able to capitalize on this change?

The Data

To answer these questions, we can turn to the polling. From 2003 to 2022, New Models and Winning the Issues used the Winston Group to phone poll 1,000 registered voters on the following question 78 different times: “Which party do you have more confidence in to handle the issue of education, the Republican Party or the Democratic Party?” Respondents were able to select from one of three response options: “Republican,” “Democrat,” or “Don’t Know/Refused.” (These response options could differ slightly, but these differences are minor. For example, “Democrat” was sometimes replaced with “Democratic” or “Democratic Party.” More significantly, through the end of 2015, the third response option was “Don’t Know/Refuse”; after 2015, the third response option was simply “Don’t Know.” Interestingly, the third response option became more popular after 2015.) While the question was not asked every single year, the extended time horizon, consistent wording, and consistent polling method offer an exceptional opportunity to track the trend of relative confidence in Republicans and Democrats on education over the long term.

Figure 1 shows the overall results of these polls. For those years when the question was polled many times, only the average results of the poll in that year were graphed.


Figure 1. Voter Confidence on Education, 2003–22

Figure 1

Source: New Models Poll 2003-2015; Winning the Issues National Poll 2017-2022


Figure 1 paints a pretty clear picture. During every one of the past 20 years, the Democratic Party led the GOP in voter confidence on education. For the whole of that period, the average Democratic lead was 15 points (51–36). All averages, unless otherwise noted, are the yearly averages, not averages of all the polls weighted equally. Between 2003 and 2019, confidence in the Democratic Party on education never dipped below 47 percent, and only in 2014 did the Democratic lead fall into the single digits.

In the past few years, however, there has been a noticeable shift. Confidence in the Democratic Party in 2022 has fallen below 45 percent, its lowest point in the past 20 years. This decline is more easily seen in Figure 2, which uses the same data as Figure 1 but plots how each party performed in a given year relative to the year in which it posted its best performance. Figure 2 shows that confidence in the Democratic Party on education in 2021 and 2022 had fallen to more than 15 points below its 2009 peak. It also highlights that the five best years for Democrats on education between 2003 and 2022 all came before 2014, while the five worst years have all come since.


Figure 2. Yearly Party Performance on Education Relative to Best Party Performance

Figure 2

Source: New Models Poll 2003-2015; Winning the Issues National Poll 2017-2022


The Democratic Party’s lead on the Republican Party on the issue of education has also diminished since 2003. Figure 3, which maps the size of the Democratic lead on education, illustrates this trend. As noted, between 2003 and 2022, the GOP trailed Democrats by an average of 15 percentage points among registered voters. That lead dipped into single digits just once between 2003 and 2019, in 2014 (at the height of the Common Core backlash). During the past two years, however—as debates over school closures, school masking, critical race theory, and gender policy have come to the fore—the Democratic lead has fallen into the single digits once again.


Figure 3. The Democratic Party Lead over the GOP on Education

Figure 3

Source: New Models Poll 2003-2015; Winning the Issues National Poll 2017-2022


Taken as a whole, the data suggest that Democrats are struggling more on education than at any other time in the past two decades. Crucially, however, that has not yet translated into substantial gains by the Republican Party. Confidence in the Republican Party on education hovered between 32 and 40 percent in all but two years between 2003 and 2019, and it has remained firmly planted in that same range even in 2021 and 2022. Indeed, neither 2021 nor 2022 ranks in the top five years for the GOP on education—despite the waning public confidence in Democrats on this issue.

In short, Democrats are bleeding on the issue of education, and Republicans are making only modest gains. Meanwhile, there’s been a substantial jump since 2017 in the number of voters who say they don’t know which party they trust on education. After hovering between 10 and 15 percent between 2003 and 2015, the share of voters responding “Don’t Know” has jumped closer to 20 percent in recent years.


There’s less confidence in Democrats on education than there has been at any time in two decades, with support now sitting at about 45 percent—down from a Barack Obama–era peak of 61 percent. Democrats have been losing voters’ confidence for a half decade, and that decline has become noticeably steeper over the past two years.

That said, while Republicans have bounced back from exceptional lows in 2017 and 2019, they’ve not so far made gains commensurate with the Democratic losses. Even as confidence in the Democratic Party on education has fallen to 45 percent, the GOP has not been able to break the 40 percent mark.

Meanwhile, a substantial share of voters (nearly one in five) currently trust neither party when it comes to education. The percentage of voters rejecting both parties has jumped in recent years, after remaining fairly consistent between 2003 and 2015.

What does this all mean?

It seems clear that Democrats are losing the confidence of some number of swing voters but that those voters don’t yet trust the Republicans on education. For Democrats, this suggests a chance to win back these voters’ confidence if the party can identify and is willing to address its problems.

For Republicans, it suggests an enormous opportunity. If the GOP could win over the voters whom Democrats have pushed away, it could draw even on education—or even turn a perennial weakness into a strength.

There’s also the question of how permanent any shifts will be. To the extent that they’re driven by heated culture clashes, the closest analog to the current situation may be the Common Core fights of the Obama years. Those fights yielded big Republican gains on education, but those gains dissipated as the Common Core faded from prominence. It’s an open question if shifts driven by frustration with school closures or critical race theory will prove longer-lasting.

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and an executive editor of Education Next.

This report is also available at

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College