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Obama: the Zima-track candidate?

Gallup has more fascinating data on the “education gap” between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. As I inferred yesterday, this is something that carries on quite profoundly to the general election. Hillary performs fully 11 points better against McCain than Obama does among voters with a high school education or less. But Obama performs 6 points better than Hillary among adults with some college, 10 points better among college graduates, and 13 points better among those with postgraduate educations.

Rather than analyzing these numbers by themselves, let’s compare them to previous election cycles, and see how other Democratic nominees performed in these categories. I was able to track down exit poll data for 1992-2004, as well as 1976 and 1980.

So much great stuff to think about here. The profile of the typical Democratic voter almost completely flipped from 1976 to 2004. But let me try and analyze this in very broad strokes.

In 1976, Carter won by carrying the high school group (which constituted a larger proportion of the electorate back then) by an 11 point margin; he also narrowly won voters with some college. But he lost to Gerald Ford among college graduates (the exit polls did not yet distinguish between ‘regular’ college grads and those with postgraduate educations).

Carter lost every category in 1980, which is what happens when you run into a wave like Ronald Reagan’s. But he performed particularly badly among the “some college” voters, which he lost by 20 points in 1980 after having won in 1976. These folks may be your Reagan Democrats.

Bill Clinton was able to win twice by bringing back Carter’s high-school only voters into the fold, but also adding a new group that hadn’t previously been friendly to Democrats: highly-educated professionals and elites. In between these two groups, however, Bill did not do quite as well: he lost college graduates without advanced degrees even in 1996. Nevertheless, this provides one basic template for Democratic victory. If you win the elite vote plus significant segments of the working-class vote (e.g. minorities and unionized workers), you can ignore all those soccer moms in the middle.

Gore tried to replicate the Clinton model — only, he lost a few points across the board, and wound up cutting it a few hundred votes too close in Florida. Kerry also tried to replicate the Clinton model, but didn’t come all that close, losing the high school only voters for the first time since 1980. So where does that leave us today?

Clinton’s numbers look the most like Al Gore’s — except, she lacks his support (for now she does anyway) among highly-educated voters. So one scenario this leads to is a case of electoral death by a thousand cuts. Clinton is presently an underdog in Wisconsin, Iowa, Washington, and Oregon, four states that Gore carried in 2000, and that have well-educated electorates. She is also an underdog in New Hampshire, which Kerry won in 2004.

Let’s say that Clinton starts with Kerry’s 252 electoral votes and then adds Ohio and Arkansas — that gets her up to 278 EV:

Kerry = 252
+ Ohio = 272
+ Arkansas = 278

Clinton could afford to lose 9 electoral votes from this total, assuming that ties break for the Democrats. If she loses 10 electoral votes, she’s out of luck. Wisconsin alone would do the trick, as would Minnesota, as would Washington; so would Oregon + New Hampshire. Hillary has a little more cushion if she wins Florida, which has 7 more electoral votes than Ohio, but still, losing any two states from the {WI, MN, WA, OR} group would be enough to cost her the election; she’d need to pick up a buffer somewhere like New Mexico or West Virginia. Hillary could even win both Ohio and Florida (and Arkansas) and still lose the election if she was swept in all four of WI, MN, WA and OR. Obviously, this latter scenario is not the one that John McCain would want to be banking his chips on, but these are some of the risks that underperforming among highly-educated voters could pose for Clinton.

Obama’s coalition, on the other hand, at first appears to resemble the worst aspects of John Kerry’s. He certainly does no better than Kerry among high school only voters. However, notice that Obama does perform significantly better than Kerry within the “donut hole” that Reagan opened up in 1980 — voters with some college (this classification usually includes students), and voters with college degrees, but not postgraduate educations.

These are neither exactly your wine-track voters nor your beer-track voters; they’re sort of your Zima-track voters. And there are significant numbers of them in states like Colorado and Iowa, where Obama is a favorite. Winning the Kerry states plus those two alone would leave him exactly 1 EV short, but he could pick that up with any of New Mexico, Nevada, or Virginia, or more exotically, one of Nebraska’s electors. True, Obama would still need to hold onto Pennsylvania and Michigan for this math to work out for him. On the other hand, he is arguably less dependent on those states than is Hillary, and he should not have to play defense in states like Washington, Minnesota and New Hampshire, where Hillary will.

The unanswered question is whether you’d rather have to make up a deficit with higher-education voters, as Hillary does, or lower-education voters, as Obama does. Pew has found that low-education voters are indeed low-information voters, so there’s a line of thinking that as these voters learn more about Obama, he’ll pick up enough of them to win the election. On the other hand, a black candidate might face more challenges in this department than another one might. But I’d still rather be playing this hand than Clinton’s, and have to win over high-education voters, who already know plenty about me and have decided I don’t have their vote.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.