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The Key To The GOP Race: The Diploma Divide

The latest polls of the Republican presidential primary show a party badly divided by education: Donald Trump’s strong showings are entirely attributable to huge leads among voters without a college degree, while voters with a degree are split among several candidates.

But the Republican Party’s “diploma divide” isn’t new: It was central to the 2012 race, with roles reversed. That year, Mitt Romney’s nomination was attributable to GOP voters with college degrees, while voters without a college degree were split. Ultimately, the 2016 race may come down to which side of the diploma divide unites the fastest and most thoroughly once voting begins.

At a time when Republicans’ leading candidate in national polls and many of his supporters are in the throes of nativism, worried party elders are doing their best to stave off long-term damage to the party’s brand. And while it’s true that the base is seething with hostility toward political correctness, Washington and media elites even more so than in 2012, it’s far from time for party elders to panic.

Quelling an insurgency like Trump’s may require college-educated Republicans, who are currently fractured four ways, to unite behind a single candidate while non-degree-holders splinter. There’s still plenty of time for both to happen. Furthermore, as our 2016 Swing-O-Matic shows, white voters without college degrees — a core GOP group and the one most backing Trump — historically are much less likely to actually turn out and vote.

In national surveys released in December — taken both before and after his call for a ban on Muslims entering the country — Trump has held leads ranging from 5 percentage points to 27 percentage points. But according to three surveys that provided FiveThirtyEight with breakdowns of respondents by education level — CNN, NBC News/The Wall Street Journal and Quinnipiac — Trump’s leads relied on respondents without college degrees.

The ‘diploma divide’ in recent GOP primary polls
Donald Trump 30% 19% 37% -18
Ted Cruz 18 20 16 +4
Marco Rubio 15 19 12 +7
Ben Carson 14 15 13 +2
Jeb Bush 5 5 5 0
Carly Fiorina 4 4 3 +1
Chris Christie 3 5 2 +3
Mike Huckabee 2 1 3 -2
John Kasich 2 3 1 +2
Rand Paul 2 1 1 0

Source: CNN, NBC News/Wall Street Journal, Quinnipiac

In all three polls, Trump led by double digits among voters without degrees, but trailed among degree-holders. In CNN’s poll, Trump was in fourth place with the latter group, behind Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Ben Carson. This is a clear continuation of a pattern National Journal’s Ron Brownstein astutely documented in October.

A similar diploma divide was starkly evident in 2012, when college-educated Republicans almost single-handedly propelled Mitt Romney to the nomination.

Romney’s two chief rivals, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, combined to win 765,329 more primary votes than Romney before they exited the race in April, thanks to their dominance among voters without college degrees. But those non-college-educated GOP voters split fairly evenly between Santorum and Gingrich, allowing Romney to prevail with a plurality of votes.

The correlation between the share of the vote Romney won in the 2012 primaries and the share of college-degree-holders was uncanny. For example, in South Carolina, Romney carried just one of the state’s seven congressional districts — the coastal 1st Congressional district, by far the best-educated in the state — while Gingrich carried the rest. In Ohio, Romney won by carrying nine of the 11 most-educated counties in the state, but Santorum carried 67 of the other 77.

Here’s what we found when we went back and aggregated GOP primary results at the county level in the 24 states that held primaries between January and April of 2012:


There are intriguing parallels to 2016 here. In many ways, Gingrich’s heated anti-Washington rhetoric and more secular appeal among blue-collar Republicans presaged Trump’s longer-lasting appeal this year. And Santorum’s popularity among evangelical voters in 2012 mirrors the pattern of support that has emerged so far for Carson and, increasingly, Cruz.

What’s glaringly missing from the 2016 GOP race? A candidate analogous to Romney who has the backing of a clear majority of college-educated Republicans. But there is still plenty of time for college-educated Republicans to coalesce around one — Rubio, Kasich, Bush or perhaps even Cruz could become the default choice for college-educated Republicans once some of the others drop out.

Historically, New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary has accelerated this process. A much greater share of New Hampshire’s GOP voters hold college degrees than Iowa’s. In both 2008 and 2012, a very conservative candidate won the Iowa caucus, but a moderate took New Hampshire convincingly, united degree-holders and went on to capture the nomination.

At least for now, it bodes well for Rubio that his supporters skew toward degree-holders more than any other top-tier candidate’s in the latest average of polls. He also remains better-liked than Cruz and Trump in most surveys of all GOP voters, even though he is currently tied with them among degree-holders in the polling average. In other words, Rubio may have the most room to grow in degree-heavy states.

Rubio’s current challenge is that New Hampshire is overcrowded with candidates vying for support from well-educated Republicans. Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina and John Kasich all currently combine for between 25 percent and 30 percent in most New Hampshire polls, even though they combine for just 14 percent nationally. For Rubio, finishing ahead of those candidates may be more important than winning the Granite State outright.

There is also plenty of time left for GOP voters without degrees to splinter. Cruz’s progress with social conservatives — he recently received endorsements from the National Organization for Marriage and from noted Iowa activist Bob Vander Plaats — has propelled him to the lead in Iowa. If Cruz wins there, he could rival Trump for dominance or even overtake him in the non-degree “lane.”

As the contest heats up, the diploma divide is once again the best lens through which to view the GOP primary electorate. So far, non-degree-holders are far more united than degree-holders, and they continue to back Trump heavily. But the script could easily flip by February, when degree-holders may sense an urgency to coalesce behind someone other than Trump or Cruz. An extended Trump vs. Cruz fight would be Rubio’s dream come true.

In the end, the candidate who consolidates either side of the divide the fastest and most thoroughly once the polls open will likely emerge with the nomination.

David Wasserman is the U.S. House editor for the Cook Political Report.