Donald Trump does really well among white voters without a college degree. Indeed, he is on track to carry that group by a wider margin than Mitt Romney did over President Obama four years ago. But there’s another side to that coin: While Trump is outperforming your run-of-the-mill Republican among whites without a college degree, he’s underperforming among white voters with a college degree. In fact, he is on a track to lose white college graduates.
That’s really unusual for a Republican, and it means that among white voters overall, he’s probably not holding a winning hand.
If you look at seven live interview polls taken since Trump wrapped up the nomination in May, he has trailed among whites with a college degree by an average of 6 percentage points. The same polls have him losing among the overall electorate by an average of 5 percentage points. (That’s about where the race stands now.)
|POLL||START DATE||OVERALL||WHITE COLLEGE GRADUATES|
|CBS News||June 9||-6||-21|
At first glance, it shouldn’t be too surprising that Trump faces a deficit with whites with a college degree. He struggled with them tremendously compared to whites without a college degree during the GOP primary season, and you can easily imagine how his nativist appeals have less resonance among those who have more education.
On the other hand, Trump’s performance is downright shocking from a historical perspective. Romney won whites with a college degree by 6 percentage points over Obama, according to the American National Elections Studies. In fact, the American National Elections Studies shows Republicans carrying that group in every election from 1956 to 2012.1
What makes this year’s turn of events even more interesting is how Hillary Clinton is doing this well among whites with a college degree even as she isn’t blowing Trump out. Lyndon Johnson couldn’t carry whites with a college degree in 1964 when he was defeating Barry Goldwater by 23 percentage points overall. That is, there has been a big leftward shift among white voters with a college degree without the rest of the electorate following along.
You can see the dramatic movement among white college graduates by comparing them with other groups. In late June, Emory University’s Alan Abramowitz looked at 17 demographic groups and compared how the groups voted in 2012 according to exit polls with how they said they were going to vote in 2016 in a June CNN survey. He wrote that the results “show an extremely high degree of consistency in group voting patterns between these two elections.”
One group, however, stands out for its inconsistency: white voters with a college degree. I re-created Abramowitz’s work and found that Clinton does about 17 percentage points better among whites with a college degree in the CNN survey than we’d expect based on the 2012 exit polls. Neither Trump nor Clinton does greater than 9 points better than expected among any of the other 16 demographic groups studied. The average difference from the expected result in the CNN/ORC survey based on the 2012 exit poll is just 4 percentage points.2
The 2016 election is being contested along a different battle line than presidential elections usually are. Well-educated white voters say they’re going to vote for the Democratic presidential nominee in numbers that just haven’t been seen over the past 60 years. That could have big ramifications for our political discourse, creating a class-based divide among white voters that isn’t akin to any other American election in recent memory.
This split between white voters with and without a college degree could also make a big difference in where this election is decided. As Margaret Talev, Jennifer Epstein and Gregory Giroux wrote at Bloomberg Politics, Clinton’s strength among white voters with a college degree could aid her in swing states like Colorado, North Carolina and Virginia. She may do worse than Obama did in states where whites without a college degree are more plentiful, like Iowa and Ohio.
In terms of the national vote, Clinton’s strength with white voters with a college degree could win her the presidency. Even using relatively conservative estimates for how well Obama did among whites with at least a college degree in 2012, Clinton expands her overall margin by 3 percentage points compared to Obama because of how well she is doing among white voters with at least a college degree. For now, that’s making up for her lack of support compared to Obama among white voters without a college degree. We’ll see if that’s enough in the months to come.