Education Gap Among White Voters Could Remake the Battlefield Map

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A college degree or the lack thereof could mean nearly as much as race in differentiating Clinton and Trump voters.Photo: Ralph Freso/Getty Images; Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

There’s been a lot of loose talk in the commentariat about Donald Trump’s riding the broad shoulders of the white working class to a shocking Rust Belt–based general-election victory, and some equally loose talk about Hillary Clinton’s sweeping everybody else to achieve a national landslide.  Though neither assertion is likely true, there are elements of truth in each.

As Harry Enten explains at FiveThirtyEight, there is a growing gap in presidential preferences between college-educated and non-college-educated white voters.  And it’s a gap that’s emerging at both ends of the spectrum, with Hillary Clinton showing signs of what would be a historically strong performance among the college folk and Trump building on already-high numbers for Republicans in the white working-class demographic.  This dynamic is complicating the usual formula of Democrats with their Obama Coalition of young and minority voters and Republicans with their older white voters.

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

It’s rather shocking to realize that Hillary Clinton could accomplish something for Democrats this year that even Lyndon Johnson could not do in his 1964 landslide victory: carry the white college-educated demographic. Even if she doesn’t, her strength among the college educated could substantially offset Trump’s strong showing down the education ladder, and along with the usual huge Democratic advantage among minorities, give her a solid victory.

No matter how the overall votes add up, however, this education-based breakdown of partisan preferences could change the battlefield map as we know it.  Here are some examples from a Bloomberg Politics analysis:

White, college-educated voters could … help Clinton strengthen Democrats’ prospects in states like Colorado and Virginia, which rank No. 1 and No. 9, respectively, in a Bloomberg analysis of 2014 U.S. Census Bureau data that calculates the percentages of non-Hispanic whites age 25 or older who hold bachelor’s degrees or higher. They are 44.4 percent of the population in Colorado and 40.3 percent in Virginia.

At the same time, Trump’s appeal to less educated whites may complicate Clinton’s efforts to hold some of the states Obama won, if Trump can expand on Mitt Romney’s 2012 share of the working-class white vote, and motivate them to get to the polls.

Consider Ohio, ranked 40 out of 50 states for whites’ college attainment, at 27.5 percent; or Iowa, ranked 38th, at 28 percent.

A Clinton advantage in Colorado and Virginia would also be augmented by relatively high minority voter populations.  Ohio and Iowa, conversely, have relatively small minority voter populations, making them truly ripe targets for Trump.

In the end, the electoral votes of solidly blue states outnumber the electoral votes of solidly red states, giving Clinton a larger margin for error in the battleground states along with greater strategic flexibility. But before the new map fully takes shape, you can expect some freak-outs over polling trends in states where the white education gap and variable minority populations may challenge our 2012-based assumptions.