A potentially record-breaking gap in preference between two groups — college-educated white women for Hillary Clinton and non-college-educated white men for Donald Trump — is one of the most striking features of in the 2016 presidential race.
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Clinton’s overwhelming support among nonwhites, a growing share of the U.S. population, means that Trump needs a wide margin among whites to win the presidency. Mitt Romney won whites by 20 points but still lost. In that effort, non-college-educated white men are Trump’s greatest strength, and college-educated white women are a notable headwind.
Trump has a vast 41 point lead, 68 to 27 percent, among white men without a college degree identified as likely voters in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates. The record for a Republican candidate, in exit poll data back to 1980, is Ronald Reagan’s 38 point win in this group in 1984.
Trump’s margins are smaller among white women without a degree (13 points, 55 to 42 percent) and college-educated white men (7 points, 52 to 45 percent). The sharply different group is college-educated white women, with a remarkable 20 point advantage for Clinton, 58 to 38 percent among likely voters. Clinton, of course, is a college-educated white woman; affinity may be on her side. Her support in this group is well beyond Democratic candidates’ best past performances — margins of 6 points in 1992, 7 points in 1996, 8 points in 2000 and 5 points in 2008.
That said, preferences among college-educated white women have varied this election cycle, with margins for Clinton ranging from 6 to 37 points among registered voters in previous polls. Non-college-educated white men have been more consistently for Trump.
As things stand, white men without a college degree account for 27 percent of Trump’s supporters, versus 9 percent of Clinton’s, and college-educated white women make up 20 percent of Clinton’s supporters, versus 16 percent of Trump’s. If they hold on Election Day, these gaps would be the biggest on record between major party candidates in exit poll data since 1980.
The general pattern is not new. On average since 1980, Republican presidential candidates have won white men without a college degree by 23 points, white men with a college degree by 22 points and non-college-educated white women by 13 points — but white women with a college degree by just 1 point. Clinton is far ahead of the Democratic average among college-educated white women. Trump is equally far ahead among non-college-educated white men.
These two groups accounted for about equal shares of the electorate in the latest ABC/Post poll, 18 and 17 percent, respectively, among likely voters, similar to their shares in the 2012 exit poll. But the change over time has been strikingly different: White women with a college degree advanced from 11 percent of voters in 1980 to 19 percent in 2012, while non-college-educated white men declined from 31 percent to 17 percent.
Party and Attitudes
Vote preferences in these groups reflect underlying differences in partisanship, attitudes and incomes. Consider:
• Thirty-six percent of college-educated white women identify as Democrats, versus just 15 percent of non-college-educated white men.
• Fifty-two percent of non-college-educated white men are conservatives, versus 29 percent of white women with a college degree.
• Forty-four percent of non-college-educated white men have household incomes of less than $50,000 a year, versus 19 percent of college-educated white women.
By 11 points, college-educated white women are more likely than non-college-educated white men to say they’re optimistic about the country’s future. Most college-educated white women prefer a candidate with political experience to an outsider, think Trump goes too far in criticizing others, say Clinton is qualified for the presidency and Trump is not, feel comfortable with the idea of Clinton as president but anxious about Trump and see Clinton but not Trump favorably overall. Non-college-educated white men are the reverse on all those points.
Clinton’s current advantage among college-educated white women leaves her up by 8 points, 52 to 44 percent, among college-educated whites overall, compared with Trump’s 60 to 35 percent among non-college-educated whites. Non-college-educated whites account for 54 percent of Trump’s supporters, versus 26 percent of Clinton’s. The candidates are about even in reliance on white college graduates (35 percent for Trump, 34 percent for Clinton). Nonwhites account for 40 percent of Clinton’s supporters, just 11 percent of Trump’s.
The rise of minorities as a voting group has been well covered, from 10 percent of voters in 1976 to 28 percent in 2012. That has benefited Democratic candidates, given their average 59 point margin among nonwhites; minorities accounted for just 16 percent of Jimmy Carter’s supporters in 1976 but 44 percent of Barack Obama’s in 2012.
As the nonwhite share of the electorate grows, winning whites by wide margins is increasingly critical to Republicans. The question for Trump, then, is whether he can turn more college-educated white women to his side — or win enough other whites to get to the White House without them.