Hillary Clinton’s path to the White House relies on reassembling the winning Obama coalition of minority voters and women, but her campaign is vying for a demographic long out of reach for Democrats—college-educated whites—that could reshape the map of U.S. swing states this year.
For decades, white voters with at least a bachelor’s degree have favored the Republican nominee over the Democrat in U.S. presidential elections, although not by as much as working-class whites.
The 2016 presidential election is turning that dynamic on its head. Polling shows that while presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump is the clear choice among white voters without a college education, whites who’ve completed college prefer Clinton. It’s a trend analysts say is especially apparent among women, and may become more pronounced between now and November.
“The moment [Trump] became a serious candidate, it immediately presented itself as a hypothesis,” said Ruy Texeira, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think-tank with ties to Clinton, who’s tracked the white college- and non-college vote for years.
Recent national polls of registered voters show Clinton, 68, leading with college-educated whites, a group that President Barack Obama lost by 14 percentage points nationally in 2012 and by 4 points in 2008. The size of her advantage in late June varied from just 1 point in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey, to an 8-point edge in a Washington Post/ABC News poll, to 10 points in a Quinnipiac University survey.
Obama won two terms in office by driving up turnout among blacks, Hispanics, women, and young people even as he lost among white college graduates. But in her primary race against Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Clinton confronted an enthusiasm gap among white voters as well as with many of the groups that formed the core of Obama’s support.
On Tuesday, Clinton will attempt to address those shortcomings, joining Obama on Air Force One for a flight to Charlotte, North Carolina, where the president will make his debut campaign appearance on her behalf. Blacks may account for almost one in four eligible voters in the state in November.
Her campaign also is seeking to tap into backlash to HB2, a state law passed this year preempting a Charlotte anti-discrimination law, and requiring transgender people to use bathrooms based on their gender at birth rather than how they identify. An overwhelming majority of white college graduates support LGBT rights.
If the shift in the white, college-educated vote nationally holds in swing states, Texeira predicted Trump, 70, is “toast.” “Trump would have to carry the white working-class vote by something like 36 points or 40 points,” he said.
Obama won North Carolina by 0.3 percentage points in 2008 and lost there in 2012 by 2 points. Almost one-third of the state’s white voters have a college degree, ranking it 24th in the nation on that measure.
Texeira said Clinton isn’t expected to win a majority of the white, college-educated vote in North Carolina, and that she doesn’t have to to carry the state. He said she just needs to do better than Obama did in 2012, when he took about 30 percent of that vote. “If the minority vote’s very strong for Clinton and she can even do somewhat-less-bad among the white, college-educated vote, then that should be enough,” he said. “If she got 40 percent it’s almost a lock that she wins the state.”
Colorado and Virginia
White, college-educated voters could also 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.
Less clear is what impact the dynamic may have in other swing states with less educated white voters but significant black voting bases—such as Pennsylvania, No. 30, or Michigan, No. 35. Vice President Joe Biden will make his debut for Clinton on July 8 in Scranton, Pennsylvania, his birthplace. The Clinton campaign, as Obama did in 2008, sees Biden as a way to appeal to working-class white voters.
“Within the Republican primary electorate, Trump did better among non-college educated voters but not as dramatically as it looks like it’s going to be in the general,” said Joe Lenski, executive vice president of Edison Research, which conducts exit polling for a consortium of news organizations.
In 28 Republican primary and caucus exit polls Lenski’s firm conducted this year, Trump got 51 percent of the vote among those with high school educations or less. That percentage decreased as the level of education increased, falling to 30 percent support among those with post-graduate degrees. In the Republican field, Ohio Governor John Kasich and Florida Senator Marco Rubio did better among higher-educated voters.
“The question out there would be: Higher-educated Kasich and Rubio supporters that weren’t Trump supporters in the spring, can Trump convert them in November? Will they sit out? Will they vote for Hillary? Will they throw their vote away on a third party candidate?” Lenski said.
In North Carolina’s primary, Lenski said, Trump dominated in rural areas while the Raleigh-Durham area favored Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Trump won the Charlotte area by a slim margin, undercut by Kasich’s appeal there.
“You have this influx of college educated whites in the Raleigh-Durham area and to a lesser extent the Charlotte area, while in the rural areas, you have more whites that were born in North Carolina and more likely to be dislocated economically,” Lenski said. In the general election, “it should be a really close state.”
Morgan Jackson, a Raleigh-based consultant advising the Clinton campaign, said his state is becoming “very much like Virginia. We are growing in a more diverse way, the electorate’s getting less and less white, and more urbanized, and more folks have college degrees. All those things are connecting together. And there’s a huge out-of-state migration into these areas. People move to where the jobs are.”
Meanwhile, Jackson said that that the HB2 law had “turned off all of suburbia” and represented “a big mistake” for Republicans. A number of artists, from Bruce Springsteen to Cirque du Soleil, nixed plans to perform in the state, while some, like Cyndi Lauper, said they would donate proceeds from their shows there to LGBT causes.
“It very quickly went from being about bathrooms, or even discrimination, to jobs and the state’s reputation nationally,” said Jackson. “Exactly the voters Trump needs to bring over not only are turned off by his rhetoric, but the water is poisoned by HB2.”
—With assistance from Justin Sink.