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Opinion Outsmarting Trump: Consolidate college-educated voters

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We have known for some time that Donald Trump’s support is very reliant on voters without college degrees. (Actually, many polls put these voters in the category of “high school degree or less,” which only emphasizes how little education many Trump voters have.) David Wasserman of Cook Political Report reminds us in 2012 Mitt Romney was able to dominate the race among college-educated voters. He observes:

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.

Wasserman thinks that this helps Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) whose “supporters skew toward degree-holders more than any other top-tier candidate’s in the latest average of polls.” Nevertheless, Wasserman says, “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.” Wasserman concludes that if the Republicans with college degrees unify around a single candidate, that candidate, like Romney, is likely to wind up ahead.

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There are a few points to add to this analysis.

First, Cruz in taking a stridently anti-immigrant position and making plays for the evangelical vote (e.g., rushing to Kim Davis’s side) is likely pushing away more college-educated voters. Cruz (who has two Ivy League degrees) has spent so much time aiming to woo the most extreme elements in the party with stunts like the federal government shutdown, he has made himself anathema outside of that group. That leaves him dividing the non-educated vote with Trump. If Cruz clobbers Trump in Iowa, Trump may exit early and Cruz may consolidate support among the voters lacking college degrees. Whether he has to continue battling Trump or not, Cruz will find it challenging to break out of his lane and reach more-educated voters.

Second, if Rubio is the GOP nominee, he will have to work hard on connecting with downscale, less-educated voters. One would think his parents’ working-class backgrounds would make him more relatable, but in this regard Rubio, who has undergraduate and law degrees, ironically may undercut his working-class appeal. Someone so polished and articulate may come across as more cerebral and therefore less able to connect on a gut level with voters. In a general election, Rubio would have to figure out how to appeal in rhetoric, emotion and biography so as to win critical working-class votes in states such as Ohio. Hillary Clinton may seem out of touch (“We were broke!”) and privileged, but do not forget how effective she was with blue-collar voters in her 2008 presidential run.

Finally, because New Hampshire is key for candidates backed by college-educated voters (“A much greater share of New Hampshire’s GOP voters hold college degrees than Iowa’s”), it is noteworthy that it is Christie, not Rubio, who presently has the momentum there. If that continues, Christie may be the candidate to beat for those appealing to college-educated voters. It is also noteworthy that in his 2013 reelection race Christie did about as well with voters with college degrees as those with only high school diplomas. His advantage, if he survives New Hampshire, may be as a crossover candidate. His reputation as a “thinking man’s Donald Trump,” therefore, may be apt.

As with most every other demographic factor (gender, age, etc.), candidates who can add to their base, rather than offend those outside it, in the general election tend to do the best. It should not be surprising that the two winning incumbent GOP presidents in the past 30 years (Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush) had conservative ideas galore ideas, but plenty of working-class appeal. They were additive candidates, precisely what a minority party like the GOP must have to claim victory.