The potential for the 2016 election to widen America's racial voting chasm even further is nothing new. But Washington Post-ABC News polls have also identified a related dynamic: White Americans are splintering along education and gender lines at rates not seen in at least three decades.
These contours are well-known among political watchers; whites without four-year college degrees and men tend to be more Republican than women and college grads. But while these cleavages are seen across elections, it’s easy to forget that the gaps are typically not all that large — at least in comparison to this year.
Take 2012. Mitt Romney won 61 percent of non-college whites compared with 56 percent of white college grads. The gap was nearly identical between white men and white women, 62 and 56 percent.
Now, according to the latest Post-ABC poll released last week: Donald Trump received 65 percent support among white registered voters without a four-year college degree, compared with 46 percent among white college graduates, a 19-point gap. If the margin holds, it would easily be the largest education gap among whites in presidential elections since 1980.
The gender split is similarly historic, with Trump’s support 22 points higher among white male registered voters than white female registered voters (69 vs. 47 percent), double the largest gap between these groups in previous presidential elections (11 points in 2000).
The shift is most striking when you combine education and gender. Trump leads Clinton 76 to 14 among white men without college degrees, while Clinton leads 57 to 34 among white college-graduate women.
Why are white voters splitting more sharply along education and gender lines? The poll offers some initial clues.
The education level of whites is predictive of how they respond to Trump proposals to combat illegal immigration and terrorism. More than 6 in 10 non-college white voters support a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States, while a similar share of white college grads oppose such a policy. And while 62 percent of non-college whites say undocumented immigrants should be deported to their native countries, 53 percent of white college grads support allowing them to stay in the United States.
Clinton and Trump have inspired different overall reactions from whites with higher and lower levels of education. White voters without college degrees are exceptionally negative toward Clinton — 73 percent rate her “unfavorably” — 16 points higher than viewed President Obama negatively at this point in 2012. Nearly 6 in 10 non-college whites have a positive view of Trump, 9 points higher than Romney’s standing four years ago.
Other factors may be more important in explaining the heightened gender gap, however, as white men and women are not as sharply divided over Trump’s immigration and Muslim policies.
For one, white men are 16 points more likely to say Clinton receives more of an advantage because she's a woman than white women; white women are 13 points more apt to say Trump has an advantage than men. White men and women also react differently to Trump’s confrontational rhetoric. White women are 14 points more likely than men to say Trump does not show enough respect for people he disagrees with (74 percent vs. 60 percent), and 19 points more apt to see this as a "major problem" (52 vs. 33 percent).
That style may be bolstering Trump’s reputation as an outsider, which white men are clearly drawn to. Two-thirds of white men say they'd like the next president to come from outside the political establishment (68 percent), 23 points higher than among white women (45 percent).
All these results underscore a core challenge for Trump's general election math. He needs to increase his overall share of white voters if he is unable to outperform Romney's support among African American and Hispanic voters. The more divided the white vote is — whether on gender or education lines — the more problematic it is for his chances.