The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trump-DeSantis contest may come down to education

Former president Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speak at midterm election rallies in Dayton, Ohio, on Nov. 7, 2022, and in Tampa on Nov. 8, 2022, in a combination of file photos. (Gaelen Morse and Marco Bello/Reuters)
5 min

Over the course of the 2022 primaries, an interesting pattern emerged. Candidates who had been endorsed by former president Donald Trump — candidates who tended to espouse his particular brand of right-wing rhetoric — often fared better in places with fewer college graduates. Places with more college graduates tended to prefer non-Trump-endorsed candidates. We saw this repeatedly as results trickled in on primary election nights and in subsequent analyses. More college degrees, less enthusiasm for Trump’s agenda.

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This comports with what we know about Trump, of course. He benefited from a trend in which voters without college degrees had been increasingly identifying as Republican, as demonstrated in Gallup polling. In 2016 and 2020, he won voters without college degrees and lost those with college degrees. Between those two elections, in fact, his margins surged among those with only a high school degree or less — but unfortunately for his electoral chances, the percentage of the electorate without a college degree declined.

But that’s a reflection of contests pitting a Democrat against a Republican. What we saw in the primaries last year was that Trumpism fared better with Republicans in places without as many college degrees. This was entangled with other factors; places with more college degrees tend to be more urban, for example, which is not where the most conservative Republicans tend to live.

Early polling for the 2024 Republican presidential primary, though, makes clear that this pro- or anti-Trump divide in the GOP along educational lines persists. The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake detailed some polling showing that split last week, but we can also look at a poll released by Fox News over the weekend.

Trump has a 15-point lead over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) nationally. Among those with a college degree, though, DeSantis leads by 7 points. (Technically, the poll broke out numbers for Whites with or without a college degree, but since the Republican Party is so heavily White, the difference is minimal.)

Among primary voters without a degree, Trump leads by 18 points. Among White men without a degree, he’s up by a remarkable 39 percentage points.

This is early polling and there are very few announced candidates in the race at this point. (A group that doesn’t include DeSantis, notably.) It is worth noting, though, that support among those without college degrees is less divided than support among those with a degree. DeSantis still only gets about a third of the vote from that latter group, while Trump gets a majority of the nondegree primary vote.

Again, this shift to the right among those without a college degree has been underway for some time. The General Social Survey, generally conducted every two years nationally, asks Americans how they identify their political alignment. In the late 1970s, most of those without a college degree identified as Democrats or Democrat-leaning independents. By 2021, only about a third did.

Among those with a college degree, the past three decades have seen a shift from right to left. In part this is a function of the same group moving right during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. But it’s now those with a college degree among whom a majority now identify as Democrats or Democrat-leaning independents.

If we look only at those who identify as Republican or Republican-leaning independent, we see a different shift. In the late 1970s, more than two-thirds of Republicans/leaners with a college degree identified as conservative; most of those with only a high school education or less identified as moderate or liberal. Since then, those with high-school-level educations have grown increasingly conservative, now matching Republicans with degrees.

In 2021, both groups were about equally likely to identify themselves as “extremely conservative.”

Of course, Trumpism and “conservative” do not overlap neatly. There’s an element of Trump politics which explicitly rejects these categories and an element that stands outside of them in practice. But the trend here is important: Americans with less education have moved right overall and also moved right within the party. Now, they are a central part of Donald Trump’s base.

The good news for DeSantis is that voters without college degrees are less likely to vote. The 2020 American National Election Studies poll found that 22 percent of those without a college degree didn’t vote in the general, compared to 10 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree. Among Republicans, though, that divide was narrower, with only about 16 percent of those without a college degree not voting.

This could be the determining factor. If Trump’s core base, centered among Republicans without degrees, show up in Republican primaries and support among those with degrees remains splintered, the Republican Party is likely to nominate the same candidate for three elections in a row.

The likely result would be that, for the third election in a row, the Republican candidate gets fewer votes than the Democrat.