If, on the night of Nov. 8, we’re all watching Donald Trump give his victory speech, it will be because he will have pulled together a broad coalition of white people to propel him to the presidency. With abysmal numbers among blacks, Hispanics, and other minority groups, white voters are the only path Trump has to the White House. He’ll have to win all of them—white men, white women, white youth, the white working class—and he’ll have to win them by substantial margins.
In theory, this should be fertile ground for the real estate mogul. Trump has unprecedented pull with working-class whites, especially men. If he can match past Republican performance with college-educated whites and hold his increased share among their counterparts with high school diplomas, he’ll have a smooth path to victory.
In reality, this would be almost impossible—an electoral Kobayashi Maru. The reason is that Trump’s problems go beyond nonwhites. The ostensible candidate for white America has a white-voter problem too.
At this point in the 2012 election, according to the Pew Research Center, Mitt Romney held a 13 point lead among all white voters. He led Barack Obama by 21 points among white men, and by 6 points among white women. Among whites age 18 to 49, he led by 7 points; among whites older than 50, he led by 17 points. At election’s end, Romney had won 59 percent of white voters, on par with the highest modern total since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide against Walter Mondale. Romney’s success with whites—while higher than usual—was on trend. Since 1968, Republicans had won the lion’s share of white voters.
Even when they lost the presidency in previous elections—in 1976, in 1992, in 1996—the GOP has always won a majority (or plurality) of whites. If the distribution of voters had been static in more recent elections, Republicans would still control the field in presidential elections, even as Democrats won the large majority of nonwhites. But whites are a declining share of the electorate, which has offset this Republican advantage. It’s still valuable, but not as much. If George W. Bush’s Hispanic outreach efforts had worked—or rather, if the GOP hadn’t squandered those efforts—the party would be in a strong national position today.
So we know that Trump has ruined the Republican Party’s tenuous ties to nonwhite communities, and Hispanic Americans in particular. Less remarked on is the extent to which he’s moving white voters—or at least a meaningful segment of them—into the Democratic column. For the first time in modern elections, a majority of college-educated whites are backing the Democratic candidate for president. According to Pew’s June survey—a comprehensive look at the electorate—Clinton holds a 12 point advantage among whites with a college degree, 52 percent to 40 percent. If you break that into men and women, she trails among the former—losing college-educated white men by 7 points—but holds a 31 point advantage with the latter, swamping Trump, 62 percent to 31 percent.
“Realignments” in American politics are overstated—or at least, not as sudden as they might seem—but if this result holds to November, it may herald a new stage in presidential politics, or at least the composition of the Democratic Party. There has always been a gender gap, with Democrats winning women far more than men. But this was a function of age and race as much as anything else; disaggregate the numbers, and white women were a solid vote for the GOP.
Trump, with his erratic behavior and misogynist rhetoric, has changed that. Now, a relative disadvantage with women has become an absolute one. According to Pew, Republicans are losing married women by 12 points (another unprecedented change), unmarried women by 37 points, and white women—a former redoubt—by 10 points. Trump wins white women without college degrees, but it’s a slight 3 point margin. Depending on the shape of the election from now to November, he could lose them too.
It’s this shift among white women that’s driving the inversion of white support within the Democratic Party. Twenty years ago—when a different Clinton was running for re-election—the Democratic Party was struggling to regain its advantage with working-class whites, who had formed the popular base of the party’s white support overall. But 2008, 2012—and now 2016—has changed that. Increasingly, Democrats are drawing their white support from college-educated Americans in the prosperous suburbs of states like Colorado, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, just as Republicans are deepening their hold on working-class whites nationwide.
For the immediate future, this means that Trump is in a bad place. If winning downscale white voters means losing their higher-income counterparts, then he’s simply substituting one demographic for another, in a way that leaves him further behind. But more interesting than this short-term electoral calculation are the long-term implications for American politics.
A Republican Party that loses its absolute hold on white women is one where Trump-style politics—his blend of aggressive resentment and economic nationalism—continues to hold sway among the base. And a big-tent Democratic Party of college-educated whites and working-class nonwhites is one that might continue its streak of national wins and regional defeats. That is, if it can survive the inevitable class tensions that come with trying to keep a big tent from falling into itself.