Trump–Clinton 101

A surprising educational split among white voters is the defining characteristic of this election.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton greets supporters after a campaign rally at Riverfront Sports in Scranton, Pa., August 15, 2016. Vice President Joe Biden also attended.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton greets supporters after a campaign rally at Riverfront Sports in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Aug. 15.

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

The presidential race is tightening, and now at least one nonludicrous pollster has shown Donald Trump to be in the lead. A national survey from CNN/ORC released Tuesday, and conducted Sept. 1-4, shows Trump leading Clinton by 2 percentage points, 45 to 43, among likely voters in a four-way race. (Among registered voters, Clinton leads 44 to 41.) The poll shows Trump’s favorability rating and support from independents improving, and his support among Republicans consolidating.

It is just one poll. An NBC News/Survey Monkey poll also released Tuesday shows Clinton leading by 4 percentage points, while her list of battleground paths to 270 is significantly longer than Donald Trump’s. The race may revert to a blowout, but it’s probably going to be closer than the Clinton partisans who were calling “LANDSLIDE!” a couple of weeks ago would care to acknowledge. President Obama beat Mitt Romney by 4 percentage points nationally in 2012. Sounds about right.


And beyond that, the margins among broad racial demographics will look roughly the same as what they were in 2012. Clinton will win black, Hispanic, and Asian voters by astounding margins. Trump will carry white voters comfortably.

It’s the makeup of which white voters go to whom, though, that makes this election something new entirely.

The hinge point in this election is education levels among white voters. In 2012, according to exit polls, Romney won whites overall, with 59 percent to Obama’s 39 percent. Education levels didn’t make much of a difference: Romney won 61 percent of noncollege whites and 56 percent of college-educated whites.

Now look at the CNN/ORC poll, which, caveats aside, shows what a winning Trump coalition would look like. Like Romney, Trump is winning whites by about 20 percentage points, 54 to 33 percent, and he’s in the teens among nonwhite voters. Look under the hood a little more, though, and that breakdown of white voters is split. Trump has 66 percent of whites without college degrees to Hillary Clinton’s 23 percent. Meanwhile, Clinton leads among white college graduates, 49 percent to 35 percent. Democrats haven’t won white college graduates in decades—not even in their 1964 landslide!—and here Clinton is poised to take them comfortably … while losing noncollege whites by an absolutely disastrous 43 percentage points. The gap between Romney’s support from college-educated whites and noncollege whites was 5 percentage points. It is now, in this poll, 31 points.


Overall, according to 2012 exits, Obama won college graduates by 2 percentage points, 50 to 48 percent, and nongraduates by 4 percentage points, 51 to 47. According to this poll, Clinton is leading among college graduates by 27 percentage points, 56 to 29 percent and losing among nongraduates by 15 percent points, 36 to 51 percent.

This, right here, is the election. And it puts campaign strategies in a useful frame of reference heading into the post–Labor Day stretch. Donald Trump, for example, has to continue cranking out red meat that appeals to his white working-class base while trying to stop the bleeding among white college graduates. This is why he gave a harshly anti-immigration speech last week but also took the time for photo-ops with a world leader and black people—not out of some newfound ecumenism and broad-mindedness, but because he wanted to give college-educated whites a reason to believe he is something other than an insane bigot.


There’s no way of knowing right now how permanent any of the coalitional shifts marking this election will be. But it’s troubling to think about which lessons the winning party draws from an election split along lines like this.


If Hillary Clinton wins pretty much entirely without noncollege whites, Democrats might get the idea that they can now win presidential elections pretty much entirely without noncollege whites. That would continue to hurt the party in midterm elections if there’s no cyclical messaging adjustment. More importantly: Noncollege whites are Americans who, like everyone else, deserve targeted answers for their problems beyond the blustery affect Donald Trump is using, successfully, to lure them.

If Donald Trump wins without minorities or college-educated whites, meanwhile, Republicans might get the idea that they can now win the White House by continuing the same crazy, narrowly targeted routine that’s worked for them in midterms. Here the casualty would be responsible governance.

It’s not a sign of a healthy republic when the college-educated and the unmatriculated have such starkly different views about the future of the country, but here we are. And whatever the outcome in November, the winner will feel confirmed in its own most pain-free assumptions about how best to carve up the electorate.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.