Relative to other Republicans, Trump has underperformed with those voters since he began his first presidential campaign in 2015. And by flouting science and openly inflaming racial tensions, he is now directly centering the campaign debate on two of the principal dynamics that have alienated those voters from him. That shows signs of accelerating the shift of these voters — who had never backed a Democratic presidential nominee in polling before 2016 — away from the GOP to an unprecedented new level.
By contrast, although the widespread concern in Black and Hispanic communities both about George Floyd’s death and the disproportionate burden they have faced from the coronavirus outbreak could increase their turnout from 2016’s tepid level, so far most 2020 polls have not shown Biden improving on Hillary Clinton’s margin among them. Trump, meanwhile, maintains a consistent lead among White voters without college degrees, though almost all surveys show his margins with the women in that group narrowing substantially since 2016.
Reverting to 2016 themes
Trump has always tried to convince his primarily non-college and non-urban White base that he “alone” can protect them from the twin forces he portrays as threatening their interests: contemptuous elites who allegedly disdain their values and dangerous minorities and immigrants who purportedly threaten their jobs and their physical safety.
Under the enormous pressure of the coronavirus outbreak and the massive nationwide protests over racial inequity, Trump has reverted to those core themes.
Observers in both parties believe Trump sees his defiance of local officials and medical experts on the rallies as a way to reinforce his identity as an outsider who will break the rules to defend his voters’ interests. But on both sides, many believe that approach carries enormous risk, particularly with older and college-educated voters, both of whom have displayed elevated levels of concern about the pandemic.
For Trump to hold an event that did not require masks “is a bit tone deaf in this part of the state,” Charles Coughlin, a veteran Phoenix-based Republican consultant, told me. “It’s part of [his] anti-establishment shtick, which seems to be wearing very thin in a crisis.”
In the Navigator surveys, about two-thirds of Whites with at least four-year degrees have consistently expressed concern that Trump ignores the opinions of experts, with more than half saying that pattern very seriously concerns them, he said.
Trump holding the rallies despite the advice of public health officials is “just continued fodder for ignoring expert advice, which has always been a deep concern that the voters have had,” Gourevitch said. “They also play into the self-absorption aspect that he needs these rallies for himself and his own reelection rather than the good of the people.”
Republican consultant Alex Conant, the communications director for Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, says such numbers among well-educated voters (as well as comparable weakness among seniors) show the price of Trump’s downplaying of the crisis and his open defiance of public health officials.
“I think it’s why he’s losing in all these swing states,” Conant said. “I think there is a slice of his base who loves it and is wildly supportive of him throwing caution to the wind and hitting the campaign trail. And that happens to be a part of his base that he is very in tune with. But then if you’re an independent voter or more traditional conservative … this is a constant reminder of all the things you don’t like about his presidency. We’re a long way from talking about taxes and judges.”
Similar concerns on race relations
All indications signal that Trump’s response to Floyd’s death and the protests it sparked is dividing the electorate along the same lines. After initially indicating some concern about Floyd’s death, Trump has retreated to more familiar ground by urging greater force against violent protesters (and actually applying it before his walk to St. John’s church), highlighting those racially inflammatory videos and repeatedly denouncing the Black Lives Matter movement.
In all these gestures, Trump has distantly echoed the arguments of Richard Nixon, who won the presidency in 1968 in part by promising to restore “law and order.” But in the process, Trump may only demonstrate how much the country has changed since Nixon’s time. Critically, this spring’s polling consistently shows that Trump’s belligerent message on race is alienating not only the growing number of voters of color but also the same college-educated White voters already uneasy over his handling of the coronavirus.
As Matt McDermott, a Democratic pollster, has argued, those results underscore a critical shift from 1968: While most White suburbanites then believed Nixon could tamp down disorder, many of the equivalent voters today believe that Trump’s confrontational and divisive language on race increases the risk of violence in their communities.
The Navigator polls likewise found that two-thirds of college Whites expressed concern that at moments of crisis Trump makes things worse “with … inflammatory words and actions.”
In 2016, the Edison Research exit polls conducted for media organizations that included CNN showed Trump squeezing out a narrow 3-point win among college-educated Whites, while the American National Election Studies poll gave Clinton a 10-point advantage — the first time that survey had ever shown Democrats winning among this group.
Despite the differences in the overall margins, these analyses converged around one key point: All of them showed Clinton winning among White women with a college education. Trump, in turn, led among White men with college degrees in all of them except Pew, and even that study gave Clinton only a very small lead.
But compared with any of those 2016 results, the latest national polls almost all show Trump slipping further on both fronts.
Among college-educated White men, Trump trailed by 8 points in the CNN survey and 12 in the NPR/Marist Poll; the Quinnipiac average showed Biden with a 4-point advantage among them, closer to at least Pew’s result in 2016.
Looking to November
All of this signals that November could produce perhaps the largest gap ever between Whites with and without college degrees. In most state and national polls, Trump consistently maintains a huge advantage of at least 2-to-1 among blue-collar White men, his best group in 2016.
And while surveys consistently show Trump’s margin among blue-collar White women declining from 2016, in most polls he maintains at least some lead with them.
Now, with Trump’s messaging and performance on the virus and race further antagonizing those voters, the GOP faces an election that could consolidate and even extend the Democratic advance in those well-educated suburbs.
Republicans could lose further House seats in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Tampa, Florida, among other places; resistance in big metro centers is the principal threat to GOP senators in Arizona, Colorado, Maine, North Carolina and maybe Iowa and Georgia; and Trump faces the prospect of even deeper decline in the largest metropolitan centers not only of traditionally blue states but also of emerging Sun Belt battlegrounds including Arizona, Georgia and Texas.
Trump has aimed his responses to the two major crises of 2020 almost entirely at his base of non-college, non-urban voters while slighting the concerns that well-educated metropolitan voters have consistently expressed in polls. That reflects the belief among many Republicans that his most likely path to victory is by turning out even more of his base voters than in 2016, especially in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, the three Rust Belt states that keyed his election.
GOP pollster Whit Ayres and other Republicans also say Trump might reclaim at least some ground among well-educated White votes by portraying Biden as a threat to raise their taxes and to damage the economy and their stock portfolios.
But Conant, the GOP consultant, says Trump has dug himself a large hole in the white-collar suburbs by responding so cavalierly to the two national earthquakes that have riveted their attention.
“He really doesn’t want to talk about the pandemic, which is all everyone in America is thinking about,” Conant said. “It’s the same thing with the Black Lives Matter protests, as well. He really didn’t want to talk about George Floyd, which is what everyone in America was talking about for a month. When you have that kind of disconnect between the leader and the voters you see it in the potential [electoral] wave that is now more likely than not.”