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New Figures Argue Democrats Should Target College Graduates in Suburbs

Hillary Clinton got more support from white college graduates than we knew.

Austin Texas suburb
Suburb of Austin, Texas (Shutterstock/Roschetzky Photography)

Amy Walter reports for The Cook Political Report that a Pew Research assessment of the 2016 electorate belies some of the insights we thought we had gleaned from that year’s exit polls:

  • Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump didn’t actually split the white college-educated vote. Clinton bested Trump by 17 points.
  • They did split the white women’s vote, 45-47 percent. Exit polls suggested Trump was more popular with white women.
  • The exit polls probably overestimated the electorate’s share of white college graduates.

The revised figures argue that Trump hasn’t lost support from college-educated whites and white women. Fewer supported him to begin with.

The exit polls and Pew’s data do agree that Trump has lost support from white voters without a college degree: from 66-64 to 57 percent.

Don’t overlook religion

Walter cites Mike Podhorzer, the political director of the trade union federation AFL-CIO, who argues that the fault line is not education but religion:

For example, among white evangelicals, college-educated men and non-college educated men give Trump equally impressive job approval ratings (78 percent and 80 percent respectively). But, among white men who aren’t evangelical, the education gap is significant.

Podhorzer’s takes:

  1. Stop assuming that all white, non-college voters are core Trump supporters. His base is evangelical white voters, regardless of education.
  2. White, non-evangelical, non-college-educated women are the ultimate swing voters.


The caveat here is that “evangelical” is often more an identity marker than proof of religiosity. Many self-described evangelics are unperturbed by revelations about Trump’s infidelity when they were up in arms about Bill Clinton’s.

Education isn’t a perfect predictor of voting behavior either, but combine it with age, geography, race and religion and you get a better picture. A Democrat is likely to be college-educated, young, urban, multicultural and either secular or from a minority religion; a Republican has probably not graduated from college and is likely to be older, rural, white and Christian.

These two coalitions are more or less evenly matched. The Republicans have an advantage in national elections, because the electoral map gives relatively more power to lightly populated areas. But Democrats have won the popular vote in the last six out of seven presidential elections.

Swingers in the suburbs

So who decides elections? Mostly suburban voters, especially women and especially those living in prosperous Sun Belt states. (Read Ronald Brownstein’s latest in The Atlantic for more on that topic. And allow me to point out that I argued right after the 2016 election that, despite all the attention for the white working class, it were middle-income Americans in the suburbs of Florida, North Carolina and Virginia who had quietly decided the outcome.)

2016 American presidential election results. States where the margin of victory was under 10 percent highlighted.

The Economist reports that educated white voters in suburbia could have an outsized influence on the midterm congressional elections this year:

Because Democrats already have the vast majority of urban districts and Republicans a similar share of rural ones, those that will decide control of the House of Representatives are primarily suburban. And the suburbs happen to be precisely where white college graduates tend to congregate: in the 38 districts currently rated by The Cook Political Report as either “tossups” or merely “leaning” toward one party or the other, an average of 28 percent of over-25s are white and have a college degree, compared with 22 percent in all other races.

What about the white working class?

The Economist warns that Democrats cannot win with college graduates and minority voters alone and must still find a way to appeal to the white working class.

This is not impossible. Trump is breaking his promises to farmers and blue-collar voters in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Republican health-care reforms aren’t “taking care of everybody”. Trump’s policy for the opioid epidemic is destroying lives. His tariffs may temporarily arrest job losses in manufacturing, but they come at the expense of farm exports and low-paid jobs in services.

That is why, as mentioned in the beginning, the president has been losing support from non-college-educated whites.

The trouble is that those voters who remain loyal to Trump aren’t swayed by economic arguments. I’ve argued before that, for them, it’s not the economy, stupid! These are Americans who are afraid of losing cultural and political power — and they understand that is exactly what the Democrats are trying to achieve.

The Democratic Party is for empowering women and minorities and against laws that make it harder for blacks and Hispanics to vote. Compromising on those issues in order to woo whites who feel left behind risks depressing the Democratic base.


The Democrats’ dilemma not unique. Social democrats in Canada and Europe are also torn between deemphasizing progressive social policies in order to win back working-class voters and siding with the socially progressive middle class.

The parable isn’t perfect. The big divisive cultural issue in Europe is immigration. In the United States, it’s race relations and changing social norms.

But that makes a strategy of accommodation with the Trumpenproletariat even less attractive to the American left. It would mean repudiating causes like Black Lives Matter and transgender rights because they offend Trump voters’ desire for social order.

Lukewarm center-right

Better to focus on suburbanites who once voted Republican but are now disgusted by Trump.

Trump’s presidency is pushing Democrats into defending diversity and internationalism, causes that galvanize minorities and liberal college graduates but leave center-right voters lukewarm. Many of these voters are, however, increasingly relaxed about liberal social norms and more supportive of immigration and America’s alliances than Trump.

As recently as 2012, Mitt Romney won white college graduates by 14 points. If Pew’s figures are correct, the 2016 election saw a 31-point swing to the Democrats. Add to that the fact that the number of college graduates is rising, and the white working class is in decline, and it seems obvious to me where Democrats should look for more voters.