Ron Brownstein and Gallup suggest that women with college degrees are accepting her more and more -- and that they account for the lioness's share of her recent surge of support.
But recent polls show Clinton dramatically gaining ground with better-educated Democratic women, both nationally and in the key early state of New Hampshire. More than any other factor, those gains explain why she has nearly doubled her lead over Barack Obama, her closest competitor, in national Gallup polls since summer, according to an analysis by Gallup for National Journal. Clinton remains very popular among downscale Democratic women, the Gallup results show, and her newfound strength among college-educated Democratic women is allowing her to cut into the core of Obama's coalition: well-educated Democrats.
Since 1968, most contested races for the Democratic presidential nomination have come down to a choice between one candidate who mainly appeals to better-educated and more-affluent voters with moderate economic positions and liberal views on social and foreign-policy issues, and a rival who relies on downscale voters drawn to populist economics and somewhat more conservative social and foreign-policy messages.
Democrats often describe these two archetypes as "wine track" and "beer track" candidates. Wine track candidates, almost always reformers with a literary sense of detachment, have included Eugene McCarthy in 1968, Gary Hart in 1984, and Bill Bradley in 2000. Beer track candidates, from Hubert Humphrey in 1968 to Walter Mondale in 1984 and Al Gore in 2000, usually offer less inspiration but greater attention to kitchen-table concerns.
That pattern quickly resurfaced in 2008 polling. Obama, with his cerebral manner, promises of political renewal, and open-collar-cool style, ran best among college-educated voters from early on. Hillary Clinton, with an appeal centered on the economic needs of working families whom she termed "invisible Americans," showed the most strength with less educated voters. (The support of John Edwards, the third major Democratic contender, varies little by class, even though his message is heavily tilted toward populist economics.)
Clinton's gender introduced a new variable to the wine/beer axis. While she runs more strongly with less educated voters than those with college degrees, she also runs better with women than men. In polls, Clinton has consistently been strongest at the point where her advantages intersect: among women without a college education. Clinton has been weakest at the point where neither advantage is present: among college-educated men. Campaign strategists for Clinton and her rivals regard the other two categories -- women with college educations and men without them -- as conflicted swing groups.
Since summer, Clinton has improved with each of these Democratic groups: Her overall average in Gallup/USA Today surveys has jumped from 40 percent in June and July to 48 percent in September and October, a trend mirrored in other national polls. Obama's support has sagged slightly over the same period, allowing Clinton to almost double her lead in Gallup, from 13 points during the summer to 24 points this fall.
What's not clear is why Clinton has improved, and whether the improvements are transitory. When Clinton's peers -- college educated women -- are reminded of some of the less salutary stereotypes about Clinton or when questions are raised about the state of the Clinton marriage, will these gains evaporate?