That pattern frames contrasting challenges for the candidates now pursuing Trump. For those hoping to emerge as conservative favorites—a list that would include Sen. Ted Cruz and longer-shot hopefuls Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum—the principal task may be to dislodge Trump’s hold on the party’s often turbulent block of blue-collar voters.
For those hoping to emerge as the choice of the party’s center-right block—a list that runs from Jeb Bush to John Kasich to Chris Christie—the principal challenge is to unify the party’s white-collar wing against Trump, or whoever supplants him as the favorite of more working-class and conservative voters.
To varying degrees, Carly Fiorina, Sen. Marco Rubio, and Ben Carson are all seeking to draw more evenly from both the party’s upscale and downscale wings, polls suggest.
State and national polls now tell a consistent story in the GOP contest.
Even in a sprawling field of 15 candidates, Trump has opened a wide lead among Republicans without a college education almost everywhere. Those voters, polls show, are receptive to his hard-line message on immigration and to his opposition to free trade, and they express the most alienation about Washington and the country’s overall direction—making them a welcoming audience for Trump’s broader anti-establishment message and persona.
But in those same surveys, the results among college-educated Republicans are usually much more muddled. These voters have expressed greater doubts about Trump’s temperament and qualifications for president and less support for his approach to immigration. In every one of the polls cited below, Trump ran better among voters without a college degree than those possessing advanced education. Often, Trump’s support among college-educated Republicans runs at only about half the level, or less, of his backing among those without degrees. Trump leads among noncollege Republicans in each of the polls cited below, but others frequently best or tie him with their college-educated counterparts.
But in none of these state and national surveys does any rival attract as many college-educated Republicans as Trump draws among the noncollege Republicans. Instead, those better-educated voters fragment among several alternatives, including Trump, Carson, Fiorina, Rubio, and sometimes Bush and Kasich.
Bolger predicts that upscale and white-collar Republicans will eventually unify around a single alternative to Trump after the early voting culls the field. “Given how much Trump is dominating the campaign, the fact that he does so much worse with college graduates underscores that they are not buying into either his message or persona,” Bolger said. “That’s not who he is targeting his message to.”
But because so many candidates are running competitively with those voters—including Carson, Fiorina, Rubio, sometimes Bush, Kasich, Christie, and Trump himself—they face the common risk in the race’s early stages that they will splinter the white-collar vote so much that they can’t overcome Trump’s blue-collar support. If that pattern allowed Trump to win not only Iowa, which has frequently favored conservatives, but establishment-friendly early states such as New Hampshire and South Carolina, a more centrist opponent may find it difficult to reverse his momentum.