Donald Trump’s Lead Explained in Two Sentences

An exclusive look at states where the GOP front-runner splits Republican voters along class and education lines.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers his message during a campaign rally at the state fair in Oklahoma City. (J Pat Carter/AP)

The blue-collar wing of the Republican primary electorate has consolidated around one candidate.

The party’s white-collar wing remains fragmented.

That may be the most concise explanation of the dynamic that has propelled Donald Trump to a consistent and sometimes commanding lead in the early stages of the GOP presidential nomination contest.

Both national and state polls show Trump opening a substantial lead among Republican voters without a college education almost everywhere. And in almost all cases, Trump is winning more support from noncollege Republicans than any candidate is attracting from Republican voters with at least a four-year education. “It’s a challenge to Republicans that nobody has consolidated the college-graduate vote against Trump,” says Glen Bolger, a longtime GOP pollster skeptical of the front-runner.

In other words, Trump is cementing a strong blue-collar base, while the white-collar voters relatively more resistant to him have yet to unify around any single alternative. That disparity is critical because in both the 2008 and 2012 GOP nomination fights, voters with and without a four-year college degree each cast almost exactly half of the total primary votes, according to cumulative analyses of exit poll results by ABC pollster Gary Langer. With the two wings evenly matched in size, Trump’s greater success at consolidating his “bracket” explains much of his advantage in the polls.

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.

The dynamic of Trump consolidating the party’s blue-collar wing, while the white-collar wing splits among several candidates displays remarkable persistence through a series of the most recent national and state polls.

    In the most recent Pew Research Center survey, among Republican voters with a high school education or less, Trump leads his next-closest competitor by more than two-to-one: The billionaire draws 30 percent compared with 14 percent for Carson. Among voters with some college, but less than a four year degree, Trump leads more narrowly, with 28 percent, to 17 percent for Carson and 9 percent for Rubio.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets supporters before speaking at a rally and picnic in Oskaloosa, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

By contrast, among voters with a four-year degree or more, Carson leads Trump, 18 percent to 16 percent, with Rubio (11 percent) and Fiorina (10 percent) close behind. Likewise, in a mid-September ABC/Washington Post poll, Trump drew a remarkable 40 percent among noncollege Republicans, more than double his next closest competitor, Carson at 18. But among college-educated Republicans, Trump drew only half as much support (19 percent) and trailed Carson’s 25 percent.

  • IOWA
    Trump draws 26 percent of Republicans without a college degree, compared with 18 percent for Carson in the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll of Iowa Republicans. Among those with a college degree, Trump (at 20) and Carson (at 19) run in a virtual dead heat. No other candidate drew double-digit support among either blue- or white-collar Republicans in Iowa.
    In the first primary state, the most recent CNN/WMUR/University of New Hampshire poll showed Trump drawing far more support among voters without advanced education than those with a bachelor's or post-graduate degree. In the survey, Trump drew 35 percent among voters with a high school degree or less. (Bush, his closest competitor, attracted just 10 percent.) And Trump drew 36 percent among voters with some college experience but not a four-year degree; Fiorina placed second, but at just 13 percent. The race was much more competitive among better-educated voters. Voters with a four-year degree split almost evenly between Trump (20 percent) and Fiorina (19 percent) followed by Rubio (12 percent). Among voters with a postgraduate degree, Fiorina led (25 percent) followed by Trump (17 percent) and Kasich (11 percent).

An NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll conducted slightly later in New Hampshire showed a smaller gap between Trump’s support with noncollege (22 percent) and college (20 percent) voters. In that survey, Fiorina placed second to Trump among the blue-collar Republicans (at 15 percent) and was virtually even among those with a four-year degree or more (at 18 percent).

    The CNN/ORC poll released last week showed Trump opening a cavernous lead among noncollege Republicans in this critical third state on the calendar: He drew 42 percent, more than double Carson’s 17 percent. But among college-educated Republicans, Trump runs only third: Carson led among them (23 percent), followed by Fiorina (18 percent), Trump (16 percent), and Rubio (14 percent).
    In the fourth contest on the calendar, Trump drew 41 percent among noncollege Republicans in the CNN/ORC survey released last week, compared with just 18 percent for Carson. (No one else reached double digits.) Trump is stronger among college-graduates here than in South Carolina (Trump draws 30 percent of them in Nevada), but he is still only running step for step with Carson (29 percent). Fiorina runs a distant third at 11 percent, followed by Rubio, Bush, and Cruz.
    In this critical general election swing state, which will cast its primary ballots as part of the so-called “SEC primary” on March 1, the survey released last week by Christopher Newport University showed Trump drawing 33 percent of Republicans with a high school degree or less. That was more than double the showing of his closest competitors, Carson (15 percent) and Rubio (13 percent). But among Virginia Republicans with a college degree or more, Carson led at 19 percent, followed by Trump at 17 percent, and Fiorina and Rubio at 15 percent.
    The most recent Quinnipiac University survey in this behemoth March 16 battleground shows that Trump laps the field among blue-collar Republicans, despite competition from two home-state favorites, Rubio and former Gov. Bush. Among Florida Republicans without a college degree, Trump draws 32 percent, compared with just 15 percent for Carson, 11 percent for Rubio, and 9 percent for Bush. College-educated Republicans splinter into a virtual four-way tie: 19 percent each for Trump and Rubio, 18 percent each for Carson and Bush.
  • OHIO
    Another Quinnipiac survey released earlier this month in this big March 16 battleground shows Trump struggling among college-educated voters: He draws 14 percent, slightly behind Carson (18 percent) and Kasich (16 percent) and just ahead of Fiorina (13 percent) and Rubio (10 percent). But the billionaire holds a solid lead among noncollege Ohio Republicans, with 26 percent, compared with 18 percent for Carson and 12 percent for both Kasich and Cruz.
    If the Republican race extends past March, this looms as one of the pivotal contests in April. The latest Quinnipiac Poll showed Trump with a solid advantage among noncollege Pennsylvania Republicans: He drew 26 percent, compared with 17 percent for Carson, and 9 percent for Rubio. Continuing the pattern, Trump’s position among college-educated Republicans is more precarious: Carson led with 19 percent, followed by Rubio at 16 percent, and Trump and Fiorina tied at 15 percent.

Looking at all these numbers, Bolger predicts that if Trump is dethroned from his front-runner status, it’s more likely to come from a more centrist alternative unifying upscale voters than another conservative peeling away his blue-collar support. “Trump has shown remarkable staying power and the resonance of his populist message suggests he’s not going away any time soon,” Bolger said. “The guy has shown he has a better political touch than most people expected, probably because most of the pundits think with the mind of college graduates, rather than what the less well-educated voters will react to.”

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