Trump Is Winning a Two-Front War

His strength in states that represent different elements of the GOP coalition shows his uniqueness as a candidate—and the challenge he presents for his rivals.

Gary Coronado, Houston Chronicle / AP

Even as Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz escalate their attacks on Donald Trump, next week’s cascade of Super Tuesday contests offers the GOP front-runner a unique opportunity to simultaneously weaken, and perhaps disable, his principal competitors on separate battlefields of a two-front war.

On one side, Trump could deal a crushing blow to Cruz, the Texas senator, across a series of Southern and Border States, from Alabama and Arkansas to Tennessee and Oklahoma, that are dominated by evangelical and blue-collar voters.

On the other front, polls show Trump leading in mostly white-collar, far less evangelical states including Vermont, Massachusetts, and Virginia that should be crucial building blocks for Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Ohio Governor John Kasich, the candidates relying most on mainstream conservative voters.

Trump’s strength in states that represent such divergent poles of the GOP coalition testifies to his unique assets as a candidate—and the challenge he presents for his rivals. If Trump can beat Cruz next week in heavily blue-collar and evangelical states on one side, and top Kasich and Rubio in white collar, less culturally conservative states on the other, it will grow increasingly daunting for any candidate to coalesce a coalition large enough to stop the front-runner. That prospect may help explain the urgency with which Rubio and Cruz assailed Trump at Thursday night’s debate.

“In Trump you’ve got a candidate who appears to be able to take on Cruz among Cruz’ strength voters, who are evangelicals and also to take on Kasich and Marco among more mainstream voters,” says Neil Newhouse, the chief pollster in 2012 for Mitt Romney. “That is going to make him tough to beat.”

John Brabender, the chief strategist for Rick Santorum’s campaign in 2012, adds:

“It speaks to the complexity of Donald Trump.  I saw a poll out today, which had him leading in Texas, one leading in Florida, and one leading in Massachusetts. There’s an absurdity in that. You should not have a presidential candidate leading in all three of those states because the voting universes are so different.”

With that profile, Trump is poised to bridge a geographic and demographic divide that stymied the party’s past two presidential nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney. The 11 states allocating delegates this year on Super Tuesday did not vote at the same time in 2012 or 2008. But in 2012, Romney won the mostly white-collar states voting next week on Super Tuesday (Vermont, Massachusetts, and Virginia) while losing most of the heavily evangelical Southern states (Alabama, Oklahoma, and Tennessee) to Rick Santorum, and Georgia to Newt Gingrich. (Romney carried Arkansas and Texas, which voted only after he had effectively clinched the nomination). In 2008, John McCain and Romney split the white-collar states voting next Tuesday while Mike Huckabee captured Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Georgia across the South.

This clear geographic divide reflected the demographic patterns of allegiance that drove the 2008 and 2012 races. Both McCain and Romney ran better among voters who were more centrist, and were not evangelicals. Each man followed a remarkably similar formula for victory: both carried about half of voters who were not evangelicals and about one-third of those who were, according to cumulative analyses of all the 2008 and 2012 exit polls conducted by the ABC pollster Gary Langer. As a result, both McCain and Romney ran well in states with few evangelicals, but struggled in those with more.

Trump is crossing the geographic divide that Romney and McCain could not because his coalition does not follow along the same demographic lines that shaped their races—and indeed most earlier Republican presidential contests. Trump has displayed remarkably consistent support from voters across the GOP’s ideological spectrum, and has also run about as well among voters who are evangelicals as those who are not.

Trump has replaced these historic fissures with a new divide based on education. Particularly over the past three contests, Trump has established a dominant advantage among Republicans without a college degree: Exit polls showed that compared to his next closet rival, white voters without a four-year college degree preferred him by a margin of 29 percentage points in New Hampshire, 18 points in South Carolina and 29 points in Nevada. Trump hasn’t run as well among white college-educated voters, but no one has consolidated nearly as much support among that group as Trump has coalesced among what he called in his Nevada victory speech “the poorly educated.”

Trump’s strength among non-college voters—particularly blue-collar evangelicals—keys the threat he poses to Cruz in the South. In five of the Southern states voting on Tuesday, white evangelicals comprised at least 60 percent of the vote in the most recent GOP presidential primary for which exit polls are available, and blue-collar voters represented at least half the vote. These include Arkansas (75 percent white evangelical and 58 percent non-college); Alabama (75 percent evangelical and 56 percent non-college); Tennessee (73 percent evangelical and 54 percent non-college); Oklahoma (72 percent evangelical and 55 percent non-college) and Texas (60 percent evangelical and 50 percent non-college).

Cruz faces dire prospects in all of these places, with the likely exception of his home state, if he can’t reverse Trump’s inroads among evangelicals, particularly those without a college degree. In most of these states, those blue-collar evangelicals figure to be the single-largest voting block. And they have moved steadily toward Trump since the GOP contest began.

Exit poll results provided by the CNN polling unit show that in the kick-off Iowa caucus, Cruz beat Trump among evangelicals without a college degree by a solid margin of 36 percent to 25 percent. But since then, Trump has carried these voters in three consecutive contests, by a steadily widening margin. Trump beat Cruz among these non-college evangelicals by 13 percentage points in New Hampshire, 15 in South Carolina and 19 in Nevada.

From the other direction, Cruz has faced mounting competition for college-educated evangelicals. After winning those white-collar evangelicals in Iowa and New Hampshire, Cruz lost them narrowly to Rubio in South Carolina and to Trump in Nevada, according to the CNN figures. Completing the picture is Cruz’s systemic weakness among voters who are not evangelicals: Those non-evangelical voters preferred Trump over Cruz by 11 percentage points in Iowa, 30 in New Hampshire, 17 in South Carolina, and 32 in Nevada.

Most polls show Cruz leading in his home state of Texas: A Monmouth University poll released this week gave him a double-digit advantage overall and a comfortable lead among evangelicals with and without a college degree there. But if Cruz on Tuesday can’t beat Trump in the other heavily evangelical Southern and border states that Huckabee and Santorum mostly carried, the Texan will instantly face difficult questions about where he can win as the calendar turns toward Northern states with fewer born-again voters. “If he loses the South and barely squeaks by in Texas it’s going to be very difficult for him to continue on because those other states don’t set up well for him at all,” says Hogan Gidley, the communications director for Huckabee’s campaign this year.

Compared to Cruz, the Super Tuesday stakes aren’t quite as high for Rubio and Kasich because more of the states where they can realistically hope to compete (primarily along the coasts and in the upper Midwest) vote later on. But it would be an extremely ominous signal for both if they can’t dent Trump in the white-collar states that mostly preferred McCain and Romney.

Vermont, Massachusetts, and Virginia, which also vote on Super Tuesday, present a stark contrast to the Southern states balloting that day. In each of them, white evangelicals represent only a minority of the vote (42 percent in Virginia, 27 percent in Vermont, and 15 percent in Massachusetts), and college graduates constitute about half of the electorate or more (48 percent in Vermont, 56 percent in Massachusetts, and 58 percent in Virginia.)

Yet the very limited public polling available in Vermont—conducted before Trump’s South Carolina and Nevada victories—placed the New Yorker comfortably ahead there. A Monmouth University poll in Virginia released Thursday showed Trump drawing 41 percent, as much as Rubio (27 percent) and Cruz (14 percent) combined; Kasich lagged badly at just 7 percent. The survey found Trump leading among both evangelicals and non-evangelicals-with an even wider advantage among the former than the latter. Among voters without a college degree, Trump drew a commanding 47 percent; his showing wasn’t as dominant among college-educated voters (37 percent), but even there he comfortably led Rubio (at 27 percent).

Likewise, a poll released Friday morning by WBUR public radio in Boston showed Trump romping in Massachusetts, with 40 percent of the vote, slightly more than Rubio (19 percent) and Kasich (19 percent) combined. In an increasingly familiar pattern, the survey showed Trump attracting 54 percent of voters without a college degree, nearly four times the showing for Rubio, his closest competitor. Trump attracts a much more modest 30 percent among voters with a four-year degree or more but leads with them because Kasich (24 percent) and Rubio (23 percent) splinter the rest.

These states could expose, in particular, the limits confronting Rubio. On Thursday he turned in by far his most spirited debate performance—but so far he has demonstrated an appeal that is broad, but shallow. In particular, these white-collar states underscore Rubio’s inability to truly consolidate the college-educated voters who have long expressed the most skepticism about Trump’s policy agenda and temperament. In many states, both McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012 amassed dominating numbers among college-educated voters who were not evangelicals: Romney, for instance, carried over half of those voters in Michigan, Illinois, and Florida, and between 42 and 48 percent in New Hampshire, Georgia, and Ohio.

But with a much harder-edged ideological message than either man, Rubio hasn’t yet approached those numbers: He won 16 percent of college-educated non-evangelical voters in Iowa, 7 percent in New Hampshire, 27 percent in South Carolina, and 29 percent in Nevada; the Monmouth Poll gave him 31 percent of them in Virginia. With other candidates like Jeb Bush and Chris Christie leaving the race, Rubio is gaining ground with those white-collar voters—but not nearly enough to overcome Trump’s downscale dominance. “Some of those are the Jeb Bush votes, and Chris Christie votes, but they are being very much splintered,” said Brabender. “Trump is getting a few of those votes; they are not all going to Rubio.” Christie’s endorsement of Trump on Friday symbolized that dispersal.

In particular, Rubio faces competition for those upscale voters, particularly in Democratic-leaning states, from Kasich, who has offered a much more moderate message. “It’s reasonable to conclude that Kasich and Rubio would both do significantly better among that group if the other one were not around,” says Steve Koczela, the president of MassINC Polling Group, which conducted the WBUR poll of Massachusetts.

Of the remaining Super Tuesday states that will award delegates, the Alaska caucus has drawn little attention, but previously has rewarded mainstream candidates: Romney won it in both 2008 and 2012. Minnesota is something of a puzzle. It is a well-educated state with relatively few evangelicals in the overall population (fewer than one-in-five). But conservative Christians have played an outsized role in its caucuses before: Santorum won them in 2012 after Romney carried them in 2008.

Maybe the most interesting state of all is Georgia, the sole contest on the Super Tuesday docket that features a majority of both white evangelical (64 percent) and college-educated voters (52 percent). In 2012, it broke decisively for favorite son Newt Gingrich. But in 2008, that precarious balance produced a three-way pileup in which Huckabee (who won mostly behind heavy support from blue-collar evangelicals), McCain and Romney all finished within four points of each other.

In both 2008 and 2012, evangelicals without a college degree comprised the largest single block of Georgia voters (just over one-third in 2012), followed by evangelicals with a college degree (just under one-third), college-educated non-evangelicals (about one-fifth) and non-college non-evangelicals (just over one-tenth). On paper, that should offer a foundation for all of the major candidates to compete there. In practice, all of the polls released in Georgia since South Carolina have shown Trump with a double-digit lead, and Rubio and Cruz, somewhere in his rear-view mirror, clawing each other in a distant battle for second-place.