It's one of the least understood political trends of the Trump era
There's a wide divide in the views of white-collar and blue-collar white women
If Republican Roy Moore wins next week’s Senate special election in Alabama, it will be largely because of his support among women.
More specifically, Moore’s ability to survive the allegations of sexually pursuing young girls, which have rocked his campaign, will likely turn on whether he can maintain his pre-scandal advantage among white women without a college education – even as their college-educated counterparts have moved toward Democrat Doug Jones in much bigger numbers than usual for deeply conservative Alabama, according to public and private polling in the race.
With that contrast, the Alabama race is illuminating one of the least understood political trends of the Donald Trump era. Many commentators have warned that Republicans face a systemic problem with female voters under Trump – and could see that difficulty deepen if Moore wins and is seated in the Senate. But that conclusion is far too sweeping. Rather than a monolithic response, the Trump era instead is widening the divide between the political preferences of white-collar and blue-collar white women.
The much-touted gender gap hasn’t disappeared. Whether looking at whites, blacks or Hispanics, Democrats consistently run better among women than men (or from the other angle, Republicans run better among men than women).
But in the Trump era, the class divide looks more powerful than the gender divide, especially among whites. In the 2016 presidential race, Trump ran much better among white women without a college education than those with an advanced degree. In fact, the gap between the two groups was by far the widest recorded in exit polls since at least the presidential race of 1980.
Likewise, in last month’s Virginia governor’s race, as white-collar white women broke toward Democrat Ralph Northam, the winner, and blue-collar white women held for Republican Ed Gillespie, the two groups diverged even more than they did during the Trump-Hillary Clinton race in the state a year earlier. And both parties are bracing for another sharp divergence between white- and blue-collar women in Alabama next week.
“The class division is a much larger one [than the gender divide] and certainly the results in Virginia show that,” says Gene Ulm, who polled for Gillespie. “Gender is simplifying things to a degree that doesn’t explain a whole lot.”
Looking forward to the 2018 congressional races, all signs point to a sharp backlash against the GOP among well-educated white women, who express extreme distaste for Trump in polls and are being further energized by the surge in high-profile sexual harassment cases. That shift, combined with a more modest but still measurable pullback from Trump among college-educated white men, illuminates a clear pathway of opportunity for Democrats in affluent suburban House districts from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania through Virginia, Illinois, Minnesota, Colorado, Texas and California.
But with blue-collar white men remaining firmly behind Trump and the GOP, the Democrats won’t flip many working-class and non-urban districts unless they can convert more working-class white women. Without at least some breakthroughs in such blue-collar districts, Democrats will face a very narrow pathway toward recapturing the House, which has been under Republican control since 2011. “You’ve got to reach those non-Democratic women,” says Margie Omero, a Democratic pollster who has extensively researched the largely blue-collar “Walmart moms.”
Despite broad generalizations about the gender gap, Republicans have consistently run more strongly among white women without degrees than their counterparts with advanced education. Historically, fewer blue- than white-collar women have been moved by Democratic arguments on social issues – either because they take more conservative positions on questions such as abortion or don’t prioritize those concerns as much. Conversely, blue-collar white women, who generally are among the most economically strained groups in the electorate, have also been more receptive than their white-collar counterparts to Republican arguments for cutting taxes and federal spending. President Barack Obama carried only about two-fifths of non-college white women in each of his two victories, and those women gave the GOP huge margins during its midterm landslides in 2010 and 2014.
But while the disparity between blue- and white-collar women is long-standing, the Trump-Clinton struggle raised it to a new height. Trump carried just 44% of college-educated white women, according to exit polls. That tied George W. Bush in 2000 for the weakest performance with those women of any Republican presidential nominee since 1980 – except for the 1992 and 1996 races, when a significant number of them broke for the third party candidate Ross Perot.
And yet Trump, running against the first female major-party nominee, stunned observers by solidly defeating Clinton among white women overall. He did that by winning fully 61% of white women without a degree – more than any candidate in either party since 1980 except for President Ronald Reagan during his 1984 landslide, according to the exit polls.
The result was that Trump ran fully 17 points better among white women without a degree than those with one. Since 1980, the largest previous gap had been in 2008, when John McCain ran 11 points better among non-college than college-educated white women.
The widening class gap among white women tracked a parallel divergence among white men. Trump ran 18 points better among white men without a college degree than with those holding advanced education. Before Trump, no Republican since 1980 had run more than six points better among non- than college-educated white men.