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Story highlights

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

(CNN) —  

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.

Put another way, in the 2016 race, the class gap between whites of the same gender was much larger than the gender gap between whites of the same class.

The same pattern shaped the high-profile Virginia governor’s race. Northam was lifted by a surge among white women with college degrees: he carried 58% of them, up significantly from Clinton’s 50% in Virginia. Northam also registered a six-point gain compared to Clinton among college-educated white men.

But relative to Clinton the exit polls showed Northam gaining only three percentage points among both blue-collar white women and men. In contrast to the sharp upscale shift toward the Democrat, Gillespie carried fully two-thirds of white women without a degree. That was a staggering 25 points better than his showing (42%) among the college white women.

A class divide on sexual harassment

Since taking office, Trump has clearly lost some ground with blue-collar white women, who grew highly resistant to his efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. His approval rating among non-college-educated white women in the most recent ABC/Washington Post national poll stood at just 46%, and in a recent national Quinnipiac Poll only 54% said they believed Trump is fit to serve as president.

But Northam’s weak showing in Virginia showed how many cultural and economic barriers still prevent that unease from translating into Democratic votes. Next week’s Alabama race could reinforce that message. The Washington Post/Schar School poll released Saturday that showed Jones narrowly ahead with likely voters found the Democrat opening up a 15-point advantage among college-educated white women. But despite the allegations battering Moore, the survey found him still leading by about 35 points among white women without a degree. That leaves Jones with very little margin for error, because Moore in the poll holds a 20-point lead among college-educated white men and a nearly 50-point advantage among white men without degrees. Private polling in the state has found the same pattern, though generally with Moore slightly ahead depending on turnout projections.

The Alabama race suggests the heightened focus on sexual misbehavior could widen the partisan divide between white- and blue-collar white women. Generally, polls, such as the recent ABC/Washington Post survey, show that roughly the same percentage (just over one-third) of white women with and without a degree report unwanted sexual advances at work. (For non-white women the number was lower, about one-fourth.)

The intensified attention to the problem appears to be further energizing the upscale women already deeply alienated from Trump. (In the Quinnipiac Poll over three-fifths of college-educated white women said he wasn’t fit to be president and two-thirds said he doesn’t respect women as much as men.) But it may not be as mobilizing an issue for the blue-collar women, particularly since the highest-profile cases have focused largely on media and entertainment figures.

“It’s going to be incumbent on everyone talking about this to make sure we are not just talking about harassment of privileged women and famous jobs,” says Omero. “And that we are not just talking about harassment period, but all of the ways that women need more equal opportunity.”

Similarly, one Democrat closely watching the Alabama race says the allegations against Moore haven’t dislodged more blue-collar women because so many of them consider various forms of harassment an inescapable part of their working life. “Quite frankly, the power structure is so different than from what suburban housewives have to deal with,” said the Democrat. “It’s not a matter that some of these non-college-educated white women don’t think Moore did this, but there is a big part of them that don’t think it’s a big deal compared to what they deal with.”

With Trump in the White House and Moore potentially in the Senate, Republicans could be facing a stampede toward the Democrats among well-educated white women next year. That alone would power measurable gains. But if Democrats can’t also convince more blue-collar white women to join the charge, the party may still fall short in its bid to recapture the House or Senate