Even before Christine Blasey Ford delivered her controlled but explosive testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, college-educated white women like her represented a rising threat to Republican prospects in the November election.
But Ford’s detailed allegations of sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh could allow Democrats to solidify an unprecedented advantage among those women, who represent one of the few steadily growing components of the white electorate.
Coming even as many professional white women are already recoiling from President Donald Trump’s definition of the Republican Party, and Democrats have nominated an unprecedented number of professional women for Congress, the collision between Kavanaugh and Ford – a professional herself – has the potential to reinforce a lasting shift in loyalties that could tip the partisan balance in white-collar suburbs around America.
“College-educated white women have identified very strongly with Dr. Ford and relate to her as a person, and will be turned off by the angry diatribes of Brett Kavanaugh,” says Democratic pollster Ben Tulchin. “This dynamic will likely further boost college-educated women’s engagement in this election.”
A class gap on Kavanaugh
New polling released Monday showed how the confrontation over Ford’s allegations could reinforce these dynamics. A national Quinnipiac University survey found that 61% of college-educated white women said they believed Ford over Kavanaugh; 58% of such well-educated women said the Senate should reject his nomination, according to detailed results provided by Quinnipiac.
By contrast, just over half of white women without degrees said they believed Kavanaugh and the Senate should confirm him.
That divergence is a reminder that for all the talk about an undifferentiated gender gap, a key political dynamic of the Trump era has been a widening “class gap” between white women with and without college degrees. In 2016, exit polls found that Hillary Clinton carried 51% of white women with at least four-year college degrees, compared with 44% for Trump.
But Trump carried a commanding 61% among white women without college degrees, and widespread support among those women was key to his victories in the Rust Belt states that decided the election. The 17-percentage-point gap between Trump’s support among blue- and white-collar white women in the exit poll was by far the widest divergence for any candidate since 1980.
In a recent paper, political scientists Erin Cassese of the University of Delaware and Tiffany Barnes of the University of Kentucky found that attitudes among white women about the prevalence of sexual discrimination predicted support in the 2016 election far more than in the past. Barnes and Cassese, using data from the University of Michigan’s American National Election Studies poll, found that white women with college degrees were much more likely than white women without degrees to say that females faced discrimination in society. What’s more, they found those attitudes more strongly correlated with support in the 2016 presidential race than in 2012, with female voters who believed that women faced discrimination tilting toward Clinton and those who did not leaning toward Trump.
What explains the class gap?
In an interview on Monday, Barnes said that one reason college-educated white women are more likely to perceive discrimination is because they are more exposed than blue-collar women to occupations and workplaces where they are competing with men. Women without college degrees, she notes, often “tend to get tracked into gender-segregated labor markets” such as home health care, where they are performing jobs held primarily by women and thus competing mostly against other women for advancement. By contrast, she says, college-educated women are often competing directly against men.
“When women and men are tracked into similar careers … that’s when it becomes a little more evident the role that discrimination plays in the economy and in people’s career opportunities,” she says.
Trump himself raised the salience of those views, Barnes believes, because he faced such widespread allegations of sexual harassment and misbehavior, including from his own words in the “Access Hollywood” tape. Just as Trump’s open appeals to white racial anxieties raised the importance of racial attitudes in predicting support in the election, so too did the controversies surrounding his behavior toward women increase the electoral relevance of views about women’s place in society and traditional gender roles.
“Voters were never asked to weigh in on these issues before,” said Barnes.
The collision between Ford and Kavanaugh could not be more perfectly designed to rekindle all these controversies. Ford is the embodiment of the professional white woman: She’s a professor with three graduate degrees who slipped easily into scientific jargon to describe the biology of memory functions. In her testimony before the committee, she was calm, even-tempered and at times deferential. Kavanaugh, by contrast, was bristling and belligerent, as were several of the Republican senators on the committee, all of whom are men. In one of the hearing’s iconic moments, Kavanaugh fiercely attacked a female Democratic senator, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who responded not with outrage of her own, but with a calm, if astonished, demeanor.
As many commentators have written, a female witness who displayed the same emotions might have been described as hysterical; Kavanaugh’s supporters defended him as understandably impassioned and indignant. Many professional women may have seen their own workplace experiences reflected not only in the nature of Ford’s allegations but also in the stark contrast between how a man and woman in conflict were expected, or even allowed, to behave.
In the Quinnipiac survey released Monday, nearly three-fourths of college-educated white women (compared with only about half of those without degrees) said they viewed Ford as honest.
Republicans have been competitive with college-educated women
Some conservatives have tried to minimize the risk the party faces this year among professional white women by suggesting they are already a lost cause. Steve Bannon, formerly Trump’s chief strategist, recently took that route. “The Republican college-educated woman is done,” he told Vanity Fair. “They’re gone. They were going anyway at some point in time. Trump triggers them.”
But in fact, Republicans have remained highly competitive among college-educated white women, even as those women have usually leaned slightly toward Democrats. Clinton, as noted above, carried them by only 7 percentage points in 2016. The most any Democratic presidential nominee has carried among them since 1980 is 52%, for both Al Gore in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2008. Likewise, the best recent showing among Democrats in House races among college-educated white women was also 52% in both 2000, with Gore, and 2006, when Democrats took control of the House majority. In the 2010 and 2014 Republican congressional sweeps, Democrats ran well below 50% with these women in House races; even in 2016, Democratic House candidates carried only half of them.
A swing toward Democrats
Over the past several months, polls consistently have shown Democrats on track to amass much wider – and even unprecedented – margins with those women in 2018. The latest CNN and USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times polls each showed Democrats capturing an astounding 67% of college-educated white women, while the Pew Research Center’s most recent survey put their support at 63%. The latest Fox News and NBC/Wall Street Journal polls showed Democrats drawing just below three-fifths of these women.
By contrast, each of those surveys found Democrats still trailing, in most cases by double-digit margins, among white women without college degrees.
Just as important, a procession of recent state polls have found the Democrats’ advantage among college-educated white women persisting in every region of the country, not just in liberal states along the coasts. The most recent CNN surveys showed Democrats Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona and Phil Bredesen in Tennessee each carrying almost three-fifths of them.
Recent NBC/Marist surveys have found Democrats Sherrod Brown winning about two-thirds of these women in the Ohio Senate race and Andrew Gillum capturing nearly three-fifths of them in the Florida governor’s race. The most recent Marquette University Law School survey in Wisconsin found Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin winning about two-thirds of them in the Senate race and over three-fifths backing Democrat Tony Evers in the governor’s contest. Even in heartland states steadily shifting toward the GOP, NBC/Marist polls found Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Joe Donnelly in Indiana attracting support from a majority of these women.
Recoiling from Trump
This consistent shift toward Democrats among well-educated white women is driven mostly by their recoil from Trump. The latest CNN surveys put Trump’s disapproval among college-educated white women at 72% and found that more than three-fifths of them disapproved of him in both Arizona and Tennessee, two states that he carried. Earlier this year a Quinnipiac University survey found that a remarkable three-fourths of those well-educated white women said Trump did not respect women as much as men. (That was 20 percentage points higher than the share of non-college white women who felt that way.) In another Quinnipiac survey last summer, nearly three-fifths of college white women said they considered Trump a racist (while non-college white women split evenly on the question).
Longtime Democratic strategist Stanley B. Greenberg notes that Democrats are also recording some improvement in polls for November among blue-collar white women relative to their weak showings in recent elections and are seeing more substantial gains among college-educated white men, usually a very Republican-leaning constituency.
“Clearly college-educated women are leading it,” he says. “But it’s not just suburban moms or women, it’s the men too that are put off by what Trump is offering. It’s the women more so, but there’s a class polarization as well as gender polarization.”
A smaller shift among men
Still, the shift among well-educated white men seems less uniform or reliable for Democrats than the change among their female counterparts. All the recent national polls on preferences in November do show Democrats leading among those well-educated white men, except for the most recent Fox News survey. But in the state polls the results are more uneven: The Democrat leads among those men in the recent CNN Arizona Senate poll, but trails badly with them in Tennessee. In the NBC/Marist polls, Democrats led slightly among them in the Ohio Senate race, but trailed in Missouri and Florida. The Marquette poll found those voters splitting evenly in the Wisconsin Senate race and tilting narrowly toward Democrat Evers in the governor’s contest.
And the confrontation over Ford and Kavanaugh hasn’t produced nearly as decisive a verdict among college white men as women: In Monday’s Quinnipiac survey, slightly more of those men said they believed Ford than Kavanaugh. But still, by 48% to 45%, a plurality of them said they supported Kavanaugh’s confirmation. (Not surprisingly, the whites who most backed Kavanaugh were men without a college education, Trump’s strongest group: Just under two-thirds of them in the Quinnipiac Poll said they believed Kavanaugh and he should be confirmed.)
All this suggests that in the crucible of the Trump era, Democrats have a unique opportunity to lock in unprecedented advantages among well-educated white women. If they can do so, that investment could pay compounding returns.
Women receive almost three-fifths of all the undergraduate and graduate degrees obtained by whites, federal statistics show. As a result, college-educated white women have increased their share of the white electorate in recent years. Exit polls showed them rising to one-fifth of all voters in 2016, while other analyses, like the nonpartisan States of Change project, put their share slightly lower, at about 1 in 6. Virtually all forecasts project they will constitute an increasing share of the white electorate in the years ahead, while non-college whites, Trump’s base, will decline as the electorate diversifies. Rob Griffin, a principal researcher on the States of Change project, forecasts that college-educated women will reach about one-fourth of the white electorate by 2036, up from just over one-fifth now.
As Greenberg argues, the impact of shifting loyalties among well-educated white women will be magnified if the changes evident in some areas among well-educated men also persist through 2020 and beyond. But for 2018, there’s no question that the recoil from Trump among white-collar white women has emerged as the single most powerful force propelling Democratic opportunities. And coming after all those hostile judgments about Trump have already collected among well-educated white women, the Senate’s impending decision on Kavanaugh may operate like a match dropped into a pool of gasoline.