Even amid all his legal challenges, Donald Trump has a secret weapon in his drive to win the Republican presidential nomination next year: polling strongly suggests he has transformed the GOP primary electorate in a way that will make him harder to beat.
Since Trump’s emergence as the GOP’s dominant figure in 2016, the college-educated voters generally most skeptical of him have declined as a share of all GOP primary voters, while the voters without a college degree generally most sympathetic to him have increased, an array of public and private polls indicate.
Those changes suggest Trump has set in motion what could prove a self-fulfilling prophecy: compared to when he first captured the nomination in 2016, he’s encouraged more participation in the Republican primaries by the blue-collar voters most inclined to support him and less by the white-collar voters likely to become the centerpiece of any coalition against him.
“There’s no question about it,” says long-time GOP pollster Whit Ayres. “He has drawn people into the Republican Party who are more likely to support him and people like him and he has driven out of the Republican Party people who were more likely to support candidates George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney.”
This transformation of the Republican electorate is critical because attitudes in the GOP about Trump vary enormously along educational lines – what political analysts have often termed the divide between well-educated “wine track” and non-college educated “beer track” voters. In the latest CNN national poll conducted by SRSS, for instance, almost three-fifths of Republicans without a four-year college degree said nominating Trump again would give the party its best chance of winning in 2024; in stark contrast, two-thirds of Republicans with a college degree said the party would have a better chance if it chose someone else.
The conundrum for Republicans is that while the influence of college-educated adults is diminishing inside the GOP primary, those voters have become a growing obstacle for the party in general elections. The rejection of Trump, and Trump-style candidates, in well-educated suburbs across the country has been a central factor in the mostly disappointing election results for the GOP in 2018, 2020 and 2022. The Democratic landslide in last week’s state Supreme Court election in Wisconsin, a state the GOP likely must win back to recapture the White House next year, underlined the party’s continuing erosion in such places, especially amid the sharpening debate over abortion rights.
The changing nature of the GOP coalition compounds the party’s problems of winning back those suburban voters. The shift toward a more blue-collar primary electorate advantages the candidates like Trump emphasizing precisely the slashing culture war messages that are alienating those general election voters.
Probably the best long-term data set capturing the shifting dimensions of the Republican electoral coalition is polling by the GOP firm Public Opinion Strategies. Each year, it cumulates the results of all the polls it conducts for media clients including the Wall Street Journal, NBC and CNBC to produce a large-sample picture of the two parties’ supporters.
This annual merged data shows some significant changes over the past decade among the voters who identify with the GOP, according to a detailed breakdown the firm provided to me. In the POS data, the party is getting somewhat grayer: in 2012 it found that 43% of all Republicans were aged 55 or older. That figure rose to 50% in 2022, the latest annual compilation. Over that same period, the party moved modestly to the right, with the share of GOP voters who identify as very conservative edging up from 34% in 2012 to 38% in 2022.
On other key dimensions, the party didn’t change much: in 2022, as in 2012, men constituted a slight majority of all GOP partisans (a stark contrast from the electorate overall, where women are the majority), and voters of color represented about one-in-eight party members, virtually unchanged from 10 years ago.
But one change in the GOP electorate was more dramatic than any other, says GOP pollster Bill McInturff, one of the firm’s partners: “the growth of non-college Whites as a percentage of self-identified Republicans.” In 2012, the firm found, those Whites without a college degree constituted 48% of all Republicans, only slightly more than Whites with a college degree, who represented 40%. By 2016, when Trump was first nominated, the gap between the two groups had widened, with the non-college Whites rising to 56% of all Republicans, and the college-educated Whites falling to 33%. In the 2022 results, the Whites without a college degree soared to 62% of all GOP partisans, while the college-educated Whites sagged to 25%. (Looking at all GOP supporters, including the relatively small number who are racial minorities, the group without a college degree rose from 56% in 2012 to 70% in 2022, POS found.)
What makes this shift even more striking is that over that same period, Whites without a college degree have generally declined as a share of the total electorate by about two percentage points every four years, according to figures from the Census Bureau and other data sources such as the projections by the Democratic targeting firm Catalist. That means the non-college Whites have been increasing their presence inside the GOP while they were shrinking overall, as American society grows both more racially diverse and better educated.
Not every data source shows as dramatic a change as POS. Large-sample polls provided to CNN by the Public Religion Research Institute found virtually no change in the educational composition of GOP partisans from 2016 to 2022. Similarly, long-time GOP pollster Chris Wilson said in an email that while he believes the GOP electorate has tilted more toward voters without a college degree over the past decade, most of that change occurred by 2016, with little additional movement since. “One way to look at the data overall is that the effect Trump had in the primary was already baked into 2016,” he said.
But other sources point toward continuing change. In addition to the Public Opinion Strategies data, the Pew Research Institute also found that over the decade of the 2010s, college-educated Whites shrank as a share of GOP voters, widening the gap with Whites who lack a degree (who remained constant at just under three-fifths of the party). Using a new polling methodology for its latest figures, Pew found that voters of all races without a college degree now comprise fully 68% of Republicans, almost exactly the same result as POS.
Whatever their exact share in the total pool of GOP supporters, college-educated voters will likely represent a somewhat larger portion of actual voters in next year’s primaries. That’s because eligible voters with a college degree consistently turn out at higher rates than those without one.
Cumulative analyses by Gary Langer of ABC of all the exit polls conducted in the Republican presidential primaries of 2008, 2012 and 2016 found that each time the total GOP primary electorate split almost exactly in half between voters with and without a college degree.
But subsequent changes in the methodology of the exit polls suggest those numbers likely somewhat inflated the share of college-educated GOP voters. Many recent media and GOP polls have found that Republicans without a degree now comprise a clear majority of Republicans likely to vote in next year’s primary.
The latest CNN polls, for instance, project that voters with a college degree will comprise about one-third of the likely 2024 GOP voters, while those without a degree will constitute two-thirds. The most recent Monmouth University poll found an even greater imbalance, projecting that fully 72% of GOP primary voters next year will lack a college degree.
Three Republican pollsters I spoke with – Ayres, McInturff and CNN contributor Kristen Soltis Anderson – all said that their analysis projects college-educated voters will represent about 40% of the GOP electorate next year. That leaves the non-college voters who provide the bedrock of Trump’s support as the clear majority at around 60%.
State-level polls also document how the GOP electorate has shifted toward those without degrees. In New Hampshire, for instance, adults with a four-year college or graduate degree constituted a 54% majority of likely voters in a January 2016 poll just before the primary there by the University of New Hampshire, according to results provided to CNN. In a January 2023 UNH poll, college-educated voters had fallen in half, to just 27% of likely GOP primary voters, while those without degrees had soared to 73%.
Likewise, in New York, Siena College polling has found that the share of likely GOP primary voters with a college degree in that state has fallen in half, from around 50% in 2016 to just 25% now. Polling over the same period by the Public Policy Institute of California shows a more modest shift in the same direction there.
These shifts enormously complicate the task of assembling a coalition that can beat the former president in the primaries.
Trump has gained ground in recent weeks among college- and non-college voters alike, particularly as the party has rallied around him in the face of his indictment by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. But there’s no question that college-educated Republicans are much cooler toward Trump than their counterparts without a degree. In 2016, only about one-third of college-educated Republicans supported Trump in the primaries, according to Langer’s cumulative analysis of the exit polls. And while 63% of non-college Republicans said in the latest CNN poll that the party should nominate Trump in 2024, only 33% of those with degrees agreed (suggesting his underlying support among them has not increased from its meager level in 2016).
Anderson says that in polling over the past few months by her firm Echelon Insights, nearly half of all Republicans who express unfavorable views about Trump hold a college degree. That’s true, she says, both for Republicans who identify as conservatives and those who do not. “The portions of the right that are not very favorable to Donald Trump are the most highly educated,” she says.
After eight years of Trump’s seismic impact on the party, though, those highly educated Republicans have less leverage over the nomination process than they did in 2016. With the non-college Republicans now a growing majority of the primary electorate, it’s unlikely that anybody can overtake Trump without significantly cutting into his lead among those blue-collar voters who gave him nearly half their total votes in 2016 and again are supporting him at least at that level in most 2024 polls.
Long-time GOP consultant David Kochel is one of many party strategists who believes that “If you are going to have an anti-Trump coalition in the primary,” college-educated Republicans are “where it has to start.” But since those voters likely won’t be enough to beat Trump on their own, Trump’s rivals will also need to loosen his hold on non-college Republicans. Yet doing that may require taking hardline positions on cultural issues that makes it more difficult to unite the college Republicans. Those two groups, Kochel says, “have very different values, they see things differently, they live in very different media universes.”
Ron DeSantis’ recent polling decline among college-educated Republicans may reflect that challenge. While he often led Trump among them earlier this year, the Florida governor has consistently slipped somewhat as he’s leaned even harder into his culture warrior credentials, signing a bill allowing permit less carry of concealed weapons and backing a six-week abortion ban in Florida. (DeSantis also stumbled on Ukraine by initially echoing, and then somewhat distancing from, Trump’s skepticism of sustained US support.)
Wilson says it’s possible college graduates could comprise a somewhat larger share of the GOP electorate in 2024 than 2016 if President Joe Biden does not face a competitive Democratic race and more white-collar independents choose to participate in Republican primaries as a result. But most other Republicans I spoke with believe the other candidates will face the challenge of beating Trump in an electorate tilted even more than in 2016 toward the voters most sympathetic to him. “He has created favorable conditions for himself,” says Kochel.
Kochel doesn’t believe that dynamic guarantees a Trump victory, though. While Republicans of all camps, he says, mostly rally around Trump when he’s criticized by Democrats or the news media, the former president could be more vulnerable to “a sustained effort to define him negatively from the right” on issues such as his support of steps to lock down the country in the very first days of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Taking down Trump with those arguments won’t be easy because the GOP voters theoretically most receptive to that case are largely the same non-college Republicans who display the strongest emotional connection to the former president as a “warrior” who fights for them. Yet most GOP strategists agree Trump’s 2024 rivals must find some way to reduce his commanding lead with the blue-collar Republicans. “If he stays that high,” among those non-college primary voters, says Ayres, “it is going to be very difficult to dislodge him.”
Unless one of Trump’s opponents can disrupt these dynamics, the former president in 2024 may have even more reason to declare, as he so memorably did in 2016, that “I love the poorly educated.”