Presidential campaigns are all about the map and even as GOP nominee Donald Trump hammers home his appeal to working class whites in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, he could be opening up new battleground state opportunities for Hillary Clinton in other parts of the nation.
Trump’s message of “America First” on issues of international trade and manufacturing has proven appeal to white voters without a bachelor’s degree that feel they have been left behind in the global economy. But states where those voters are a small part of the population seem to be showing new challenges for the Republican ticket.
A new poll in Georgia, a reliably Republican state, shows a tie between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump. And GOP vice presidential nominee Mike Pence this week is campaigning in Arizona, traditionally safe ground for Republican presidential candidates.
What’s going on? The answer may lie in the education split among white voters. This week’s CNN/ORC poll shows Clinton leads Trump by 10 points among white voters who have at least a bachelor’s degree. That edge has been showing up in a lot of polls and it is uncommon in presidential politics, as we noted recently.
If that trend continues it could end up making a big difference in states with a particular political/demographic makeup: Republican states with large minority populations. Some very important states fall into that category.
All the states in the table are below the United States figure for their white, non-Hispanic population, nationally that figure sits at about 62 percent. That is, they are more diverse than the nation as a whole.
Democrats have had their eyes on these states for some time, with the hopes that the demographic shifts that are remaking the United States would move them to the Democratic column. But that has been slow to happen for two reasons.
One, whites vote at a much higher rate than minorities in those states. In Arizona, for instance, whites made up 74 percent of the electorate in 2012, while they made up less than 60percent of the population.
And two, white voters in those states voted overwhelmingly for the Republican candidate – as they did the national electorate overall.
But the education split on the white vote means those states could look different in 2016.
Trump is struggling mightily with minority voters. That’s not new; Republican Mitt Romney struggled in 2012. But that’s why he needs enormous margins among whites voters.
In effect, Trump’s problems with white voters who have at least a bachelor’s degree change the math in states such as Arizona and Georgia. (Texas, where Romney won by a whopping 16 points in 2012, is unlikely to be in play.) Suddenly his overall edge with white voters could shrink, which would mean his massive problems with minority voters could have a bigger impact.
For example, Romney won Arizona by 10 points in 2012. He did that by winning white voters by 34 points. If Trump wins them by only 20 points, Trump and Clinton would essentially tie in the state if the others voters followed 2012 patterns because of the big tallies she would garner from minority voters.
There will be a way to gauge how Trump is doing with this important part of the white vote. Keep an eye on the counties the American Communities Project calls the Exurbs in Arizona and Georgia, but also in traditional battleground like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Those counties, many of which sit on the outskirts of big cities, are above the national average for population with a bachelor’s degree above the average for white, non-Hispanic voters and the vote out of them has been reliably Republican. In 2012, Romney won them by about 18 percentage points.
Trump will likely win them again, but the question is one of margins. If he wins them by 12 point or 14 points instead of 18 points, that could be a real problem for him.
And the problem is even worse when you look at where some of those Exurb counties are located: Forsyth in Georgia, Delaware in Ohio, Chester in Pennsylvania, Fauquier in Virginia, Waukesha in Wisconsin.
Romney won all those counties in 2012, some by big margins. All are above the national average in population with a bachelor’s degree or more (about 30 percent) and all have large populations. They are Republican vote stockpiles where the party can pick up big numbers.
Of course, Trump’s push for working class white voters in the Midwest could still help him in that region. Putting Pennsylvania in play would be a very big deal for him. But the polls suggest his campaign actions are having voter reactions and part of the trade is the creation of new 2016 battlegrounds.