The Trump campaign strategy of targeting ‘poorly educated’ missing white voters


Screenshot-16In 2012, then-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal urged the GOP to “stop being the stupid party” and end its embrace of “dumbed-down conservatism.”

After winning the Nevada GOP primary in February, Donald Trump said “I love the poorly educated”.

The New York Times today reports on Donald Trump’s Big Bet on Less Educated Whites:

A potential victory for Donald J. Trump may hinge on one important (and large) group of Americans: whites who did not attend college.

Polls have shown a deep division between whites of different education levels and economic circumstances. A lot rides on how large these groups will be on Election Day: All pollsters have their own assessment of who will show up, and their predictions rely on these evaluations.

The largest bloc is whites who have no college degree, and the voting-age population of this group is as large as that of voting-age blacks, Hispanics and Asian-Americans combined. Mitt Romney won this group over Barack Obama by 26 percentage points, and Ronald Reagan by 31 points in 1984. But Bill Clinton won this bloc of voters both times he ran. In this year’s political polls, this group favors Mr. Trump by large margins over Hillary Clinton.

However, the voting electorate — the people who actually go to the polls — could look substantially different from the voting-age population. Here’s how the population of actual voters broke down in the last presidential election. Only about half of whites with no college degree voted, leaving about 29 million votes on the table in an election decided by five million votes.


This population is the heart of red-state America. It dominates the rural landscape of swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa and Wisconsin. But it is outnumbered in urban centers and in most suburban areas. A big unknown in this election is how many additional voters will turn out in these counties. On election night, watch for the votes from these areas:

Screen Shot 2016-11-07 at 11.48.17 AM

Mr. Trump has argued that his candidacy has generated unprecedented enthusiasm in this part of the electorate.Mr. Trump’s pursuit of the group has been pointed, but its voting strength has steadily and rapidly declined. Has he stoked enough fervor to make it work?

Not likely. Last week the Times’ The Upshot reported, Why Does Education Translate to Less Support for Donald Trump?

It’s probably the biggest demographic story of this election: Hillary Clinton has made big gains with well-educated whites, particularly women. And Donald J. Trump has continued recent Republican gains in winning over less educated whites, particularly men. As Nate Cohn wrote in an article last month, education has replaced the culture wars as the defining electoral divide.

But what exactly do we mean by “educated”? Some Upshot readers, responding to the article, suggested it was about intelligence — that college-educated people can see through Mr. Trump because they’re smart.

* * *

The I.Q. connection is purely speculative; no rigorous studies have been published to support it. Other readers warned against the temptation to stereotype, pointing to various explanations and showing how difficult it is to come to definitive conclusions about the education correlation.

It’s About What You Learn

These days, the highly educated tend to be liberal. A Pew Research center study showed this growing connection among those with graduate degrees. Some readers said it had to do with what you learn at college: You become “educated.”

Another reader highlighted the advantages of encountering different points of view on campus.

No, It’s About Credentials and Social Class

What if you mostly goof off at college — beer pong at the fraternity instead of bearing down at the library — but manage to get a degree? You may not be “educated” but you still have an edge in the job market: The degree can be a ticket to a good job and the good life. If you don’t have that credential, you may feel left out and frustrated — and more willing to shake things up with Mr. Trump.

It’s worth mentioning that income is not nearly as predictive of presidential preference in this election as education. Trump supporters are not as poor as a lot of people think. And at the highest levels of income, the rich are set to reverse a decades-long pattern and support a Democratic presidential candidate.

Or, You’re Learning the Wrong Things

Several readers blamed left-wing bias on campus, particularly among professors — or as one reader, L’Osservatore, put it, “the unquestioned control of collectivists and socialists on 95 percent of college campuses.”

To which I would remind readers that “It is a well known fact that reality has liberal bias.” – Stephen Colbert

But other readers, pointing to examples like the rejection by many Republicans of the science on climate change, said there was an “anti-intellectual” strain in the modern G.O.P. (Political science aficionados will think back to the bookAnti-Intellectualism in American Life” by Richard Hofstadter.)

Jane of Santa Rosa said, “This is why Donald Trump — and the G.O.P. by extension — ‘love the poorly educated.’ ”

In 2012, the Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum called President Obama “a snob” for urging students to pursue college.

Maybe It’s About Location

The clustering of like-minded people — the so-called Big Sort — has been underway for quite a while, but the effect on political preferences seems to be accelerating in this election.

Region plays a role. In 2012, President Obama won a fairly high percentage of the white working class in Wisconsin and Minnesota, states with a tradition of labor rights and Progressive values. He didn’t do nearly as well with working-class whites in Southern states.

Educated white voters are more likely to live in big cities or near them, areas that have had better job growth and that tend to lean liberal. The mostly liberal Northeast has the highest percentage of college graduates — you’re more likely to be expected to go to college — and the populous Northeast megalopolis, for example, draws college graduates searching for jobs.

College graduates from rural towns who move to a metropolitan area for work may have their views influenced by their new environment and social circles. It’s also possible that their views and interests may prompt them to move, whether in search of cultural opportunities or like-minded people. The result is social polarization by place.

Or, About Rational Policy Preferences

A reader, William Hayes of Houston, said, “Trump promises jobs by rolling back globalization, which appeals to the undereducated, not because they’re stupid, but because they believe decreasing globalization will help them get good jobs.”

What About Education and Tolerance?

A reminder here that the education correlation is among whites only. Nonwhites may have other priorities in assessing Mr. Trump. A reader, Space Needle from Seattle, wondered if Trump supporters were “simply angry about their perceived loss of power in a society growing increasingly diverse.” An article in The Times today, Behind 2016’s Turmoil, a Crisis of White Identity, explores “white anxiety that has fueled political tumult” not just in the United States, but throughout the Western world.

Suburban and moderate white voters may be uncomfortable with more explicit appeals to racial, ethnic and religious resentment — and those who have the college credential would have less reason for scapegoating. Some studies have shown that education can increase tolerance, but there’s also evidence suggesting the effect can be overstated when it comes to race.

How Age and Education Connect

One overlooked factor is Mr. Trump’s success with older voters. He has polled much better among those over 65 than among millennials, perhaps because of his appeal to return America to perceived glory days.

Yes, those halcyon days of the 1950’s when America enjoyed state-sanctioned segregation of the races, when minorities, women and gays had no rights or legal protections, or even the right to vote for African-Americans. It was the era of white male privilege and patriarchy.

Educational attainment has been rising for decades. In the late 1960s, only about 10 percent of Americans had bachelor’s degrees. Today, that number is almost 33 percent, and for whites, it is around 36 percent. People with degrees tend to be more reliable voters.

The Trump campaign is a working test of Sean Trende’s 2012 thesis, The Case of the Missing White Voters. It is the reason for Trump’s overt nativist and racist use of the old GOP Southern strategy of appealing to the racism of whites against minorities.

Nate Cohn explains why Donald Trump Can’t Count on Those ‘Missing White Voters’:

Donald J. Trump and his supporters hope to overcome sweeping demographic shifts by rallying the support of “missing white voters” — disaffected, conservative populists who sat out the 2012 presidential election.

Millions of these voters could be activated, the theory goes — enough to overcome the demographic changes that favor Hillary Clinton.

Mr. Trump may yet win this election. But if he does, it probably won’t be because of a huge influx of Republican-leaning “missing” voters.

There has been no surge in registration among white voters since 2012, and the white voters who have joined the electorate are younger and likelier to support Mrs. Clinton than those who were already registered.

Perhaps most surprising, the missing white voters who skipped the 2012 election have turned out to be far less supportive of Mr. Trump than those who voted in 2012.

The possibility that the missing white voters were conservative populists, primed to support a candidate like Mr. Trump, was never supported by much evidence. But it was used to justify a strategy that eschewed gains among nonwhite and moderate voters in favor of larger margins with conservative white voters.

This year, Mr. Trump’s gains among missing white voters aren’t likely to be even enough to overcome four years of demographic shifts, let alone form the basis of a lasting political coalition.

These findings are based on an Upshot analysis of voter registration data nationwide, as well as Upshot/Siena College polls of North Carolina, Florida and Pennsylvania.

Screen Shot 2016-11-07 at 1.04.19 PM

According to these data, it’s Mrs. Clinton — not Mr. Trump — who stands to gain from a surge of new voters.

Newly Registered Voters Break for Mrs. Clinton

Mrs. Clinton has a considerable lead over Mr. Trump among newly registered voters in Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina combined, 47 percent to 31 percent.

Her edge among newly registered voters has often been lost in analysis of voter registration trends that focus on changes in party registration since 2012. Newly registered voters increasingly avoid affiliating with a major party, so they don’t have a big effect on voter registration tallies: In the three states we analyzed, Democrats have a modest advantage among voters who registered since 2012, 34 percent to 28 percent, according to data from L2, a nonpartisan voter file vendor.

But the newly registered voters nonetheless solidly lean toward Mrs. Clinton, based on our polling data and voter records. They’re disproportionately young and nonwhite.

Newly registered voters who aren’t affiliated with a major party lean to Mrs. Clinton over Mr. Trump by 42 percent to 21 percent; Gary Johnson runs a close third, with 20 percent. They may not improve the Democratic registration edge in these states, but they could contribute to Mrs. Clinton’s margin on Election Day.

Mrs. Clinton also enjoys a significant edge in party unity among newly registered voters. She leads among registered Democrats by 86 percent to 5 percent, while Mr. Trump has a lead of just 74 percent to 8 percent among newly registered Republicans. Mr. Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, has the support of 15 percent of registered Republicans.

Mr. Trump even struggles among the newly registered voters who are white: He leads by just 40 percent to 34 percent.

Mrs. Clinton’s lead among newly registered voters isn’t simply about an influx of voters who were previously ineligible, either. She leads among every age group of new voters, giving her a similar margin of 45 to 33 among newly registered voters who weren’t eligible in 2012.

Missing White Voters Aren’t Great for Trump

The Upshot reported in July, it is not clear that these missing white voters are natural targets for Republicans. They were disproportionately registered Democrats and young. In Florida, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, they’re equally likely to be registered as Democrats or Republicans, even though Republicans have a considerable registration edge among white voters over all.

Our polling data suggests that the missing whites aren’t exactly conservative populists who support Mr. Trump. They’re just dissatisfied: They don’t like their candidate, and they don’t like the other party’s candidate much either.

* * *

The missing unaffiliated white voters are particularly dissatisfied: Mr. Trump leads by just 35 to 24. Mr. Johnson runs a strong third, with 18 percent.

Over all, Mr. Trump led among missing white voters, 43 to 31, a far smaller margin than his lead among the white voters who turned out in 2012.

The missing white voters might not be an especially promising group for Mr. Trump, but he does seem to be doing a better job of motivating them to vote than Mrs. Clinton. He has a larger lead, 50 to 32, among those who have already voted or say they’re “almost certain” to do so.

Those missing white voters will help Mr. Trump a little, but not by enough to counteract an often-overlooked group: the “missing” nonwhite voters. There are more missing nonwhite voters than white voters, according to voter file data. And they’re just as likely as the missing white voters to say they’ll vote.

Mrs. Clinton has a lead of 61 to 20 among the missing nonwhite voters who say they’re “almost certain” to vote or have already done so. It’s enough to give her a lead of 43 percent to 38 percent among the missing voters who say they’re almost certain to rejoin the electorate.

If Mrs. Clinton could add these “missing” and newly registered voters to the Obama coalition, she would be poised for a decisive victory.

UPDATE: Richard Fording and Sanford Schram write at the Washington Post, ‘Low information voters’ are a crucial part of Trump’s support:

Many commentators have noted what Thomas Edsall has called the “great democratic inversion,” where voters have become more polarized by education — with less-educated voters gravitating to Trump. But focusing only on education obscures another key factor: whether voters have lower levels of knowledge about politics and less interest in using ideas to understand politics. These attributes do not simply reflect voters’ level of formal education.

Our research finds that Trump has attracted a disproportionate (and unprecedented) number of “low-information voters” to his campaign.

* * *

We define low-information voters as those who do not know certain basic facts about government and lack what psychologists call a “need for cognition.”

* * *

[A] core part of his base is made up of low-information voters who appear more susceptible to Trump’s appeals based on race and religion and less prepared to challenge his misstatements and untruths.


  1. One last comment…keep in mind that all this analyses of the GOP is taking place in the midst of a wild card affecting it. Trump throws a monkey wrench into the middle of everything because his candidacy is outside the norm. I know I don’t support him so there is no telling what I will do when I vote. And there are thousands like me that can’t be counted the way you would normally expect us to count.

    Well, only 13 more hours till the excitement starts!!

  2. Every election this same stuff is trotted out. Liberals telling themselves how superior they are to conservatives and dragging out the same statistics to “prove” it. Smarter, faster, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound…they have it all. It should be intuitively obvious to the most casual observer how much better they are than their opponents. So I have to wonder why every two years, win or lose, this same crapola is dragged out to reassure each other how truly spectacular they really are.

    As to those “lost voters”, that drawn out explanation sounded less like an analysis and more like hopeful thinking than anything else. The more I read, the more desperate it sounded. It was like it needed to bolster the spirits of liberals, while tossing in the occasional throw away nasty comment about conservatives.

    I guess I don’t understand why liberals are so worried about losing tomorrow. All indications are that Hillary will win. Yet articles like this seem to indicate a real sense of fear among liberals that she won’t. Why this insecurity? Why the worry?

    Oh well, we’ll find out tomorrow…

    • Quite a bit of projection there about “insecurity” – it is pretty clear that you are. These are political scientists who do professional research that is peer reviewed — unlike your emotional feelings and ranting about what their research reveals. And for the record, this is Trump’s campaign strategy, his campaign has said so repeatedly.

      • I thought you were a lawyer, not a shrink. ;o)

        I really don’t feel particularly insecure. I am one of those odd ducks that is highly educated, high IQ, and still conservative. I never denied it was Trump’s strategy because it had nothing to do with what I was pointing out. Peer review is important, but it does have one small flaw. Reviews are influenced by – to one extent or the other – by the biases of the reviewer. They are human beings and they can’t help but allow their personal prejudices to influence them, especially in the “softer” sciences (such as political science).

        Besides, I only gave you my opinion of the “tone” of the articles, not an assessment of their evaluations. As I read through it, it sounded more and more desperate to convince readers that Hillary was going to win because these “lost voters” will prefer her over Trump. I really don’t care if they do. I have accepted that Hillary will win the election and it doesn’t really matter to me why.

        “Yes, those halcyon days of the 1950’s when America enjoyed state-sanctioned segregation of the races, when minorities, women and gays had no rights or legal protections, or even the right to vote for African-Americans. It was the era of white male privilege and patriarchy.”

        You speak so disparingly of those times as if nothing positive was going on. You overlook that there was something positive going on and that was the start of the backlash against those negatives. You also ignore the progress made in science, medicene, aeronautics, and social awareness. Despite your desire to condemn the period, it was a fairly happy time for the majority of Americans. In fact my OPINION (in case you miss that) is that as a nation we were probably a little happier back then than today. Along those lines, what I find interesting is that despite all the progress that has been made, liberals act as if nothing has changed. To listen to the complaints posted here you could be describing the 1950s all over again. To listen to Hillary, things are still like the 1950s. Have things gotten any better, or are they still just as dismal as you think the 1950s were? Did you actually live in the 1950s or is it something you have only read about in books written by liberals who think as you do?

Comments are closed.