Donald Trump is in striking distance of winning the election with two days to go, and there’s really just one reason for that: He’s leading white voters without a college degree by a huge margin.
In recent national surveys, Trump leads Hillary Clinton 59 percent to 30 percent among that group. It’s larger than the 57-35 lead that Mitt Romney had with those voters in the final polls in 2012.
On their own, Trump’s gains among this group have been enough to cancel out four years of favorable demographic shifts for Democrats among Hispanic and well-educated white voters.
He has even won supporters among some of the same white voters who backed Barack Obama in 2008. It suggests that Trump and Obama might have a little more in common than you might think — at least from a political standpoint.
If Trump wins the presidency, that will ultimately be why. It has been a consistent pattern all year. Whenever Trump fights his way into a tight race with Clinton, it’s because he manages to run up the score with blue-collar white voters.
In the past week, analysis of the early vote has made it clear that turnout will be more than high enough for a Democrat to win a presidential election. Latino turnout will be high. Black turnout may not reach 2012 levels, but it will not be so low that one could reasonably blame black turnout for a Clinton loss.
But Trump’s strength among the white working class gives him a real chance at victory, a possibility that many discounted as recently as the summer.
He could win enough Electoral College votes without winning the popular vote through narrow victories in Midwestern and Northeastern battlegrounds like Wisconsin and New Hampshire, where Democrats depend on support among white working-class voters.
Trump’s strength with that group could even be enough for him to win Florida, where Clinton’s abundant support among Latino voters would otherwise all but doom a Republican.
The conventional wisdom after 2012 held that Obama was a historically weak candidate among white working-class voters and that there wasn’t much room for the Republicans to make additional gains.
To the extent that there was an argument for how Republicans could make big gains among the group, it was that they could rally the support of missing white voters — a group that in reality appears more Democratic than the white voters who do turn out in elections.
But exit polls tend to undercount the number of less educated voters, and the national exit polls obscured Obama’s strength among white voters in the North. They showed him faring worse among white voters than any Democrat since Walter Mondale, but that was exclusively because of his weakness in the South. In many Northern states — like Iowa and Ohio — Obama did better among white voters than past Democrats. There was a lot of room for Clinton to fall. She’s proving it.
For many, it was very hard to imagine that Clinton — a white Democrat who excelled among white working-class voters in the 2008 Democratic primary — could lose voters who supported Obama in the 2012 election, or who approve of his performance today.
It’s even stranger if one believes that racism is at the core of Trump’s appeal: If Trump’s supporters are animated by racism, then why did so many of them vote for Obama?
Racism might well animate Trump’s base. But his appeal among some white Obama supporters suggests that Trump and Obama might have something in common.
Trump has changed the storylines of the 2012 and 2008 elections — and tapped into many of the same issues and frames that helped Obama.
In 2008, Obama depicted himself as an agent of hope and change: He ran against Washington, the establishment and special interests. In 2012, the Obama campaign attacked its Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, as a plutocrat who would outsource jobs and help the wealthy, not the middle class.
Those are the kinds of reasons that white working-class Democrats in places like Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Youngstown, Ohio, remained with the Democrats.
In this election, Trump flipped that frame. He ran against the establishment — and against a candidate who embodies it far more than John McCain or Romney. He depicted Clinton as someone who supports corporate — even global — interests over the middle class on issues like trade and immigration. The various allegations against Clinton neatly complement the notion that she’s not trying to help ordinary Americans.
Clinton, meanwhile, has emphasized Trump’s fitness for the presidency more than the traditional Democratic campaign message about the economy.
Trump is expected to fall short of the presidency, in part because of his problems capitalizing on Clinton’s deep weakness among white working-class voters. There are probably many young white men without a degree, for instance, who liked Obama and don’t like either Trump or Clinton.
Regardless of the outcome, these voters will loom over U.S. politics. Huge parts of the Republican Party’s establishment would undoubtedly prefer a candidate who’s friendlier to their views on immigration and trade.
If Clinton wins with strength among the well educated and Hispanic voters, much of the Republican establishment will conclude that those groups are in their electoral interest as well.
But the voters receptive to Trump’s views on these issues would have pulled Republicans awfully close to victory, even with a deeply flawed candidate. They’re also among the voters likeliest to be skeptical of Clinton in four years. It would be difficult for the party not to cater to them.
Democrats would have the opposite challenge. Four years after demographic shifts were credited for Obama’s victory, the party would undoubtedly realize the extent to which they remain dependent on the support of voters whom they might have assumed they no longer needed.
At the same time, their winning coalition would be better educated and more diverse than ever before. Without a Republican like Trump as a foil, it could be hard to devise an agenda and a message that would hold Clinton’s coalition together.