The following article by Ruy Teixeira, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, politics editor of The Liberal Patriot newsletter and co-author with John B. Judis of the forthcoming book “Where Have All the Democrats Gone?,” is cross-posted from The Washington Post:
It’s well-established that Democrats have been doing better with White college graduates, even as they have been slipping with non-White and working-class voters. Between the 2012 and 2020 elections — two elections with very similar popular-vote margins — Democrats’ advantage among White college graduates improved by 16 points, while declining by 19 points among non-White working-class voters who didn’t graduate college.
Moreover, if you look at the state-level voting patterns from 2020, it was White college graduates, in an election that featured relative underperformance among non-White voters, that put Joe Biden over the top in the pivotal states of Wisconsin, Arizona and Georgia. White college graduates were the Democrats’ firewall in 2020.
But this group is not a lock for Biden. Start with this fact: Most White college graduates are not liberal; this is true only of White college Democrats, who have indeed become much more liberal over time. But White college graduates as a whole are not particularly liberal. In a survey of more than 6,000 adults that I helped conduct between late March and May with the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life (SCAL) and the nonpartisan research institute NORC at the University of Chicago, 28 percent of these voters identified as liberal. The overwhelming majority said they were moderate (45 percent) or conservative (26 percent).
Of these groups, the most politically salient — and the largest — is the moderates. As Echelon Insights’ Patrick Ruffini has noted, liberal White college graduates and conservative White college graduates are the two most ideologically consistent groups in the electorate. As such, they vote almost unanimously for Democrats and Republicans, respectively, and tend to cancel each other out. But moderate White college grads are more mixed in their views. How they swing will determine just how high and effective the Democrats’ new White college firewall will be in 2024.
The SCAL-NORC survey allows for a detailed look at the views of these moderates. On the plus side for Democrats, while President Biden has a 52 percent unfavorable rating among these voters, Donald Trump’s rating is far worse: 76 percent unfavorable. “Double haters” — those who are have unfavorable views of both candidates — make up almost one-third of moderate White college graduates, substantially higher than among the electorate as a whole.
The Democratic Party is viewed less unfavorably than the GOP among these moderate White college graduates, though here the figures are much closer: Fifty-nine percent disapprove of the Democrats, compared with 66 percent who disapprove of the Republicans. The Democratic Party fares slightly more positively than Republicans in these moderates’ assessments of which party shares their values, which one bases its decisions more on politics than common sense and which one supports policies that interfere too much in people’s lives.
These moderate voters also align more with Democrats than Republicans on some key issues. They favor raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, support raising taxes rather than curbing benefits to protect Social Security and Medicare long term, believe abortion should be mostly legal and think protecting public safety through stricter limits on gun ownership is more important than protecting individual gun ownership rights.
But Republicans are preferred over Democrats on which party values hard work and is patriotic. About three-fifths of these voters think racism is not structural but comes from individuals, and more than four-fifths oppose giving Black people and other minorities preference in college admissions. Four-fifths also prefer continued use of fossil fuels along with renewables rather than rapidly phasing out the former for the latter.
These cross-pressures are echoed by the Liberal Patriot’s survey of more than 3,000 American voters conducted by YouGov in June. In this survey, moderate White college graduates preferred Trump over Biden on building up America’s manufacturing capacity, ensuring energy independence, protecting American interests around the world and taking on China in a smart manner. They give Biden only a 28 percent approval rating on handling inflation and the economy and just a 27 percent rating on handling crime and public safety.
About two-thirds of these moderates feel Democrats have moved too far left on cultural, social and economic issues. These figures are slightly higher than the portions of moderate White college graduates who feel Republicans have moved too far to the right on cultural issues or on economic issues.
These data suggest the fight to bring moderate White college graduates into the Democrats’ firewall might not be an easy one for the Democrats despite these voters’ generally unfavorable attitude toward Trump. Democrats need to not only win but dominate among these voters to ensure a second straight defeat of Trump and his movement.
Will White college graduates again deliver for Democrats in 2024? They might have to. Early polling shows a race between Biden and Trump to be very close — dead-even in the recent New York Times-Siena poll. In that poll, non-White, working-class voters say they are standing with Democrats but are doing so today in much smaller percentages than in either 2020 or 2016.
That suggests Democrats are likely going to need more than they’re currently getting from White college grads to replicate their 2020 success.