An Explanation for Why Trump is Ahead Right Now

After the second Republican debate, I saw something happening among GOP voters that I attempted to define as the difference between Trump supporters and what I called “Goldwater Republicans.” Then, along came John Judis with his description of the former as Middle American Radicals (MARS). Ultimately, what this is all about is the difference between blue collar and white collar Republicans. When it comes to actual voters, rather than the candidates or their degree of experience or their connection (or lack thereof) to the establishment, or even their religious affiliation, this is the difference that matters when analyzing the current contest for the Republican presidential nomination.

Apparently Ron Brownstein (with an assist from GOP pollster Glen Bolger) has come to the same conclusion.

The blue collar wing of the Republican primary electorate has consolidated around one candidate.

The party’s white collar wing remains fragmented.

That may be the most concise explanation of the dynamic that has propelled Donald Trump to a consistent and sometimes commanding lead in the early stages of the GOP presidential nomination contest.

Here is why that is important.

That disparity is critical because in both the 2008 and 2012 GOP nomination fights, voters with and without a four year college degree each cast almost exactly half of the total primary votes, according to cumulative analyses of exit poll results by ABC pollster Gary Langer. With the two wings evenly matched in size, Trump’s greater success at consolidating his “bracket” explains much of his advantage in the polls.

You might recall that Judis pegged the number of MARS voters at approximately 30-35% of Republican voters and 20% of the electorate.

For those who are either convinced of Trump’s eventual demise or think that he can’t be beat, here’s what it comes down to:

Bolger predicts that upscale and white collar Republicans will eventually unify around a single alternative to Trump after the early voting culls the field. “Given how much Trump is dominating the campaign, the fact that he does so much worse with college graduates underscores that they are not buying into either his message or persona,” Bolger said. “That’s not who he is targeting his message to.”

But because so many candidates are running competitively with those voters – including Carson, Fiorina, Rubio, sometimes Bush, Kasich, Christie, and Trump himself – they face the common risk in the race’s early stages that they will splinter the white collar vote so much that they can’t overcome Trump’s blue collar support. If that pattern allowed Trump to win not only Iowa, which has frequently favored conservatives, but establishment friendly early states such as New Hampshire and South Carolina, a more centrist opponent may find it difficult to reverse his momentum.

In other words, either white collar Republicans coalesce around a Trump alternative soon, or he starts winning primaries and becomes difficult to beat. How’s that for pinpoint political prognostication? It might not be terribly definitive. But it just so happens to be spot-on when it comes to the Republican presidential nominating process right now.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.