The GOP electorate is developing something that had only been a Democratic phenomenon: the “wine track.” Candidate Ron DeSantis is capitalizing. Photo of Elon Musk and Amber Heard in 2017 via Heard's Instagram

If only college graduates could vote in the Republican presidential primary, it would be a competitive contest.  

According to the YouGov/Yahoo! News poll, in a college-grad-only race, Donald Trump’s 28-point lead over Ron DeSantis with registered Republican voters would disappear and become a dead heat. Monmouth University’s numbers show Trump’s 24-point margin would shrink to just 1 point. Likewise, in the Quinnipiac University poll, which has “cross tabs” for white college-educated voters, Trump’s 31-point margin would narrow to just 1 point. 

This split is unusual. The Republican primary electorate does not typically feature a gaping educational divide.  

In 2008, John McCain took first place in the New Hampshire primary by 5 percent overall while winning among diploma holders by 9 percent. Then in the pivotal South Carolina primary, McCain won the state by 3 points, with a 6-point margin among the higher educated. (In other states that McCain won, such as California and Missouri, Mitt Romney had a slight edge with degree recipients.) 

Four years later, Mitt Romney’s margins with the college-educated only modestly outpaced his overall margin among Republican primary voters in crucial states—6 points in New Hampshire, 4 in Florida, and 7 in Ohio

In 2016, the reverse was true. Trump was most popular among GOP primary voters who lacked a college degree. But he still held his own with the post-secondary crowd. In New Hampshire, he won the Republican primary by 19 and among college graduates by 11. When he effectively wrapped up the nomination in Indiana with a 16-point victory, it included a 6-point margin with the college-educated. 

For a gap of 20 to 30 points to materialize between Republican college and non-college voters suggests the GOP electorate is developing something that had only been a Democratic phenomenon: the “wine track.” 

Every Democratic primary has at least one “wine track” candidate, such as Gary Hart in 1994, Paul Tsongas in 1992, Bill Bradley in 2000, Howard Dean in 2004, and Elizabeth Warren in 2020. The journalist Ron Brownstein famously defined them as “brainy liberals with cool, detached personas and messages of political reform.” Demographically, their defining trait is support from white college-educated voters. They tend to struggle with voters of color and working-class whites.  

Niche appeal isn’t enough for Democratic sommeliers to win the presidential nomination. However, they often elevate ideas that party leaders eventually embrace, be they left or center. Tsongas took a hard line in support of deficit reduction and against “pandering” with tax cuts, a view that Bill Clinton only adopted once in office. Dean invigorated opposition to the Iraq War at a time when Democratic leaders were reluctant to be perceived as dovish. Acolytes of Warren’s wonky populism won key appointments to Joe Biden’s administration.  

Winning among college grads alone probably wouldn’t be enough to win a Republican nomination either, but it is not an insignificant constituency. The diploma-holding share of the 2016 GOP primary electorate, according to exit poll data, ranged from 44 to 60 percent depending on the state.  

That may seem strange, considering that in the Trump Era, Democrats have made big strides with white college grads (who composed 28 percent of the 2020 general election turnout). According to Catalist, which analyzes turnout demographics using voter list database and not exit polls, the Democrats’ general election vote share (excluding minor candidates) among white college graduates grew from 46 percent in 2012 to 54 percent in 2020. Still, that leaves a hefty 46 percent for the Republicans.  

In prior primaries, the contours of the Republican electorate have been shaped not by how far voters went in school but by how they worship. Evangelical Christians have been the constituency with a penchant for longshots, like Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012. But polling for the 2024 primary indicates that evangelical support for Trump and DeSantis tracks their support among the Republican electorate, with Trump performing just a bit better with evangelicals than with Republicans overall. The emergent educational divide is why DeSantis is the only Republican candidate not named Trump who cracks 20 percent in most polls. 

Republican wine is nothing like the Democratic vintage. DeSantis’s scholarly fans do not appear to be the suburban Romneyites who recoiled at Trump’s bombastic bigotry and helped paint Georgia and Arizona blue. These high-brow conservatives stayed with Trump’s Republican Party but are developing their own distinct mix of weird policy obsessions and contrarian impulses. 

We got a strong sense of this new constituency when DeSantis launched his campaign alongside two figures who may prove representative of the Republican wine track: Elon Musk and fellow tech industry titan/social media commentator David Sacks. Matthew Continetti of the conservative Washington Free Beacon listened closely and identified what he favorably dubbed “The DeSantis Doctrine”: 

Trump always is on message, and the message is simple. MAGA, build the wall, lock her up … Everything relates to the binary of Trump is good and non-Trump is bad. DeSantis is more esoteric than Trump… 

[DeSantis, Musk and Sacks] were talking about how government, tech platforms, and corporate media work together to suppress freedom and entrench progressivism. I hadn’t heard the word “collude” so much since I last tuned into MSNBC. This wasn’t Russian collusion. It was collusion involving Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden, YouTube, and Twitter’s previous owners.  

Musk and DeSantis aren’t fighting Democrats so much as they are fighting the media narratives that Democrats promote to stigmatize the Right and push the country to the left. The latest in this string of narratives is the NAACP “travel advisory” warning African Americans to stay away from Florida. DeSantis rightly knocked it down as condescending drivel. He also pummeled the narrative that he’s banning books…DeSantis went after the “medical authoritarianism” that imposed and maintained lockdowns, social distancing, masking in schools, and vaccine mandates long after these public health measures were revealed to be useless or harmful.  

DeSantis also lit up cryptocurrency news sites when he defended Bitcoin and stoked paranoia over the possibility of the Federal Reserve using digital currency. As one of those sites, Decrypt, reported:  

… DeSantis’ remarks mirror those of Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr, who heralded Bitcoin last week as an example of democracy and anathema to authoritarians… 

… [DeSantis said,] “I can tell you, if I’m president, we are not doing a central bank digital currency.” DeSantis underscored his message that a CBDC could be used to curtail purchases deemed politically unfavorable in the eyes of those who control the tech, possibly pushing environmental issues or preventing firearm sales.

 None of this is high-minded intellectual discourse enriching the Republican Party. This is just a nerdier brew of conspiracy theorizing mixed with cheap and misleading whataboutism.  

DeSantis’s swipes at “Fauci-ism” have been repeatedly shredded by fact-check operations. He defames books that explore sexual orientation and gender identity as “pornographic material.” He dishonestly equates the long list of attempts to suppress exploration and discussion of sexuality and gender with a couple of schools that, however misguidedly, shelved classic books that used the N-word. And if your crypto views, not to mention your vaccine views, track the crackpot ramblings of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., that’s an immediate red flag.  

We should be careful not to jump to too many conclusions at this stage of the primary. Perhaps as the DeSantis Doctrine receives stricter scrutiny, some highly educated Republicans may take a closer look at those angling to be a tonic after Trump, such as former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, former Vice President Mike Pence or former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.  

The challenge for those back in the pack is to determine what mix of policies can best bridge the widening educational divide in the Republican Party while keeping an eye on what is appealing to general election swing voters. Must they follow DeSantis’s lead and cater to the whims of Musk’s tech bros? Or, if that seems too dicey a proposition to win the Electoral College, is there a more politically sound alternative path? 

The beauty of protracted presidential primaries is how they reveal the changing nature of our political parties, even if what they reveal is unsettling. If DeSantis and Musk personify the Republican wine track, we all may be in for a brutal hangover. 

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Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.