Analysis: This is the dynamic that could decide the 2024 GOP race

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The same fundamental dynamic that decided the 2016 Republican presidential primaries is already resurfacing as the 2024 contest takes shape.

As in 2016, early polls of next year’s contest show the Republican electorate is again sharply dividing about former President Donald Trump along lines of education. In both state and national surveys measuring support for the next Republican nomination, Trump is consistently running much better among GOP voters without a college education than among those with a four-year or graduate college degree.

Analysts have often described such an educational divide among primary voters as the wine track (centered on college-educated voters) and the beer track (revolving around those without degrees). Over the years, it’s been a much more consistent feature in Democratic than Republican presidential primaries. But the wine track/beer track divide emerged as the defining characteristic of the 2016 GOP race, when Trump’s extraordinary success at attracting Republicans without a college degree allowed him to overcome sustained resistance from the voters with one.

Though the early 2024 polls have varied in whether they place Trump or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the lead overall (with the latest round tilting mostly toward Trump), that same overriding pattern of educational polarization is appearing in virtually all of those surveys, a review of public and private polling data reveals.

“Trump does seem to have a special ability to make this sort of populist appeal [to non-college voters] and also have a special ability to make college-educated conservatives start thinking about alternatives,” GOP pollster Chris Wilson said in an email. “I think we’ll continue to see a big education divide in his support in 2024.”

The stark educational split in attitudes toward Trump frames the strategic challenge for his potential rivals in the 2024 race.

On paper, none of the leading candidates other than DeSantis himself seems particularly well positioned to threaten Trump’s hold on the non-college Republicans who have long been the most receptive audience for his blustery and belligerent messaging. By contrast, most of the current and potential field – including former Governors Nikki Haley and Chris Christie; current Governors Chris Sununu of New Hampshire and Glenn Youngkin of Virginia; former Vice President Mike Pence; and Sen. Tim Scott – appear better suited to attract the white-collar Republicans who have always been the most skeptical of Trump.

That could create a situation in which there’s too little competition to Trump for voters on the “beer track” and too many options splintering the voters resistant to him on the “wine track.” That was the dynamic that allowed Trump to capture the nomination in 2016 even though nearly two-thirds of college-educated Republicans opposed him through the primaries, according to exit polls, and he didn’t reach 50% of the total vote in any state until the race was essentially decided.

While the political obstacles facing Trump look greater now than they were then, his best chance of winning in 2024 would likely come from consolidating the “beer track” to a greater extent than anyone else unifies the “wine track” – just as he did in 2016. In each of the past three contested GOP presidential primaries, the electorate have split almost exactly in half between voters with and without college degrees, analyses of the exit polls have found.

“Right now, unless somebody cracks that code to get competitive with Trump there [among blue-collar Republican voters], it could fall into the old pattern which is the best scenario for him,” said long-time GOP strategist Mike Murphy, who directed the super PAC for Jeb Bush in the 2016 race.

Jennifer Horn, the former GOP state chair in New Hampshire, added that while Trump’s ceiling is likely lower than in 2016, he could still win the nomination with only plurality support if no one unifies the majority more skeptical of him. “He isn’t going to need 50% to win,” cautioned Horn, a leading Republican critic of Trump.

The wine track/beer track divide has been a consistent feature of Democratic presidential primary politics since 1968. Since then, a procession of brainy liberal candidates (think Eugene McCarthy in 1968, Gary Hart in 1984, Paul Tsongas in 1992 and Bill Bradley in 2000) have mobilized socially liberal college-educated voters against rivals who relied primarily on support from non-college educated White voters and racial minorities (Robert F. Kennedy, Walter Mondale, Bill Clinton and Al Gore in those same races). In the epic 2008 Democratic primary struggle, the basic divide persisted in slightly reconfigured form as Barack Obama attracted just enough white-collar White and Black voters to beat Hillary Clinton’s coalition of blue-collar Whites and Latinos. Joe Biden in 2020 was mostly a beer track candidate.

Generally, over those years, the educational divide had not been as important in Republican primary races. More often GOP voters have divided among primary contenders along other lines, including ideology and religious affiliation. Both the 2008 and 2012 GOP races, for instance, followed similar lines in which a candidate who relied primarily on evangelical Christians and the most conservative voters (Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012) ultimately lost the nomination to another who attracted more support from non-evangelicals and a broader range of mainstream conservatives (John McCain and Mitt Romney).

The conservative columnist Patrick J. Buchanan, in his long-shot 1992 and 1996 bids for the GOP nomination, pioneered a blue-collar conservatism centered on unwavering cultural conservatism and an economic nationalism revolving around hostility to foreign trade and immigration. Huckabee and even more so Santorum advanced those themes, clearing a path that Trump would later follow – with a much harsher edge than either.

In 2008, there was no educational divide in the GOP race: McCain won exactly the same 43% among Republican voters with and without a college degree, according to a new analysis of the exit poll results by CNN polling director Jennifer Agiesta. But by 2012, Santorum’s blue-collar inroads meant Romney won the nomination with something closer to the Republican equivalent of a wine-track coalition: Of the 20 states that conducted exit polls that year, Romney won voters with at least a four-year college degree in 14, but he carried most non-college voters in just 10.

Wilson, the GOP pollster, said that an educational divide also started appearing around that time in other GOP primaries for Senate, House and governor’s races more frequently though by no means universally.

“This wasn’t always the driving demographic or ideological difference in primaries before Trump,” Wilson said. “Sometimes a candidate [who] was particularly strong in sounding populist themes would create this type of gap, but often a more traditional issue difference either on social issues or on issues like tax increase votes or support for Obamacare or something adjacent to it would be a stronger signal in a primary.”

In 2016, Trump turned this traditional GOP axis on its head. He narrowed the big divisions that had decided the 2008 and 2012 races. He performed nearly as well among voters who identified as very conservative as he did among those who called themselves somewhat conservative or moderate, according to a cumulative analysis of all the 2016 exit polls conducted by ABC’s Gary Langer. Likewise, Trump performed only slightly better among voters who were not evangelicals than those who were, Langer’s analysis found.

Instead, Trump split the GOP electorate along the wine-track/beer-track divide familiar from Democratic primary contests over the previous generation. According to Langer’s cumulation of the exit polls, Trump won fully 47% of GOP voters without a four-year college degree – an incredible performance in such a crowded field. Trump, in stark contrast, carried only 35% of Republican voters with at least a college-degree across the primaries overall. But the remainder of them dubious of him never settled on a single alternative. Sen. Ted Cruz, who proved Trump’s longest-lasting rival, captured only about one-fourth of the white-collar GOP voters, with the rest splitting primarily among Marco Rubio, John Kasich and Trump himself.

In October 2015, I wrote that Trump’s emerging strength in the GOP nomination race could be explained in two sentences: “The blue-collar wing of the Republican primary electorate has consolidated around one candidate. The party’s white-collar wing remains fragmented.” That same basic equation held through the primaries and largely explained Trump’s victory. The question now is whether it could happen again.

There’s no question that some of the same ingredients are present. Recent national polling by the non-partisan Public Religion Research Institute, according to detailed results shared with CNN, shows that Republicans without a college degree are more likely than those with advanced education to agree with such core Trump themes as the belief that discrimination against Whites is now as big a problem as bias against minorities; that society is growing too soft and feminine; and that the growing number of immigrants weakens American society.

The educational divide is also appearing more regularly in other GOP primaries for offices such as senator or governor, especially in races where one candidate is running on a Trump-style platform, Republican strategists say. It is also reappearing in polls measuring GOP voters’ early preferences for 2024. Recent national polls by Quinnipiac University, Fox News Channel and Republican pollsters including Whit Ayres, Echelon Insights and Wilson have all found Trump still running very strongly among Republicans without a college degree, usually capturing more than two-fifths of them, according to detailed results provided by the pollsters. But those same surveys all show Trump struggling with college-educated Republican voters, usually drawing even less support among them than he did in 2016, often just one-fourth or less.

Wilson, for instance, said that in his national survey of prospective 2024 GOP voters, Trump’s support falls from about half of those with a high school degree or less, to about one-third of those with some college experience, one-fourth of those with a four-year degree and only one-fifth of those with a graduate education. In a recent national NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, half of Republicans without a college degree said nominating Trump again would give the party the best chance of winning in 2024; two-thirds of the Republicans with degrees said the party would have a better chance with someone else.

State polls are showing the same pattern. The latest University of New Hampshire survey showed Trump attracting about two-fifths of GOP voters there without a high school degree, about one-third of those with some college experience, and only one-sixth of those with a four-year or graduate degree. A recent LA Times/University of California (Berkeley) survey in that state produced very similar results. Trump also ran much better among Republicans without a degree than those with one in the latest OH Predictive Insights primary poll in Arizona, according to detailed results provided by the firm.

Craig Robinson, the former GOP state party political director in Iowa, said he sees the same divergence in his daily interactions. “The people that I hang out with or have breakfast with on Saturday, it’s the more business, more educated guys, and they are like, ‘Hey, we just want to move on [from Trump],’” Robinson told me. “But if I go back home to rural Iowa, they are not like that. They are looking for the fighter; they are looking for the person that they think will stand up for them and that’s Trump by and large.”

Republicans who believe Trump is more vulnerable than in 2016 largely point to one reason: the possibility that DeSantis could build a broader coalition of support than any of Trump’s rivals did then. In many of these early state and national polls, DeSantis leads Trump among college educated voters. And in the same polls, DeSantis is generally staying closer to Trump among non-college voters than anyone did in 2016. “DeSantis may be able to do some business there,” said Murphy, referring to the GOP’s blue-collar wing.

When DeSantis spoke on Sunday at the Ronald Reagan presidential library about an hour northwest of Los Angeles, he smoothly displayed his potential to bridge the GOP’s educational divide. For the first part of his speech, he touted Florida’s economic success around small government principles – a message that could connect with white-collar GOP voters drawn to a Reaganite message of lower taxes and less regulation. In the speech’s later sections, DeSantis recounted his clashes with what he called “the woke mind virus” over everything from classroom instruction about race, gender and sexual orientation, to immigration and crime and his collisions with the Walt Disney Co. Those issues, which drew the biggest response from his audience, provide him a powerful calling card with GOP voters, especially those without degrees, drawn to Trump’s confrontational style, but worried he can’t win again.

“There is a lot of energy in the party right now around these cultural issues,” said GOP consultant Alex Conant, who served as the communications director for Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “If you watch Fox prime time, they are not talking about tax cuts and balancing budgets. They talk about the same cultural issues that DeSantis is putting at the core of his campaign.”

The risk to DeSantis is that by leaning so hard into cultural confrontation on so many fronts he could create a zero-sum dynamic in the race. That approach could allow him to cut into Trump’s blue-collar base, but ultimately repel some college educated primary voters, who view him as too closely replicating what they don’t like about Trump. (If DeSantis wins the nomination, that same dynamic could hurt him with some suburban voters otherwise drawn to his small government economic message.)

That could leave room in the top tier of the GOP race for another candidate who offers a sunnier, less polarizing message aimed mostly at white-collar Republicans. “I think there is absolutely room for more than two candidates, especially two candidates who are both competing very hard for the Fox News audience,” Conant said. Almost anyone else who joins the race beyond Trump and DeSantis (assuming he announces later this year) may ultimately conclude that lane represents their best chance to win.

In many ways, Trump looks more vulnerable than he did in the 2016 primary. But assembling a coalition across the GOP’s wine-track/beer-track divide that’s broad enough to beat him remains something of a Rubik’s Cube, and the countdown is starting for the field that’s assembling against him to solve it.