Relative to other Republicans, Trump has underperformed those voters since he started his first presidential campaign in 2015. And by mocking science and openly inflaming racial tensions, he is now directly focusing the campaign debate on two of the main dynamics that have driven those voters away from him. That shows signs of accelerating change for these voters, who had never backed a Democratic presidential candidate in polls before 2016, away from the Republican Party to an unprecedented new level.
Conversely, while widespread concern in black and Hispanic communities about both the death of George Floyd and the disproportionate burden they have faced from the coronavirus outbreak could increase their participation from the lukewarm level of 2016, until now most 2020 polls have not shown Biden improve on Hillary Clinton's margin between them. Meanwhile, Trump maintains a consistent lead among white voters without college degrees, though almost all polls show that his margins with women in that group have shrunk substantially since 2016.
Returning to the themes of 2016
Trump has always tried to convince his primarily non-university and non-urban white base that he can "only" protect them from the twin forces he portrays as a threat to their interests: derogatory elites who are alleged to disdain their values and dangerous minorities and immigrants who allegedly threatening their jobs and physical safety.
Under the enormous pressure of the coronavirus outbreak and massive nationwide protests of racial inequality, Trump has returned to those core issues.
Observers in both parties believe Trump sees his defiance of local officials and medical experts at the protests as a way to reinforce his identity as a stranger who will break the rules to defend the interests of his voters. But on both sides, many believe the approach carries enormous risk, particularly with older, college-educated voters, who have shown high levels of concern about the pandemic.
That Trump host an event that doesn't require masks "is a little deaf in this part of the state," Charles Coughlin, a veteran Phoenix-based Republican consultant, told me. "It is part of (his) anti-establishment method, which appears to be worn out in a crisis."
In Navigator polls, about two-thirds of whites with titles of at least four years have consistently expressed concern that Trump ignores expert opinions, and more than half say they are very concerned about that pattern, he said.
Trump's holding of the protests despite advice from public health officials is "continual fodder to ignore expert advice, which has always been a major concern for voters," Gourevitch said. "They also play with the self-absorption aspect that he needs these rallies for himself and his own re-election rather than the good of the people."
Republican consultant Alex Conant, the communications director for Senator Marco Rubio's 2016 presidential campaign, says those numbers among well-educated voters (as well as comparable weakness among older people) show the price of minimizing the crisis by Trump and his open challenge to public health. officials
"I think that is why you are losing in all these changing states," said Conant. "I think there is a part of his base that he loves and supports enormously by throwing caution to the wind and keeping track of the campaign. And that's part of his base that he's very much in tune with. But then if you're a Independent voter or more traditional conservative … this is a constant reminder of all the things you don't like about his presidency. We are a long way from talking about taxes and judges. "
Similar concerns about race relations
All indications indicate that Trump's response to Floyd's death and the protests it sparked are dividing the electorate along the same lines. After initially indicating some concern about Floyd's death, Trump withdrew to more familiar ground by urging greater force against violent protesters (and actually applied it before his walk to the Church of San Juan), highlighting those racially inflammatory videos and repeatedly denouncing the Black Lives Matter movement issue.
In all these gestures, Trump has echoed at a distance the arguments of Richard Nixon, who won the presidency in 1968 in part by promising to restore "law and order." But in the process, Trump can only demonstrate how much the country has changed since Nixon's time. Critically, polls this spring consistently show that Trump's belligerent message about race is alienating not only the growing number of voters of color, but also the same college-educated white voters who are already uneasy about their handling of the coronavirus.
As Matt McDermott, a Democratic pollster, has argued, those results underscore a critical shift since 1968: While most white suburbanites believed Nixon could reduce disorder, many of the equivalent voters believe that the language of confrontation and division of Trump on race increases the risk of violence in his communities.
Navigator surveys also found that two-thirds of college whites expressed concern that in times of crisis Trump would make matters worse "with … inflammatory words and actions."
In 2016, Edison Research exit polls conducted for media organizations including CNN showed that Trump achieved a narrow 3-point victory among college-educated whites, while the United States National Election Studies poll gave Clinton a 10-point lead, the first time that poll had shown Democrats won in this group.
Despite the differences in overall margins, these analyzes converged around one key point: they all showed that Clinton won among white women with a college education. Trump, in turn, led among white men with college degrees in all of them except Pew, and even that study gave Clinton a very small lead.
But compared to any of those 2016 results, the latest national polls show Trump is falling further on both fronts.
Among white men with a college education, Trump had a record 8 points in the CNN poll and 12 in the NPR / Marista poll; Quinnipiac's average showed Biden with a 4-point lead between them, closer at least to Pew's result in 2016.
Looking at November
All this indicates that November could produce perhaps the largest gap between whites with and without university degrees. In most state and national polls, Trump consistently maintains a big 2-to-1 lead among blue-collar white men, his best group in 2016.
And while polls consistently show Trump's margin among blue-collar white women has decreased since 2016, in most polls he maintains at least some edge with them.
Now, with Trump's messages and performance on the virus and career further antagonizing those voters, the Republican Party is facing an election that could consolidate and even extend the Democratic advance in those well-educated suburbs.
Republicans could lose more House seats in suburban Philadelphia, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, and Tampa, Florida, among other places; resistance in large metropolitan centers is the main threat to Republican senators in Arizona, Colorado, Maine, North Carolina and perhaps Iowa and Georgia; And Trump faces the possibility of an even deeper decline in the largest metropolitan centers not only in traditionally blue states but also in emerging Sun Belt battlefields, including Arizona, Georgia, and Texas.
Trump has directed his responses to the two major crises of 2020 almost entirely to his non-urban and non-university voter base, while disregarding concerns that well-educated metropolitan voters have consistently voiced in polls. That reflects the belief among many Republicans that their most likely path to victory is to get even more voters from their base than in 2016, especially in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, the three Rust Belt states that marked their choice.
Republican pollster Whit Ayres and other Republicans also say Trump could claim at least some ground among well-educated white votes by representing Biden as a threat to raise his taxes and damage the economy and his stock portfolios.
But Conant, the Republican Party consultant, says Trump has cut a big hole in his white-collar suburbs by responding so chivalrously to the two national earthquakes that have caught his attention.
"He really doesn't want to talk about the pandemic, which is what everyone in the United States is thinking about," Conant said. "It's also the same with the Black Lives Matter protests. I really didn't want to talk about George Floyd, which is what everyone in America was talking about for a month. When you have that kind of disconnect between the leader and the voters they see it in the potential (electoral) wave that is now more likely than not. "