Single white women have changed their allegiances even more dramatically. Reagan carried three-fifths of these women in 1984, but they gave George H.W. Bush only a small majority in 1988. By 1992, they preferred Clinton by double digits; and in the past four elections, Democratic nominees have averaged 56.5 percent among single white women, with Obama setting the standard at 59 percent.
The story reverses with the opposite groups of women. The Republican nominee has carried married white women in each of the past seven elections and averaged 57 percent of their votes in the past three.
Noncollege white women, the so-called waitress moms, have also leaned Republican, but they have been much more volatile. Recent polls, for instance, have Obama regaining some lost ground with them.
These women are typically economically strained, and although they are often more culturally conservative than their white-collar counterparts, they are less likely to vote based on social issues because they face so many pocketbook concerns. The Republican edge among noncollege white women averaged nearly 20 percentage points in the 1980, 1984, and 1988 elections. Clinton ran virtually even among them in 1992 and then, in 1996 with his “tools for parents” agenda, carried them by a solid 48 percent over Bob Dole’s 41 percent. (Both in terms of the 7-point margin and share of the vote, that showing remains the Democratic high point with noncollege-educated white women since 1980.) After Clinton’s victories, though, the waitress moms moved back sharply toward the GOP, preferring George W. Bush each time and then backing McCain over Obama by a resounding 58 percent to 41 percent. That wasn’t much different than McCain’s advantage among blue-collar white men. Indeed, in each election since 1980, the gender gap has been wider among whites with a college education than those without one.
As with men, these tendencies powerfully interact. Since 2000, Republicans have averaged 61 percent among white noncollege married women; Democrats have drawn a comparable 65 percent among single college-educated women. Cross-pressured by culture and class, married women with college degrees have divided almost exactly in half in four of the past five elections. Single blue-collar women consistently lean Democratic.
Regular churchgoers vote overwhelmingly for Republicans.
Below, we note dynamics among whites relating to religious practice and partisanship. But as we found in our initial analysis of these trends four years ago, these results underscore the extent of the class inversion among whites that has reshaped the electoral landscape. As we wrote then: “In the middle decades of the 20th century, when economic class served as the principal glue for the two parties’ coalitions, Democratic presidential nominees Adlai Stevenson, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Jimmy Carter all ran at least 13 percentage points better among white voters without a college education than among whites with college or postgraduate degrees, according to the University of Michigan’s American National Election Studies, an exhaustive post-election poll.”
But as cultural and foreign-policy disputes between the parties have assumed greater prominence since the 1960s, Republicans have gained among blue-collar whites, and Democrats have made mirror-image inroads among white-collar whites, producing the class inversion. In 1988, 1992, and 1996, Dukakis and Clinton each ran almost equally well among college and noncollege whites. In 2000, Gore ran 4 percentage points better among college whites; Kerry widened the margin to 6 points; and in 2008 Obama ran 7 points better among college-educated than noncollege whites.
That gap will almost certainly widen in 2012, especially if Obama wins. Polls now consistently show the president running below—often well below—his 40 percent showing among noncollege-educated whites in 2008. His fate could depend on how close he comes to matching the 47 percent he won among college-educated whites four years ago. Most surveys this summer have shown Obama losing some support among college-educated white men but running very close to his 52 percent from 2008 among college-educated white women; those women tend to be both socially liberal and more open than other whites to an activist role for government.
If Obama survives, the shifting composition of the electorate will also be a—and perhaps the—critical factor. In 1984, whites without a college degree represented 61 percent of all voters, and college-educated whites just 27 percent. But by 2008, noncollege whites had plummeted to just 39 percent of all voters, and college-educated whites increased to 35 percent. Noncollege white men, consistently the GOP’s best group, fell from 28 percent of all voters in 1984 to just 18 percent in 2008; the waitress moms also slipped from 33 percent to 21 percent over that period. White men with a college degree, who traditionally lean Republican but did so by smaller margins in the past two elections, essentially maintained their share of the electorate over those years, increasing from 16 percent to 18 percent.