Clinton’s Greatest Political Strength May Be Hiding in Plain Sight

Early polls find Clinton improving substantially over Obama’s lackluster 2012 performance among a key voting demographic.

National Journal
Feb. 9, 2015, 12:05 a.m.

Much of the de­bate about Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton’s po­ten­tial ap­peal to fe­male voters may be fo­cus­ing on the wrong group of wo­men.

Prob­ably the most fre­quently asked ques­tion about Clin­ton’s pos­sible co­ali­tion as a Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee in 2016 is wheth­er she can win back the work­ing-class white wo­men who have moved away from her party since 1996. On that is­sue, the evid­ence is am­bi­val­ent in months of early polling that pits Clin­ton against po­ten­tial Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ees.

But polls over the past year al­most in­vari­ably have found Clin­ton im­prov­ing — of­ten sub­stan­tially — over Pres­id­ent Obama’s lackluster 2012 per­form­ance among white-col­lar white wo­men.

Those col­lege-edu­cated white wo­men have been the fast­est-grow­ing part of the white elect­or­ate in re­cent years. If Clin­ton as a nom­in­ee could ce­ment the gains she’s shown among those wo­men in most na­tion­al and state polls over the past year, she would present Re­pub­lic­ans with a for­mid­able demo­graph­ic chal­lenge, even without im­prov­ing among any oth­er white voters. Her greatest po­ten­tial strength, in oth­er words, may be hid­ing in plain sight: her po­ten­tial con­nec­tion to the white-col­lar white wo­men who most re­semble her.

All polls of the 2016 race at this point are re­cord­ing only dis­tant im­pres­sions long be­fore most voters have ser­i­ously fo­cused on their choices. The ac­tu­al cam­paign, and events yet to oc­cur, will in­ev­it­ably scramble the equa­tion.

Yet, es­pe­cially with a can­did­ate as fa­mil­i­ar as Clin­ton, these early sound­ings can be viewed as a kind of re­but­table pre­sump­tion: They sketch the co­ali­tion that may nat­ur­ally grav­it­ate to her un­less op­pon­ents present them with a case not to.

The con­tours of a po­ten­tial Clin­ton co­ali­tion were sketched in the three Quin­nipi­ac Uni­versity polls re­leased last week in the key swing states of Flor­ida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Obama won all of them in 2012, and any Demo­crat who wins at least two of the three would be in a com­mand­ing po­s­i­tion to as­semble an Elect­or­al Col­lege ma­jor­ity in 2016.

The Quin­nipi­ac res­ults re­in­forced oth­er early sur­veys in show­ing the po­ten­tial for Clin­ton to im­prove on Obama’s 2012 per­form­ance among white-col­lar white wo­men — and per­haps also notch some gains with their blue-col­lar coun­ter­parts. Des­pite all the fo­cus on the gender gap, Obama won in 2012 while cap­tur­ing only 42 per­cent of all white wo­men, ac­cord­ing to exit polls. That was the weak­est per­form­ance for any Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee since Wal­ter Mondale in 1984, leav­ing plenty of room for Clin­ton to grow if she wins the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion.

The most con­sist­ent note in the new Quin­nipi­ac sur­veys was Clin­ton’s strength among col­lege-edu­cated white wo­men. Those wo­men — most of them lib­er­al on cul­tur­al is­sues and many more open than most oth­er whites to an act­iv­ist role for gov­ern­ment — have provided Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates the most re­li­able sup­port in the white com­munity since Bill Clin­ton’s first elec­tion. The Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee car­ried them in 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2008, and es­sen­tially split them in 2004. But in 2012, Obama lost ground with them, fall­ing back to 46 per­cent na­tion­ally, the weak­est per­form­ance for any Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee since Mi­chael Duka­kis in 1988.

Ac­cord­ing to de­tailed res­ults provided by Quin­nipi­ac to Next Amer­ica, the new sur­veys show Clin­ton not­ably im­prov­ing on Obama’s per­form­ance among those well-edu­cated white wo­men in each of these three key states. The Quin­nipi­ac polls were con­duc­ted via land­line and cell phone in each state from Janu­ary 22 through Feb­ru­ary 1.

In Flor­ida, Obama won 43 per­cent of col­lege-edu­cated white wo­men in 2008 and 42 per­cent in 2012. The new sur­veys found Clin­ton draw­ing 50 per­cent of this group against former Flor­ida Gov. Jeb Bush, 53 per­cent against New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie, and 55 per­cent against Ken­tucky Sen. Rand Paul.

In Ohio, Obama car­ried a 52 per­cent ma­jor­ity of those wo­men in 2008, but slipped back to 47 per­cent in 2012, while Mitt Rom­ney won 51 per­cent. Com­pared with Obama’s 4-point Ohio de­fi­cit among the col­lege white wo­men, the Quin­nipi­ac polls show them provid­ing Clin­ton an edge of 7 per­cent­age points over Bush, 17 points over Christie, and 22 points over Paul. (The Ohio poll pro­duced a much lar­ger un­de­cided share among up­scale wo­men than the oth­er two sur­veys.)

And in Pennsylvania, where Obama won 55 per­cent of those wo­men in 2008 but tumbled to just 44 per­cent in 2012, Clin­ton dis­played the most strength. The Quin­nipi­ac polls showed her at 56 per­cent among them against Christie, 58 per­cent against Bush, and 62 per­cent against Paul.

By con­trast, the Quin­nipi­ac Polls show con­sid­er­ably less strength for Clin­ton among non­col­lege white wo­men. Those so-called wait­ress moms have giv­en most of their votes to Re­pub­lic­ans in each elec­tion since Bill Clin­ton car­ried a plur­al­ity of them in 1996. Na­tion­ally, Obama car­ried just 39 per­cent in 2012.

In Flor­ida, Obama won only 36 per­cent of the “wait­ress moms” in 2008 and 40 per­cent in 2012. The Quin­nipi­ac polls place Clin­ton squarely in that range, at 36 per­cent among them against Bush, 41 per­cent against Paul, and 43 per­cent against Christie. But be­cause large num­bers of these wo­men re­main un­de­cided in the sur­vey, Clin­ton leads Christie with them, and only trails Paul nar­rowly while still fa­cing a double-di­git de­fi­cit against Bush.

In Ohio, Obama won 44 per­cent of these wo­men in 2008 and 45 per­cent in 2012. That wasn’t an over­whelm­ing per­form­ance, but it was enough above his na­tion­al show­ing to help him carry the state. The Quin­nipi­ac sur­veys show Clin­ton set­tling ex­actly in that range, draw­ing 44 per­cent against Christie, and 45 per­cent against both Bush and Paul. Again, though, be­cause of a large un­de­cided con­tin­gent, Clin­ton leads against all three with those wo­men.

The sur­veys showed Clin­ton mak­ing the clearest gains among blue-col­lar wo­men in Pennsylvania. Obama pos­ted nearly identic­al show­ings there with these wo­men — 47 per­cent in 2008 and 46 per­cent in 2012. Quin­nipi­ac found Clin­ton at­tract­ing 49 per­cent of them against both Christie and Bush, and 53 per­cent against Paul. While Obama lost these wo­men by 7 per­cent­age points in 2012 and 4 points in 2008, Clin­ton leads with them against all three Re­pub­lic­ans.

The res­ults were sim­il­ar in polls from NBC News and Mar­ist Col­lege last sum­mer in Iowa and New Hamp­shire. When Clin­ton was matched again against Christie, Paul, and Bush, those sur­veys showed her at­tract­ing just un­der half of non­col­lege white wo­men in both states. But against all three men, she drew 52 to 54 per­cent of col­lege white wo­men in Iowa, and ex­actly 64 per­cent of them in New Hamp­shire. Na­tion­al Quin­nipi­ac sur­veys last year test­ing Clin­ton against all three men also put her at 50 per­cent or more among col­lege-plus white wo­men, and gen­er­ally at 40 to 45 per­cent among non­col­lege white wo­men.

Vet­er­an Demo­crat­ic poll­ster Geoff Gar­in, a seni­or strategist for Clin­ton dur­ing her 2008 primary cam­paign, notes that she ran very well among work­ing-class white wo­men dur­ing that con­test against Obama. “The ques­tion is wheth­er she can re­con­nect to non­col­lege edu­cated white wo­men the same way she was do­ing at the end of her 2008 cam­paign,” Gar­in says. “If she can, that has the po­ten­tial to change the arith­met­ic. But I think that an­swer is yet to be de­term­ined.” By con­trast, he said, there’s more evid­ence in early polling that col­lege white wo­men “are with her. We see that very clearly.”

With oth­er groups of voters, the new Flor­ida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania Quin­nipi­ac polls show Clin­ton largely track­ing Obama’s 2012 per­form­ance. The polls give her cav­ernous leads among Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans, though with a large un­de­cided bloc, her sup­port doesn’t yet quite match Obama’s 2012 per­form­ances in Ohio and Flor­ida. (It’s already close in Pennsylvania.) Her show­ings in the three states among white men without a col­lege edu­ca­tion are con­sist­ently weak, but not no­tice­ably worse than Obama’s num­bers with them when he won each of these three states twice. In Ohio, for in­stance, Obama won 44 per­cent of blue-col­lar white men in 2008 and 39 per­cent in 2012. The Quin­nipi­ac polls put Clin­ton at 39 per­cent of this group against Christie, 40 per­cent against Paul, and 42 per­cent against Bush, (Again, be­cause a sub­stan­tial por­tion re­main un­de­cided, Clin­ton’s de­fi­cits in the polls among these men in all three states are much smal­ler than Obama’s in 2012.)

Her per­form­ance among col­lege-edu­cated white men in the sur­veys also gen­er­ally fol­lows close to Obama’s share in 2012. In Ohio, for in­stance, Obama tumbled from 47 per­cent with those men in 2008 to 33 per­cent in 2012; Clin­ton draws 34 per­cent of them against Christie, 35 per­cent against Bush, and 37 per­cent against Paul. The same caveat ap­plies to these res­ults: Be­cause of large un­de­cided pop­u­la­tions, her de­fi­cits among these men are much smal­ler than Obama’s in 2012.

Still, these polls present res­ults that are largely con­sist­ent across the states, and also con­son­ant with those oth­er na­tion­al and state polls meas­ur­ing Clin­ton’s early ap­peal. Al­most everything could change once the cam­paign is ac­tu­ally joined. But for now, sur­veys like these Quin­nipi­ac polls gen­er­ally show some mod­est op­por­tun­it­ies for Clin­ton to im­prove among work­ing-class white wo­men and little change re­l­at­ive to Obama’s mea­ger 2012 stand­ing among both blue-col­lar and white-col­lar men. With minor­ity voters, she re­mains in a very strong po­s­i­tion, though Re­pub­lic­ans ar­gue it’s un­proven that Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans will turn out for her at the rates they did for Obama.

The big open­ing signaled by these polls is her op­por­tun­ity to re­cov­er from Obama’s 2012 trough among col­lege-edu­cated white wo­men. That’s an es­pe­cially omin­ous pro­spect for Re­pub­lic­ans be­cause those up­scale wo­men have stead­ily in­creased their share of the elect­or­ate since the 1980s. If those trends con­tin­ue, in 2016 they could cast more of the na­tion­al vote than either col­lege or non­col­lege white men, or the wait­ress moms. Clin­ton’s biggest boost over Obama might come from noth­ing more com­plex than con­sol­id­at­ing her most nat­ur­al sup­port­ers.

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