Senate Democrats’ Last Bastion: Single, College-Educated Women

The party needs to hang onto their strong support to counteract the GOP’s strong performance with working-class whites and married women.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 25: Participants gives a standing ovation after Planned Parenthood Action Fund president Cecile Richards addressed the 20th annual Women's Leadership Forum of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) October 25, 2013 in Washington, DC. The DNC held the forum to discuss women's roles in leadership. First lady Michelle Obama will address the forum in the afternoon.
National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
Oct. 29, 2014, 1 a.m.

So­cially lib­er­al white-col­lar and single white wo­men look like the fra­gile last line of de­fense for Demo­crats hop­ing to avoid a Re­pub­lic­an sweep in next week’s elec­tion, ac­cord­ing to de­tailed res­ults from a broad ar­ray of new polls.

For the third con­sec­ut­ive elec­tion, con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats are fa­cing the pro­spect of a de­cis­ive re­jec­tion by most white voters, in­clud­ing not only white men but also white wo­men who are either mar­ried or lack a col­lege de­gree. But in sur­veys of both in­di­vidu­al Sen­ate races and na­tion­al pref­er­ences on the gen­er­ic con­gres­sion­al bal­lot, Demo­crats are show­ing stub­born strength with col­lege-edu­cated and single white wo­men.

That per­form­ance—com­bined with pre­pon­der­ant leads among minor­ity voters in al­most all sur­veys—rep­res­ents the Demo­crats’ best chance of over­com­ing gap­ing de­fi­cits with the re­mainder of the white elect­or­ate in the key con­tests. Yet in a meas­ure of the party’s vul­ner­ab­il­ity, even that ad­vant­age rests on an un­steady found­a­tion: Na­tion­al Pew Re­search Cen­ter and ABC/Wash­ing­ton Post polls con­duc­ted in Oc­to­ber found that col­lege-edu­cated white wo­men, though strongly pre­fer­ring Demo­crats on is­sues re­lat­ing to wo­men’s health, ac­tu­ally trust Re­pub­lic­ans more on both man­aging the eco­nomy and safe­guard­ing the na­tion’s se­cur­ity.

Both the na­tion­al sur­veys and re­cent polls in the key Sen­ate races dis­play strik­ingly con­sist­ent pat­terns of sup­port that tran­scend state bound­ar­ies—and fol­low deep grooves of the parties’ re­cent com­pet­i­tion. They re­in­force the por­trait of a mod­ern Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion that is demo­graph­ic­ally and geo­graph­ic­ally bet­ter po­si­tioned to com­pete for the White House than to con­sist­ently con­trol ma­jor­it­ies in Con­gress—and a Re­pub­lic­an co­ali­tion that faces the op­pos­ite prob­lem.

This year, Demo­crats con­tin­ue to post big ad­vant­ages among minor­ity voters in both the na­tion­al polling (where the Pew and ABC/Wash­ing­ton Post sur­veys each show them lead­ing Re­pub­lic­ans in the gen­er­ic con­gres­sion­al bal­lot by just over 4-to-1) and the state sur­veys (where Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans are provid­ing the party lop­sided mar­gins in Arkan­sas and North Car­o­lina.) But minor­it­ies are re­l­at­ively less nu­mer­ous in many of the states that will de­cide Sen­ate con­trol.

With whites, the res­ults are also fol­low­ing fa­mil­i­ar pat­terns. One re­veal­ing way to ana­lyze the pref­er­ences of white voters is to di­vide them in­to a quad­rant of four groups that com­bines race and edu­ca­tion: white men and wo­men with and without a four-year col­lege de­gree.

On Sunday, the NBC/Mar­ist Poll re­leased res­ults in five hotly com­pet­it­ive Sen­ate races: Arkan­sas, Col­or­ado, Kan­sas, North Car­o­lina, and Iowa. (NBC and the Mar­ist Col­lege In­sti­tute for Pub­lic Opin­ion also sur­veyed South Dakota, but the poll found that Re­pub­lic­ans have rees­tab­lished a wide lead there.)

In all five of those races, the Demo­crat­ic (or in the case of Kan­sas, in­de­pend­ent) can­did­ate ran bet­ter, usu­ally much bet­ter, with col­lege-edu­cated white wo­men than with any of the three oth­er groups of whites.

In the NBC/Mar­ist Polls, Iowa Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee Bruce Bra­ley led among those well-edu­cated white wo­men by 5 points; Sen. Kay Hagan led by 6 points in North Car­o­lina; Sen. Mark Pry­or by 7 points in Arkan­sas; in­de­pend­ent Greg Or­man by 21 points in Kan­sas; and Sen. Mark Ud­all, who has em­phas­ized so­cial is­sues prob­ably more than any oth­er Demo­crat, by a re­sound­ing 27 points in Col­or­ado.

The latest Uni­versity of New Hamp­shire poll showed Demo­crat­ic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen hold­ing a com­mand­ing 61-per­cent-to-28-per­cent ad­vant­age over Re­pub­lic­an Scott Brown among col­lege-edu­cated white wo­men. Quin­nipi­ac Uni­versity polls this month in Iowa and Col­or­ado also re­cor­ded big ad­vant­ages for Bra­ley (25 per­cent­age points) and Ud­all (16 points) with those wo­men. “Col­lege-edu­cated white wo­men are Re­pub­lic­ans’ biggest hurdle in terms of white voters,” says a top GOP strategist work­ing on in­de­pend­ent ex­pendit­ure cam­paigns this year. “In those blue states, col­lege white wo­men are the equi­val­ent of minor­ity voters “¦ they are how the Demo­crats start their base. That’s why you have seen such a fo­cus, par­tic­u­larly in Col­or­ado, with the war on wo­men.”

The latest na­tion­al Pew and ABC News/Wash­ing­ton Post gen­er­ic con­gres­sion­al bal­lot tests like­wise show Demo­crats lead­ing by 4 and 7 points, re­spect­ively, among these well-edu­cated white wo­men. If Demo­crats can main­tain those mar­gins, it would rep­res­ent a sig­ni­fic­ant im­prove­ment from 2010 when exit polls showed these wo­men backed Re­pub­lic­ans by 12 per­cent­age points-and even a gain from 2012, when Pres­id­ent Obama lost them by 6 per­cent­age points, the party’s weak­est pres­id­en­tial show­ing with such wo­men since 1988.

But in the latest na­tion­al polling, and with only the most rare ex­cep­tions in the state polling, Demo­crats are trail­ing among the oth­er three groups of whites—of­ten by crush­ing mar­gins.

White men without a col­lege edu­ca­tion, con­tinu­ing their mod­ern pat­tern, are stam­ped­ing to­ward the GOP again this year. They prefer Re­pub­lic­ans by 20 points in the latest Pew gen­er­ic test and 32 points in the ABC/WP meas­ure, gaps that could widen fur­ther as the fi­nal un­de­cided voters sort out. (These men backed the GOP by 31 points in both the 2010 con­gres­sion­al and 2012 pres­id­en­tial race, ac­cord­ing to exit polls.) In the Sen­ate races, the NBC/Mar­ist Polls show these blue-col­lar men pre­fer­ring the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee by 8 per­cent­age points in Iowa (Joni Ernst), 13 points in Kan­sas (Sen. Pat Roberts), 18 points in Col­or­ado (Rep. Cory Gard­ner), 35 points in Arkan­sas (Rep. Tom Cot­ton), and 39 points in North Car­o­lina (state Rep. Thom Tillis); the UNH sur­vey shows them back­ing former Sen. Scott Brown over Shaheen by 21 points in New Hamp­shire.

Demo­crats don’t score bet­ter among white men with at least a four-year de­gree. They trail in the gen­er­ic con­gres­sion­al bal­lot among them by 16 points in the Pew sur­vey and 20 points in the ABC/Wash­ing­ton Post poll. (By com­par­is­on, these men pre­ferred Re­pub­lic­ans by 27 points in the 2010 con­gres­sion­al race and 21 points in the 2012 pres­id­en­tial con­test, exit polls found.) While Or­man leads among them by a stat­ist­ic­ally in­sig­ni­fic­ant 45 per­cent to 44 per­cent in the NBC/Mar­ist Poll, and the UNH sur­vey shows Shaheen trail­ing with them only by 2 per­cent­age points, the oth­er Demo­crats face daunt­ing de­fi­cits in this week’s NBC/Mar­ist Polls: these men prefer the Re­pub­lic­an by 18 per­cent­age points in Arkan­sas and Col­or­ado, 21 points in Iowa, and 24 points in North Car­o­lina.

The res­ults also sug­gest the lim­its of the Demo­crat­ic ef­forts to frame con­ser­vat­ive GOP so­cial po­s­i­tions as a “war on wo­men.” That ar­gu­ment con­tin­ues to show mod­est pro­gress at best among white wo­men without a col­lege edu­ca­tion. These eco­nom­ic­ally pressed voters some­times de­scribed as wait­ress moms prefer Re­pub­lic­ans by 19 points in the ABC/Wash­ing­ton Post gen­er­ic bal­lot and 14 points in the Pew sur­vey. (If Demo­crats can main­tain that de­fi­cit, that would ac­tu­ally rep­res­ent an im­prove­ment on 2010, when the exit poll showed these blue-col­lar white wo­men pre­fer­ring Re­pub­lic­an con­gres­sion­al can­did­ates by 28 points and 2012, when they backed Rom­ney over Obama by 20 points.)

While Bra­ley runs es­sen­tially even with these blue-col­lar wo­men in the NBC/Mar­ist sur­vey, and slightly leads among them in the latest Quin­nipi­ac Poll, the new NBC/Mar­ist polls show that they prefer the Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate nom­in­ee by 5 points in Kan­sas, 6 points in Arkan­sas, 19 points in Col­or­ado, and 30 points in North Car­o­lina; the UNH poll shows Brown lead­ing with them by 25 points. “Hon­estly, it’s not clear how much pro­gress we are mak­ing with non-col­lege white wo­men,” says one top Demo­crat­ic poll­ster. “And when I say it’s not clear, I mean its clear [we’re not].”

Sim­il­ar di­vi­sions among white wo­men are evid­ent when they are viewed by mar­it­al status. In the latest NBC/Mar­ist sur­veys, Ud­all, Bra­ley, Or­man, and Pry­or all hold double-di­git ad­vant­ages among single white wo­men; only Hagan trails among them. But ex­cept for Or­man, who runs es­sen­tially even, those oth­er four can­did­ates all trail among mar­ried white wo­men, with de­fi­cits ran­ging from 5 points for Ud­all to fully 22 points for Hagan. (In all five races, Re­pub­lic­ans lead among mar­ried men, usu­ally by gap­ing mar­gins. Single men mostly back the Re­pub­lic­an in Arkan­sas, North Car­o­lina, and Col­or­ado and break slightly against him in Iowa and Kan­sas.)

The fis­sures among wo­men are rooted in their at­ti­tudes on key is­sues. In the ABC/Wash­ing­ton Post sur­vey, the non­col­lege white wo­men say they trust Re­pub­lic­ans over Demo­crats to handle the threat of IS­IS by al­most 3-to-1, to deal with im­mig­ra­tion by more than 2-to-1, and to man­age the eco­nomy by ex­actly 2-to-1. (Both col­lege and non­col­lege white men also give the GOP big leads on those three is­sues, while minor­it­ies strongly prefer Demo­crats.)

In that sur­vey, col­lege-edu­cated white wo­men pre­ferred Demo­crats on im­mig­ra­tion, but tilted nar­rowly to­ward the GOP on the eco­nomy (46 per­cent to 39 per­cent) and de­cis­ively on the threat of ter­ror­ism (45 per­cent to 26 per­cent). In the Pew sur­vey, col­lege-edu­cated white wo­men, like their coun­ter­parts without a col­lege de­gree, placed more trust in Re­pub­lic­ans on all three is­sues.

But in both sur­veys, col­lege-edu­cated wo­men were more likely than oth­er whites to trust Demo­crats to de­fend the in­terests of people like them or the middle-class more broadly. Per­haps even more tellingly, in the ABC/Wash­ing­ton Post sur­vey, col­lege wo­men pre­ferred Demo­crats by 65 per­cent to 25 per­cent on “is­sues that are es­pe­cially im­port­ant to wo­men,” while the non­col­lege wo­men split evenly between the parties on that ques­tion. That stark con­trast cap­tures both the power of so­cial is­sues for Demo­crats with up­scale white wo­men-and their lim­its with the wait­ress moms.

In 2016, a strong per­form­ance among the grow­ing pop­u­la­tions of minor­it­ies and col­lege-edu­cated or single white wo­men might be all Demo­crats need to hold the White House: Their sup­port al­lowed Obama to win a re­l­at­ively com­fort­able reelec­tion in 2012 des­pite strug­gling among most oth­er whites. But main­tain­ing Sen­ate con­trol be­hind such a nar­row co­ali­tion is a much stiffer chal­leng—es­pe­cially when the road to a ma­jor­ity runs through so many in­teri­or states dom­in­ated by the older and blue-col­lar whites harden­ing in their ali­en­a­tion from the Demo­crat­ic Party.

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