Perhaps the most enduring line from the 1992 presidential election came not from one of the candidates but from Bill Clinton’s top campaign strategist, James Carville. “It’s the economy, stupid,” he scrawled on a whiteboard in their Little Rock headquarters. As true as that was then, it is much less so today. Race, gender, and education increasingly define U.S. voting patterns.
One useful way of looking at this is to think of six groups, each representing between 11 and 20 percent of the 2016 electorate: African Americans, Latinos, and white men and women with and without four-year college degrees. Among African Americans and Latinos, the gender and education differences and combinations are less explicit; but among white people, they’re very important.
To the extent that African Americans were allowed to vote at all in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they cast their ballots mostly for Republicans. After all, it was the party of Abraham Lincoln. But starting during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, black voters began moving toward the Democratic Party. This trend reached its zenith in 1964, when the GOP’s very conservative presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, faced off against President Johnson, who had just signed the Civil Rights Act.
It should be no surprise that African Americans, who made up 13 percent of the electorate in both of the elections when Barack Obama topped the Democratic ticket, gave him a 91-point margin (95 to 4 percent) over John McCain and an 87-point margin (93 to 6 percent) over Mitt Romney. In 2016, when African Americans represented 12 percent of the electorate, they gave Hillary Clinton an 80-point margin (88 to 8 percent) over Donald Trump.
Latinos have voted reliably Democratic as well, although not nearly as much, with Cuban Americans being the glaring exception. Latinos are one of the fastest growing shares of the electorate: In 2008, they made up 9 percent of the electorate, giving Obama a 36-point margin (67 to 31 percent) over McCain; in 2012 they made up 10 percent of the total vote and voted for Obama over Romney by a 44-point margin (71 to 27 percent); and in 2016, Latinos constituted 11 percent of the electorate and sided with Clinton by a 36-point margin (65 to 29 percent).
It's among white voters that things get more interesting. The first thing to note is that their overall share of the electorate is shrinking at a fairly rapid rate, dropping about 2 percentage points every four years, from 74 percent in 2008 to 72 percent in 2012 and 70 percent in the last election—something that Republicans should keep in mind.
Among those four quadrants of white voters, split by gender and level of educational attainment, Trump won the support of white men with less than a four-year college degree (17 percent of the 2016 electorate) by a 49-point margin (72 to 23 percent) in 2016. He has led Biden by anywhere from 25 to 44 points in polling over the past two months. This is Trump’s base; only among self-described Republicans, conservatives, and evangelicals does he do better.
The next-best group for Trump is white women with less than a four-year degree. They also made up 17 percent of the 2016 electorate, siding with the Republicans by a 28-point margin (62 to 34 percent). This group has strayed from the Trump camp since 2016; most recent polling has him ahead by somewhere between 5 and 15 points.
White men with college degrees come next, again with 17 percent of the 2016 vote. Then, they voted for Trump over Clinton by 15 points (54 to 39 percent). But public polling in the current race has been all over the map. The early June PBS/NPR/Marist College poll had Biden up by 2 points (47 to 45 percent), the May and June Fox News polls had Trump up by 8 (51 to 43 percent) and 10 percent (50 to 40 percent). A late June PBS/NPR/Marist poll as well as March and May ABC News/Washington Post polls had Trump up by 12 points and 4 points, respectively.
White women with college degrees give Trump the least support of the four white quadrants. They made up 20 percent of the electorate in the last presidential election, going for Clinton by a 6-point margin. This year, they’ve been siding with Biden by 20- and 30-point margins.
The Trump forces will obviously put considerable resources into getting out the vote of white men without college degrees; the Biden campaign will put the same kind of resources into African Americans, Latinos and white women with college degrees. The battlefield will be the persuadable college-educated men and women without degrees.
Carville was certainly right in 1992, but social and cultural issues such as abortion and guns, as well as attitudes toward Trump himself, are now paramount, not economics.