Who's Behind Trump's Big Deficit? College-Educated Whites and Seniors

This article was originally published at nbcnews.com on July 22, 2020.

In the wake of a pandemic and protests following George Floyd's death, voters' support for President Trump has tanked: his average deficit against Joe Biden in national polls has ballooned from six points in March to nine points today. In the newest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Biden leads Trump 51 percent to 40 percent - larger than his seven point lead in the NBC/Wall Street Journal June poll.

But a closer look at the cross-tabs of recent surveys yields surprising findings: if anything, Trump is performing a bit better with non-whites than he did against Hillary Clinton in 2016. The group fueling Biden's polling surge? Seniors and white voters with college degrees.

The 2016 election was defined by mass defections of remaining white, working-class members of Democrats' coalition to Trump, particularly in heartland states. Much in the same way, the 2020 election is currently on track to see mass defections of the remaining white professional members of Republicans' coalition to Biden — a trend disproportionately playing out in the suburbs where those voters tend to live.

In an average of nine live-interview national surveys conducted since the start of June, Biden is clobbering Trump 58 percent to 37 percent among whites with college degrees, more than double Clinton's 51 percent to 42 percent lead among that group in 2016 according to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a nationally representative sample of 64,600 adults. Biden has also modestly cut Trump's lead among whites without degrees to 55 percent to 37 percent, down from 59 percent to 35 percent in 2016.



Even more dramatically, Biden has reversed Trump's 2016 lead among voters age 65 and older. In 2016, Trump carried seniors 56 percent to 41 percent, according to the CCES data. But Biden, who carried seniors overwhelmingly in the Democratic primaries, leads Trump 50 percent to 45 percent among the oldest voters in the average of current polls.

If there's a surprising weakness for Biden, it's non-white voters - especially Latinos. He's carrying African-Americans by 75 points over Trump in the latest polls, down from Clinton's 80 point margin in 2016. But Trump has narrowed the gap among Latino voters to 30 points, down from his 40 point deficit four years ago. Latinos, along with 18-29 year old voters, sport some of the highest undecided rates in today's polls.

Perhaps fortunately for Biden, Latinos are underrepresented in the Electoral College battleground. In 2016, Latinos made up nine percent of the nation's voters, but they were less than four percent of all voters in all but three of the ten closest states in 2016: Arizona (17 percent), Florida (17 percent) and Nevada (16 percent). That could limit the real benefit of any Trump improvement with Latinos since 2016.

What's more, Biden's relative weakness with Latinos may be offset by the fact that Arizona and Florida also happen to boast the highest shares of seniors - a group with whom he is demonstrating surprising strength - of all the battleground states.

Trump's erosion among college-educated whites helps explain why Biden is polling so competitively in Texas and Georgia, traditionally GOP states with vast numbers of suburban white professionals who supported Trump in 2016. It also tracks with congressional district-level polling showing Trump's numbers weighing Republican candidates down in traditionally GOP-leaning suburbs near places like Indianapolis, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Omaha.

A silver lining for Trump has always been that whites without college degrees, by far his best group, are overrepresented in battleground states - especially in Great Lakes states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. But they are gradually shrinking as a share of the electorate everywhere, as the nation becomes more diverse and college-educated. 

Census estimates suggest that in 2020, the number of voting-eligible whites without college degrees could decline seven percent versus 2016. Meanwhile, the number of voting-eligible college-educated whites is poised to increase 16 percent and the number of eligible non-whites is on track to increase 11 percent. In addition, the number of eligible voters 65 and older is on track to surge by 13 percent as more Boomers age into that category.

Unless Trump can reverse his backslide with college-educated whites and seniors, the demographic math will heavily favor Biden winning the White House.