Republicans’ problem with educated, suburban voters dims 2020 prospects

Among the voters who helped Democrats to regain control of the House of Representatives in 2018 were suburban white women who are college-educated. According to exit polling conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, there was a 20 percent gap between educated white women who voted Democratic versus those who voted Republican.

The report shows that every state with a percentage of college-educated voters above the national average of 10.3 percent voted reliably Democratic; Republicans lost all white, college-educated voters by 8 percentage points. President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump reversed course on flavored e-cigarette ban over fear of job losses: report Trump to award National Medal of Arts to actor Jon Voight Sondland notified Trump officials of investigation push ahead of Ukraine call: report MORE had won this voting block in 2016 by 10 points.

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This should be a great concern to the president and the Republican Party. Consider the key swing state of Pennsylvania, which Trump narrowly won in 2016. The highly college-educated four collar counties surrounding Philadelphia in the southeast have 1,787,818 voters. Add reliably Democratic Philadelphia to mix and the total is 2,852,002, or 33.1 percent of all voters in the state.   

In 2018, incumbent Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf won the state by 835,044 votes. In the five-county southeast region he won by 735,451 votes — 88 percent of Wolf’s total victory margin.

Political analyst Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia noted: “Just as the rural vote revolt has continued to benefit Trump and Republicans, a new suburban revolt, especially among college-educated women, has worked to the benefit of the Democratic Party and will probably continue.” Indeed, it will continue because the shift is more cultural than political.

Democrats for years have branded Republicans as educationally and culturally backward people who deny science and lack sophistication when it comes to understanding and appreciating the nuances and complexities of issues such as climate change.  

As a presidential candidate, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe Democratic race for president may not sort itself out 'Too Far Left' hashtag trends on Twitter Krystal Ball: Patrick's 2020 bid is particularly 'troublesome' for Warren MORE belittled white, male, working-class voters from small towns in Pennsylvania, saying: “They get bitter; they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them … .”  As president, he doubled down in a 2015 NPR interview when he described Americans who do not have college degrees as being “understandably frightened, struggling and politically misguided — or perhaps anesthetized into believing that more guns and more God would solve their problems.”

Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonImpeachment hearings don't move needle with Senate GOP GOP divided over impeachment trial strategy 'Too Far Left' hashtag trends on Twitter MORE in 2016 put Trump voters into a “basket of deplorables” characterized by “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic” views. She, too, would double down on her remarks during her post-election book tour, accusing the women who did not vote for her of being told how to vote by males.

These harsh comments were not gaffes — they were part of a strategy to carve out college-educated voters for Democrats as they positioned themselves as the “party of progress” and branded Trump as a troglodyte who lacks legitimacy, veracity, basic manners and the ability to govern.

Democrats also have used key issues effectively in the suburbs to shrink the Republican base. Question climate change and you are branded a “denier.” Support Trump’s southern border policies and you are racist. Espouse due process for Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughElection 2020: Why I'm watching Amy and Andy Kavanaugh hailed by conservative gathering in first public speech since confirmation Protesters roll out a screen playing Blasey Ford's testimony ahead of Federalist Society dinner MORE and you find yourself in the crosshairs of #MeToo movement.

Over time, educated suburban women have come to see Democrats as the “smart people” who are on the right side of history, fair-minded, embracing science and protecting children.  Republicans try to explain how their support for fossil fuels and other policies are not responsible for increasing hurricanes, wildfires, drought, terrorism, starvation, migrations, global political unrest and the selling out of future generations. Try campaigning door-to-door in that environment!  

In 1994, those with at least some postgraduate experience were evenly split between the Democratic and Republican parties. Today, the Democratic Party enjoys a roughly 2-to-1 advantage in political support from this group.  

Educated women, living in tony suburbs, simply do not relate to the “party of deplorables.” To assume they will vote Republican in 2020 because of stock values, low unemployment, better trade deals, less regulation, or tax cuts is naïve at best.

Going into the 2018 elections, suburban areas were seen as the last bastions of swing voters. Suburban voters in Orange County, California, the Philadelphia metro area, and Arizona and Nevada created the blueprint for victory for Democrats: Slightly left-of-center, educated candidates will win.  

Democrats will have an unprecedented opportunity to consolidate their gains in the suburbs in 2020.  With the right candidate — Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota come to mind — Democrats can remake the political map, giving them metro regions and relegating Republicans to rural areas. Republicans cannot win the presidency with such a scenario.

The task facing President Trump and the Republican Party over the next two years is how to strategically use issues to gain voters beyond their base and build a culture around a Republican rebrand. Short of this, they need to hope that the Democratic base forces that party to go hard left.

Dennis M. Powell is founder and president of Massey Powell, a national public affairs consultancy headquartered in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania. He has been involved in more than 300 political campaigns doing strategy, messaging, polling, and fundraising.