Education gap divides white voters

October 28, 2016 GMT

DODGE CITY, Kansas (AP) — At 18, Mike Smith chose trucking over college. Hauling cattle feed was lucrative for a teenager, and it seemed he could have a pretty good life without a degree. Now, 40 years later his income is stalled as immigrants pour into western Kansas and depress wages.

To Smith, Donald Trump seems like the only guy who can stop it.

“He speaks what’s on his mind, to hell with the political correctness,” Smith said. “If Hillary gets in, there will be more illegals.”

Rachel Ong, 31, who has a master’s degree in education, isn’t convinced. She lives in the conservative and prosperous suburbs west of Kansas City and voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, but has concerns about Trump’s style.

“Trump is really aggressive and it would really make me nervous if he was in office,” she said.


The nomination of Donald Trump has opened up an educational divide among whites. Republicans have won a majority of white college graduates in every election since 1956 but the real estate mogul has accelerated movement of college educated voters toward Democrats.

Trump does best with whites who do not have a four-year college degree — he leads Clinton among that group 56-29 in the most recent AP/Gfk poll. Unlike Romney, who won with college graduates by six percentage points, Trump is losing to Clinton with that group 46-38.

“In the past, we’ve had candidates who are acceptable to the political establishment of both sides,” said Patrick Ruffini, a Republican strategist in Washington. “The opportunities for a Republican to run up the numbers with very anti-establishment, anti-elite candidates were very limited.”

Still, the migration of college-educated whites to Clinton’s corner is, at a minimum, canceling out Republican gains with working class whites. “It’s been a zero-sum trade,” Ruffini said.

The steep educational divide has helped redefine this year’s political geography. Traditional swing states of Colorado and Virginia — states with a high number of educated voters — are effectively off the table for Trump. Ohio and Iowa, with lower levels of white college graduates, remain tight.

States like Kansas and North Carolina are divided. In North Carolina, for example, Clinton is doing best in the so-called “Research Triangle” of educated workers clustered around universities near Raleigh, while Trump dominates less-educated, rural areas.

In Kansas, affluent Johnson County voters are a conservative bunch, but many can’t stomach Trump. More than half of its residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to less than a third statewide, and its average household income of $82,000 is well above the state’s average of $53,000.


Jaylene Lambert is a lifelong Republican who grew up in rural Kansas. But she left the rural part of the state, got a nursing degree, worked as a school nurse and manager of health programs and lives in Johnson County, the affluent bedroom community outside of Kansas City. She’s voting for Hillary Clinton. “I’m intelligent enough to vote for the best candidate,” Lambert said.

In western Kansas, the white population is aging and shrinking as young people move to cities. Jobs at the region’s many slaughterhouses have drawn immigrants from Mexico, Asia, and more recently, Somalia. Last week, federal authorities arrested three white men in one western Kansas town and accused them of planning to bomb a Somali mosque the day after the election.

It’s a three-hour drive from Liberal, Kansas, to the nearest university, and only 12.6 percent of adults in the county have a bachelor’s degree or higher. While local publisher Earl Watts has a degree, he is supporting Trump and he understands why the Manhattan developer-turned-reality show star’s message resonates well in an area where people rely more on hard work than credentials.

“One candidate is running because they have the degree, the pedigree,” Watts said, referring to Clinton’s long status as next in line for the presidency. “The other guy because he got there building things up, working on the streets.”

That certainly resonates with Rick Yearick, 49. He works two jobs — selling ads for Watts’ newspaper during the day and working as a clerk at the local Days Inn at night. “I’m not a doctorate — I don’t have a master’s degree or a bachelor’s degree but I do have a degree in common sense,” said the Trump supporter. “Putting America first is common sense. Taking care of our veterans is common sense.”

Sitting with friends around the table of the local doughnut shop, Gene McElroy lamented the way society looks down on people like him who lack a 4-year degree. He and others at the table talked about how remote they were from elite society and agreed that Washington politicians can’t fathom what life is like in their remote community.

“They see the world completely different. They’re wearing rose-colored glasses,” said McElroy, who is undecided in this election. “There’s no way they would live in Liberal, Kansas.”