Working-class voters delivered the Republican Party to Donald J. Trump. College-educated conservatives can make sure he keeps it.
Often overlooked by an increasingly working-class party, college-educated voters remain at the heart of the enduring Republican Cold War over abortion, foreign policy and cultural issues.
These voters, who have long been more skeptical of Mr. Trump, have quietly fueled his remarkable political turnaround within the party — a turnaround over the past year that notably coincided with a cascade of 91 criminal charges in four criminal cases.
Although Mr. Trump leads Republican primary polls ahead of Monday’s Iowa caucuses, only a year ago he was behind Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in some polls — a deficit due largely to weak poll numbers. former president among college-educated voters. . Mr. DeSantis’s advisers saw the party’s educational divide as a potential starting point for overtaking Mr. Trump for the nomination.
Then came Mr. Trump’s resurgence, in which he rallied every corner of the party, including the white working class. But few representative groups of Republicans have rebounded as much as college-educated conservatives, a review of state and national polls over the past 14 months shows.
The phenomenon contrasts with years of distrust of Mr. Trump from college-educated Republicans, baffled by his 2020 election lies and seemingly endless need for controversy.
Their surge toward the former president appears to come largely from a reaction to the current political climate rather than a sudden clamor to join the red-hatted citizens of MAGA Nation, according to interviews with nearly two dozen college-educated Republican voters.
Many were incredulous at what they called excessive and unfair legal investigations targeting the former president. Others said they were disappointed in Mr. DeSantis and viewed Mr. Trump as more likely to win than former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina. Many viewed Mr. Trump as a more acceptable option because they wanted to prioritize domestic issues over foreign relations and were frustrated by high interest rates.
“It’s Fox News viewers coming back to him,” said David Kochel, an Iowa Republican operative with three decades of experience in electoral politics. “These voters are smart enough to see that Trump is going to win, and basically want to get it over with and send him to fight Biden.”
As presidential nominating season begins, college-educated Republicans face a profound decision. Whether they stick with Mr. Trump, revert to Mr. DeSantis or line up behind Ms. Haley will help set the party’s course heading into November and for years to come.
“Now I prefer Trump”
Mr. Trump is the heavy favorite to become his party’s nominee, which would make him the first Republican to win three consecutive presidential nominations. But a year ago, there was little sense of inevitability.
He failed to contribute to the red wave of victories he had promised his supporters in the 2022 midterm elections. In the weeks that followed, he suggested repealing the Constitution and was heavily criticized for hosting a dinner with Nick Fuentes, a notorious white supremacist and Holocaust denier, and rapper Kanye West, who had been widely denounced for his anti-Semitic comments.
The reaction from Republican voters was immediate.
In a Suffolk University/USA Today poll At the time, 61% of the party’s voters said they still supported Mr. Trump’s policies but wanted “a different Republican candidate for president.” A superb 76 percent college-educated Republicans agreed.
Mr. Trump’s ability to retain support on both sides of the party on education could be crucial to his political future beyond the Republican primary race.
In the 2020 presidential election, he lost the support of 9% of Republicans who voted for another candidate, according to an AP VoteCast investigation of more than 110,000 voters. Some campaign advisers said the defections cost him a second term, especially since Joseph R. Biden Jr. lost only 4% to Democrats.
College-educated voters accounted for 56 percent of Mr. Trump’s defections, according to a New York Times analysis of data.
Ruth Ann Cherny, 65, a retired nurse from Urbandale, Iowa, said she turned to Mr. Trump after questioning whether the party had “a younger, more dynamic man.”
She thought about Mr. DeSantis, but decided she couldn’t support him because “damn, his campaign is such a mess.” She wanted to support Vivek Ramaswamy, the entrepreneur and political newcomer, but concluded that he was too inexperienced and could not win.
“Trump has been to the White House once, and maybe he has a better sense of the lay of the land this time and will know who is who and what,” Ms. Cherny said.
Yolanda Gutierrez, 94, a retired real estate agent from Lakewood, Calif., whose state votes in the Super Tuesday primary on March 5, expressed similar views.
“I know Trump has a lot of baggage,” she said. “But a lot of this is imaginary.”
Ms. Gutierrez, who studied education in college, said she voted twice for Mr. Trump but was leaning toward Mr. DeSantis because she liked his record as Florida governor and thought the party needed a younger leader.
“But now I prefer Trump because the Democrats are trying to find every way possible to imprison him,” she said.
“Like a teenager who rebels”
The shift in Republican support for Mr. Trump can be pinpointed almost to the moment last year when, on March 30, 2023, a Manhattan grand jury indicted him for his role in paying hush money to a star porn, making him the country’s first elder. president facing criminal charges.
At the time, Mr. Trump’s primary bid had the support of less than half of voters in most polls, a worrying position in which he had hovered for months.
But just four days after the Manhattan indictment, Mr. Trump eclipsed the 50% mark, and has been trending upward ever since, according to a national average of polls maintained by FiveThirtyEight. As of Saturday, Mr. Trump had the support of about 60 percent of the party.
Lisa Keathly, 54, who owns two flooring companies near Dallas, said she still wants to support Mr. DeSantis, whom she views as more refined and less crude. But she added that she was increasingly likely to support Mr. Trump in the Super Tuesday primaries in her state.
She pointed to last month’s ruling by Colorado’s highest court to block the former president from the primary vote, which the U.S. Supreme Court is currently reviewing, as a moment that could have sealed her support for Mr. Trump.
“It’s a bit like a teenager rebelling — part of me is thinking, Maybe I should go with Trump because everyone is telling me not to,” Ms. Keathly said. “Part of my thing is: Why are they so afraid? »
She added: “Because they can’t control it. »
Concerns over ‘wasted vote’
Some college-educated Republicans said they had returned to Mr. Trump as they grew increasingly concerned about foreign conflicts.
Unlike Ms. Haley, who now emerges as Mr. Trump’s toughest rival, they were opposed to sending additional aid to help Ukraine against the Russian invasion. And they appreciated Mr. Trump’s tough talk on China.
“I like Nikki Haley, and I would probably vote for her if I thought she could beat him,” said Linda Farrar, a 72-year-old Republican from Missouri, which is holding its presidential caucuses on March 2. , national security is the most important thing.
Farrar said she wanted to send a message to the world by nominating a presidential candidate who would project strength abroad.
“I’m just afraid of China and what’s happening at the border and the people who are coming in,” she said. “It scares me a lot. China is really taking over: it is infiltrating from within.”
Others cited growing concerns about the economy and a nostalgia for stock market gains that marked the first three years of Mr. Trump’s term.
Many, like Chip Shaw, a 46-year-old information technology specialist in Rome, Ga., said they had been disappointed by Mr. DeSantis’s campaign and would consider supporting any candidate other than Mr. Trump as “a useless vote”.
“If we move away from the way the polls are going now, that’s how I feel. My vote would be lost,” Mr Shaw said. “The country worked really well under him. I think the economics were much better – we weren’t paying $6 for a carton of eggs.
Yet support for Mr. Trump has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The urgency among Republicans to unseat Mr. Biden was a key factor in determining which candidate to support, a finding that Trump aides say showed up in their internal research of primary voters.
The Trump campaign has focused much of its advertising budget on attacking Mr. Biden, in what appears to be an early pivot for the likely general election showdown — and addresses one of the key concerns of Republican voters.
“Trump is good,” said Hari Goyal, 73, a doctor in Sacramento who supported Mr. DeSantis last year but has since changed his mind. “Look at Biden and what he’s done to this country. Trump can beat him and he can fix this country.”
Ruth Igielnik And Alyce McFadden reports contributed.