Hillary Clinton has built a commanding lead over Donald J. Trump in national polls, but she still has one big weakness: white working-class voters, especially white working-class men.
Even now, she is underperforming any recent Democratic candidate among white voters without a college degree.
It’s a very different story from 2008, when Barack Obama built a big national lead by attracting white working-class voters in states like Wisconsin and Indiana.
Instead, Mrs. Clinton’s gains come from big margins among well-educated voters and an electorate that’s much more diverse than it was even a decade ago.
The result is a sharp increase in polarization along demographic lines of race, education and gender — yet a decrease in geographic polarization. The predictable electoral map of the last four elections, born in part of the culture wars and split along familiar regional divides, might not look quite the same this November.
This dynamic helps explain why reliably red states are now on the brink of competitiveness, even as some traditional battleground states haven’t budged.
Mrs. Clinton is struggling where Mr. Obama depended heavily on the support of white working-class voters four years ago. Mr. Trump, on the other hand, is struggling where there are few opportunities for him to improve among white working-class voters, or where Republicans depend on well-educated white voters.
Take Iowa, a state that has voted Democratic in six of the last seven presidential elections. When Democrats barely lost the state in 2004, it was still a stronger state for John Kerry than the nation as a whole. President Obama won the state by six points four years ago, and he ran well ahead of Mr. Kerry and Al Gore in white working-class areas.
Yet Mr. Trump has held a clear lead in the state — like a four-point lead in the last Des Moines Register/Selzer poll conducted two weeks ago.
The reason is straightforward: Of all of the battleground states, there isn’t a place where a larger share of Mr. Obama’s voters were whites without a degree. Mrs. Clinton’s struggles among white working-class voters hurt more here than elsewhere.
That struggle is playing out across the North, where Mr. Obama fared well among white voters four years ago. Ohio, the anchor of Mr. Obama’s so-called Midwestern firewall, remains very close. Mrs. Clinton has fared better in Wisconsin, but she’s not necessarily doing better there than she is nationwide.
The dynamic is also keeping many of the red, working-class states where Mr. Obama was competitive in 2008 — like Missouri, Montana and Indiana — out of the Democratic column.
Mrs. Clinton may yet sweep the Midwest, winning in places like Iowa and Ohio. But if she does prevail, she might do so in a very different way than Mr. Obama did four years ago.
She is making up for her weakness with strength in some of the most reliably Republican turf in the country. She’s running even with Mr. Trump in the Milwaukee suburbs; she leads in Western Michigan; and she’s posting huge leads in suburbs around Columbus, Ohio, and Philadelphia.
She’s struggling mightily in some traditionally Democratic or competitive areas like Green Bay, Wis., northeastern Pennsylvania (including Scranton), northeastern Ohio (including Youngstown) and Macomb County, Mich. — the place that inspired the term “Reagan Democrats.”
This balance between Mrs. Clinton’s weakness among white working-class Northerners and her strength among well-educated voters might be enough to preserve a relatively similar electoral outcome in the Midwest, even as the underlying coalitions shift significantly. But this trade-off is not nearly as favorable for Mr. Trump in the states where there is much less room for him to make gains among white working-class voters.
In the red states, Mr. Obama was far weaker among white voters. That means there’s a lot of room for Mr. Trump to fall among well-educated voters there, and little room to gain among white working-class voters.
Mr. Romney surpassed 75 percent or even 80 percent of white voters without a degree in North Carolina, Georgia and Utah. Mr. Trump could be aided by higher turnout, but he doesn’t have much room for additional gains.
The traditional red-state, blue-state map of the 2000-2012 era was driven in part by culture war politics, which split white voters along religious lines. The country’s religious divisions parallel its regional splits, with religious and evangelical white voters heavily concentrated in the South. The Republicans made huge gains among white working-class voters in the South and Appalachia, but relatively secular and working-class Northern voters in Scranton, Pa., or northern Ohio or Iowa mostly stuck with the Democrats through it all.
But the old culture war is effectively over. There have been few or no campaign advertisements about gay marriage or abortion. This election is a hint of one way things could turn next: a new split between the beneficiaries of multicultural globalism and the working-class ethno-nationalists who feel left behind, both economically and culturally. It wouldn’t divide the country as much by region and religion, but more along the lines of urbanization and education.
It’s a trend across Europe, where there never was a culture war quite like that in the United States. It’s too early to say whether the trend will take hold in the United States, but this election has certainly raised the possibility.