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Mind the Gap

The Republican primary may be decided by education.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on March 5, 2023, in Simi Valley, California. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

“Hero” is too strong a word to describe Larry Hogan (yet unavoidable given the pun potential), but otherwise I share Jeff Blehar’s gratitude toward the former governor for deciding not to run for president.

Which feels strange to say, as Hogan had as much chance of winning a Republican primary as I do. He would have been lucky to pull 3 percent, little more than a receptacle for the GOP’s remaining handful of Liz Cheney fans to park their votes. In the unlikely event that he stuck around long enough for Maryland’s primary, he would have been obliterated on his home turf by Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis. Why should we care that a politician with no national future has now formally acknowledged that he has no national future?

We should care because he set a commendable example. “A cult of personality is no substitute for a party of principle,” he said in a statement. “There are several competent Republican leaders who have the potential to step up and lead. But the stakes are too high for me to risk being part of another multicar pileup that could potentially help Mr. Trump recapture the nomination.” By framing the stakes that way, Hogan drew a contrast that Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, Chris Christie, and the other no-hopers weighing a run will be forced to address. You can imagine the interviews to come: Larry Hogan placed the common goal of moving past Trump above his own ambition. Why can’t you?

I don’t expect that will deter Pence, et al., from running but I do expect that Hogan’s example will follow them. Raising the prospect of a “multicar pileup” this early and showing a measure of sacrifice to avert it will help keep pressure on the no-hopers to get out before voting begins if their polling remains sluggish. A good rule of thumb for every candidate would be that if they’re not within 10 points of second place on Thanksgiving, they need to snuff it. The devolved, decompensating base of this party should be forced to give Trump a majority of their votes if they intend to nominate him a third time. Having him win again with a plurality in a multicandidate field would grant the GOP a fig leaf of exculpation by allowing them to claim that he might not have prevailed in a one-on-one race. They don’t deserve that.

Especially since, per his keynote speech at CPAC on Saturday, it appears the coming campaign will be Trump Unleashed.

My hat is off to whichever speechwriter came up with the line “I am your retribution.” With remarkable efficiency, it divines the fashy essence of authoritarian populism. The rest of the address was similar in tone, writes John Hendrickson of The Atlantic:

For much of the speech, Trump’s voice took on more of a soft and haggard whisper than the booming, throaty scream that characterized his campaign rallies. His language, by contrast, was bellicose. Tonight’s address was among the darkest speeches he has given since his “American carnage” inaugural address. Trump warned that the United States is becoming “a nation in decline” and a “crime-ridden, filthy communist nightmare.” He spoke of an “epic battle” against “sinister forces” on the left. He repeatedly painted himself as a martyr, a tragic hero still hoping for redemption. “They’re not coming after me; they’re coming after you, and I’m just standing in their way,” Trump told the room. He pulled out his best, half-hearted Patton: “We are going to finish what we started. We’re going to complete the mission. We’re going to see this battle through to ultimate victory.” He was heavy on adjectives, devastating with nouns. “We will liberate America from these villains and scoundrels once and for all,” he said.

At one point, reporters asked him whether he’d remain in the race even if he’s indicted. “Oh, absolutely. I wouldn’t even think about leaving,” he replied. Quoth the New York Times: “Several people close to Mr. Trump have said he believes his presidential campaign can be used as a cudgel to hit back against the prosecutors.”

This will be the most overtly sinister political campaign in modern American history. We’ll be lucky to get through the 2024 election without innocent people being killed.

Hogan released his statement bowing out of the 2024 race about 12 hours after Trump finished speaking at CPAC. I assume the timing was coincidental, but if he had any misgivings about passing on the race, watching that speech should have squelched them. Beating Trump is an all-hands-on-deck emergency; a vanity campaign that contributes to splintering the opposition, however slightly, would be inexcusable.

And Hogan would have contributed to that splintering notwithstanding his zero percent chance of winning. When you sift through the early data on the education gap that’s begun to open among Republicans, you’ll recognize the peril of a crowded anti-Trump field.

As alarm rises on the left at Ron DeSantis’ culture-war initiatives in Florida and his growing chances of becoming president, liberals have taken to comparing him to Trump—sometimes unfavorably.

DeSantis isn’t Trump but he has gotten dismayingly Trumpy in his growing eagerness to pander to populists, occasionally in ways even Trump eschews. Ten years ago he was a Tea Party congressman pushing entitlement reform packages to the right of Paul Ryan; today, following Trump’s lead, you’ll find him hand-waving away suggestions that Republicans might have designs on Social Security and Medicare. Some observers have detected an evolution all the way down to the governor’s hand gestures in emulating the right’s hero.

The endless hype about DeSantis being “Trump 2.0” or “Trump but competent” might lead you to assume that he and the former guy are polling similarly across various right-wing subgroups. 

They aren’t. Despite his endless efforts to woo Trump’s base of voters without a college degree, DeSantis trails among that contingent in poll after poll, sometimes badly. It’s college grads (and postgrads) who are tilting toward the governor, although usually by narrower margins. If you want to know why DeSantis’ polling against Trump seems to have slipped lately, that’s it in a nutshell: White-collar Republicans tend to favor him by modest margins whereas blue-collar Republicans prefer the O.G. populist by more formidable ones.

The Echelon Insights poll has Trump leading DeSantis 46-31 overall but among non-college voters that gap expands to 54-27. Among college graduates, DeSantis holds a 3-point lead. That ain’t gonna cut it in a party where the non-college bloc is large and growing.

Echelon’s survey was no outlier. A recent poll from Emerson College found Trump ahead of DeSantis 55-25 thanks largely to the 72 percent of voters without a college degree who prefer him to the governor. Same story at Fox News, where Trump leads by 15 overall but by 28 among whites without a college degree. Among whites who did graduate from college, DeSantis leads by 7. Quinnipiac too: Although DeSantis leads by a whopping 29 points among college-grad whites, he trails Trump 42-36 overall. That’s because Trump holds a 45-35 lead among the non-college white majority.

The dynamic recurs even in polls where DeSantis does well. A recent survey of Republicans in Virginia found him ahead of Trump by 3 points despite narrowly trailing the former president among voters without a college degree. It’s college graduates, particularly those who live in the D.C. suburbs, to whom DeSantis owes his margin; he crushes Trump among those voters. Meanwhile, in California, Trump leads by double digits among non-college Republicans but trails DeSantis overall, 37-29. You know why: The governor has an 18-point advantage among college grads and 28-point advantage among postgrads. He also leads narrowly with voters who have some college or trade-school experience but haven’t graduated, a huge slice of the poll’s sample.

There are two ways of looking at the education gap.

The “glass half full” view is that DeSantis has room to grow whereas Trump doesn’t. Realistically there’s nothing Trump can say to lure back college grads who have already switched to DeSantis. Four years of having him as president and seven years of having him as leader of the party have convinced them that it’s time for change. It’s easy, on the other hand, to imagine what DeSantis might say to win over some of Trump’s base. Non-college voters are less likely to vote so they’re probably also less likely to follow political news day to day, leaving them unfamiliar with DeSantis’ record. Once they’re properly introduced to him, they’ll find things to like.

And even if they don’t, maybe they’ll just stay home on primary day. Aaron Blake writes:

If there’s good news for Trump, it’s that voters with less formal education have trended toward the GOP. Whereas White, non-college-educated voters were about evenly split between the parties as recently as 2008, they favored the GOP by about 25 points in a 2019 Gallup survey. White, college-educated voters’ share of the party has shrunk to about 25 percent in 2019, according to data from the Pew Research Center.

But it’s also true that people are much more likely to vote as their education level increases — meaning those voters are overrepresented in primaries. In many states in 2016, a slight majority of GOP primary voters had either a college degree or did postgraduate work.

The “glass half empty” view is that Trump’s base knows DeSantis’ record better than we might expect and his cultural pandering isn’t making the sort of inroads that it’s supposed to be making with them. His bread-and-butter issue post-pandemic has been de-woke-ifying schools, including and especially universities. Maybe that topic holds more purchase with college grads than with voters who didn’t go to college.

Or perhaps the arc of DeSantis’ political career has bred a degree of suspicion in Trump voters that his culture-war program in Florida can’t overcome. On Saturday, at CPAC, Trump scoffed that before him “the Republican Party was ruled by freaks, neocons, open-border zealots, and fools” and warned that the GOP won’t be “going back to the party of Paul Ryan, Karl Rove, and Jeb Bush.” The 2016 primary can be understood as a revolt by the party’s working-class base against the highly educated “country club Republicans” who kept losing national elections.

DeSantis is more of a country-clubber in spirit than someone whom you might find wearing a “Rope, Tree, Journalist: Some Assembly Required” T-shirt. He’s a graduate of Yale and Harvard Law and a Paul Ryan acolyte, a vestige of the pre-Trump era in GOP politics. Trump has been keen to inform his voters of that recently, and rightly so. The more culturally alien DeSantis begins to look to non-college Republicans, the harder it’ll be for him to woo them into his column. Ask Ted Cruz, another Harvard Law grad who spent years cultivating a populist image only to find that blue-collar righties can smell a phony. He knows.

Or perhaps Trump’s hold on voters without a college degree has a more straightforward explanation, namely that “bachelor’s degree holders are significantly less inclined, and associate degree holders are somewhat less inclined, to express authoritarian preferences and attitudes compared to high school graduates.” If the primary becomes a contest of which candidate can out-fash the other to impress less educated Republicans, DeSantis is cooked. No one’s going to out-fash Donald Trump.

Not until Tucker Carlson gets into the race, at least.

Once you understand that Trump leads big among Republicans without a college degree while DeSantis leads reliably among Republican college grads, you see why it matters that Hogan stepped away from the race and why other also-rans in the “non-Trump” lane will need to do so. In the Echelon Insights poll I cited above, Nikki Haley and Mike Pence were stuck in single digits overall but each performed considerably better with college graduates than non-college voters. Haley took 10 percent of the former but just 4 percent of the latter; for Pence those numbers were 12 and 7 percent, respectively. They’re eating DeSantis’ lunch more so than they are Trump’s, as everyone expected. (And not just among college grads. One wonders where Haley’s and Pence’s non-college support would go if they dropped out.) If a centrist Trump critic like Hogan were in the race, no doubt his support would come all but entirely from DeSantis’ base of Republicans with college degrees.

The longer the governor faces competition for college voters in the primary, the longer he’ll need to tailor parts of his message to that bloc, making the task of winning over Trump’s voters harder. And so I repeat: Thanksgiving or bust for Haley and the rest.

Interestingly, education isn’t the only fault line on which Republicans divide between Trump and DeSantis. Age is another.

But it’s not what you’d expect. Young Republicans aren’t breaking toward the young governor; they’re breaking toward Trump. It’s senior citizens who are interested in the new guy.

Trump scores more than 50 percent of the vote among Republicans aged 18-49 in Echelon’s poll, leading DeSantis by more than 20 points. But the gap narrows slightly among those ages 50-64 and the two are even among senior citizens. Emerson’s poll finds DeSantis leading outright, 43-39, among Republicans over age 65, while a new survey from YouGov sees a similar dynamic across multiple age groups. A 32-point Trump lead in the age 30-44 group becomes a much slimmer 4-point lead among the 45-64 cohort and then a 6-point DeSantis advantage within the 65+ group.

At first blush I find this confounding. DeSantis has made his bones politically by being the governor who kept Florida open during COVID, a feat young adults with strong immune systems should appreciate and older adults with weaker immune systems might resent. DeSantis’ interest in entitlement reform as a congressman has also been a hot topic lately with Trump and his minions. One would think those “Mediscare” tactics might steer seniors toward Trump while not alarming younger voters much.

The obvious, and ominous, explanation for the age gap we actually see is that older Republicans recall what the party used to be, remember voting for it, and wouldn’t be opposed to having some semblance of it return. Younger Republicans, on the other hand, have been indoctrinated into the Trump cult and remade culturally in the leader’s image. His version of the GOP is the only one many of them have known since their political awakening. Why would they prefer a “Paul Ryan, Karl Rove, and Jeb Bush” Republican like DeSantis when they can have the same ol’ party and nominee they trust and love?

If my read on the age gap is right, DeSantis’ odds of victory might be smaller than we thought. And the likelihood of this rotten party evolving into something more virtuous might be much smaller than we wish.

All we can do for now is hope for the best, vote against Trump in the primary, and wait for the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency Manchin/Hogan third-party candidacy to catch fire in the summer of 2024. It could happen! (Ed. note: It could not happen.)

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.