How College-Educated Republicans Learned to Love Trump Again

Blue-collar white voters make up Donald Trump’s base. But his political resurgence has been fueled largely by Republicans from the other end of the socioeconomic scale.

Donald Trump smiling and giving a thumbs-up as he takes a photo with several female supporters at Mar-a-Lago.
Former President Donald J. Trump has dominated polls of the Republican presidential primary race, but only a year ago, he trailed Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida in some surveys.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

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Working-class voters delivered the Republican Party to Donald J. Trump. College-educated conservatives may ensure that he keeps it.

Often overlooked in an increasingly blue-collar party, voters with a college degree remain at the heart of the lingering Republican cold war over abortion, foreign policy and cultural issues.

These voters, who have long been more skeptical of Mr. Trump, have quietly powered his remarkable political recovery inside the party — a turnaround over the past year that has notably coincided with a cascade of 91 felony charges in four criminal cases.

Even as Mr. Trump dominates Republican primary polls ahead of the Iowa caucuses on Monday, it was only a year ago that he trailed Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida in some surveys — a deficit due largely to the former president’s weakness among college-educated voters. Mr. DeSantis’s advisers viewed the party’s educational divide as a potential launching point to overtake 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 cross-sections of Republicans rebounded as much as college-educated conservatives, a review of state and national polls during the past 14 months shows.

This phenomenon cuts against years of wariness toward Mr. Trump by college-educated Republicans, unnerved by his 2020 election lies and his seemingly endless craving for controversy.

Their surge toward the former president appears to stem largely from a reaction to the current political climate rather than a sudden clamoring to join the red-capped citizenry of MAGA nation, according to interviews with nearly two dozen college-educated Republican voters.

In interviews, many college-educated Republicans expressed anger at the criminal cases against Mr. Trump, calling them unfair. Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Many were incredulous over what they described as excessive and unfair legal investigations targeting the former president. Others said they were underwhelmed by Mr. DeSantis and viewed Mr. Trump as more likely to win than former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina. Several saw Mr. Trump as a more palatable option because they wanted to prioritize domestic problems over foreign relations and were frustrated with high interest rates.

“These are Fox News viewers who are coming back around to him,” said David Kochel, a Republican operative in Iowa with three decades of experience in campaign politics. “These voters are smart enough to see the writing on the wall that Trump is going to win, and essentially want to get this over with and send him off to battle Biden.”

As the presidential nominating season commences, college-educated Republicans face a profound decision. Whether they stick with Mr. Trump, swing back to Mr. DeSantis or align behind Ms. Haley will help set the party’s course heading into November and for years to come.

Mr. Trump is the odds-on favorite to become his party’s nominee, which would make him the first Republican to win three presidential nominations. But there was little sense of inevitability a year ago.

He had failed to help deliver the red wave of victories he promised supporters in the 2022 midterm elections. In the weeks that followed, he suggested terminating the Constitution and faced sharp criticism for hosting a dinner with Nick Fuentes, a notorious white supremacist and Holocaust denier, and the rapper Kanye West, who had been widely denounced for making antisemitic comments.

The backlash from Republican voters was immediate.

In a Suffolk University/USA Today poll at the time, 61 percent of the party’s voters said they still supported Mr. Trump’s policies but wanted “a different Republican nominee for president.” A stunning 76 percent of college-educated Republicans agreed.

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This month, the same pollster showed Mr. Trump with support from 62 percent of Republican voters, including 60 percent of those with a college degree.

Other surveys have revealed similar trends.

Mr. Trump’s backing from white, college-educated Republicans doubled to 60 percent over the course of last year, according to Fox News polling.

Supporters of Mr. Trump gathered at a rally in November in Edinburg, Texas, near the southern border, where Gov. Greg Abbott endorsed the former president. Mr. Trump consolidated Republican support throughout the year. Credit…Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

Mr. Trump’s ability to maintain support from both sides of the party’s educational gap could be crucial to his political future beyond the Republican primary race.

In the 2020 presidential election, he bled support from 9 percent of Republicans who voted for a different candidate, according to an AP VoteCast survey of more than 110,000 voters. Some campaign advisers have said those defections cost him a second term, particularly given that Joseph R. Biden Jr. lost just 4 percent of Democrats.

College-educated voters accounted for 56 percent of Mr. Trump’s defections, according to a New York Times analysis of the data.

Ruth Ann Cherny, 65, a retired nurse from Urbandale, Iowa, said she was turning back to Mr. Trump after considering whether the party had “a younger, dynamic guy.”

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She considered Mr. DeSantis, but decided she couldn’t support him because “dang, his campaign is such a mess.” She wanted to support Vivek Ramaswamy, the entrepreneur and political newcomer, but concluded he was too inexperienced and could not win.

“Trump has been in the White House once, and maybe he has a better lay of the land this time and will know who’s who and what’s what,” Ms. Cherny said.

Yolanda Gutierrez, 94, a retired real estate agent from Lakewood, Calif., whose state votes in the Super Tuesday primaries on March 5, expressed similar views.

“I know Trump’s got a lot of baggage,” she said. “But so much of it is make-believe.”

Ms. Gutierrez, who studied education in college, said she had voted twice for Mr. Trump but had been leaning toward Mr. DeSantis because she liked his record as governor of Florida and thought the party needed a younger leader.

“But now I prefer Trump because Democrats are trying to find any way they can to jail him,” she said.

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 porn star, making him the nation’s first former president to face criminal charges.

At the time, Mr. Trump’s primary bid had support from less than half of voters in most polls, an ominous position where he had been hovering for months.

But just four days after the Manhattan indictment, Mr. Trump eclipsed the 50 percent mark, and he has trended upward ever since, according to a national average of polls maintained by FiveThirtyEight. As of Saturday, Mr. Trump had support from about 60 percent of the party.

Lisa Keathly, 54, who owns two flooring businesses near Dallas, said she still wanted to support Mr. DeSantis, whom she views as more polished and less rude. But she added that she was increasingly likely to back Mr. Trump in her state’s Super Tuesday primary.

At the start of the primary campaign, Mr. DeSantis’s advisers viewed the Republican Party’s educational divide as a potential launching point to overtake Mr. Trump for the nomination.Credit…Jordan Gale for The New York Times

She pointed to a ruling last month from Colorado’s top court to block the former president from the primary ballot, which the U.S. Supreme Court is now considering, as a moment that may have sealed her support for Mr. Trump.

“It’s a little bit like a teenager who’s rebelling — a part of me is like, Maybe I should go for Trump because everyone is telling me not to,” Ms. Keathly said. “Part of my thing is: Why are they so scared?”

She added, “Because they can’t control him.”

Some college-educated Republicans said they had circled back to Mr. Trump as they grew increasingly anxious about foreign conflicts.

Unlike Ms. Haley, who now appears to be Mr. Trump’s toughest challenger, they were opposed to sending more aid to help Ukraine against Russia’s invasion. And they liked Mr. Trump’s tough talk on China.

“I like Nikki Haley, and I’d probably vote for her if I thought she could beat him,” said Linda Farrar, a 72-year-old Republican from Missouri, which holds its presidential caucuses on March 2. “But right now, national security is the most important thing.”

Ms. 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 who’s coming in,” she said. “It scares me a great deal. China is really taking over — they’re infiltrating from the inside.”

Others cited increasing concern about the economy, and a craving for the kinds of market gains that colored Mr. Trump’s first three years in office.

Many, like Chip Shaw, a 46-year-old information technology specialist in Rome, Ga., said they had been underwhelmed by Mr. DeSantis’s campaign, and viewed support for any candidate other than Mr. Trump as “a wasted vote.”

Some college-educated Republicans said they had circled back to Mr. Trump as they grew increasingly anxious about foreign conflicts.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

“If we’re going off the way polls are right now, that’s the way I feel. My vote would be going into thin air,” Mr. Shaw said. “The country was really running smooth under him. I think that the economy was a crap ton better — we weren’t paying $6 a carton for eggs.”

Still, support for Mr. Trump has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The urgency among Republicans to unseat Mr. Biden has been a key factor in determining which candidate to support, a finding that Trump aides said had revealed itself in their internal research of primary voters.

The Trump campaign has focused much of its ad budget on attacking Mr. Biden, which appears to be an early pivot to the likely matchup in the general election — and addresses one of Republican voters’ top concerns.

“Trump is good,” said Hari Goyal, 73, a physician in Sacramento, who supported Mr. DeSantis last year but has since changed his mind. “Look at Biden and what he has done to this country. Trump can beat him, and he can fix this country.”

Ruth Igielnik and Alyce McFadden contributed reporting.

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