The candidate who brags of a top-notch education does best among voters who lack it, according to the latest CNN/ORC poll.
Donald Trump is again topping the latest national survey, bolstered by Republicans who don’t have college degrees: 46% of those without a bachelor’s said they’d support him. Among college-educated conservatives, Sen. Ted Cruz leads the primary field, followed by Dr. Ben Carson, and Sen. Marco Rubio — all ranking higher than Trump, who comes in fourth place with 18% of votes.
"I went to the Wharton School of Business. I'm, like, a really smart person,” Trump said in July, later describing the school on CNN as “like super genius stuff” and “the best school in the world.” He’s called his MIT-attending uncle a “genius,” boasting that “it’s my blood, I’m smart.” On "Meet the Press," he argued that “if I were a liberal Democrat, people would say I'm the super genius of all time … The super genius of all time.” In August, he boasted that “I went to an Ivy League school … that’s the kind of thinking our country needs, that mindset.”
The divide is one of the most striking examples of Trump’s gravity-defying campaign. The very people Trump sets himself apart from are the ones bolstering his presidential bid. After years of well-educated, wealthy Republican candidates striving to portray themselves as average Joes and everymans, the party’s primary voters are embracing the polar-opposite: A rich, well-educated candidate who can’t stop bragging about — and possibly overstating — his credentials.
To be clear: Trump initially attended Fordham University before transferring to the much-boasted about Ivy League University of Pennsylvania as a junior. Trump did indeed take classes at Penn’s Wharton School as an undergraduate, but he was not in the school’s prestigious MBA program. Furthermore, his routine claims about earning top marks have been disputed. Trump didn’t make the Dean’s List, according to The Daily Beast, and he wasn’t listed in the graduation program as receiving any honors of any kind, according to a 1984 New York Times Magazine article.
Still, he’s routinely dismissed his opponents for being “stupid” and a “dummy” and dismissed his rivals as not being worthy of the education he received. In 2011, he told the Associated Press the president wasn’t qualified for the Ivy League education he received.
"I heard he was a terrible student, terrible. How does a bad student go to Columbia and then to Harvard?" he said. "I'm thinking about it, I'm certainly looking into it. Let him show his records."
Conservative pollster John McLaughlin said Trump’s boasts about education are just another way of portraying himself as ready to be president.
“He knows he’s being attacked for not having government experience or being elected to public office,” said McLaughlin, who was commissioned to write a plan during the last election for how Trump could enter the race. “It’s another way to say he’s got the ability to lead the country.”
Trump’s made a campaign out of appealing to the everyman — as a rich guy who wants to make you rich, too. "My whole energy, my whole being is going to be to make this country rich. In order to make this country great, I have to make it rich again,” he said in Alabama at a rally.
And as The Washington Post’s David Weigel pointed out, “Trump’s rise and persistence as a presidential candidate has been credited to name recognition, to voter anger and to a specific contempt for the Republican Party establishment,” he wrote in August. “But he is also the candidate talking most directly about the loss of manufacturing jobs to foreign countries.”
Those manufacturing jobs — the quintessential American-dream securing job that could be gained without a college degree — have largely disappeared from the American economy, squeezing those less educated workers out of the workforce. For this, Trump blames countries like China and Mexico for their “cunning” leaders’ economic successes over America.
“He represents their mix of anger and optimism — when he latched onto the slogan of ‘make America great again,’ it’s the anger that we shouldn’t be insecure, we shouldn’t have a bad economy, we should be doing a lot better than we’re doing now. He mixes that anger with we can do better,” McLaughlin said.
It’s those without degrees that are struggling the most in the current economy, too: The unemployment rate remained steady at 5% this month, but the picture looks far rosier for those with college degrees: Just 3.2% of them are out of work. Meanwhile, 5.6% of those without bachelor’s degrees are out of work, along with 8.5% of those without a high school diploma.
Trump seems keenly aware of his populist appeal, pitching his tax plan as one that would help the middle class — economists point out that it also cuts taxes significantly for wealthy folks like Trump. The candidate is also known for his clear, direct, and uncomplicated language: According to a Boston Globe analysis, Trump speaks so simply that a fourth grader could understand it.
Still others have argued that Trump’s base of support may stem from those who are more likely to believe him.
“But, at the risk of sounding elitist, I think there's something else at play here. I don't think a college degree makes you 'smarter,' but I do suspect there's a correlation between people who obtain one and people who are better at critical thinking,” conservative commentator Matt Lewis wrote online. “Simply put, I don't think college grads are as susceptible to Trump's manipulation and demagoguery. I suspect they're more skeptical.”