PHILADELPHIA, PA - JULY 28: Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton waves to the crowd as she arrives on stage during the fourth day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 28, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton received the number of votes needed to secure the party's nomination. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Philadelphia, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Democratic National Convention kicked off July 25. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
© Getty

Pat Biswanger, a lawyer from Philadelphia’s western suburbs, has for the past quarter century been a Republican donor and party activist. But in this year’s presidential election the grandmother plans to vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton and is mounting her own campaign with conservative friends on behalf of the much-vilified former secretary of state.

“Hillary Clinton is probably the most scrutinised, investigated and pilloried person on the face of the earth over the past 25 years,” says Mrs Biswanger, who supported Ohio governor John Kasich during the Republican primaries. “Everybody has been trying to get her and they have never found anything. Even this email stuff does not amount to much.”

The 60-year-old graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where Republican nominee Donald Trump went to business school, is much more than a Republican defector, however. She is part of an unusual wave in this year’s campaign that highlights just how much Mr Trump’s presidential run is upending American politics.

If a multitude of polls taken in recent months hold true, Mrs Clinton is poised to become the first Democratic presidential candidate since 1952 — when this data were first collected — to win among white college-educated voters like Mrs Biswanger.

Traditionally, white university-educated voters have been a proxy for the sort of management-class Americans on which Republicans have depended for support since the second world war. In 2012 Republican Mitt Romney nationally carried 56 per cent of white voters with a bachelors degree or higher to President Barack Obama’s 42 per cent, according to exit poll data.

But this year polls show Mrs Clinton winning those voters both nationally and in important battleground states such as Mrs Biswanger’s Pennsylvania.

A Washington Post/ABC poll released this week found Mrs Clinton with a 53-37 per cent edge over Mr Trump with white university graduates in the swing state of Virginia, a group Mr Romney carried 54-44 per cent in 2012. In Colorado, another state that just weeks ago seemed to be headed for a tight contest, she is winning 58-33 per cent with white university graduates, according to a Quinnipiac poll, with eight in 10 of that group declaring that they have an unfavourable view of the New York businessman turned economic populist.

Those numbers highlight the risks involved in Mr Trump’s move this week to reshuffle his campaign staff in what is seen as a rebuff to mainstream Republicans who want him to tone down his rhetoric and reach out to centrist voters.

Mr Trump and his new campaign leadership appear intent on amplifying the provocative anti-immigrant and protectionist nationalism that helped him secure the support of working class voters in the Republican primaries, but that portion of the electorate is diminishing. Moreover, courting them appears to drive away one of the Republican party’s most historically reliable sources of support in the growing population of college-educated white voters.

The 2012 election marked the first in US history in which white voters with a high school education or less were not a majority of eligible voters. This year the group represents just 45 per cent of the electorate, according to William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.

“The long-term scenario is that sort of strategy [of playing to the fears of white blue-collar workers] can’t win for Republicans and it might not work for Donald Trump this time,” says Mr Frey.

The trend is also accelerating. Some 70 per cent of the 3m Americans who graduated from high school in 2015 enrolled in a college or university. In 1980 less than 50 per cent did.

According to Mr Frey’s calculations, the resulting share of college-educated white voters in the eligible population has been growing by one percentage point in each of the past four presidential elections so that this year they make up a quarter of eligible voters. Meanwhile, the share of high-school educated voters has been falling by three percentage points per election over that same period.

A large part of this year’s swing to Mrs Clinton among university-educated voters appears to be among women hoping to elect the US’s first female president, Mr Frey says. Even for many educated women, however, one of the motivations to vote for the former first lady has become to stop Mr Trump.

Sarah Asby, a 38-year-old manager at a computer games company in North Carolina, supported self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries and will only reluctantly vote for Mrs Clinton.

She believes the political system is broken, but her choice has become about rejecting what she sees as Mr Trump’s frightening candidacy. “I can’t even fathom a world where he wins this election because it is too terrible,” she says.

For Pat Biswanger the gnawing question is whether after this election Republicans will be able to count on her support again in a presidential race. 

She remains loyal to her local party. “[Donald Trump] hasn’t changed that,” she says. “But [this year] has made me wonder how the Republican party is ever going to recover from this on a national level. And whether they are ever again going to have a candidate who is going to appeal to me.”

Get alerts on US presidential election when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article