As we saw in 2016 and again in 2020, traditional survey research is finding it harder than it once was to assess presidential elections accurately. Pre-election polls systemically misjudge who is likely to vote, and exit polls conducted as voters leave the voting booths get it wrong as well.
Now, using a massive sample of “validated” voters whose participation has been independently verified, the Pew Research Center has published a detailed analysis of the 2020 presidential election. It helps us understand how Joe Biden was able to accomplish what Hillary Clinton did not—and why President Trump came closer to getting reelected than the pre-election surveys had predicted.
How Joe Biden won
Five main factors account for Biden’s success.
- The Biden campaign reunited the Democratic Party. Compared to 2016, he raised the share of moderate and conservative Democrats who voted for the Democratic nominee by 6 points, from 85 to 91%, while increasing the Democratic share of liberal Democrats from 94 to 98%. And he received the support of 85% of Democrats who had defected to 3rd party and independent candidates in 2016.
- Contrary to the fears of some Democrats, Biden maintained solid support among African Americans. Biden received 92% of the Black vote, statistically indistinguishable from Hillary Clinton’s 91% in 2016. His support among Black women was never in doubt, but President Trump’s alleged appeal to Black men turned out to be illusory. (His share of the Black male vote fell from 14% in 2016 to 12% in 2020 while Biden raised the Democrats’ share from 81% to 87%.) African Americans confirmed their status as a unique group of voters for whom the contemporary Republican Party holds no discernible appeal.
- As his supporters for the Democratic nomination had hoped, Joe Biden appealed to the center of the electorate across party lines. He did 10 points better than Hillary Clinton among Independents, and he doubled her showing among moderate and liberal Republicans. He improved on her performance among two swing religious groups—Catholics (up 5 points) and mainline Protestants (up 6). Most important, he raised the Democratic share of suburban voters by 9 points, from 45 to 54%, and among White suburban voters, from 38 to 47%.
- Biden regained much of the support among men that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 while retaining her support among women. He won 48% of the male vote, up from Clinton’s 41%, and 40% of White men, compared to her 32% share. He expanded Democrats’ margin of victory among white college-educated men from 3 to 10 points. He even managed to raise the Democratic share of the white working-class men’s vote—the heart of the Trump coalition–to 31%, versus Clinton’s weak 23% showing. By contrast, Biden could do no better than Clinton’s showing among women overall, and he actually lost ground among white working-class women.
- Biden’s candidacy continued the shift of educated voters towards the Democratic Party. Among voters with a B.A. or more, Biden got 61% of the vote, up from 57% in 2016. This total included 57% of white voters with a college degree or more, 69% of Latinos, and 92% of African Americans. The shift of educated voters continues the recent pattern of large differences between more- and less-educated voters. The gap in support for Biden among whites with and without college degrees was 24 points; among Hispanics with and without college degrees, 14 points. By contrast, there was no education gap whatever among Black voters.
How Trump kept it close
Despite (or perhaps because of) non-stop controversy about his policies and personal conduct, President Trump managed to raise his share of the popular vote from 46% in 2016 to 47% in 2020. His core coalition held together, and he made a few new friends.
- The core coalition. Trump’s consistent appeals to his base bore fruit. His campaign for reelection was supported by 94% of Republicans, up from 92% in 2016; by 84% of White evangelical Protestants, up from 77%; and by 65% of rural voters, up from 59%. At the same time, he held the support of about two-thirds of whites without college degrees, and his support among white women rose from 47 to 53%.
- New friends. The changing Hispanic vote is perhaps the most notable feature of the 2020 election. Although many observers believed that Mr. Trump’s tough policies at the border would drive Hispanics away from his candidacy, his share of the Hispanic vote jumped by 10 points, from 28 to 38%. This increase accounts for a portion of the gains he made among urban voters, his share of whom increased by 9 points, from 24 to 33%. In another surprise, his support among young adults ages 18 to 29 improved by 7 points, from 28 to 35%.
With electoral mobilization at a peak for supporters of both political parties, turnout surged to its highest level in a century. The Democratic vote total increased by 15.4 million over 2016; the Republican total, by 11.2 million. In future elections, much will depend on whether mobilization is symmetrical, as it was in 2020, or asymmetrical, as it is when one party is enthusiastic while the other is discouraged or complacent.
This said, Republicans are facing a structural dilemma. For the most part, their coalition depends on groups—notably whites and voters without college degrees–whose share of the electorate is declining. Moreover, as elderly Americans, who now tend to be supportive of Republican candidates, leave the electorate, they will be replaced by younger cohorts whose views of the Republican Party are far less favorable. Among voters under age 30, Joe Biden enjoyed a margin of 24 points over Donald Trump, and political scientists have found the voting patterns formed in this cohort tend to persist.
There are potential countervailing forces, however. If the Democratic Party is regarded as going beyond what the center of the electorate expects and wants, Democrats’ gains among suburban voters and moderate Republicans could evaporate. And if Democrats continue to misread the sentiments of Hispanics, who now constitute the country’s largest non-white group, their shift toward Republicans could continue. There is evidence that among Hispanics as well as whites, a distinctive working-class consciousness is more powerful than ethnic identity.
As my colleague Elaine Kamarck has observed, Hispanics could turn out to be the Italians of the 21st century—family-oriented, hardworking, culturally conservative. If they follow the normal intergenerational immigrant trajectory rather than the distinctive African American path, the multi-ethnic coalition on which Democrats are depending for their party’s future could lose an essential component.
Despite these possibilities, Republicans have made scant progress at the presidential level over the past two decades, during which they gained a popular vote majority only once. In the four most recent elections, their share of the popular vote has varied in a narrow range from a high of 47.2% in 2012 to a low of 45.7% in 2008. Despite labelling Mitt Romney a “loser,” Donald Trump failed to match Romney’s share of the popular vote in either 2016 or 2020. Trump’s gains in some portions of the electorate have been counterbalanced by losses in others. If Republicans cannot move from their current politics of coalition replacement to a new politics of coalition expansion, their prospects of becoming the country’s governing majority are not bright—unless Democrats badly overplay their hand.
(William A. Galston is Ezra K. Zilkha Chair and Senior Fellow – Governance Studies