Art by Dorothy Zhang.
The 2020 election was one of the most controversial and polarizing elections in contemporary American history. So, what do we know about voting patterns in this past election?
Minorities & Immigrants
Foremost, immigrant and minority groups shifted rightwards across the nation. While the overall Latino vote remained consistently Democratic, many Latino voters in key swing states, such as in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and Miami-Dade County in southern Florida, broke heavily for Trump. Trump’s improvements with minority voters were staggering. For example, some precincts in the majority Cuban-American city of Miami shifted almost 53 percentage points rightwards compared to the 2016 election. Meanwhile, the entirety of Miami-Dade County shifted 22 percentage points towards Trump between the 2016 and 2020 elections. Trump was even able to win 55% of the Cuban vote in Florida, a solid majority. Even more, precincts with high Eastern European, Middle Eastern, and Asian-American immigrant populations also swung heavily in favor of Trump, while Black voters remained largely Democratic. Yet, Trump was still able to make minor inroads with Black voters, although shifts in the Black electorate were relatively muted compared to other minority groups. Exit polling revealed that Asian-American voters moved rightwards, with Biden performing 4 percentage points worse than Hillary and 12 percentage points worse than 2012 Obama with Asian-American voters. However, by and large, minority groups across America continued to stick with Democrats by sizable margins, contributing to Biden’s victory on Election Night.
Change in vote share in majority-Cuban Miami from the 2016 presidential election to the 2020 presidential election; a higher intensity of red represents a larger percentage shift to the right, and a higher intensity of blue indicates a larger percentage shift to the left. Credit: The New York Times
The Orthodox Jewish community continued to lend its support to Trump in 2020. Orthodox Jewish voters represent one of the most extreme examples of bloc voting in America and tend to vote based on the endorsements of their community leaders. In 2020, angered by COVID-19 restrictions, encouraged by Trump’s ardent support for Israel, and already trending conservative, Orthodox Jewish voters turned out for Republicans in record-breaking numbers. For example, in New York City’s Borough of Brooklyn, some heavily Hasidic precincts shifted 20 or more percentage points towards the Republican Party. Many of these Orthodox Jewish precincts ended up voting for Trump by 90% or more. One of the most extreme cases of this phenomenon can be found in the predominantly Hasidic community of New Square, New York. In this Rockland County community, situated just outside of New York City, Trump was able to carry the entire village by a 100% margin. In New Square, Trump garnered 3,011 votes compared to Biden’s 8, across the community’s four precincts. Interestingly, this same community had voted for Hillary by similarly extreme margins in 2016. This intriguing phenomenon can be attributed to the Clinton family’s close personal relationship with the Hasidic community in New Square, leading to their local leaders endorsing her in 2016 and later reversing their endorsement to Trump in 2020.
Bloc voting in Hasidic communities gave Trump extremely high vote margins in 2020. Credit: The New York Times
On the contrary, suburbs continued their leftward shift, allowing Democrats to flip several key states, especially in the Sun Belt. According to exit polling, Biden won suburban regions in America by 2 percentage points overall. In contrast, Hillary had lost suburban voters 4 years earlier by 5 percentage points. In Gwinnett County, a populous suburb of Atlanta, the Democratic vote exceeded the Republican vote by over 18 percentage points. In 2008, McCain carried Gwinnett County with almost 55 percent of the vote. However, in recent years, Gwinnett, like the rest of Atlanta’s suburban counties, has rapidly trended leftwards, eventually flipping to national Democrats in 2016. While the suburban realignment has been an electoral phenomenon observed for years, only recently has this trend provided Democrats with the margins necessary to propel them to victory in former Republican strongholds such as Georgia or Arizona.
Many down-ballot Democrats were also able to improve upon or maintain their performances in traditionally conservative suburban areas. In 2018, Democrat Lucy McBath flipped Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, a district primarily consisting of Atlanta’s suburbs. In that election, McBath prevailed by a single percentage point over her Republican opponent. In 2020, she greatly expanded her 2018 margin by successfully defending her seat from a Republican challenger with a 9.2 percent margin of victory. A similar trend occurred across the country on Election Night, as traditionally Republican-leaning suburban districts, such as New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District, encompassing the affluent suburbs of Newark, Philadelphia, and New York City, stayed with or flipped to the Democratic Party, cementing their realignment from the 2018 midterm elections.
In 2020, Democrats managed to stem, and even reverse, the exodus of White working-class voters to the GOP. These voters had once been a pivotal component of the Obama-era coalition. However, in 2020, these ancestral Democrats did not return to the party in significant numbers, solidifying their gradual shift to the right. In states such as Minnesota, Iowa, West Virginia, Ohio, and Michigan, the decline of the blue-collar Democrat, a key piece in the Obama-era coalition, contributed to keeping these states competitive and, in some cases, even pushed them into the Republican column. For example, in recent years, ancestrally Democratic coal workers in Appalachia’s mining regions have become severely disillusioned with the Democratic Party and its increasingly leftward tilt on social issues and environmentalism. This has resulted in Appalachia, once an important Democratic stronghold, to shift rightwards. In rural West Virginia, a state that Democrats carried in 10 out of 13 elections from 1950-1999, Trump’s margin of victory over Joe Biden consisted of almost 300,000 votes out of 800,000 total votes cast. In both 2016 and 2020, Trump won every single county in West Virginia, including counties anchored by urban metropolitan areas such as Kanawha County, home to the city of Charleston. The decline in Democratic support across Appalachia contrasts starkly with past Democratic victories in West Virginia, once a reliably blue state. Only a few decades before, Bill Clinton had won West Virginia in both the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections by carrying the majority of counties in the state. Even Michael Dukakis, who lost in an electoral college landslide to George H.W. Bush in 1988, carried West Virginia by a comfortable margin. In recent years, ancestrally Democratic White blue-collar workers, particularly in the Rust Belt and Applachia’s coal mining regions (primarily located in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia’s southeastern counties), have gravitated towards the Republican Party, reflecting America’s growing educational polarization.
In the 2020 election, Trump won every single county in West Virginia.
The Urban-Rural Divide
If one were to examine a map of America’s recent presidential elections and then compare it to a map of major metropolitan regions, one would find a clear correlation in voting patterns. The 2020 election was no exception to this norm. The urban-rural divide remained starkly pronounced, and in some ways, solidified even further. Rural areas continued to lend their support (and votes) to Trump, while more urbanized regions remained comfortably within the sphere of the Democratic Party. For example, in Washington State, Biden won every single urban county with the exception of Spokane and Benton counties, which Trump only won by 13,000 votes and 22,000 votes, respectively, out of over 280,000 votes cast in Spokane county and 100,000 votes cast in Benton county. Meanwhile, Trump claimed the majority of rural counties in Washington, with the sole exceptions being a few affluent coastal counties and those hosting college campuses. The growing divide in electoral patterns between urban and rural localities across America has become increasingly apparent in the era of extreme hyperpolarization. In 2008, Obama performed relatively well in rural areas. In Wisconsin, for instance, Obama won 38 out of the state’s 46 rural counties, leaving McCain, his Republican challenger, with only 8. However, in 2020, Biden only won 4 out of Wisconsin’s 46 rural counties, while Trump took the other 42. This represented a net decrease of 34 rural counties for Democrats in just 12 years. Across the country, this pattern played out on election night, with Democrats falling behind in rural areas, while yielding significant margins from urban cores and their outlying suburbs, helping them cross the finish line.
In the 2020 election, the rural-urban divide continued to reflect across the country, including in Washington State.
The 2020 Presidential Election broke turnout records, likely due to its gravity in the minds of voters. According to research by the Pew Research Center, nearly two-thirds of all eligible voters participated in this past election, equating to more than six in ten people of voting age. Nationwide, turnout was 7 percentage points higher than in 2016, even after adjusting for new voters. A pre-election survey administered by the Pew Research Center also revealed that 83% of eligible voters believed that it would “really matter” who won the election, the highest percentage since Pew first started surveying voters.
Education levels significantly influenced the outcome of the election. In more educated regions of America, Biden and the Democrats performed notably better than in less affluent, less educated regions, a phenomenon known as educational polarization. According to exit polling, Biden won White voters with college degrees by 3 percentage points and won all voters with college degrees by 12 percentage points. In contrast, Biden trailed by 2 percentage points among voters without a college degree and lost White voters without a college degree by 35 percentage points. While these patterns likely contributed to Democrats’ success in suburban regions, as voters with college degrees aligned increasingly with Democrats, they also contributed to increasing Republican margins in states across the Rust Belt and Midwest.
Contrary to expectations, Republicans managed to defend and even expand their seats in state legislatures across the country, while Democrats managed to narrowly hold onto their slim majority in the House of Representatives. Both Trump and down-ballot Republicans performed much better than expected in this election. In the House of Representatives, Republicans flipped 15 seats, and in state legislatures across the country, the GOP flipped 79 seats in total.
So, what can we take away from this election? First, Democrats can no longer take the votes of immigrants and people of color for granted. Many immigrants and minority groups, who tend to lean more socially conservative, have been put off by the Democratic Party’s increased liberalization on social issues. Some have also shifted rightwards due to the growing influence of the far-left wing of the Democratic Party, such as Democratic Socialists of America. Many of these immigrant and minority voters originally fled from socialist revolutions, such as the majority Cuban population in Miami or the large community of South Vietnamese emigrées residing in Orange County, California. In many cases, the perceived threat of socialism from the left wing of the Democratic Party, coupled with a widespread belief that Trump was good for the economy, motivated many 2016 Clinton voters from minority groups to overlook the Republican Party’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and switch their vote to Trump in 2020. Furthermore, states that have experienced explosive population growth in recent years, such as Texas, Arizona, and Georgia, primarily situated in the Sun Belt, have shifted leftwards as their suburbs expand while also becoming more educated and racially diverse. Simultaneously, traditionally Republican White suburbanites, especially women, have found Trump’s aggressive rhetoric to be unpalatable. However, in recent years, the Democratic Party has also experienced collapsing support in rural and industrial areas, primarily inhabited by White working-class voters with lower levels of educational attainment. These voters, essential components of the Obama-era coalition, have shifted decisively towards Trump and the GOP, drawn by the modern Republican Party’s populist and nationalistic rhetoric that resonates with their economic struggles amidst a growing unemployment crisis in predominantly blue-collar regions of America. At this point, political pundits and election analysts across America are asking themselves the same question—are the shifts among voters in this election a byproduct of Trump’s unique style of populism, or do they symbolize something far more permanent?