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Campaigns and Elections Magazine Op Ed: Two Things The 2020 Exit Polls Can Actually Tell Us

Nov 11, 2020 | By Bradley Honan | Original Article

We know that Joe Biden will be the next president of the United States. We also know that control of the Senate will come down to which side prevails in the two Georgia runoff elections on Jan. 5, 2021, and we know that House Democrats likely lost a net of at least five seats. But with counting and recounting going on, it could be double that number.

We also know thanks to Exit Polls the answer to two critical questions that are central to the aforementioned outcomes, namely:

  1. Who voted in the 2020 election and how did the composition of voters change and evolve from years past?
  2. What was the winning political coalition that Biden assembled?

Despite the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the Exit Polls ended up being pretty comprehensive this year — 8,000 voters were polled on Election Day, at 115 different polling locations across the country, and 5,000 phone interviews were conducted with early and absentee voters – a different methodology than what is typically employed. While the Exit Polls are hardly infallible, they do provide an important stream of data for analysis and interpretation.

The Composition of the 2020 National Electorate:

According to preliminary data reported on by The New York Times, here’s a portrait of the 2020 electorate:  It was split by gender with 53% female and 47% male. The majority were White at 65%, with Latinos and Hispanics representing 13% of the vote and, for the first time ever, outvoting Blacks who represented 12% of the national vote.

The White share of the electorate declined by 6 points compared with 2016 and the non-White share of the electorate increased by 6 points to represent 35% – one of every three voters. These gains were driven by increased voting by Hispanics (+2 points) and “other” racial groups (+3). The decline in the White share of the electorate was slightly more pronounced among women (-4) than among men (-2).

The electorate was split about evenly by income – about one-third make under $50K in terms of household income, about one-third are in households making $50K-$100K, and just under a third have over $100K in household income. The major change from 2016 was an increase of 8 points among the middle-class segment of households, those making $50K-$100K a year, with a decline among the other two groups.

By generation, seniors accounted for 6 percent more votes than they did four years ago, casting almost one of every 4 ballots (22% of the national electorate), while all other age groups declined in percentage terms.

The percentage of the electorate with a college education dropped 6 points, while the number of non-college graduates increased 6 points. Non-Whites with no degrees increased by 6 points, helping put states like Arizona in the Biden column and closing the Democratic gap in Texas.

Moreover, 33% of voters reported having kids under 18 living at home and the number of voters casting ballots who were married dropped 3 points, driven, in particular, by married women.

In terms of geography, 51% of the national electorate lives in a suburb, 30% live in cities of more than 50K people, and 20% live in small cities or rural areas.

By political party, Democrats increased their share of the electorate by only a point, Republicans by two points, and Independents dropped by two points as a share of the electorate.

Ideologically, the national electorate leaned to the center and the right: 40% described themselves as politically moderate, followed by conservatives at 37%, and 24% describe themselves as liberals. Liberals declined in their share of the vote by two points from 2016, moderates were up a point, and conservatives were up by two points over their 2016 share of the vote.

In terms of when voters made their decisions, fewer voters decided who they were voting for in the last week of the campaign (5%) compared with in 2016 (13%), with most voters (72%) deciding about who they would vote for before September, an increase of 12 points from 4 years ago.

The top issues cited by voters were the economy (35%), racial inequality (20%), the coronavirus pandemic (17%), crime and safety (11%) and healthcare policy (11%).

Biden’s Winning Coalition

The popular vote count in 2016 and 2020 makes clear how closely divided politically the country was and remains today. Biden’s margin is larger than Trump’s was in 2016, but it’s still close. Final ballots are of course still being counted, but Biden is ahead right now by a knife’s edge in key states – Biden leads in Georgia by .2 percentage points, Arizona by .6, Wisconsin by .6, and Pennsylvania by .7.

And add to that the fact that Trump received 7.4 million more votes than he received 4 years ago, including 1 million more in Florida alone.

Biden’s success on Election Day was not about having groups like White voters and seniors “flock” to him. Rather, it was about cutting down Trump’s margin with key voter groups – allowing Trump less of an opportunity for him to run up his margin, as he did four years earlier against Hillary Clinton.

Indeed, probably one of the most significant findings in terms of how the political coalitions formed in 2020 was how it centered along racial lines – but not in ways that were anticipated or expected.

The fact of the matter is that the traditional Democratic coalition – younger voters, women, and people of color didn’t create the kind of “wave” that Democrats had hoped for. These groups didn’t show up in significantly greater numbers than they had four years ago. In fact, voters of color actually handed Donald Trump more of their votes than they had four years earlier.

Heading into the 2020 election, the conventional wisdom was that Biden and the Democrats, in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter movement, would achieve an even higher margin among Black voters than Clinton’s mediocre performance of 4 years ago.  However, in fact, the opposite happened.  Biden’s margin among Black men and women fell by 7 points compared with how Hillary Clinton performed, and Biden’s margin was 2 points lower among Latino women and 6 points lower among Latino men than Hillary Clinton achieved. All and all voters of color handed Democrats fewer votes than at any time since 2004.

By contrast, Trump increased his vote share by 4 points among Black voters compared with 4 years ago and also increased his vote share by 4 points among Latinos. Trump won 47% of the Hispanic vote in Florida and 40% of the Hispanic vote in Texas – and no doubt these numbers helped him keep these states from turning blue. All and all, Trump performed better among voters of color than any Republican had since 1960.

As noted above, the White share of the national electorate fell, and Trump carried this demographic group overwhelmingly as the GOP has in every single election since 1968, even increasing his margin among White women by 3 points compared with 2016 and winning them by a margin of 12 points over Biden.

Nevertheless, Biden appears to have made important inroads among the White voters – especially working-class ones – the very ones who proved elusive for Clinton. Indeed, the central premise and value proposition of the Biden campaign was not that “Middle Class Joe from Scranton, Pa.,” would win working class White voters, but rather that he would be able to reduce Trump’s margin among this key group.

Indeed, Biden gained 5 points among White voters, compared with Clinton’s performance. What’s more, Biden reduced Trump’s margins among White men from 31 points against Clinton to 18 points.

Biden won half of men (48%), up from Hillary Clinton’s performance with them in 2016 (41%). In Michigan and Wisconsin, Biden flipped White men without a college degree back into the Democratic column, breaking up Trump’s 2016 coalition and winning them by 10 more points than Clinton had.

And Biden went further by reducing Trump’s margin among White, non-college educated women by 6 points and among White non-college educated men by 11 points.

Making these inroads allowed Biden to seize back the vital “Blue Wall” states — Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — where Trump beat Clinton by a combined total of just 78,000 votes four years ago.

While using the word “realignment” to describe the 2020 election may be overstating the case, college educated voters again firmly supported Biden and the Democrats with 55% of their votes, up 3 points from 2016, while Trump remained even at 42%, exactly the same share of this segment he won four years ago.

By contrast, Trump won White voters with no college degree by a margin of 37 points in 2016 and then again by a margin of 25 points last week. Derek Thompson of The Atlantic has recently coined the phrase “density and diplomas” as the leading indicators for where Democrats perform well.

It’s also worth pointing out the shift that took place among middle of the road voters – they were decisive in the Biden victory and need to play a big role in the Democratic game plan going forward.

Trump won the suburbs in 2016 by 4 points, but lost them by 3 points this go around. Independents voted for Trump by a margin of 4 points in 2016, but Biden won them by a margin of 14 points – the largest margin recorded by any Democratic candidate since Bill Clinton in 1996. Hillary Clinton won moderates in 2016 by 12 points, and Biden won more than twice as many, winning them by 31 points. And with that, so went the election.

In terms of the main issues, Biden won voters most concerned with racial inequality, the virus, and healthcare policy. Trump won voters who were most concerned with the economy and crime and safety.

Bradley Honan is a founding partner of Honan Strategy Group, a Democratic polling, messaging, and data analytics company.