Preliminary Answers to Critical Questions About the 2020 Presidential Election

Impatient inquiring American minds want to know:

  • Who were part of the 74.2 million citizens that voted for Donald Trump, 11.2 million more than he received in 2016?
  • Who were part of the 81.2 million citizens that voted for Joe Biden, 15.3 million more than Clinton got four years ago?
  • Which voting groups were most important to securing Biden’s victory and Trump’s defeat?

While we’re months away from having the detailed data required to definitively answer these questions, this analysis attempts to satisfy our collective impatience by developing some preliminary conclusions using currently available information. First, I estimated 2020 presidential vote counts for different voter demographic categories based on exit polls conducted by Edison Research for the New York Times. Then, to examine changes from the 2016 presidential election, I produced comparable estimates using data from a comprehensive Pew Research Center study that showed how voters were distributed across the same demographic items four years ago.(1) Finally, after describing which voting groups were most helpful to both major party presidential candidates in 2020, I isolated the key determinants of Trump’s electoral results and Biden’s superior performance.

Before proceeding, however, we should note three important characteristics of the 2020 presidential election:

  1. Third-party voting dropped from 7.8 million in 2016 to 3.0 million, enabling both Biden and Trump to benefit from this heightened alignment with the two major parties.
  2. 158.6 million American citizens voted, the largest number in American electoral history and the largest increase (almost 24 million) ever recorded from one presidential election to the next. Both Biden and Trump benefitted significantly from this increased participation.
  3. The demography of the American electorate in 2020 changed materially from 2016 as a result of the unprecedented increase in the number of votes cast. As we’ll see below, Biden and Trump were both advantaged and disadvantaged by these changes.

The different demographic profiles of the 2016 and 2020 electorates are in Table 1 below.

Table 1. Composition of the Electorate, 2016 and 2020

Note that voters in 2020 were younger and more of color than their 2016 counterparts, as well as more masculine, Christian, educated, affluent, and urban. Especially significant is the increased presence of White Evangelicals, upper income citizens, and city dwellers, as well as the diminished presence of lowest income voters, White voters generally, seniors, and citizens living in rural areas. Note also the drop in the number of voters identifying as political independents or adherents of minor parties, reflecting how more citizens elected to side with one of the major party candidates in 2020.

With this increased voter participation, diminished third party voting, and changed electoral demography as context, we can begin to answer the questions posed at the top of this essay.

Table 2 below describes which voter categories contributed to the 74.2 million votes Donald Trump received in 2020, 11.2 million more than he got in 2016. As expected with the large increase in overall participation, Trump saw increased support in most demographic categories. Two, however, were remarkable increases: White Evangelicals came out for Trump in even larger droves than they did in 2016, and his support from voters with incomes over $100,000 exploded in November 2020. He also received noticeably more votes from college educated voters and urban dwellers (both probably because they are highly correlated with income) and men. But he actually lost votes from key constituencies like seniors, those with incomes under $50,000, and voters in rural areas. Trump also did poorly among political independents. He picked up an estimated 6.8 million votes from citizens who hadn’t voted in 2016 and another couple million from those who had voted for one of the minor party candidates. And although much has been said about the gains Trump made among voters of color, these increases were off very small 2016 amounts and actually contributed little to the number of votes he received in 2020.

Table 2. Number and Change in Votes (in Millions) for Trump, 2016 and 2020

In comparison, Table 3 below describes which voter categories contributed to the 81.2 million votes Joe Biden received in 2020, 15.3 million more than Hillary Clinton got in 2016. Again, as expected with the large increase in overall participation, Biden saw increased support in almost all of the demographic categories. One, however, is extraordinary: the increase in the number of votes he received from citizens in the middle income category. Biden also got noticeably more votes from both non-college and college educated voters, men as well as women, younger Millennials and Gen X-ers, and suburbanites. Like Trump, he lost votes among lowest income voters, but he did as well with seniors and rural voters as Clinton did four years ago. In addition to picking up votes from political independents, Biden also got almost five million new votes from those who supported minor party candidates in 2016 — and an impressive 10.5 million new votes from citizens who hadn’t participated in that election. He did fine among voters of color and surprisingly well among the White Evangelicals that flooded into the electorate.

Table 3. Number of Votes (in Millions) for Clinton (2016) and Biden (2020)

But which voting groups were most important to securing Biden’s victory and Trump’s defeat? This question can be addressed by looking at the net differences between the previously described vote increases for Biden and Trump in each of the demographic categories. For example, Trump saw a 12.7 million vote increase among White Evangelicals from 2016, while Biden saw an increase of 6.3 million votes from the same group — a net contribution favorable to Trump of an impressive 6.4 million votes. In another example, Trump saw an increase of 8.3 million votes from college educated citizens, while Biden experienced a 7.7 million vote increase from the same group — a net contribution, also favorable to Trump, of only 0.6 million votes. After completing these calculations for the other demographic categories, the net contributions at or above two million votes were ranked for both candidates as shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1. Net Significant Contributions Favorable to Trump and Biden, 2016–2020 (Net Votes in Millions)

These data clearly indicate why Biden won and Trump lost. Most startling is simply the number of bars showing substantial increased support for each candidate from the different voting groups: 10 for Biden compared to 3 for Trump. Biden not only got significant additional contributions from Blacks and women, key elements of the Democratic Party’s base, but also from sources beyond this base: independent voters, citizens without college degrees, seniors, suburbanites, third-party voters, and new or irregular electoral participants. In contrast, Trump’s significant additional contributions were limited to the White Evangelicals in his base and higher income voters, most of whom probably live in the urban areas that also showed him increased support. The data describe how Biden’s broad appeal and Trump’s narrow strategy were likely instrumental in determining the outcome of this presidential election at the national level.

Moreover, the two largest bars in the chart suggest that a very serious divide is developing between American citizens in the middle and upper income categories while those in the lowest category fade from the electoral scene. This divide and fade may reflect the different effects of, and responses to, the Covid pandemic, which may have caused more upper income citizens to favor attempts to boost the economy over management of the pandemic, more middle income citizens to prioritize pandemic management and economic relief initiatives, and more lowest income citizens to watch their lives just spiral further out of control. Yet the divide and fade might also reflect what the Covid pandemic has only further exposed: the extreme income inequality that’s developed in American society over the last forty years. While so much attention has been focused on the “culture war” seething beneath the surface of American politics, the preliminary conclusions presented in this analysis suggest that a potentially more dangerous class war may be taking shape as well. A lot more data should be examined, however, before we start looking for the barricades to go up in the streets.

Edward Hamburg serves on the boards of directors of high technology companies. He received a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago.

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