Show Hide image

The 2020 US presidential election in data: how Joe Biden won

The strength of the Democrat's voter coalition lay in its breadth. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman’s Morning Call email.

Joe Biden's presidential win earlier this month was much closer than both the polls and forecasters had foretold. Though almost every state was called correctly  barring North Carolina (by an extremely slim margin) and Florida (by a not-so-slim margin)  the Democratic wins were tight, and the states that they fipped often came down to some fine and very valuable margins. These margins cannot be attributed to Biden’s success among this or that voting bloc, as headline writers might wish. Rather, the data suggests that Biden’s win was the product of gaining ground, and holding firm, among most, if not all, demographic groups.

In 2016, Trump mined America’s white working-class for votes, securing a shock presidential win and upending Democratic majorities in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. He remade the political map, shifting Iowa and Ohio from swing states to solidly Trumpian territory. That was an easier story to tell, particularly as it fit so naturally into a wider global story of organised populism.

The 2020 election, however, is a more complex tale. Biden won by successfully building voter coalitions: turning out enough moderate black voters while also taking white defectors from the Trump camp. This coalition-building gifted Biden important wins not just in the predominantly white Rust Belt regions, but in the more diverse states of Georgia and Arizona too.

A 2020 electoral map of where Americans shifted, and in which direction, therefore presents a visual puzzle. Unlike 2016 or 2008, there is little to no uniform demographic pattern: some of the whitest counties in Pennsylvania swung to Biden at the same time as some of the whitest in Michigan swung  even further  to Donald Trump.

Biden’s victory came down not just to his liberal base, or new young voters, or old white voters, but rather a cocktail of all of these, scraping in enough votes to win where it mattered most. Trump’s strategy, of turning out his base en masse, floundered on Biden small-but-decisive gains among those same groups. 

The chief source of Biden’s gains among white voters, both with and without a college education, were valuable wins, and the chief source of these fertile gains was not the cities, but rather the suburbs and large towns. Valuable though these gains were, they were not necessarily decisive. Biden needed to ensure black voters turned out, too, and in most states they did: the black share of the voting electorate was unchanged on 2016, which proved sufficient.

[See also: What the US election 2020 reveals about America's rust belt]

Part of the reason why Biden’s wins were tighter than polls projected was that white Trump supporters turned out in numbers that were high relative to the rest of the American electorate, albeit marginally so. A recent New York Times analysis of voter turnout in Georgia also found that although black turnout was only two percentage points lower than in 2006, the black share of the electorate was down to its lowest point since 2016. 

This fall in black voter turnout as a share of the voting electorate can be interpreted in two ways. The first is the key point we’ve already discussed: Biden’s success in winning the state of Georgia, and the election as a whole, didn’t come down to one demographic, but all. Bidenland did bank on increased black turnout, and while such an increase did materialise nationwide, turnout among whites increased more.

The second take-away is that Biden’s win in Georgia didn’t require netting more support among black Americans, who overwhelmingly vote Democrat, and have being doing so since exit polling began in the 1970s. Rather, what Biden needed was to keep black turn-out high at the same time as gaining white support elsewhere. He did just that, with blacks falling as a share of the electorate by only two percentage points at the same time as counties with above-average black populations recording swings to Biden. 

Biden's success among black voters in Georgia helps explain why he managed to scrape a win in the Peach State; his failure to do the same in North Carolina helps explain his defeat there. In Georgia, in three of the five counties with the largest black population, Biden made gains on 2016 Democratic tally. In North Carolina, meanwhile, in the five counties with the largest black population in North Carolina, Biden made no gains at all, and instead lost support. 

Likewise, Biden made gains in all of the five Georgian counties with the highest share of voters without a college education, but only in one of the equivalent counties in North Carolina.

The lesson here is simple: the imporatance of voter coalitions. Biden’s big tent win was the consequence of uniting voters of different demographics around his anti-Trump agenda, and for the most part, it worked. His coalition of votes was less liberal than both Hillary Clinton's in 2016 and Barack Obama's in 2012.

[See also: How accurate were the US presidential election polls?]

Exit poll data confirms the breadth of such a broad church. Nearly one in five (17 per cent) of the Georgian voters who eventually plumped for Biden, for instance, hold conseravtive views about abortion. Forty-six per cent of Clinton's voter coalition in the state identified as liberal in 2016. This compares to 42 per cent for Biden in 2020, a fall of four percentage points.

Though only one-in-five of Biden's Georgian coalition is anti-abortion, one-in-five in a tight race is the difference between winning and losing. It’s indicative of Biden being able to appeal not just in liberal counties, but conservative ones, too. One in four of black Americans who lean Democrat do, after all, identify as conservative, and though Democrats have a history with their southern vote being marginally more conservative than the national average, Biden's voter coalition in Georgia is four points less liberal than the one Hillary Clinton harnessed in 2016. Democratic strategists who fancy winning the Georgian run-offs in January 2021 would do well to remember this.

Biden’s successes in both traditionally Republican-leaning Georgia and the whiter, more moderate Pennsylvania is a testament to his ability to appeal to a diverse range of voters, something Hillary Clinton struggled to achieve. He placed closer to the typical American's ideal candidate than Donald Trump, and finished this election campaign with net favourability, which neither of the main candidates managed to attain in 2016.

Biden's win also raises questions as to whether a Democratic candidate banking on turning out just one demographic, be it just the base, or new voters alone, would have been able to defeat Donald Trump. On new voters: seeking to motivate a previously unmotivated section of the electorate, as some on the progressive wing of the party had sought to do in the primaries, is a risky endeavour. The UK Conservative Party has indeed borne the burns of such an assumption, for the disaffected voters which gave victory to the Brexit Leave campaign in 2016 did not, as some Tory strategists had hoped, turn out for Theresa May in 2017. 

The Democrats' victory in the presidential race appears to be the product of a candidate who both motivated his liberal base while not turning off older, whiter, and more moderate and conservative voters. In the run-up to the election, voters backing Biden were doing so more out of repulsion with Trump than enamourment with Biden. By the end of the campaign, such a trend had reversed, and a majority of votes for Biden were just that: for Biden

The diverse nature of the US electorate demands that the Democratic Party appeal not just to its core liberal constituency, but its conservative and more moderate one, too.

 Ben Walker is a data journalist at the New Statesman