One of the many weird things about the 2020 presidential election is that there was never a moment of big-picture clarity immediately after the count came in. Trump and his Team of Disrupters jumped into wild conspiracy theories based on insanely detailed (if largely made-up) claims involving the closest states. Meanwhile, the usual source for a quick understanding of national elections, the network-sponsored exit polls, were generally ignored. In part that was because of greater awareness of their documented shortcomings in the recent past, and in part because the very high level of voting by mail subverted the basic function of exit polls as a scientific after-the-fact tabulation of how people had already voted (“exit poll” data for by-mail voters was actually derived from a standard phone poll, in a relatively bad year for pollsters).
Since politics abhors a vacuum, particularly in close elections, the absence of authoritative data slicing and dicing the electorate along the usual demographic categories led to the development — via various studies of county-level data and some sheer hunches — of various takes on what happened, and even a bit of a conventional wisdom. As information is released from voter files and census reports, we are now getting a better picture of the actual 2020 election results, and an important new analysis of them has just been released by Pew. It’s of voters validated by voter files, and it provides a fresh and more accurate look at the 2020 fault lines. Since we are nearly eight months from election day, and many interpretations of the results have sunk in, I’ll divide the findings into things we knew (but now know more precisely), things we didn’t know, and things we thought we knew but actually didn’t.
Things we knew (but now know more precisely)
One of the big narratives of the election was that Biden won by making gains among suburban voters, and in the overlapping category of white voters with college degrees. The Pew numbers show that even more strongly, with Biden winning suburbanites 54-43 (the exits showed a narrower 50-48 margin), as compared to a Trump advantage of 47-45 in 2016; and white college-educated voters 57-42 (again, the exits show a narrower 51-48 Biden win). Notably, Pew had Biden improving on his party’s 2018 midterm congressional performance in the suburbs, which was the dominant story of that election.
It was widely reported that Trump repeated his boffo 2016 performance among white non-college voters in 2020. But Pew confirms Biden reduced the Republican margin in that demographic from 36 to 32 points.
Perhaps the biggest storyline from 2020 among Republican spinmeisters was that Trump cut into expected Democratic margins among Latinos, despite his long and recently intensified nativist rhetoric and occasional anti-Latino racism. The exits showed him winning a third of Latinos. But Pew showed Biden winning them 59-38, a margin of only 21 points, as compared with Clinton’s 38-point margin in 2016, and the Democratic congressional margin of 47 points in 2018.
Things we didn’t know
The initial analysis of the results suggested the kind of gender gap we have seen in so many recent elections. The exits showed a 23-point gap (Trump winning men 53-45 and Biden winning women 57-42) close to the 26 point gap in 2016. But Pew’s numbers show the gender gap being cut in half since 2016, with Trump winning men 50-48 and Biden winning women 55-44.
There was at least one under-discussed surprise on the age front as well, though the exits did capture this one: Biden’s margin among under-30 voters (59-35) was six points lower than Clinton’s in 2016 (58-28), and a shocking 25 points lower than the margins won by congressional Democrats in 2018 (72-23). Similarly, both Pew and the exits showed a modest Trump win among seniors (down from his nine-point margin among them in 2016), but it was impressive when you consider Biden’s regular leads among over-65 voters in nearly all the polls for months.
There were two small surprises in terms of religious affiliation. Joe Biden cut Trump’s margin among white Catholics (57-42) by more than half from 2016 (64-31), and nearly tied Trump among Catholics generally. Yes, Joe Biden is a white Catholic, but in today’s polarized ideological and partisan climate, that might not have made much difference. Meanwhile, there was a lot of speculation during the campaign that Trump was losing altitude with white Evangelicals, his strongest large constituency. In the end he won them 84-15, an improvement over his 77-16 margin in 2016.
Things we thought we knew but didn’t
One apparent “surprise” that was hyped to high heaven by Team Trump was his alleged “breakthrough” among Black voters. The exits showed him doubling his support in this demographic, albeit from an anemic 6 percent in 2016 to 12 percent in 2020. That was still an impressive improvement for the candidate of neo-Confederates everywhere, running on the thinly veiled racism of attacks on “rioters” and other threats to suburban neighborhoods. The 19 percent the exits gave to Trump among Black men was even more eyebrow-raising.
Pew’s validated numbers show Trump getting 8 percent of the Black vote, a much smaller boost, with Biden actually increasing Clinton’s share of that vote. Biden’s 60-point margin among Black men in the exits grew to 75 points in the Pew data. Not quite a Republican breakthrough.
Just as you can’t take the politics out of politics, you can’t take the spin out of post-election analysis, particularly if informative breakdowns of the results are slow to arrive. But we now know enough to have an educated guess at the trends we are likely to see in 2022 and 2024, particularly if Biden and Trump are the candidates.