There’s a well-known truth in politics: No one group swings an election.
But that doesn’t mean that the demographic trends bubbling beneath the surface can’t have an outsized effect. Take 2016. President Trump won in large part because he carried white voters without a college degree by a bigger margin than any recent GOP presidential nominee, though there had been signs that this group was shifting rightward for a while.
Likewise in 2018, a strong showing by Democrats in suburban districts and among white voters with a four-year college degree helped the party retake the House, a shift we first saw in 2016 when Trump likely became the first Republican to lose this group in 60 years.2016 national exit poll found Trump narrowly ahead among white voters with a four-year college degree, but estimates from other surveys, such as the Cooperative Congressional Election Study and the Pew Research Center, suggest he lost them.">1 And this is just scratching the surface. In the past few years, we’ve also seen hints that more women voters are identifying as Democrats and that some nonwhite voters might be getting more Republican-leaning.
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The question, then, in 2020 — as it is in every election — is what will the electorate look like this time around? Can we expect a continuation of what we saw in 2016 and 2018, or might some of those trends slow or reverse direction? And, of course, are there any surprises lurking beneath the surface that we haven’t quite identified yet?
We tried to answer this question by comparing data from the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study to 2020 data from Democracy Fund UCLA Nationscape polling conducted over the past month.2 This comparison is hardly perfect — the 2016 CCES data is based on data from people who were confirmed to have actually voted while the UCLA Nationscape data is a large-scale survey of people who say they have voted or will vote, and the two studies use different methodologies, which could lead to differences in what types of voters were reached and how they were weighted. But this is as close as we can get to a direct comparison before the election, and it did allow us to identify some interesting trends.
First off, Democratic nominee Joe Biden is attracting more support than Hillary Clinton did among white voters as a whole — especially white women, older white voters and those without a four-year college degree — which has helped him build a substantial lead of around 10 points, according to FiveThirtyEight’s national polling average. However, Trump is performing slightly better than last time among college-educated white voters, and he has gained among voters of color, especially Hispanic voters and younger Black voters.
White voters made up more than 7 out of 10 voters in the 2016 electorate according to CCES, so any large shifts in their attitudes could greatly alter the electoral calculus. And as the chart below shows, that’s more or less what has happened: Trump’s edge among white voters is around half of what it was in 2016, which could be especially consequential as this group is overrepresented in the states that are most likely to decide the winner of the Electoral College.
One factor driving this is that Biden looks to be doing better than Clinton among white voters without a college degree, a voting bloc that made up close to half of the overall electorate in 2016 and forms a majority of the population in key swing states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.3 While Clinton lost this group by more than 20 points four years ago, Biden is behind by just 12 points in UCLA Nationscape’s polling. This isn’t entirely a surprise: We saw some signs of Biden’s strength with non-college whites in the 2020 Democratic primary, as he did better than Clinton in counties that had larger shares of white Americans without a college degree. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why we’re seeing this, though. One possible explanation is that as an older white man, Biden just resonates more with these voters than Clinton did in 2016, especially considering the role sexism and racism played in voter attitudes in 2016. But it’s also possible that some of these voters are just turned off by Trump after four years with him in the White House.
Take white women. They backed Trump over Clinton in 2016 but were split pretty evenly between the two parties in the 2018 midterms. And now they favor Biden by 6 points in UCLA Nationscape polling, which would be around a 15-point swing toward the Democrats compared to what CCES found for the 2016 race. Trump has also taken a major hit among older white voters. In 2016, he won white voters age 45 or older by more than 20 points, but according to UCLA Nationscape polling, he now leads by only 4 points.
Trump isn’t losing ground among all white voters, though. White men, for instance, look likely to back Trump by around 20 points again. And Trump is also making inroads with college-educated white voters. Trump lost this group by more than 10 points in 2016, and Republican House and Senate candidates lost it by a similar margin in 2018, but Trump may be running closer to even among them now. As FiveThirtyEight’s Perry Bacon Jr. recently noted, many college-educated white voters are Republican-leaning, especially south of the Mason-Dixon line. The question will be whether Trump can attract support from this group nationally, as he’s already essentially got a lock on many Southern states (although maybe not as many Southern states as he’d like). Trump is currently polling at 49 percent among white, college-educated voters in UCLA Nationscape’s polling, and if he stays there, that could help him hold on to battleground states he carried in 2016, such as Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas, where college-educated white voters are more likely to prefer the GOP.
Trump has also gained real ground among nonwhite voters. To be clear, he still trails Biden considerably with these groups, but in UCLA Nationscape’s polling over the past month, he was down by 39 points with these voters, a double-digit improvement from his 53-point deficit in 2016.
While older Black voters look as if they’ll vote for Biden by margins similar to Clinton’s in 2016, Trump’s support among young Black voters (18 to 44) has jumped from around 10 percent in 2016 to 21 percent in UCLA Nationscape’s polling. Black voters remain an overwhelmingly Democratic-leaning constituency, but a notable reduction in their support could still be a problem for Biden.
Notably, young Black voters don’t seem to feel as negatively about Trump as older Black Americans do. For instance, an early-July African American Research Collaborative poll of battleground states found that 35 percent of 18-to-29-year-old Black adults agreed that although they didn’t always like Trump’s policies, they liked his strong demeanor and defiance of the establishment. Conversely, just 10 percent of those 60 and older said the same.
It’s a similar story with younger Hispanic Americans, a group where Trump has also made gains. According to UCLA Nationscape’s polling, Trump is attracting 35 percent of Hispanic voters under age 45, up from the 22 percent who backed him four years ago in the CCES data.
Most notably, even though Trump stands to gain with nonwhite voters across the board, his support seems to have risen the most among Hispanic voters with a four-year college degree. We don’t want to overstate the influence of this group — they make up about 2 percent of the population age 25 and older nationwide — but they are disproportionately concentrated in one especially vital swing state: Florida. In fact, 24 percent of Hispanic Floridians have a college degree, compared to 16 percent of Hispanic adults nationally.4 So even if Trump isn’t doing as well among older white voters, his gains among Hispanic voters, including highly educated ones, could offer a path to victory in the Sunshine State.
One last point on where Trump has made gains among Black and Hispanic voters: He has done particularly well with Black and Hispanic men, which might speak to how his campaign has actively courted them. For instance, the Republican National Convention featured a number of Black men as speakers this year. And Politico talked with more than 20 Democratic strategists, lawmakers, pollsters and activists who explained that many Black and Latino men are open to supporting Trump as they think the Democratic Party has taken them for granted. The same can’t be said of Black and Hispanic women, though, and the gender gap among nonwhite voters is shaping up to be even bigger than it was in 2016. Ninety percent of Black women supported Biden in UCLA Nationscape polling — unsurprising, as this group is arguably the most staunchly Democratic demographic in the electorate — whereas less than 80 percent of Black men did the same. And among Hispanic voters, 64 percent of women backed Biden compared to 57 percent of men.
In the end, elections are all about margins. That means Biden doesn’t necessarily have to win more white voters than Trump to win the election; he just needs to improve on Clinton’s performance four years ago. By the same token, if Trump can do better among nonwhite voters than he did in 2016 — even if he still doesn’t win them outright — that could open a door for him to win if white voters don’t shift toward Biden as much as the polls currently suggest.
But at the moment, the real margin to keep an eye on is Biden’s double-digit lead in the polls. That kind of advantage will be hard to overcome if Trump is merely chipping away at the edges of Biden’s support, especially when so many of Biden’s gains seem to have come at Trump’s expense.