David Lauter | July 2, 2021
The past week of posturing over the infrastructure deal that the White House negotiated with a bipartisan group of senators illustrates the difficult balancing act that has defined President Biden‘s tenure: Placate centrists and risk alienating progressives; nod to the left and risk attack from Republicans.
So far, Biden has navigated the tightrope more successfully than a lot of people expected. Despite an evenly divided Senate, a paper-thin majority in the House and a divided Democratic caucus, there’s a good chance that sometime this fall, he’ll win passage of roughly $1 trillion to fix the nation’s roads, bridges, water pipes and other infrastructure as well as an even larger plan to expand support for families with children, widen availability of healthcare, combat climate change and raise taxes on large corporations and the wealthiest Americans.
But as new data on last year’s presidential election show, the balancing act isn’t likely to go away — it’s built into the voter coalition that elected Biden president last year.
Biden’s victory required overwhelming support from Black voters — he won their backing 92% to 8%, according to the new numbers from the Pew Research Center. He also did even better than the party’s 2016 nominee, Hillary Clinton, among voters on the left, winning 98% of those who identify themselves as liberal Democrats. And he solidified his party’s support among voters in the millennial generation and Generation Z, who together gave 58% of their votes to Biden — a potentially crucial base for Democrats in the future as the Baby Boomers and older generations decline as a share of the electorate.
But alone, those gains would not have sufficed because former President Trump pushed up his vote among his core supporters to levels many Democrats did not think possible and was able to gain support from Latino voters.
Stronger showing among white men
To gain his victory, Biden outperformed Clinton among groups to the right of the average Democratic activist. He gained significant ground among white men, including some gains among the blue-collar white men who form the strongest part of Trump’s support. He also won 54% of suburban voters, a 9-point improvement over Clinton, and took a solid majority of independents, a group that split down the middle in 2016, Pew’s numbers show.
Those new numbers provide the latest in a growing mass of data that can help us understand why the last election turned out the way it did.
In the hours immediately after an election, exit polls provide information about which groups voted for which candidate. They’re fast and provide important information that helps the television networks make accurate calls on election night. But they have serious shortcomings, including a well-documented tendency to over-count college-educated voters.
Years ago, the exit polls were virtually the only game in town. Now, however, the sources of data have expanded. In April, the Census released its data on who voted, although it does not ask which candidate a person favored. There are also academic studies such as the Cooperative Congressional Election Study and the long-running American National Election Study from the University of Michigan and work from partisan groups like the Democratic firm Catalist, which issued an important analysis of election data in May.
Pew’s analysis of 2020 began with an online survey of 11,818 U.S. adults conducted in November. In the months since, Pew researchers carefully matched the people in that survey with the lists of who voted that each state publicly provides once the election is over. The matching yielded 9,668 people who are known to have voted — “validated voters,” as pollsters refer to them.
Because Pew did similar validated voter studies in 2016 and 2018, they can compare the three elections to see what has changed over time.
In this election, which set turnout records, Trump and Biden each held onto the vast majority of the voters who sided with their party in 2016, Pew and the other analyses have found. That underscores a basic fact of current politics: Whatever divisions exist within each party, they’re dwarfed by the widening gulf between the parties.
Party switchers exist, but not in great numbers. What is more numerous are sporadic voters. About 1 in 4 of the people who voted in 2020 had not voted four years ago, either because they were too young or because they weren’t motivated. The two candidates pulled very different types of new voters to the polls, the Pew survey found.https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/4660H/1/
With the notable exception of Latinos, Trump’s new voters largely reinforced his existing areas of strength. For example, he managed to squeeze out even more white, evangelical Protestants than he had in 2016 — boosting his vote among them from 77% against Clinton to 84% in 2020, Pew’s numbers show. White evangelicals make up just under 1 in 5 voters overall, but were more than one-third of Trump’s voters.
Another, perhaps related, area where Trump gained ground was among white women who did not graduate from college. In 2016, Trump beat Clinton 56% to 33% among them. Last year, Trump pushed his vote among that group to 64%. Biden got 35%, roughly the same as Clinton. Both candidates were able to gain because third-party voting, which was unusually high in 2016, declined sharply in 2020.
And, as previously noted, Trump did better in 2020 among Latino voters, especially those without college degrees. Some Republican strategists see that as an indicator that Latino voters in this decade are following the same path that white voters took earlier — with the college-educated moving to the Democrats and non-college voters to the GOP. One election doesn’t prove a trend, but at minimum, last year’s results put both parties on notice that many Latino voters are up for grabs.https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/Z83qd/1/
In 2020, Biden countered Trump’s gains by outperforming Clinton among men, especially white men, as well as suburbanites and independents.
Biden significantly narrowed Trump’s margin among married men, a group that has given strong support to Republicans for years. In 2016, Trump won that group by 30 points. In 2020, Biden cut down that edge, with Trump winning the group 54% to 44%.
Among white men, Biden gained across the board. White men with a college education were a Republican mainstay into the 1990s. By 2016, enough had moved to the Democrats to make an almost even split. Last year, they went for Biden by 10 points in Pew’s data.
Biden also managed to improve over Clinton among white men without a college degree, Pew found. Those blue-collar white voters remained Trump’s strongest group — he won 66% of their votes in 2020, but that was down from the 73% he got against Clinton. Biden won 31% — not a lot by any means, but enough to make the difference between defeat and victory in northern industrial swing states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Biden traveled to Wisconsin this week, campaigning for his legislative priorities, especially the infrastructure package. It’s no accident that he and his aides stress constantly that most of the jobs the legislation is projected to generate would not require a college degree.
Some progressive Democrats consider that deal inadequate. They’ve pushed for Biden to go further. The president agrees with the progressives on the merits on several issues, and for Democrats to hold their own in coming elections, he needs to keep progressives motivated.
At the same time, as the two parties ready their campaigns for the midterm, both will devote huge resources to sway the loyalties of suburbanites and independents, many of whom are more skeptical of big federal spending programs and worried about potential inflation, as recent polls have shown.
Facing such conflicting preferences from key parts of his coalition, Biden won’t be able to retire the balancing act anytime soon.