By Jonathan Robinson
Interactive Data Visualizations by Justine D'Elia-Kueper, Chase Stolworthy, and Sarah Grant. Edited by Aaron Huertas, Yair Ghitza, and Meg Schwenzfeier. Site design by Melissa Amarawardana.
We'd like to thank our partners whose insights and contributions have been invaluable in making sense of the 2020 election. Further, this report would not have been possible without the dedication of many on the Catalist team, whose hard work maintaining this national database is paramount to our ability to produce these reports.1We would like to particularly thank Molly Norton, Maggie Dart-Padover, Peter Casey, Sarah Grant, Alan Julson, Anna Thorson, Jesse Zlotoff, Andres Cremisini, Hersh Gupta, Matt Zetkulic, Anna Baringer, Russ Rampersad, Dan Buttrey, Marguerita ten Houten, Jordan Tessler, Mary Toole, John Kim, Erin Thomas, and Nicholas Petrone in particular for their many important contributions to this project.
Additionally, we thank Ola Topczewska, Julie Laliberte, Barry Burden, and Charles Franklin as well as other in-state experts in Wisconsin and Nevada who reviewed the early draft findings of this report and whose feedback was invaluable in producing these analyses.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the 2020 election with 52% of the two-party vote nationally, building a multi-racial coalition that brought millions of new voters into the electorate. But that winning coalition looks different in battleground states based on both the demographic composition of the states themselves as well as important differences in how campaigns and voter outreach organizations invest in and treat potential voters in battleground states.
Catalist’s national-level What Happened analysis for 2020 focuses on what we can glean from our voter file at the national level. But battleground states differ demographically and politically from the country as a whole. By supplementing our national analysis with reliable, state-level data we can shed light on these distinctions.
When comparing these results to our national What Happened analysis — and even comparing changes across years and groups — we caution readers that statistical analysis of smaller populations and subpopulations come with higher levels of uncertainty.2Because Catalist data relies on both voter files and polling data, it does not use traditional margin-of-error reporting that many public polls do. These considerations are discussed further in the national What Happened analysis. These uncertainties are larger at the state level. Catalist’s approach is a pooled model, meaning estimates are derived from national models, granular election results, survey data in states, demographic modeling, and other building blocks.
In our analysis, we pay close attention to each states’ unique administrative data regimes, in particular the idiosyncrasies of different jurisdictions’ voter files.3Nevada, for instance, tracks a voter’s party affiliation in their voter file, along with other standard information such as age. Wisconsin, on the other hand, does not collect party affiliation data. Further, the state used to publicly report voters’ date of birth but stopped doing so several years ago. As a result, only about 60% of active registered Wisconsin voters in our database have state-provided information on age. In our case, that 60% comes from historical voter files and other administrative data sources, while another 25% comes from commercial sources and other states' voter files (among other sources), and for the 15% where we have none of that information, we model this demographic information in much the same way that we model demographics such as race, education, and marital status that don’t show up in most voter files. Broadly, the less partisan information the voter file contains, the less precisely models can project election results and the more uncertain our estimates are. Readers should be mindful of these concerns as well as small sample sizes where estimates within and over time may be more volatile and less reliable than in national data.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won Nevada by 2.5 points and fewer than 34,000 votes. By comparison, Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine won the state by 2.5 points and 27,000 votes — but their two-party vote share stayed almost exactly the same, even as Biden improved on Clinton’s national popular vote margin.
These relatively similar results obscure important changes in Nevada’s electorate since 2016. Turnout for the major two-party candidates increased from 1.05 million voters to 1.37 million, a 30% increase.
As we laid out in our national report, Nevada stands out as having the highest portion of first-time voters (21%) and new presidential voters (17%) of any battleground state, closely followed by other growing Sunbelt states such as Arizona, Texas, Georgia, and Florida.
Despite Biden and Harris over-performing the 2016 ticket nationally, Nevada is one of only two states (Florida is the other) where Democrats lost ground or performed just as well in terms of their final vote margin compared to 2016.
In many ways, Nevada encapsulates some of the most conventional-wisdom-defying aspects of the 2020 election cycle, with dramatic increases in turnout and a rapidly diversifying electorate resulting in a similarly narrow victory in the state.
Table 1: Nevada Electorate Composition by Race + Education for Nevada
Nevada's Growing Diversity
Over the past decade-plus, voters of color increased their share of the electorate across the board in Nevada by eight points, as shown above in Table 1, going from 28% of the electorate to 36% since 2008. By comparison, this shift was just 5% nationally over the same period.4These racial and educational categories are commonly used in voter analysis based on the U.S. voting age population. The Other category includes voters who are multi-racial or Native American, among other groups.
Figure 1: Increase in Number of Votes by Race, 2016-2020
Turnout increased for every group of voters, as is shown in Figure 1. AAPI voters, in particular, saw the biggest turnout jump in Nevada, as they did nationally. In Nevada, 56% of these voters cast ballots for Biden and Harris compared to 67% nationally.
Among AAPI voters, the increase in votes was substantial and larger than any other group, with an increase of nearly 45% over 2016, nearly 6 percentage points higher than nationally. According to the AAPI Data and APIA Vote 2020 State factsheet, the largest AAPI ethnic groups in the state are Filipinos, followed by Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Indian Americans. While we do have various measures to predict ethnicity for direct voter contact and outreach, we do not have a probabilistic model for use in our analysis in the same way we do for other demographics at this time. We are able, however, to link AAPI voters to the Census geographies they reside in and categorize the ethnic context AAPI voters reside in using a simple heuristic based on the plurality AAPI ethnicity in those geographies according to data from the American Community Survey.5We did something quite similar in our national report by analyzing the same context around geographies to categorize Latino voters into different ethnic groups to examine how those groups shifted their support from Hillary Clinton in 2016 to Joe Biden in 2020. Here we are doing the same thing, but instead, we examine if the percent increase in votes from 2016 to 2020 was significantly higher among AAPI voters who live in areas where the AAPI population is predominantly Filipino or Chinese American.
In Figure 2, we examine Nevada’s nearly 700 Census tracts to identify which groups of AAPI voters grew the most in their turnout. The groups that grew faster than the national increase in AAPI votes from 2016 to 2020 were Filipino, Vietnamese, and Chinese Americans, who all grew by more than 40% compared to 2016, with Japanese, Korean, and Indian Americans following on with lower vote growth rates of around 30 percent.
Figure 2: Growth in AAPI Voters in Nevada
Bar width is proportional to group size among AAPI voters in the state
Nationally, we found that Latino voters remained highly supportive of the Democratic ticket, at 63% vote share, but a combination of new voters from increased turnout and vote switching led to a decline in support levels from 2016, when Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine captured 71% of the Latino vote. In Nevada, the decline in support levels among Latino voters was about the same as nationally. However, Nevada is more Latino than the rest of the nation: 16% of 2020 voters in Nevada are Latino, compared to just 10% nationally. Losing ground with these voters contributed significantly to the narrow result, especially in relative terms, since Joe Biden outperformed Hillary Clinton’s vote share in every state in the country except in Nevada and Florida. At the same time, Latino turnout as a proportion of the Citizen Voting Age Population increased in Nevada at a similar rate to its increase nationally, going from 45 to 51%, a 6 point gain in turnout, translating into a 35% increase in the raw number of votes cast by Latino voters from 2016.
Which Latino voters shifted the most toward Republicans from 2016 to 2020? One surprising feature of the 2020 election is that the subsets of Latino voters who swung away from Democrats tended to be the ones that are more likely to support Democrats overall: younger Latinos, Latinas, and Latinos without a four-year college degree. For example, we found that Latino voters under the age of 30 swung 9 points away from Democrats compared to 2016 (but still supported Joe Biden with 67% of the vote) while Latino voters over the age of 65 only shifted 3 points (and supported Joe Biden with 57% of the vote). We see similar-sized swings among Latino voters without a four-year college degree, who swung 10 points toward Republicans, compared to just 5 points for college-educated Latinos.
Most surprising was the swing in support from 2016 to 2020 broken out by gender, which we display in Figure 3. While Latinas in Nevada are more supportive of Democrats in general than Latino men, we see that from 2016 to 2020 Democratic support levels declined 6 points for Latino men compared to 11 points for Latinas. That fall in support occurred more gradually between 2016 and 2020 for women, with 5 points of the decline in support coming between 2016 and 2018, and 6 points between 2018 and 2020, while for Latino men, we estimate support actually grew for this group from 2016 to 2018 and then fell 8 points from 2018 to 2020, leading to the 6 point drop when compared to the 2016 baseline. These year-over-year trends do not get at the exact reasons why Latino voters shifted their votes from 2016 to 2020, but the 2018 shifts away from the Democratic Party suggest that explanations should account for the 2016 to 2018 shifts in addition to any unique pandemic, economic, and campaign conditions in 2020. For instance, many analysts have focused on employment and reopening as a campaign issue in 2020, suggesting it might have had higher salience with Latino voters. But the Latina shift away from Democrats, in particular, started in 2018, when the labor market was booming. Overall, these data suggest we should not see the 2020 results as a fluke, but as part of a multi-cycle trend.
Figure 3: Support for Democrats Among Latino Voters Overall and by Gender 2012-2020
Importantly, these trends are in line with our national data as well as other high-quality examinations of the Latino vote such as the Latino Decisions Latino Election Eve Poll and Equis Research’s 2020 post-mortem, which we show in Table 2. While these analyses don’t align on the exact amount of shifting due to differences in research methodology, statistical weighting, and research design, they all suggest that Latinas shifted more against Democrats as a group from 2016 to 2020 relative to other Latino voters.6Equis’s public post mortem presentation didn’t examine vote choice in particular but did explore changes from the beginning of the election cycle in 2019 to the end of 2020 in Trump approval and also found that Latinas shifted more toward being favorable to President Trump than Latino men did.
Table 2: National Comparisons of Measures of Change in Support for Democrats (Latino Decisions & Equis Research)
According to our data, if Latino support had stayed stable from 2016 to 2020 at 69%, Democrats would have won the state by about 55,000 votes rather than 35,000, increasing Biden’s two-way vote share by almost 2 percentage points.
When weighing why these changes in Latino voting patterns occurred, it’s difficult to arrive at exact answers, but it’s worth remembering that newly activated voters are understandably not as politicized as demographically similar consistent voters. As we noted in our national report:
With such a large number of new Latino voters in the electorate, it is plausible that they drove a big part of the change in Latino’s overall support numbers. As marginal voters enter into the electorate, their partisan preferences may move closer to a 50 / 50 split naturally... Thus far, in our own data and others’, we have seen mixed evidence on this point, and we think it necessitates much further exploration.
Nevada is an interesting case for revisiting this topic. Turnout increases among Latinos were larger in Nevada than they were nationally, but the vote shift from 2016 to 2020 in the state was just as big as it was nationally, despite an explosion of new voters, especially among Latinos. It’s possible that some marginal voters in Nevada were more Democratic than new Latino voters were nationally or that a lot less vote switching may have occurred in the state among more consistent Latino voters. Our data is not able to distinguish between these two points, but it is worth emphasizing given the discussion among political analysts about the causes of shifts in the political preferences of Latinos in the 2020 election.
An incredible influx of new voters
Nearly 40% of voters in Nevada had never voted in the state before. 17% of them were entirely new, first-time voters.7New voters are defined as never having voted in an even year general election in Catalist’s national vote history database going back to 2008, both due to lack of eligibility to vote as well as being eligible but choosing to not vote in any of those elections. Another 21% were new to voting in Nevada, meaning they had a record of voting in another state, but had moved to the Silver State before voting in 2020. This was by far the highest number of new voters casting ballots in a state in the country. Some of this is due to population change since Nevada is growing quite fast and also attracts lots of in-migration from other states, while others are due to the state’s unique demographic profile.
Demographically, who are these voters? In Table 3, we examine them based on age and race. We can see that they are much more diverse and younger than voters who had voted in the state in 2016, consistent with a profile of voters who have higher mobility and lower rates of homeownership.
Only 8% of returning 2016 voters in 2020 in Nevada were under the age of 30, while 28% of new voters belong to that demographic group. Further, 67% of returning 2020 voters in Nevada were white, which was only the case for 58% of new voters.
Table 3: New and Return Nevada Voters by Age and Race
|Demographic||New Voters||Return Voters|
Nevada mirrors national trends
Growing educational and urban/rural divides among white voters
White voters in Nevada closely followed national averages for turnout and vote choice, with white college voters shifting toward Democrats by 4 points and Biden and Harris gaining among white non-college voters by half a percentage point relative to 2016. However, despite the cycle-over-cycle changes mirroring what we see nationwide, white voters in Nevada are different, in partisan terms, from white voters nationally. As we see when we compare numbers from Table 4, below, to numbers from our national report, 2020 white non-college voters in Nevada were 3 percentage points more Democratic than white non-college voters nationally, while white college-educated voters were almost 5 percentage points less Democratic than that same group.
Nevada is a relatively urban state, with only 15% of voters residing in rural areas and more than 70% of voters residing in Clark County, which contains Las Vegas. Nevertheless, the Biden/Harris ticket overperformed more in rural and suburban areas compared to 2016. In Figure 4, we replicate a chart we produced for our national report showing this at more granular levels of population density than categorizing geographies as urban, suburban, or rural. This chart shows precincts sorted by population density along with the percentage change in Democratic vote share and the percentage change in voters of color from 2016 to 2020.
In Nevada, a good chunk of Democrats’ improvements in these areas has come as many suburban and some rural areas have gotten more diverse, though this was not the case in urban areas, which got even more diverse but also saw declines in support for Joe Biden compared to 2016. In Figure 4, we show precincts sorted by population density along with the percentage change in Democratic vote share and the percentage change in voters of color from 2016 to 2020.
Table 4: Support for Democratic candidates, 2012-2020 in Nevada
|Race||2012||2016||2018||2020||2016 to 2020|
|White College Grad||46%||46%||49%||49%||+3.3%|
Figure 4: Change in Democratic Support in Nevada by Population Density
Dramatic increases in mail voting
Nevada was one of a few states that sent mail ballots to all active voters as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As expected, this measure dramatically increased the number of people who ultimately voted by mail, more so than in states that require voters to request an absentee ballot. According to the 2016 Election Administration and Voting Survey, only 6% of Silver State voters cast absentee ballots, while official state turnout statistics show that 48% of all ballots cast in 2020 were cast absentee, a dramatic increase of 42 percentage points.
In Table 5, we detail the differences in the demographic compositions of who voted absentee in Nevada and how it changed from 2016 to 2020. Absentee voters in 2020 were younger, going from about half that were over the age 65 in 2016 to only a third in 2020 while also being nearly 25-net points more Democratic and significantly more racially diverse than in 2016.
Table 5: Nevada Absentee Voters by Age, Party, and Race, 2016-2020
48% of all ballots cast in 2020 were cast absentee, a dramatic increase of 42 percentage points.
Making sense of the electorate
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