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.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.
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.