College-educated white women shifted decisively to the Democrats in the 2020 election, joining forces with African-American women and Latinas to deliver Joe Biden and running mate Kamala Harris the White House, according to an analysis of election data.
Preliminary estimates suggest the Biden-Harris margin among white women with college degrees widened to an average of 22 points. This represents a big change from 2012, when they were fairly evenly split between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, according to a voter database from Catalist, a progressive data organisation. They shifted Democratic to Hillary Clinton in 2016, but only by single-digit margins, and only during the 2018 midterms did the Democrats begin winning among this group by double-digits.
“It was black women, Latinas and college-educated white women that carried the day for Democrats,” said Anna Sampaio, a professor of political science and ethnic studies at Santa Clara University. Not only did women of colour and college-educated white women vote for the Democrats, they “did a tonne of work as organisers, fundraisers and making sure people turned out”, she said.
The contest between Mr Biden and Mr Trump was in part, a battle between male and female voters — with more men supporting the president and more women backing his challenger.
The overall gender gap was somewhere between 8 and 12 points, according to various sources. A gender gap of 8 points would be about average, while a 12-point gap would be close to a historic high. Experts are wary of drawing conclusions from the preliminary data due to flaws in exit polls and the difficulties presented by the pandemic in accurately surveying the electorate this year.
Yet some trends are clear.
“Trump support among women stayed consistent among non-college educated white women and evangelical women,” said Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics. White women without college degrees voted for Mr Trump with a margin of between 14 and 27 points, according to various election surveys the organisation has compiled.
Within the Black and Latino communities, men and women both overwhelmingly supported Mr Biden; the gap was a matter of degree.
The reasons the gender gap persists across many demographics are complex, but the fact that it does is “a ringing endorsement that gender matters”, said Ms Sampaio. “It matters in people’s experiences in life, their political lens, how they interact with and perceive the party and their platforms and policies”.
For example, researchers have suggested that sexism and racism could go a long way towards explaining vote patterns in 2016.
Political scientists Brian Schaffner, Matthew MacWilliams and Tatishe Nteta found that white voters they measured as holding more racist and sexist attitudes were more likely to say they voted for Mr Trump over Mrs Clinton in 2016, even accounting for factors such as partisanship, education and ideology, using data from the Co-operative Election Study (CES), a series of large-scale election surveys.
To test the extent to which racism and sexism came into play this year, Mr Schaffner, a political-science professor at Tufts University and co-director of the CES, re-ran the analysis using 2020 data.
“What I’m seeing in the data so far is that sexism is a much less strong predictor of 2020 vote choice,” he said, while “racism has the exact same effect.”
The muted effect of sexism, combined with the fact that both candidates were male, implies that Mrs Clinton’s gender was a big factor in how people voted in 2016, he said.
While certain segments of white voters may have moved closer to Mr Biden, preliminary data suggests that some Latino voters turned towards Mr Trump, particularly in areas such as Miami-Dade, Florida, and Texas’s Rio Grande Valley. Asian American voters also appear to have shifted slightly right.
According to election eve surveys by Latino Decisions and Asian American Decisions, 70 per cent of Latino voters backed Mr Biden compared with 79 per cent who voted for Mrs Clinton in 2016. Similarly, in 2020 Mr Biden won 68 per cent of Asian Americans compared with 75 per cent who supported Mrs Clinton in 2016. Asian American women and men voted for Mr Biden at similar percentages, while the gender gap persisted among Latino voters. Among Black voters, some surveys suggest Mr Trump made gains with men, although they are less consistent on this point.
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Regardless of any slight shifts, “these are three groups that voted overwhelmingly for Biden,” said Henry Fernandez, principal of the African American Research Collaborative, a survey company that also worked on the American election eve poll. “If you get 10 more votes [among non-white voters], seven or nine of them are going to Biden.”
Mr Trump’s small gains among non-white voters of both genders illustrate the folly of putting voters of colour into broad racial groups. Cuban American and Venezuelan American voters, for instance, by-and-large increased their support for Mr Trump as the president cast himself as the anti-socialism candidate, as did Vietnamese Americans, who according to the election eve survey tended to vote more Republican than Indian Americans, for example. At the same time, increased turnout among Arizona’s predominately Mexican-American communities translated into more votes for Mr Biden.
“Gender, geography and national origin complicate our understanding of minority voters,” said Gary Segura, co-founder of Latino Decisions, during a recent panel on the American election eve poll.
It was telling, said Ms Sampaio, that Mr Trump could make gains among Latino voters in those areas, in part due to outreach and mobilisation, “even given the past four years of derision and policy choices, even given that context”. Nearly half of Latino and Asian American voters said on the American election eve poll that they had never been contacted by either party.
She also noted the record numbers of women of colour who will serve in Congress, including Latina women from both parties.
“At least some part of the Republican party has realised that they need to walk away from this targeted strategy of derision and need to move towards being more inclusive,” she said.