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The prevailing narrative of the last five years has been that Trump seized and maintains power by appealing to the desires of white voters and men (and especially, white men) to preserve the patriarchy and white supremacy. However, it seems difficult to square these talking points with the preliminary exit poll data from this year’s presidential race.
Let’s start with gender: across racial and ethnic groups, women shifted towards Trump this cycle. In the last election, Trump won white women by a margin of 9 percentage points. This year, he won by 11 percentage points. In 2016, Democrats won Hispanic and Latina women by 44 percentage points; in 2020 they won by 39. Last cycle, Democrats won black women by 90 percentage points. This year, by 81 points. That is, in a year when a black woman was on a major party ticket for the first time in US history, the margin between Democrats and Republicans among black women shifted 9 percentage points in the other direction – towards Trump.
Trump saw comparable gains with Black and Hispanic men as well.
Overall, comparing 2016 and 2020, Trump gained 4 percentage points with African Americans, 3 percentage points with Hispanics and Latinos, and 5 percentage points with Asian Americans. The shifts described in Edison’s exit polls are verified by AP Votecast, which showed similar movement among black and Hispanic voters this cycle.
We can look at The American Election Eve Poll to gain some additional context on this movement.
Let’s start with the Hispanic and Latino vote: comparing 2016 and 2020, the margins shifted 47 percentage points towards Trump (or, away from the Democrats) among those of South American ancestry. The margins also shifted 37 percentage points towards the Republican party among those whose families hail from Central America, 35 percentage points among Dominicans, 16 percentage points among Puerto Ricans, 15 percentage points among Mexican Americans and 9 percentage points among Cubans. Indeed, this latter group actually ended up favoring Trump over Biden outright.
That is, while recognizing that these populations are not monolithic, and although Democrats won most of the Hispanic and Latino vote overall, nonetheless Hispanic and Latino voters shifted decisively towards Trump this cycle.
Similar patterns hold among Asian Americans: Filipino, Korean, Chinese and Indian Americans alike seem to have drifted towards Trump. The trend was so dramatic among Vietnamese Americans that they, like Cubans, actually favored Trump outright. Among Asians, only Japanese Americans seem to have shifted towards the Democrats since 2016.
That is, minorities and women (and minority women) – the very people who are supposed to be central to the Democratic coalition, and who have suffered most in the current pandemic and economic recession – seem to have shifted in Trump’s direction across the board.
In fact, virtually the only racial or gender constellation the President did not gain with are the people that are often described as his core constituency: white men.
In 2016, Trump won white men by a margin of 31 percentage points. In 2020, however, he won this constituency by 23 percentage points. Put another way, comparing 2016 to 2020, white men shifted 8 percentage points in Biden’s direction this year – helping flip the election towards the Democrats, despite Trump’s significant gains among minorities and women across the board.
What changed in the racial and gender dynamics this cycle to produce these apparently extraordinary results? The truth is, absolutely nothing. These trends have been underway for the entirety of Trump’s public life.
In fact, Democrat losses with minority voters precede Trump’s candidacy. Over the course of Obama’s tenure in office, Democrats saw attrition with black and Hispanic voters in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Trump won in 2016 precisely of this long-running erosion. Despite lackluster support among whites for the Republican candidate, Asian, Black and Hispanic voters continued to defect from the Democratic party – tipping key swing states in Trump’s direction, and handing him the election.
Contrary to the prevailing narratives, the Republican party saw continued attrition with whites throughout Trump’s tenure in office. Almost all the losses Republicans saw in 2018, for instance, were due to defections by white voters. As compared to 2016, Republicans slightly improved their numbers with Blacks and Hispanic voters during the midterms. However, the margins among whites shifted 10 percentage points in the other direction, helping Trump’s opposition win the House.
In the leadup to the 2020 election, the polling continued to tell the story it’d been telling all along: Trump was poised to see continued defections from whites, while Democrats would see continued attrition among voters of color. The trends in the polling were consistent and clear.
The main question the available data couldn’t answer prior to the ballots being cast was whether or not Trump’s losses with whites would eclipse his growth among minorities (as they did in 2018) — or if minority voters would again help Trump deliver an upset despite his relative softness with whites (as happened in 2016). Now we know.
Swing state breakdowns by the New York Times – comparing actual voting data to regional demographics — suggest that gains with Hispanic and Latino voters helped Trump hold Florida and Texas despite Democrats’ gains with whites. Republican gains among African Americans did the same in North Carolina. In Georgia, 8 of the 11 counties with the highest shares of African American voters shifted towards Trump as well – although these gains were more than offset by Biden’s gains in more racially heterogenous counties. In Arizona, Trump shrunk Democrats 2016 margins in regions with a majority Hispanic population. Meanwhile, shifts among white voters are what flipped Michigan to Biden.
In other words, the prevailing discourse around race seems to be flat out wrong. Shifts among minorities were responsible for Trump’s surprising strength this cycle, while shifts among whites are what helped put Biden over the edge in the end.
Unfortunately, the dominant narratives around gender have been just as deficient as those on race.
For instance, men did not support Trump in record-shattering numbers in 2016 – nor did women rally strongly behind Clinton. Instead, Hillary lost because of anemic support among women. She got one of the lowest shares of the female vote of any Democrat in decades – and turnout among women was down as compared to the previous cycles. Had female turnout – or Democrat’s female vote share — been as strong for Clinton as it had been for Obama, Hillary would have won.
Consequently, the question of why women exercised their agency the way they did in 2016 becomes an extremely important question. In fact, it is objectively more critical than how men voted: women comprised a larger share of the electorate than men in 2016. Indeed, they’ve comprised a majority of the electorate every cycle since 1976.
Nonetheless, narratives about the 2016 election have overwhelmingly focused on men, sexism, patriarchy, etc. How women voted has been largely ignored.
When discussed at all, Democrats’ surprising weakness with women in 2016 is typically attributed to white women having prioritized their commitment to white supremacy above their commitment to feminism. Yet, there was absolutely nothing special about Trump winning a majority of white women:
Going back to 1972, Democrats have literally never won an outright majority of white women, and only reached a plurality twice. White women were less supportive of Trump in 2016 than they were of the Republican candidates in 1972, 1984, 1988, 2004 or 2012 (for the reference, similar patterns hold for white men).
Nonetheless, white women’s 2016 votes are often described as being uniquely motivated by racism – despite the fact that voters were choosing between two tickets comprised 100% of white people.
This time around, spinning such narratives will be much harder. Yes, white women actually did shift in Trump’s direction this time, unlike in 2016. However, Black women and Hispanic women shifted in the exact same direction.
In short, it was shifts among minority voters that helped Trump win the presidency in 2016. This movement among minority voters carried into 2020 – and women across the board shifted towards the Republican party as well. Fortunately, defections among white men overrode the preferences of this growing share of women and minorities, bringing about Trump’s political demise.
Musa al-Gharbi is a Paul F Lazarsfeld fellow in sociology at Columbia University