Batten Faculty Provide Commentary on Election Results

In commentary compiled by the Miller Center, Batten Professors Jennifer Lawless, Margaret Foster Riley, Todd Sechser, and Craig Volden weigh in on the 2020 election, offering updates on the latest developments. Read the full commentary from the Miller Center.

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Commentary by Jennifer Lawless and Paul Freedman

Welcome back to Exit Poll Nuggets™.

Today we’ll take a closer look at age, marriage and children, and gender and education among white voters. As noted yesterday, in the immediate aftermath of a national election, exit polls offer the best glimpse of what the electorate looked like—who voted for whom and what seemed to drive their choices. In 2020, the exit polls combined interviews with a representative sample of thousands of voters (leaving polling places in a representative sample of precincts across the nation) and telephone interviews with a representative sample of people who voted early or by mail. In all, the national exit poll includes interviews with 15,590 voters. It is important to note that these data will be updated, so the numbers below should be considered preliminary, reflecting the exit polls reported as of Wednesday, November 4.

Age: When it comes to age, the broad contours of the story look similar to 2016. Biden outperformed Trump among voters under the age of 45 (by a 15-point margin of 56% to 41% ). Trump barely eked out a victory among voters ages 45 and older (50% vs. 49%). Even though Biden lost older voters—who comprised 60% of the electorate—he substantially chipped away at Trump’s 8-point margin in 2016. At the end of the day, though, race tells us more than age. Notice that Trump won every age group among White voters and Biden outperformed Trump among Black and Latinx voters of all ages (see Figure 1). Notably, older Latinx voters (60+) were 10 points less likely to support Biden than younger voters (18-29), while older Black voters were most likely to cast a Biden ballot overall.

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Education, Gender, and the White Vote: As we noted yesterday, education—specifically, having a college degree – was closely related to vote choice in both 2016 and 2020. College graduates voted for Biden over Trump by 13 points (55% vs. 42%), while those without college degrees split their votes evenly (49% for Trump and 49% for Biden). These differences, however, reflect an education gap only among white voters. Whereas 70% of non-white voters supported Biden regardless of whether they had a college degree, there was a 15-point education gap among white voters: 49% of whites with a college degree voted for Trump, versus 64% of whites without a degree.

These differences are even more interesting when gender factors into the mix (see Figure 2). White women with a college degree voted Democratic at roughly the same rate in 2016 (51%) and 2020 (49%). Those without a college degree were five points more likely to vote for the Democrat in 2020 (34% in 2016 vs. 39% in 2020). The differences among men are more striking: Men without college education were seven points more likely to vote for Biden (30%) than for Clinton (23%). That margin increases to 11 points for men with a college degree. Just 39% of college-educated men cast a ballot for Hillary Clinton in 2016, but 50% voted for Joe Biden in 2020.

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Commentary by Margaret Foster Riley

There is a reason, other than the fact that it is just much easier to do, that terrorists prefer to blow up buildings and people rather than resort to bioterrorism—even though bioterrorism might kill more people.


We, as humans, react far more strongly to the dramatic immediate threat of violence than we do to the effect of a virus. This explains why Covid has not played the same role in the 2020 election as the September 11 attack did throughout the early 2000s. We know the virus is exacting a serious toll, but we don’t feel it; we cannot picture it the way we see falling buildings. Many of us have become inured to the surging positive rate for Covid 19, and unless our own loved ones are affected, we have become seemingly indifferent to a climbing death rate.

For many—perhaps most—people, voting is an emotional exercise rather than a rational exercise. Only health care providers see the daily evidence of sick or dying people; the average person feels only the pain of restrictions and mask requirements. Covid certainly played a significant role in the 2020 election; it may have unseated an incumbent president. But exit polls show that it was not the most important issue for many voters. The slow, relentless work of a virus may cause us terrible damage, but it fails to focus fully our voting preferences.

The virus doesn’t care who won the election, but if Joe Biden wins the White House, he will have to figure out how to beat the virus. It may not be fair, but he is likely to be held accountable in ways that Donald Trump has not been, at least as of now. The economic, health, and social effects will come home to roost. That may prove to be a daunting task because the election, perhaps irredeemably, politicized any coherent government policy for dealing with Covid-19. Biden will have to build public trust where that trust has been seriously undermined for both Democrats and Republicans. If a vaccine (or vaccines) becomes available in the spring, he will have to convince Americans to take it. He needs to persuade more Americans to wear masks. To start, this may be a place where Biden’s inclinations for bipartisan appointments could prove helpful. An FDA commissioner is rarely the first concern of an incoming president, but this year it might be. Biden might consider Scott Gottlieb, FDA commissioner in the first half of the Trump administration, to take that role again. Gottlieb is well-respected on both sides of the aisle, politically savvy, and has the trust of physicians and scientists. 

Commentary by Todd Sechser

One of the defining features of Donald Trump’s worldview has been his distrustful, almost paranoid, view of international politics. As president, Trump has withdrawn from multinational agreements like the Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the Paris climate accords. He started trade wars with China and Europe. He has disparaged U.S. alliances and feuded with NATO allies in public. And he has embraced authoritarians—both genuine and aspiring—who violate international norms and undermine democratic institutions.

The events of the past year created conditions that should have been highly favorable to this worldview. A global pandemic, originating in China, has killed nearly a quarter-million Americans. International cooperation to contain the virus has splintered, leaving countries largely to fend for themselves. Meanwhile, the U.S. economy suffered as trade plummeted to its lowest point in a decade, underscoring for millions of Americans the risks of global interdependence.

Yet the American electorate did not embrace Trump’s antagonistic stance toward the world. Public opinion surveys for years have shown that large majorities of Americans believe that alliances, international trade, and active engagement in world affairs are good for the United States. And on Tuesday, several million more Americans voted for a candidate who advocated strengthening U.S. alliances, staying involved in international institutions, and cooperating to address transnational problems like climate change.

It would be easy to conclude that foreign policy did not play a major role in the 2020 presidential campaign. After all, the Syrian civil war, nuclear arms control, and other international issues did not receive much explicit attention in the debates. Voters instead reported that the economy and the pandemic were their primary concerns. But these issues are intimately connected to international affairs. And in a year that has highlighted the downsides of globalization, it is striking that the majority of voters decided that the best solution to these problems was not to wall the country off and turn inward. The 2020 election may have been an Electoral College nail-biter, but it was a decisive repudiation of “America first” isolationism.

Commentary by Craig Volden

Closely contested races. A slight rightward move in the House. A slight leftward move in the Senate. If current election trends continue, 2021 will feature President Biden overseeing a Democratic House and Republican Senate.

In some ways, continued divided government is fitting. Politicians should be placed in a position where they need to compromise and take one another’s views into account. But will they? Or will they dig in on their partisan divisions, which will contribute to gridlock, and ultimately provide the president with incentives to act unilaterally?

At an individual level, lawmakers are presented with mixed signals. On the one hand, our research shows that bipartisan lawmakers are more effective. Their work building cross-party coalitions pays off in their bills being more likely to become law. 

On the other hand, those who compromise too much may face tough primary battles. And party leaders often prefer to keep policy issues unresolved for electoral purposes, rather than working with the other party to formulate solutions.

With divided government the likely outcome once again, why should we expect the results to be any different from what we’ve seen recently? One glimmer of hope might be gleaned from considering Joe Biden’s own legislative record when he was in the U.S. Senate.

Level of Bipartisan Cosponsorship over Time

This figure shows the fraction of cross-party cosponsors for bills that are proposed by the average member of Congress. In the 1980s, before the dramatic rise in partisan polarization, about 40% of cosponsors on any given bill came from the other party. As polarization rose, however, this percent dropped to about 30% in the Senate and 20% in the House. (The higher level of bipartisanship in the Senate seems entirely reasonable, given the need to overcome filibusters.)

But for Senator Biden, bipartisanship on his sponsored bills remained high, above both House and Senate averages. This suggests that he consistently made an effort to reach out to members of the opposing party as he sought to advance his legislative agenda. 

If Biden does, indeed, prevail, only time will tell whether the newly elected president can bring Democrats and Republicans together in the current political environment. But the data suggest that he certainly tried to do so on his proposals when he served in the Senate.

Commentary by Jennifer Lawless and Paul Freedman

Traditionally, the exit polls have been a collaborative effort of a consortium of major media organizations, involving interviews with a representative sample of thousands of voters as they leave polling places across the nation. In this election, concerns about the pandemic helped drive an unprecedented number of Americans to vote early or by mail. By November 3, more than 100 million Americans had already voted. To account for these voters, this year’s exit polls include data from telephone interviews with a representative sample of people who voted early or by mail. In all, the national exit poll includes interviews with 15,590 voters. It is important to note that these data will be updated, so the numbers below should be considered preliminary, reflecting the exit polls reported as of Wednesday, November 4.

With all of that in mind, here are some Exit Poll Nuggets™ to help shed light on Election 2020.

Gender Gap: As has been the case since 1980, women were more likely than men to vote for the Democratic candidate: 56% of women, compared to 48% of men, supported Joe Biden. But the gap is significantly smaller than what we saw in 2016, when 54% of women, but only 41% of men, voted for Clinton. Notice that the gap closed not because of women, but because men supported Biden at higher rates than they did Clinton. The gap varied by race and ethnicity, though. Whereas white women were only slightly less likely to vote for Donald Trump (55%) than were white men (58%), the gender gap among Black voters was 11 points, and among Latinx voters, it was 9 points.

Party Loyalty: An essential truth of American politics is that Republicans vote for Republicans and Democrats vote for Democrats. This year was no different: Notwithstanding the presence of the Lincoln Project and other prominent Republicans who threw their support to Joe Biden, party loyalty among voters was just as high as it always is in presidential elections: 94% of Democrats supported Biden and 93% of Republicans voted for Trump. Those numbers, if anything, represent a small uptick in partisan loyalty from 2016. Biden might plan to be a president for all Americans, but he wasn’t a candidate for themIndependents voted for Biden over Trump by 14 points (54% vs. 40%), a significant change from 2016, when independents favored Trump over Clinton (46%  vs. 42%).

Race and Ethnicity: Consistent with recent presidential elections, a majority of white voters (57%) voted Republican in 2020. Although Black, Latino, and Asian voters went disproportionately for Joe Biden, Trump chipped away at Democratic support among all three groups. In 2020, 12% of Black voters cast ballots for Trump, up from 8% in 2016. Thirty-two percent of Latinx voters favored Trump, up from 28% in 2016. And Trump received votes from 31% of Asian voters this time around, up from 27% in 2016.

Education: Just as in 2016, we saw a pronounced education gap in vote choice. While college graduates voted for Biden over Trump by 13 points (55% vs. 42%), those without college degrees split their votes evenly (49% for Trump and 49% for Biden). College education, however, only really mattered for white voters. Among whites, 64% of those without a college degree voted for Trump. Yet 70% of non-white voters supported Biden, regardless of whether they had a college degree.

This was a fascinating election and we’re only just beginning to figure out what happened and what it all means. We’ll have more Exit Poll Nuggets™ to share in the coming days, so stay tuned.

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