What the heck just happened? It’s been a crazy election, and ballots are still being counted, but we can get a few ideas from the exit polls. The poll numbers that have been posted so far—which include people who voted by mail or voted early in person, as well as those who cast ballots on Election Day—are preliminary: They’ll be revised as we learn more about which kinds of voters turned out. (Groups with higher turnout get their responses weighted more heavily.) Also, as in 2016, there will be subsequent, more rigorous assessments of who voted and why. But the initial exit poll data are the best available measure, for now, of what voters were thinking. Here’s what they suggest.
First, this electorate seems to have been more conservative than the 2016 electorate. In the 2016 exit polls, conservatives outnumbered liberals by 9 percentage points. In the initial 2020 numbers, the margin is 13 points. (To get an apples-to-apples comparison, I’m citing the original 2016 numbers, not the later Pew study of 2016 voters.) Despite this, Joe Biden held his own by connecting with people in the middle. Hillary Clinton lost independents by 4 percentage points; Biden won them by 14 points. He also got 64 percent of moderates, up from Clinton’s 52 percent. Biden won 8 percent of people who said they had voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Trump, in this election, won only 4 percent of those who said they had voted for Clinton. That gap may decide the eventual outcome.
In some ways, the 2020 electorate was evenly divided. Half the exit poll respondents called the economy excellent or good; half called it poor or not good. Half said “U.S. efforts to contain the pandemic” were going very or somewhat badly; 48 percent said these efforts were going very or somewhat well. Trump’s job approval was negative, but only by 4 points. The strongest sign of anti-incumbent sentiment was the 57 percent of voters who said they were dissatisfied or angry (as opposed to satisfied or enthusiastic) with “the way the federal government is working.”
On balance, the voters of 2020 were sympathetic to concerns about racial discrimination. In the initial exit poll results, 57 percent expressed a favorable opinion of “the Black Lives Matter movement,” and 53 percent said the nation’s criminal justice system “treats Black people unfairly.” (Forty percent chose the alternative answer: that the system “treats all people fairly.”) But despite Trump’s tirades against immigrants and Black Lives Matter, he seems to have done better with Blacks and Latinos, by about 4 percentage points, than he did in 2016. In the preliminary numbers, he got 18 percent of Black men and 36 percent of Latino men.
Trump’s biggest gain since 2016 was among self-identified Christians. He got 71 percent of Protestants, 62 percent of Catholics, and 67 percent of the “other Christians” category—an increase of about a dozen points, across the board, from his performance in 2016. That might be due, in part, to his Supreme Court appointments. It might also reflect the disgust some religious voters felt in October and November 2016, after they saw or heard about his Access Hollywood video. But four years later, a broader majority of Christians has embraced him.
Biden seems to have done better with working-class Americans than Clinton did. In the preliminary exit poll numbers, he got 57 percent of voters from households making less than $100,000 a year (Clinton got 49 percent), 57 percent of union households (she got 51 percent), and 35 percent of white voters without a college degree (she got 29 percent). He also won two-thirds of first-time voters and two-thirds of 18-to-24-year-olds, beating her performance with those groups by about 10 points. But contrary to expectations, Biden didn’t do much better with seniors than Clinton did.
On personal qualities, Biden scored well. His favorable rating, unlike Clinton’s in 2016, was positive (52 percent to 46 percent), while Trump’s was negative (45 percent to 53 percent). Biden also outpolled Trump in demonstrating “the temperament to serve effectively as president.” And Trump appears to have failed in portraying Biden as senile. More voters said Biden, not Trump, had “the physical and mental health needed to serve effectively as president” (44 percent) than said Trump, not Biden, met that standard (38 percent).
The conservative tilt of this electorate, particularly amid such high turnout, bodes ill for Democrats. But the exit polls also hint at opportunities for compromise and progress. A narrow majority of voters said the Supreme Court should keep Obamacare “as is,” not overturn it. Two-thirds said wearing masks in public was more a “public health responsibility” than a “personal choice.” And two-thirds said climate change was “a serious problem.”
These numbers will change somewhat as votes are tallied and the composition of the electorate is reassessed. But the patterns so far suggest several lessons. One, Democrats are having trouble attracting self-identified Christians. Two, they can’t count on the votes of people of color, just because the Republican candidate is overtly racist. Three, they need better turnout on the left. And four, they need to consolidate a majority of independent voters. If they don’t fix these problems, they could be looking at difficult maps for a long time to come.