More than 150 million American voters turned out for Tuesday’s election, marking the highest turnout in over a century. But as the country – and the world – await a complete result, what do we know about who voted for each of the candidates?
While knowledge at this stage is limited – polling data can be unreliable and national exit polls do not take into account geographic differences within demographics – experts say that some broader trends among those who voted for Joe Biden and Donald Trump are apparent.
So far, the picture appears to be strikingly similar to what it was in 2016, said the political science professor Charles H Stewart, founding director of MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab.
“There were slight changes, but the changes in the electorate, at least the ones who showed up to vote on election day, are much less dramatic than we were being led to believe by the pre-election polls,” Stewart said.
Pollsters had predicted this election would see the widest gender gap since women won the vote 100 years ago, but that does not appear to have transpired.
Stewart noticed a slight widening of the gender gap – with women voting 56-43 for Biden, while the two candidates were almost tied among men.
But one of the biggest divides that did come to pass was between older voters and those aged under 30, who became even “less enamoured of President Trump than before”.
“The other age groups, 30-44, 45-64, 65 and over, it’s a pretty close divide between Biden and Trump. So it’s really young people who are overwhelmingly anti-Trump and that’s really noticeable.”
He said Trump also lost some appeal among low income voters, who were more attracted to Biden, but the president gained among voters with family incomes over $100,000 a year.
“That right now appears to be the biggest demographic shift I’m seeing. And you can tie that to [Trump’s] tax cuts [for the wealthy] and lower regulations.”
He added: “For as much as we talk about the culture wars and all of those sorts of things, it looks like the big thing was good old-fashioned pocket book economics.”
While evidence is lacking in exactly who voted, he said the increase in turnout probably came from young people and the Latino community, who he said “historically have been significantly underrepresented in the electorate.”
Tens of millions of dollars were spent by Democratic and Republican campaign groups over the past couple of years to register voters and help increase turnout, especially among Latino communities. Grassroots Latino activism in states such as Arizona and Georgia, which are historically Republican, appear to have boosted Biden significantly.
Contrary to what some polls predicted, Stewart said, exit polls do not show a “dramatic exodus from Trump” among older people. While in 2016, they showed 52% of voters aged 65 and older voted for Trump, in 2020 he said that figure was 51%.
In terms of race breakdowns, Louis DeSipio, political science professor at the University of California, Irvine, said nationally Trump was estimated to have won about 57% of white votes – with huge state-to-state variations linked to factors such as education and age – and that African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans voted strongly for Biden.
The most dramatic shift, he said, was probably in south Florida, where Trump is understood to have gained support among Cuban Americans and Venezuelan Americans who he said were “moving back into the Republican camp”.
He added: “They had been steadily moving towards the Democrats really since 1996 or so, so that’s an interesting story and will need some attention.”
An area where he believes Trump did not do so well among white voters is Arizona, where the Associated Press (AP) has called a Biden win.
But he said Trump continued to have support among evangelical Christians and he was interested to see how Trump did among members of the military and veterans, when data emerges.
Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (Circle) at Tufts University, said the more education young people had, the stronger preference they had for Biden.
Using data from AP VoteCast, based on interviews with more than 110,000 likely voters, she said: “If they were 18-29 but were college graduates or post graduate studies, they were preferring Biden by more than two to one.”
“Really in the youth electorate, the only groups that we know that preferred Donald Trump nationally is really white male.”
Among young voters, the data showed that the group that preferred Trump most were either rural or lived in small towns and had not been to college, with 46% supporting Biden, versus 51% Trump. But, Kawashima-Ginsberg said, “every other group at least had an edge towards Joe Biden. Even the small town rural college graduates preferred Biden by eight points, 52% to 44%.”
The other biggest difference among youth voters, she said, was among white people and people of colour. Among white youth, she said there was a 19-point split by gender.
Among first-time voters specifically, she said those aged up to 29 preferred Biden, with 53% supporting the Democrat, compared to 43% for Trump. But first-time voters aged 30-44 overwhelmingly supported Trump, who got 67% of their vote.
But, she said, attempts to define demographic groups among voters can be vulnerable to generalisations and historical assumptions – particularly for people of colour.
“We use political science models that are quite old to try to figure out who the voters are. But with diverse populations that are really rich in both heritages and what their belief systems are, it’s really hard to use well as a predictive model, and exit polls are always subject to that.”