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The State of America’s Disunion

Summary:
The 2020 US presidential election followed a pattern very similar to the contest in 2016, with narrow margins in a few key counties determining the outcome in battleground states. And the record-breaking turnout on both sides was a sign not of a healthy democracy but of an anxious one. MILAN/PALO ALTO – In the US presidential election this year, President-elect Joe Biden received 79.8 million (51%) votes, Donald Trump received 73.8 million (47.2%), and the remaining candidates received 2.5 million (1.7%). Though votes are still being counted in California, New York, and Illinois, this year’s turnout has reached a record high for the post-war period. Yet, owing to America’s Electoral College system, which allocates

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The 2020 US presidential election followed a pattern very similar to the contest in 2016, with narrow margins in a few key counties determining the outcome in battleground states. And the record-breaking turnout on both sides was a sign not of a healthy democracy but of an anxious one.

MILAN/PALO ALTO – In the US presidential election this year, President-elect Joe Biden received 79.8 million (51%) votes, Donald Trump received 73.8 million (47.2%), and the remaining candidates received 2.5 million (1.7%). Though votes are still being counted in California, New York, and Illinois, this year’s turnout has reached a record high for the post-war period.

Yet, owing to America’s Electoral College system, which allocates more electors per person to states with smaller populations, the outcome of this election was much closer than the popular vote would suggest. Though Biden ultimately won a significant number of battleground states, he did so by very thin margins, effectively reversing the outcomes that gave Trump his victory in 2016. In Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, just enough moderate Republicans, Democrats, and independents shifted toward Biden to make the difference.

A county-level view of voting patterns in 2016 and 2020 shows a deep and consistent partisan divide. The axes represent the Democratic vote minus the Republican vote, expressed as a percentage of the total vote in 2016 and 2020. A dot on a negative number signifies a Republican victory in that county. Overall, the points are highly concentrated around the 45º line, along which the margin of winning or losing was the same in both election cycles.

The State of America’s Disunion

Generally, Democrats gained in counties that they won or only narrowly lost in 2016. Similarly, in counties that Republicans won by a substantial margin in 2016 (of which there are many), the data tend to show an even larger margin of victory for Republicans in 2020. 

The crucial area is in the blue circle, where the margin of victory or loss in 2016 was quite small. It is here that Democrats made gains and, in some cases, won over just enough voters to flip the county in their favor.

The red outline comprises mostly Democratic setbacks. In these counties, Democrats lost outright in 2020, or won by a substantially smaller margin than in 2016, thereby reducing their total at the state level. These outliers are mostly Hispanic-majority counties in South Florida – specifically Miami-Dade – and in Texas along the border with Mexico. These negative swings for Democrats were significant factors in Trump’s victories in those two states. 

The State of America’s Disunion

In the battleground states, both Biden and Trump benefited from higher overall turnout, but Biden clearly benefited more. Relative to pre-election polls, including YouGov polls that we analyzed, neither Biden’s narrow win in these states nor the huge overall turnout was a surprise. By contrast, the polls did not fully anticipate the strong, materially relevant support for Trump in certain segments of the Hispanic community. Moreover, many commentators assumed that a huge electoral turnout would favor the Democrats, leading some to speak of a potential “blue wave.” In the event, there was a very large turnout for both sides.

Michael Spence
Nobel Prize in economics, Economics professor at Stern School of Business NYU, author of The Next Convergence

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