Scarred or energized by President Trump’s four years, Americans voted in record numbers for the 2020 election, despite a pandemic.
Once again, Mr. Trump found a trove of new followers in a fast-declining monolith of white blue-collar voters that went largely undetected by the public opinion polls. He confounded expectations further by adding a substantial number of votes in areas with a lot of Hispanic residents as well.
But while Mr. Trump’s divisive message and norm-defying presidency galvanized an unexpectedly large following in 2020, it alienated a bigger one. Mr. Biden rode the enthusiasm of a slightly tarnished Democratic coalition, along with a wave of desertions from the Republican white middle class, to win.
An analysis of voting patterns across more than 2,500 counties where counting was at least 95 percent complete shows some of the major ways that this flood of voters upended traditional political alignments, setting a new stage for the post-Trump era.
After winning in 2016 in what many viewed as a fluke, Mr. Trump mounted a registration and turnout drive in the counties of his white, blue-collar base that appears to have succeeded.
“The Trump campaign worked on this for years, and pretty much kept it under wraps,” said Larry J. Sabato, professor of politics at the University of Virginia. “They told us they were doing it, but we really didn’t know the extent of it.”
Trump votes swelled in the Appalachians and the Piedmont South, in many of the same counties that dissented from the country’s embrace of the first Black American president — Barack Obama — in 2008. He found even more votes in the rural centers of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and the farmlands of the Midwest.
And in a feat likely to touch off years of Democratic hand-wringing, Mr. Trump won a healthy share of additional Hispanic voters and may have benefited a little from reduced enthusiasm for Mr. Biden in some Democratic counties with large Black populations.
Change in number of votes cast, by county type
Large counties with people of color in the majority
It’s true that substantial majorities still voted Democratic in areas with concentrations of people of color. But in a polarized and evenly divided electorate, any shift can be significant.
Turnout in Philadelphia precincts where the population is predominantly Black was down 6 percent. In mostly rural areas across the South that are predominantly Black, turnout was up only slightly, and there was a modest shift to Mr. Trump. The exception was heavily contested Georgia, where turnout in areas with a large share of Black voters was way up, and shifted to Mr. Biden.
The trend in majority Hispanic counties was more pronounced, widespread and perhaps surprising in light of the president’s hard-line immigration policies and divisive messaging. This shift was especially stark in southern Florida, where many Cuban-Americans live. It was also apparent in counties in southern Texas that are predominantly Mexican-American, and in the flood of new voters in Phoenix, where Mr. Biden’s success in adding to 2016 Clinton totals was noticeably lower in Hispanic areas.
“The president made significant inroads with critical nonwhite swaths of the electorate while also growing his share of rural white voters,” said Ken Spain, a Republican strategist. “In any other election year, this would be an incredible feat that would all but guarantee victory.”
How did Biden win, then?
There was a countervailing force. Mr. Biden’s biggest cache of additional voters came from big counties — urban and suburban — that are mostly white, where his support increased substantially from Hillary Clinton’s vote in 2016.
This includes counties like DuPage in Illinois, Macomb outside Detroit and Montgomery outside Philadelphia.
But it also includes big cities in the South and West, like Charlotte, N.C.; Fort Worth; Phoenix and Seattle. In Republican Fort Worth, Mr. Biden got 121,000 more votes than Mrs. Clinton had; Mr. Trump got 62,000 more than in 2016. In Seattle, Mr. Biden’s increase of 186,000 votes dwarfed Mr. Trump’s additional 51,000.
Change in the number of votes cast, by county type
Large counties with a white majority
Majority white, college educated and Republican
In fact, Mr. Biden’s best hunting grounds for new voters were posh Republican counties. In areas with very high concentrations of white, high-income voters who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, Mr. Biden garnered substantially more additional votes than his opponent.
Statistically, whether or not American voters had college degrees was by far the most significant predictor of where the 2020 tide of additional turnout was highest, and who won it. This metric is a stand-in for socioeconomic status — closely following patterns of higher income. Thus it could also be an indicator of cultural security, comfort and enfranchisement.
There was a stark schism in the white vote apparent along this fault line: Populist areas, highlighted by concentrations of white voters without a college degree, moved toward Mr. Trump. White areas with better-educated populations, whether cities, suburbs or college towns, moved decisively away.
Change in the number of votes cast, by county type
Predominantly white, college educated
Predominantly white, no college
The result was a substantial popular vote margin for Mr. Biden, and just enough votes in battlegrounds to win the Electoral College.
Change in the number of votes cast in battleground states
“Trump’s appeal to college-educated whites, especially women, was never very strong,” said Mr. Sabato, the University of Virginia professor. “Trump’s character and antics in office sent his backing among this large group plummeting. Blue-collar whites loved it, but their numbers could not substitute for losses elsewhere.”