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The Memo: Five key lessons from the 2020 exit polls

The Memo: Five key lessons from the 2020 exit polls
© Greg Nash

The dust is beginning to settle on the 2020 election after President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenConfirmation hearing for Biden's DNI pick postponed Biden's Sunday inauguration rehearsal postponed due to security concerns: report Murkowski says it would be 'appropriate' to bar Trump from holding office again MORE defeated President TrumpDonald TrumpEx-Trump lawyer Cohen to pen forward for impeachment book Murkowski says it would be 'appropriate' to bar Trump from holding office again Man known as 'QAnon Shaman' asks Trump for pardon after storming Capitol MORE by narrow margins in the key battleground states.

Attention is shifting to how and why Biden won. Exit polls provide the most reliable guide.

The main exit poll, conducted by Edison Research for a consortium that includes ABC News, CBS News, CNN and NBC News, was modified this year in light of the coronavirus pandemic. The pollsters conducted extensive surveys at early voting locations, and made phone contact with Americans who had cast ballots by mail.

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Here are five important, and sometimes surprising, lessons from the data provided as of Monday evening.

Men moved against Trump just as much as women

There was a lot of speculation before the election about how Trump would perform among female voters. 

Polling appeared to show a dramatic drop-off from 2016 and pundits speculated that his tone was particularly off-putting to women.

But the exit polls suggested a much more modest — and less female-specific — decline.

Trump lost women by 13 points in 2016 and by 15 points this year. 

His performance with men edged down by an almost identical, modest, amount. He won men by 11 points in 2016, and his advantage declined to 8 points this year.

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The same pattern was seen among subsets of the population.

Predictions that Trump would be hammered in the suburbs were often based around the idea that white, college-educated women would turn against him in huge numbers.

If the exit poll is to be believed, no real sea-change happened there. Trump lost white, college-educated women by 9 points this year, having lost them by 7 points in 2016.

By contrast, Trump won college-educated white men by just 3 points this year —  a significant decline from his 14-point edge four years ago.

Independents shifted heavily toward Biden

Both Biden and Trump kept a tight grip on the base of their respective parties, which is no surprise in such a polarized time.

The dynamic makes independent voters all the more important — and they shifted away from Trump.

Four years ago, Trump carried independents by 4 points over Clinton, according to the exit polls.

This year, he lost them to Biden by 13 points.

There are numerous possible explanations, from Trump’s hyper-aggressive demeanor to his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. But the 17-point differential was surely vital in determining the election’s outcome.

Trump, to Democratic dismay, improved with Latinos

Trump’s performance in both the 2020 and 2016 elections with Latinos has been striking.

In 2016, many pundits predicted that a campaign that had begun with the then-candidate alleging that Mexico was sending “rapists” to the United States would flounder with Latino voters. 

In fact, Trump got a fractionally bigger share of the Hispanic vote than 2012 GOP nominee Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyMcConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time Additional airlines ban guns on flights to DC ahead of inauguration Ben Shapiro stirs controversy by guest writing Politico newsletter MORE, whose rhetoric was much milder.

Trump did slightly better again this year, increasing his share of the Latino vote from 28 percent to 32 percent. 

Considerable attention was given to the Trump campaign’s efforts to connect Biden to socialism, a charge that was thought likely to damage him particularly with Cuban Americans and Venezuelan Americans in the key state of Florida.

The strategy looks to have been successful — Biden’s performance in Miami-Dade County, the epicenter of the Cuban American community, was conspicuously poor.

But the issue was broader than this. Democrats were startled by Trump’s unexpectedly decent showing in some of the border counties of Texas, where the Latino population is overwhelmingly Mexican.

White evangelicals stayed solid for Trump

Evangelical support for Trump has long been a subject of media fascination.

On one hand, the thrice-married president’s private life, as well as his penchant for bombastic personal insults, seems to sit uneasily with Christian values.

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On the other, Trump has delivered on some of the issues that matter most to politically-orientated evangelicals, including judicial appointments. 

In the final run-up to the election, Trump successfully nominated a new conservative Supreme Court justice, Amy Coney BarrettAmy Coney BarrettCapitol Police Board — the structural flaw in leadership 2020: A year in photos Planned Parenthood president says abortion work shouldn't be marginalized MORE, giving the high court a 6-3 rightward tilt.

White evangelicals stayed solidly behind the president. He won 76 percent of their votes this time, down only a negligible amount from his 80 percent showing in 2016. 

There was no decline in enthusiasm either. 

Even as the overall number of votes cast increased significantly from four years ago, white evangelicals or born-again Christians are estimated to have cast basically the same share of all ballots — 28 percent this year, compared to 26 percent in 2016.

The ‘plague on both your houses’ vote shrank dramatically

Just as in 2016, Trump won the votes of those who professed dislike of both candidates by a striking margin.

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But here’s the crucial thing: there were far fewer of them.

In 2016, a full 18 percent of voters said they had an unfavorable opinion of both Trump and Clinton. Trump won among those voters by 17 points.

This year, his margin was identical. But the voters who said they liked neither candidate cast just 3 percent of all ballots.

The “plague on both your houses” vote was, therefore, just one-fifth as large as it was in 2016.

It’s a striking example of how Biden’s approach — positioning himself as an unspectacular but broadly acceptable alternative to Trump — paid off. 

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.