How Democrats Won the 2020 Election

A moving box labeled "2020" with items that shaped the 2020 election including a USPS truck, a "VOTE" sign, a framed photo of RBG, a mask, a vile of the COVID-19 vaccine and more, mounted on a piece of graph paper with various data points

Every election cycle, dozens, if not hundreds, of post-election analyses are published to explain the results. Today, our Data Dive focuses on one analysis of the 2020 election: Progressive data firm Catalist’s “What Happened in 2020” study, which makes sense of a national database of voter turnout information and highlights key trends that could guide Democrats to victory in the future. 

Here are the key takeaways:

1. The most racially diverse electorate in history voted Democratic.

This won’t come as a surprise, but the electorate in America is becoming more and more diverse — and voters of color are deciding elections. Overall, turnout growth for white voters between 2016 and 2020 was lower than that of every other racial group. White non-college voters saw turnout increase by 11%, with white college voters increasing their participation by 13%. These numbers pale in comparison to other groups: Black voters saw a 14% turnout increase, Latino voters a 31% increase and AAPI voters made history with a 39% increase in turnout between elections. White voters made up a smaller percentage of the electorate than in the past — 72% of 2020 voters were white compared to 77% in 2008 — and they were the only group to vote majority Republican with only 44% supporting Biden. 

In total, Catalist found that almost 40% of Joe Biden’s total votes were cast by people of color (POC). And, where these POC votes were concentrated matters even more. Despite the fascination with the white suburban vote in the months leading up to the election, the study found that Democrats’ suburban white vote share dropped compared to 2018 — and the Democratic vote share in the suburbs as a whole increased because suburbs became more diverse. 

The takeaways here are clear. As demographic changes continue to diversify the electorate, Democrats increasingly have voters of color to thank for their election victories. Among all non-white groups, voters prefer Democrats by huge majorities — and in key swing states, votes from these groups were responsible for the thin margins of victory. Two of every five Democratic voters last year were non-white, and campaigns should remember that this number will only continue to increase. 

2. Black voters are key to Democratic success.

Black voters consistently support Democrats at rates of 90% or higher. As has been the case for many decades, Black voters delivered Democrats their victories in every battleground state. In Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona and Georgia, the number of votes cast by Black voters was between two and 100 times larger than the margin of victory. In Georgia, a Democratic victory that was decided by 11,000 votes, higher turnout among Black voters alone netted Joe Biden an additional 200,000 more votes than Hillary Clinton won in the state in 2016. In both Georgia and Arizona, two states that secured Biden’s victory, the number of new Black voters alone who voted in 2020 compared to 2016 made up the entire margin of victory.  

Black Women are the core of Democratic support in the U.S., 93% of whom supported Biden in 2020. Such a high level of support means, again, that policy changes that create even a small turnout increase among Black women can flip an entire state. The strong level of support for Democrats among this voting bloc is incomparable to any other single group support for either party. If Democrats want to continue to win and flip battleground states across the country, they need to invest in and prioritize the issues that Black women care about, across the map.

3. There is much work left to do to turn out voters — and Democrats have to work to get voters to the polls.

In 2020, 30% of all voters were “new” presidential voters in their state. 14% had never voted before, and the rest had either just moved to a new state or skipped voting in the 2016 election. In the South and Southwest, these numbers are particularly high: for many states in the region, around 30% of 2020 voters were new and did not cast a ballot in 2016. This means that a full third of the people who voted in swing states like Georgia, Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Nevada and Arizona last year did not vote in those states in 2016

So, what does this mean electorally? Catalist found that these “new voters” significantly favored Biden over Trump, which is in line with demographic expectations for a group that was younger and less white than those who voted in 2016. These voters were also more likely to move around, change addresses and otherwise become unregistered in the years between elections, meaning that a “new, enduring Democratic majority” is not guaranteed — it requires an active effort on the part of parties and campaigns to register and turn out new voters every cycle.

The takeaway here is not new, but the scale is more apparent than ever in this study: Democrats need high levels of new voter registration, well-organized voter turnout operations and streamlined, constitutional and equitable access to the ballot box for voters of color in order to win elections. This is exactly why Republicans want to make voting harder and why they target their attacks at young voters, voters of color and infrequent voters whom they know support Democrats more often. The fight for voting rights will have clear and immediate electoral consequences, and the stakes could not be higher.