Posted on October 29, 2020

The Election’s Big Twist: The Racial Gap Is Shrinking

Nate Cohn, New York Times, October 28, 2020

American politicians, including presidents, have often sought to exploit the nation’s racial and ethnic divides for political gain. During the Trump era, voters are not responding as expected.

The gap in presidential vote preference between white and nonwhite voters has shrunk by a surprising 16 percentage points since 2016, according to an Upshot analysis of pre-election polls, as Joe Biden gains among white voters and President Trump makes inroads among Black and Hispanic voters.

Mr. Trump’s exploitation of resentments over immigration and race was widely credited with fueling his upset victory in 2016, but similar tactics this time have not had the same effect. The president has so far failed to reassemble his coalition of white voters without a college degree across the Northern battleground states, and polls show that many white voters have been repelled by his handling of race, criminal justice and recent protests.

The decrease in racial polarization defies the expectations of many analysts, who believed a campaign focused on appeals to issues like Black Lives Matter or “law and order” would do the opposite. It may also upset the hopes of some activists on the left who viewed an embrace of more progressive policies on race as a way to help Democrats carve a new path to the presidency. This path would have been powered by overwhelming support from nonwhite voters, reducing the need to cater to the more conservative white voters who backed Mr. Trump four years ago. Instead, Mr. Biden leads because of gains among those very voters.


Over all, Mr. Trump leads among white voters by only five points in high-quality surveys conducted since the Republican National Convention in August, compared with a 13-point advantage in the final surveys before the 2016 election. Not only does Mr. Trump fall short of his own lead with that group from 2016, but he also underperforms every recent Republican presidential candidate since Bob Dole in 1996.


Over all, Mr. Trump leads by 21 points among white voters without a degree, 58 percent to 37 percent, compared with his 29-point edge (59-30) in the final polls in 2016. His position with these voters is still strong for a Republican — in fact, that 21-point lead is the largest for a Republican in recent memory. But while he still runs ahead of Mitt Romney among this group, he faces a daunting deficit among the remainder of the electorate.

By contrast, white college graduates back Mr. Biden by 21 points in recent polls, up from a 13-point edge for Mrs. Clinton in the final polls four years ago.


The president’s standing in the Sun Belt is bolstered by perhaps the single most surprising demographic trend of the cycle: his gains among nonwhite voters.

In recent national polls, Mr. Biden leads by 42 points among nonwhite voters, 66 percent to 24 percent. It’s about nine points worse than Mrs. Clinton’s 51-point lead in the final 2016 surveys.

Mr. Biden has lost almost exactly as much ground among nonwhite voters as he has gained among white voters, but trading nonwhite for white voters is a favorable deal for Mr. Biden. White voters outnumber nonwhite voters by more than two to one, and by an even greater ratio in the most important battleground states.


The Times/Siena surveys suggest that the president’s strength is particularly significant among Hispanic voters. {snip}

The president’s strength among nonwhite voters represents an increasingly vital element of his possible path to re-election. It helps him counter a serious weakness among older white voters in the pivotal state of Florida and in other Sun Belt battlegrounds, including Nevada, which Mrs. Clinton carried four years ago.

In Times/Siena polling so far this fall, Black and Hispanic voters appear somewhat receptive to the kinds of conservative messages usually derided as racist dog whistles. In polling in September, for example, nonwhite voters split roughly evenly on whether “law and order” or the coronavirus was more important to their presidential vote. Nonwhite voters were likelier to say they thought Mr. Trump would do a better job handling “law and order” than they were to say they supported him over Mr. Biden.


Many progressive policies for systematic change, like reparations for the descendants of slaves, defunding the police or removing Confederate monuments, fail to attract strong support in polls, suggesting that a focus on these issues could risk eroding Democratic standing. It also suggests a widening gap between the views of progressive activists and the rank-and-file of nonwhite voters.