Posted on October 24, 2020

The Relentless Shrinking of Trump’s Base

Ford Fessenden and Lazaro Gamio, New York Times, October 22, 2020

In 2016, Donald J. Trump confounded the polls in part by generating an unanticipated level of enthusiasm and turnout from a group that had grown increasingly apathetic about elections: white voters without college degrees.

But in 2020, Mr. Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. face a drastically changed electorate. The cohort of non-college-educated white voters — who gave Mr. Trump just enough of a margin to win the election in 2016 — has been in a long-term decline, while both minority voters and white college-educated voters have steadily increased.

The decline, a demographic glacier driven largely by aging, has continued since 2016. The number of voting-age white Americans without college degrees has dropped by more than five million in the past four years, while the number of minority voters and college-educated white voters has collectively increased by more than 13 million in the same period. In key swing states, the changes far outstrip Mr. Trump’s narrow 2016 margins.

His campaign leaders are betting that a two-year grass-roots mobilization that has yielded significant voter registration gains will overcome the demographic disadvantage and the polls, again.


Certainly, these white non-college-educated voters continue to show enthusiasm for Mr. Trump and Republicans — not just in approval polls that have been remarkably stable for four years, but also at the ballot box in 2018.

Two years ago, even without the president on the ballot, white voters without college degrees turned out in numbers not seen in a midterm election in decades.


But Mr. Trump has appeared to generate a countervailing enthusiasm among both educated white voters and minority voters. The turnout of both groups spiked in 2018 as well.


This demographic divide has become a bellwether for political preference: A Trump coalition of white voters without college degrees and a Biden coalition of college-educated white voters — especially women — and minority voters.


If Mr. Trump is to be successful turning out new voters, there are plenty in swing states, which remain bastions of the non-college-educated white vote. But most of these states have also been undergoing the same changes in the electorate as the country as a whole.

And compared with Mr. Trump’s tiny 2016 margins in some of these states, the demographic changes since then are a tsunami, especially in critical states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.


The changes in demographics are driven largely by aging: The non-college-educated white cohort is older and steadily declining as its members die. The Biden coalition is younger and aging into the electorate.

So the changes are mostly at the margins: Those in the silent and older generations are being replaced by younger voters from Gen Z who tend to be better educated, much more Hispanic and generally more liberal. {snip}


[Editor’s note: The original article has graphics that relate these facts in helpful detail.]