(Bloomberg) — Ecstatic Joe Biden supporters spilled into the streets of major cities on Saturday, but the intensity of their celebrations overstated his victory in an election that illustrated the nation’s stark political divisions and the difficulty he’ll encounter trying to govern.
The former vice president gained among one key Democratic constituency, union members, according to data from exit polls, and held onto the party’s advantage among women while drawing more men. But it was hardly enough to claim a sweeping mandate in a country where just under half of voters wanted Republican Donald Trump to remain president.
Biden managed to defeat an incumbent president, the first time that’s happened in 28 years, and is ahead of Trump by more than 4 million votes. But Trump’s vote tally — nearly 71 million — was a record for a losing candidate and would have won the popular vote over Hillary Clinton in 2016.
There is little appetite for reconciliation or cooperation among voters in either party, and Biden’s opponents will be especially embittered after his predecessor, Trump, sought to undermine the legitimacy of the election by making unfounded claims of fraud. Trump has insisted that he won the election, without evidence, and is pursuing legal challenges in several closely fought states.
Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris declared victory in celebratory speeches Saturday evening. He’s received congratulations from many foreign leaders and from both President Barack Obama and President George W. Bush, a Republican.
Exit polls tell the story of an election that turned on shifts in the allegiances of narrow slices of the electorate.
Biden won union members by 17 points, compared to 9 points for Hillary Clinton in 2016. They are an especially important constituency in the three industrial states that helped decide both the 2016 and 2020 elections — Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
He lost among several important subsets of the electorate by much narrower margins than Clinton. Biden closed the gap with Trump among veterans, by 19 points; married men, by 12 points; and seniors, by four points, according to data from the National Election Pool exit polls conducted by Edison Research and published by CNN.
About 8% of people who voted for Trump in 2016 switched to Biden in 2020, while 4% of Clinton voters cast a ballot for Trump this year.
Trump won the support of 57% of White voters. But in a troubling trend for the future of the Republican Party, they made up a smaller proportion of the electorate than in 2016 — 65% this year, versus 71% four years ago.
Biden lost some ground among voters of color — a group Trump tried to target — though he still won the vast majority. Biden didn’t do as well as Clinton among Black voters and narrowly fell behind her totals with Latina women, according Edison Research’s data. He outperformed Clinton with Latino men.
Biden risks the same fate that befell the last two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who swept to power only to see the country rebel and shift quickly back toward Republicans in midterm elections.
Stronger Than Trump
Still, Biden’s mandate is stronger than Trump’s in 2016, when he lost the popular vote by about 3 million votes.
Biden won at least 290 Electoral College votes, the AP said, 20 more than needed to secure the presidency. He’ll finish with 306 if he wins Georgia, where he leads by more than 10,000 votes. In 2016, Trump won 306 before losing two “faithless electors,” a margin the president has repeatedly described as a “landslide.”
Democrats held onto control of the House of Representatives, though Republicans gained seats. Control of the Senate hinges on the results of a pair of Georgia runoffs next month. If the Democrats are defeated, Republicans will retain power, a recipe for at least two years of stalemate.
Biden’s legislative goals would be imperiled, including strengthening the Affordable Care Act and raising taxes on corporations and high earners would imperil his legislative goals.
But Biden will still wield considerable power to restore an agenda that Obama implemented by executive order and Trump largely dismantled with the stroke of a pen. Biden, who served as Obama’s vice president, can restore U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement on climate change, relax sanctions against Iran and re-enter Obama’s nuclear deal with that country, increase the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. and reinstate some protections for undocumented immigrants.
Testing Biden’s Pledge
Biden’s narrow victory and Trump’s dispute of the result will put to the test Biden’s pledge to be a president for all Americans. The election results reflected an electorate with divisions across racial, geographic and political lines that Trump stoked for four years.
And the campaign was a battle over who could motivate voters during a pandemic that added risk to the physical act of casting a ballot.
Trump lost women’s votes by 13 points, the same deficit as in 2016. Much of the movement of votes from Trump to Biden was among men, who who favored Trump by 11 points four years ago but only by a single point this year, according to the exit polls.
Trump lost ground among one of his strongest demographics — White men without a college education. He won them by 37 points in 2020, compared to 45 points four years ago.
Voters were more energized by the Supreme Court than they were four years ago, particularly Democrats. Among voters who said Supreme Court appointments were an important factor in their vote, Biden had a six-point advantage. Four years ago, Trump had the advantage by two points. And among those who said it was the single most important factor, Trump’s advantage shrunk by nine points.
Biden said Saturday that his victory is a mandate to address racial injustice. Those who believe the system treats all people fairly voted overwhelmingly for Trump; those who say Black people are treated unfairly voted overwhelmingly for Biden.
More Americans now say police treat Black citizens unfairly than on Election Day 2016.
Democrats had hoped for a clean break with the Trump era, with Biden’s victory redefining Trump’s term in office as a temporary interruption of the Obama era rather than a recipe for a sustainable Republican majority. But with the result so close — and Trump claiming responsibility for Republican gains in Congress — the party has little incentive to repudiate the more controversial parts of the outgoing president’s economic and national security agenda, including hard-line stances on trade, immigration and military alliances.
The election was more of a referendum on Trump, and his handling of the pandemic, than an endorsement of Biden and his moderate agenda. An Associated Press exit poll found 63% of voters said their vote was either for or against Trump — and only 35% were voting for or against Biden.
The “red wave” of in-person voting that Trump forecast for Election Day fell short of overcoming Biden’s absentee advantage.
The former vice president’s path to the presidency mimicked the one he took to the nomination — leveraging strength in key demographic groups and a broad Democratic desire to simply defeat Trump, even while papering over his own shortcomings. Republicans derided Biden for campaigning largely from his Delaware basement, where he had less opportunity to demonstrate his reputation for gaffes.
Trump punctuated his speeches in recent weeks with disbelief over the prospect of a Biden victory. “How can you lose to a guy like this?” he asked a week ago in Arizona, a state he won handily in 2016 but lost to Biden, according to the AP and Fox News.
Whither the GOP?
Now 74 and facing possible financial and legal trouble in his post-presidential life, Trump’s role in his adopted party going forward remains unclear. His popularity with GOP voters will likely give him influence over the heir to his populist movement, but his narrow loss leaves it unclear who that heir will be — or whether Trump himself might run again in 2024.
Trump cultivated a Republican base that relied heavily on White people without college degrees and evangelical Christians. But since Trump has been president, White voters without college degrees have dropped from 45% of eligible voters to 41%, as the population becomes more diverse and educated, according to the Brookings Institution.
And the percentage of those identifying as evangelical Christians has dropped 3 points over the past decade to 25% of U.S. adults, according to the Pew Research Center.
Although Trump improved his share of the Latino vote, its growing numbers and continued Democratic tilt will force Republicans to once again reckon with long-term demographic changes that will make future victories more difficult.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.