President-elect Joe Biden was nominated by Democratic primary voters in large part because of his perceived electability in the general election. Biden proved primary voters right by winning and by doing considerably better than Democratic House candidates.
Yet Biden has won in a way that was perhaps surprising to some. He was the first candidate to win without taking at least Florida or Ohio since 1960. Biden did considerably worse with Hispanics than Hillary Clinton in municipalities throughout the country.
And Biden won the presidency even as President Donald Trump’s base largely stuck with him.
So how’d he do it? Biden’s pathway to victory intensified the gains Clinton made in 2016. In doing so, he became the seventh Democrat in eight times to win the popular vote, which is the first time since 1828 that one party won the popular vote that often in eight straight elections.
Biden wins in the center, proving Trump’s solid base isn’t enough
During Trump’s presidency, the idea of his unmovable base was spoken about so often that it almost became a joke. Trump himself would tweet out (often false numbers) about how well he was doing with Republican voters.
According to the national exit poll, Trump won 92% of the voters who cast a ballot for him in 2016. He also took 85% of self-described conservatives and 94% of self-described Republicans. Trump won only 81% of conservatives and 88% of Republicans back in 2016.
More amazingly, Trump won a larger share of both conservatives and Republicans than any Republican presidential nominee since the first time there was a presidential exit poll in 1972.
If you were looking to determine who would win by whether Trump held onto his base, you’d have been led astray.
Biden emerged victorious by winning an even larger share of the Democratic base than Clinton in 2016 and picking off voters in the middle of the electorate.
Biden earned 89% of self-described liberals and 94% of self-described Democrats. Clinton took 84% of liberals and 89% of Democrats.
In fact, Biden’s 94% among Democrats was the highest ever for a Democratic nominee since the first exit poll in 1972. His 89% among liberals was tied for the highest.
Where Biden won this election, though, was in the middle. His 64% among self-described moderates ran 12 points ahead of Clinton’s. It was the greatest on record for any Democrat since exit polls were implemented.
Among independents, Biden won by 13 points. Clinton lost that group by 4 points. Biden’s win among independents was the largest of any Democratic nominee since 1972.
Biden rebuilds the blue wall – with new parts
But Biden’s win goes deeper than party and ideology. It comes down to education and geography as well.
Before the election, there was a question of whether Biden’s best path to taking back the White House went through the Great Lakes (Rust Belt) or the Sun Belt.
Biden ended up winning states that Trump took 2016 in both the Great Lakes and Sun Belt. The way he did it in both regions was similar. He mostly built on Clinton’s success, rather than win back a lot of 2012 Barack Obama voters. In other words, this election wasn’t determined by those voters interviewed in all those diners after Trump won. They almost uniformly stuck with Trump. It was a different set of voters that won it for Biden.
Let’s start in the Great Lakes.
In Michigan, Clinton did better in five counties than Obama had done in 2012. These were all counties with a higher share of college educated adults than the nation, like Kent in the west and Oakland in the east.
Biden’s margin over Trump relative to Clinton increased by about 120,000 votes in those six counties alone. His margin over Trump in the rest of the state went up by only about 50,000, despite these counties casting a lot more of the statewide vote.
The same held true to an even larger degree in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. There were six Pennsylvania counties where Clinton outperformed Obama. As in Michigan, they all had a larger share of college educated voters than the state as a whole.
Biden’s margin over Trump (relative to Clinton) increased by nearly 140,000 votes in these six counties alone. In the rest of the state, it was actually Trump’s margin that increased by nearly 15,000 over his 2016 performance.
Without maximizing Clinton’s overperformance of Obama, Biden would have lost his birth state.
Pretty much the same thing happened in Wisconsin. There were four counties where Clinton did better than Obama. As a group, they had a higher share of adults with college degrees than the country as a whole.
Biden expanded upon Clinton’s margin by about 65,000 votes in these four counties alone. In the rest of the state, Trump’s margin over Biden increased by a little more than 20,000 relative to where his margin was over Clinton in 2016.
Biden expands on Clinton gains to take Arizona and Georgia
Finally, the story in the Sun Belt was similar. Biden took Clinton’s successes and put them into overdrive.
Biden won two states, Arizona and Georgia, where Clinton did better than Obama did in 2012. The swing to Biden in both of those states was, as of now, more than double the swing he got nationally.
In Arizona, Biden won just one county that Clinton didn’t (Maricopa). That was a county that went from Obama losing by 11 points in 2012 to Clinton losing by 3 points in 2016 to Biden winning by 2 points.
Biden didn’t win a single county in Georgia that Clinton didn’t. Clinton had won three in the Atlanta metropolitan area that Obama didn’t: Cobb, Gwinnett and Henry. What Biden did do was run up the score in these counties. Biden’s margin in them improved from 2 points for Clinton to 14 points in Cobb, from 6 points for Clinton to 18 points in Gwinnett and from 4 points for Clinton to 20 points in Henry.
The bottom line: Biden didn’t rewrite the map or pick apart Trump’s base. For the most part, he didn’t win back the areas that used to be Democratic. Biden’s winning map was a new one that further capitalized on Clinton’s gains in 2016.