Global Intelligence Series

The Mood of the American Voter on the Eve of the 2020 Presidential Election

Date October 20, 2020
Speaker Bruce STOKES (Non-Resident Fellow, German Marshall Fund of the United States)
Moderator SABURI Masataka (Director, PR Strategy, RIETI)


Increasing instability

The American electoral system is becoming increasingly unstable. Change in any democratic system is probably good; i.e., one party rules for a while and then another rules for a while. That's been the case in the past in the US. For example, in the 10 elections between 1960 and 1978, the House, the Senate and/or the White House changed hands three times. Over the next 20 years, 1980 to 1998, four changes happened. But over the last 20 years, the House, the Senate and/or the White House have changed hands eight times. This is a sign of growing instability.

A Pew Research poll found that 83% of Americans say that this a really important election. Gallup found that 75% say the same thing. Numbers this high are unprecedented. One polling question asked every month is, "Do you approve or disapprove of the president's job performance?" The most recent Gallup survey showed President Trump at 42% approval. No president has ever been reelected with an approval rating this low; Trump won in 2016 with 47% of the vote. The US is becoming increasingly partisan in its view of the president. Currently, the difference between Republican approval of Donald Trump and Democratic approval of Donald Trump is 81 percentage points. Every four years, the partisan divide has gotten larger in the United States.

Biden leading consistently

An early October Pew survey showed Biden with a 52% to 42% lead. This is roughly what other major polls have shown. 54% of registered voters think Biden would make good decisions on foreign policy, whereas only 45% percent think Trump would. As for key Trump constituencies, half of whites support Trump. Roughly half of people over 65 support Trump. Roughly half of people with a high school education or less support Trump. Six in ten whites without college degrees support Trump-this represents his strongest base of support. Biden on the other hand is strongly supported by blacks. Seventy-five percent of Asians also support Biden and Biden is particularly popular among people with post-graduate education.

Donald Trump won the 2016 election because many first-time voters came out for him. That increase in new voters won him key battleground states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. An analysis has been done of how many more of those people are out there because Donald Trump has only focused on satisfying his base. He is doubling down on trying to increase his base instead of growing his base by getting people who did not vote even in 2016 to vote in 2020. In some of the key battleground states—Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—there are more non-college-educated whites who did not vote in 2016 there than there are college-educated whites or non-white people who didn't vote in 2016.

This election will be about whether Donald Trump can repeat what he did in 2016 and get new voters to vote for him or whether Joe Biden will be successful in getting college-educated whites who did not vote for Hillary to vote for him. The thinking is that non-whites will vote for Biden, but if Biden and Trump are equally successful in these key states, Trump will win because he will turn out more of his people. Biden is not totally lost. There are more likely Biden voters in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas, and some of these states might go to Biden: Arizona in particular and maybe North Carolina.

Trump's base vs. Biden's base

As you can see from this recent Pew survey, Donald Trump enjoys a huge advantage among white evangelical Protestants, who represent 18% of the US population: 78% support Trump, while only 17% support Biden. Trump is also strongly supported by white men without a college education, who represent 22% of the US population: 62% to 30%. Biden, on the other hand, is particularly strongly supported by white women who have at least a college education. They only represent 13% of the electorate, but Biden has a 28 percentage point advantage with them.

The US is increasingly becoming a minority majority country, and eventually the non-white minorities will outnumber the current white majority. This is happening fast. The non-white population in the United States has grown by 76% since 2000 and that includes a 14% increase among Asian Americans. Whites have grown by 24% but the non-white population is growing three times faster. This is of critical political importance in certain key states. In Florida, the white percentage of the population has fallen 13 percentage points since 2000. In Arizona, it has fallen 12 percentage points. In both cases, that is largely because of the growing Hispanic population. In Pennsylvania, the white population has fallen by seven percentage points.

The composition of US society is changing and this affects voting, but it all depends on party identification. White people are still 11% more likely to identify with the Republican Party. Blacks remain overwhelmingly loyal to the Democratic Party. Asians are increasingly Democratic. In 1995, about half of Asians were voting Democrat. Now, almost three-quarters self-identify as Democrats. However, all that really matters is who shows up to vote. In the US, two-thirds of white people vote in any given election. The percentage of black people who vote was at two-thirds, but it has fallen in recent presidential elections to 60 percent. One of the Biden campaign's key challenges is increasing voter participation by blacks. The fall-off in black voter participation is one of the reasons Hillary Clinton lost. Hispanics and Asians voted at less than a 50 percent rate.

A second issue is age group. The baby boomer generation and the silent generation both vote at about a two-thirds rate. Only 30% of Gen Z votes. Although voter participation by Millennials increased 20 percentage points between 2014 and 2018, they still participate at 20 percentage points below the rate of the baby boomer generation.

Opinions on the issues

How do Americans feel about the issues? Many of you know the old saying in American politics: "It's the economy, stupid." Presidents seeking reelection who faced no recessions in the two years before their reelection campaigns have all won. Only one president—Calvin Coolidge in 1924—seeking reelection who had experienced a recession within two years of his reelection campaign won.

This data would suggest that Trump is in real trouble. Pollsters and politicians both look at how people feel about the economy. On the eve of the election, there was a steep drop-off in attitudes among all Americans once the recession began, but it has begun to rebound. It has certainly rebounded significantly among Republicans. 57% of Republicans now say national economic conditions are excellent or good but only 13% of Democrats agree. 79% of people say that the economy is very important to how they vote. Health care is very close behind as is the coronavirus. Notice that 57% of people say foreign policy is very important as they consider how to vote.

In my 10 years as a pollster, it has been my experience that if you ask people whether something is very important, they tend to say it is, because all things are very important. As you can see, over half the population say most things are very important. It's more important and useful to assess relative importance, and foreign policy is somewhat in the middle of these issues. Notice that only 42% of Americans say climate change is very important in this election. Seven in 10 Biden supporters and almost nine in 10 Trump supporters say the economy is very important. I think we can presume that Trump's supporters say it is very important because they think it is doing well, and Biden supporters say it is very important because it is not doing well. Interestingly, Biden supporters and Trump supporters assign the same importance to foreign policy. Seven in 10 Biden supporters say that climate change is very important. Only 11% of Trump supporters think that climate change is very important to their vote.

Pew also asked people questions about various international issues. Perhaps of greatest interest is question number 2: "Should the United States take into account the interests of other countries even if it means making compromises with them?" 78% of Biden supporters or Democrats answered, "Yes, we should make compromises with other countries," while only 31% of Republicans agree. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs recently asked voters about specific foreign policy issues. When asked whether we should place more tariffs on other countries' goods, 43% of Republicans said yes we should. Only 13% said we should place fewer tariffs on other countries' goods. Asked whether they should sign free trade agreements with other countries, a third said yes, but about half said we should keep it about the same. On the question of whether we should defend our allies' security, half of Republicans said no, keep it about the same. Somewhat reassuring is that only 18% said we should do less defense of other countries. Democrats asked the same question, by a 4 to 1 margin, said we should sign more free trade agreements with other countries. By a 3 to 1 margin, Democrats said we should do more than we do now in defending our allies' security. Finally, on tariffs, by a 3 to 1 margin, Democrats said we should actually do less of that, not more.

Americans increasingly think trade is good for the country. Gone are the days when the American public was knee-jerk protectionist. In general, this Gallup poll shows that 8 in 10 Americans believe the trade is good for the country. Pew found it to be maybe 7 in 10. But, opinions of China have never been more unfavorable in recent history among both Republicans and Democrats. 68% of Democrats have an unfavorable view of China. However, when you ask the question differently—is it more important to get tougher with China than to build a strong relationship with China on economic issues—66% percent of Republicans say we should get tougher with China even if it hurts the economy while only 33% of Democrats agree. There is almost equal support for promoting human rights in China even if it harms economic relations.

Potential for unrest

The predictions are for a tumultuous Election Day and possibly many days after that. Gallup asked people whether they are confident in the accuracy of US elections, and as recently as 2018, a majority of Republicans and Democrats believed in the accuracy of US elections. Now it is about three-quarters of Democrats but only 4 in 10 Republicans. The president, through Twitter, speeches and television interviews, has been raising doubts about the accuracy of US elections and Republicans hear that and have responded. This Pew survey has Biden leading Trump 52 to 42. That data is about a week old. When these same people were asked how they would be voting, a majority of Biden supporters say they will vote in person before Election Day. 69% say they will vote by mail. 63% of Trump supporters say they will vote on Election Day. On election night, it is highly likely that Trump will be ahead in some states because his supporters voted on Election Day and Biden will be behind in part because in the American system, in most states, mail-in votes are not counted until the polls close on Election Day. We will have a same-day vote count of the people who voted on Election Day because this is done by machine and is instantaneously known, but mail-in ballots have to be counted largely by hand. We may have a situation where Trump is ahead on election night and that lead begins to erode as the mail-in ballots are counted. Whether there will be enough to overturn Trump's lead on election night no one knows, but that is probably going to be one of the real tensions in the election.

Voter suppression in the early voting in Georgia in this election is another issue. In black neighborhoods, people were standing in line for 10 hours; in white neighborhoods, they were standing in line for one or two hours. I think it is disturbing that in 2018, only 15% of all voters said they thought it would be difficult to vote on Election Day. Now, 49% of Americans think it will be difficult to vote on Election Day. Only 35% of Republicans think it is going to be difficult to vote but 60% of Democrats say that. Both Republicans and Democrats increasingly think it may be difficult to vote. There have also been allegations by the Republicans almost exclusively that there will be a great deal of voter fraud. In fact, there has in past elections been almost no voter fraud. Republicans have tried to challenge voting processes alleging fraud in nearly 20 states and they have not won a single case. Studies of fraud in American elections show that out of the billions of votes that have been cast since WWII ended, the percentage of fraudulent votes is something on the order of .00037%. Nevertheless, if you watch Fox News, 61% of Republicans believe fraud is a major issue. Only 4% of those who get their news from a liberal news source like MSNBC, The New York Times or The Washington Post think it is a major problem.

Finally, when ABC News and The Washington Post asked people who were saying they would not vote for Trump whether they think there will there will be a crisis if Trump wins. 59% of people who won't vote for Trump say that they expect a crisis after the election. 50% of those who say they are not going to vote for Biden expect a crisis.


Moderator: Many of these changes in terms of information flows, and election fraud, various aspects of flawed processes are sprouting up. I would like to know how this phenomenon is perceived in Europe. Is there any similar kind of tendency within Europe?

A: I'm often asked in other countries where Americans get their information and how this information seems to be so disparate. In other words, people on the right only get their information from Fox News while people on the left only get it from liberal sources. Their worldviews are totally different as a result. I think that this question is often asked by people who are critical of the US. Frankly, when I was growing up, there were three television networks, all of whom presented the news in a fairly middle-of-the-road approach, and so the nation developed a relatively common view of reality. Some people on the left and on the right complained, but for the most part you could tune in to any one of these television networks and get more or less the same news.

Pew has shown that the people who rely on Fox News are much more likely to believe that there will be fraud in this election and to believe horrible things about Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton in the past or Joe Biden today. They have similarly shown that people who get their news from MSNBC or the New York Times, etc. are more likely to be critical of Trump and to see the worst in Trump. Likewise, people who get their news almost exclusively from conservative sources are much more likely to see the other party as a threat to the national welfare; consumers of liberal news sources perceive Republicans in the same way.

Even if Biden does get elected, his ability to enact an agenda has been compromised greatly by this hyperpartisanship. Much of his career occurred in a different era in American politics and I am uncertain about whether we can go back to that cooperation between Republicans and Democrats in Congress. If we cannot, then we are a deeply divided country and even if Donald Trump leaves, 47% of the American public will have voted for him and supported what he has advocated. If some other Republican politician comes forward in four years to claim the mantle as a more disciplined and strategic advocate of Trump's agenda, the partisanship suggests there would be strong support for that.

Moderator: I feel that one of the reasons people are so polarized is that the news became very personalized. You can choose what you like to watch. You can be within your own realm. There is only a small opportunity to exchange ideas. If you agree with this, I would like to know how we can fix this personalized information structure that now dominates the world.

A: I totally agree with you. People walk down the street now with something plugged into their ears. When we are out walking, it is one of the few times in life when you can be alone with your own thoughts. If you are constantly putting stuff in your ears, there is no introspection.

With all the information sources available now, you can arrange it so that you only hear information that you already agree with. People have stopped reading newspapers, and they have stopped browsing in bookstores where you might encounter some book that looks interesting even if you were not there to find that specific book. Now I go on Amazon looking for a specific book and I buy that specific book. It is very efficient but I am not exposed to other sources of information that I might not have known existed. I don't know how to roll that back. We probably can do more in schools to give children the habit of looking at various news sources, but I am not sure whether that would work.

Moderator: I imagine Americans have to learn how to deal with the other group, to do outreach. I think this is lacking. Having such a divided populace, I would like to know how your society can deal with this division.

A: I believe it was in 2013 that the Republican Party concluded that it had to expand its base by developing a message that would appeal to Hispanics, a rapidly growing portion of the population. They never really tried to do that and certainly Trump attacked that group viciously in 2016. I suspect that if Trump loses badly, it will embarrass a lot of Republicans who will also be voted out of office, and this will result in calls to expand the base of the Republican party. The demographics of the US mean that if they do not grow the base in some traditional way, the Republican party is going to be in real trouble. The Democrats face the same challenge in a way. If they win, they will have won because some people who voted for Trump in 2016 switched back to voting Democratic in 2020. Those voters are obviously very changeable, and if you want them to vote for you again in 2024 or 2028, you better think of ways to reach into some of those poorly educated white males and evangelicals who now vote Republican. Both parties need to expand their bases if the country is going to be governable.

WATANABE Tetsuya (RIETI Vice President): Half of the population expects a crisis after Election Day. How long will the process last, assuming that the judicial branch will play a critical role? How will things turn out after Election Day?

A: Counting the mail-in votes in some states could take at least a week. There may be litigation on both sides that could slow down the process as well because the vote counting might have to stop while it plays out in court. The Constitution says that the Electoral College has to meet in early December. I don't think that the uncertainty would extend beyond early December, but ultimately it may have to be decided by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court's decision in 2000 that the counting has to stop by a certain date may become a problem in in this election.

WATANABE: I have another question on changing voter behavior in key swing states. Do you think their behavior may have changed compared to 2016?

A: Yes, the polling suggests there is change in certain areas. Suburban white women seem to be moving towards Biden and away from Trump. Donald Trump won a majority of the white female vote in 2016. He is significantly behind among white women today and that is particularly the case in suburban areas around big cities, in some of these key states. The evangelical protestant vote remains strong for him and it has not changed. Trump is picking up a little bit more support this time among Hispanics. The groups that are not changing are groups like men and women with a college education who supported Clinton in 2016 and now Biden, and older people, who strongly supported Trump in 2016. Trump is still getting about half of their votes but he got much more of their vote in 2016, so people 65 years of age or older are moving toward Biden.

*This summary was compiled by RIETI Editorial staff.