Ten Things We Now Know About White College Voters in the 2020 Election

The Group That Delivered Biden’s Victory

Victory has a thousand fathers as they say and, in the wake of Biden’s victory in the 2020 election, advocates of various stripes have tried to make the case that “their” group was the one really responsible. This is typically done by taking a high margin Democratic group out of the electorate and calculating that Biden couldn’t have won without them or by comparing Biden’s thin vote margins in some states to a particular group’s marginal contributions and declaring them decisive. But the real question is how groups’ preferences changed between 2016 and 2020 and which group’s change made the largest contribution to making up the Democrats’ deficits from the previous election as well as cancelling out gains Trump made in the current election. By these criteria, the clear choice is white college-educated voters. They made the largest and most important contribution to Biden’s victory.

In light of this, I present here ten things we now know about this decisive group in 2020 election. As in previous installments of this series, I rely primarily on the the Catalist data, still the best source for demographics of the 2020 vote and trend compared to previous elections (all figures cited here based on the two-party vote).

1. White college voters moved over 8 margin points toward Biden in 2020, greater than Biden’s gains among white noncollege voters (3 points) and starkly different from nonwhite voters who actually moved toward Trump.

2. White college voters were 28 percent of the overall vote in 2020, about the same size as the nonwhite vote. Both are dwarfed by the size (44 percent) of the white noncollege vote.

3. White college voters were 29 percent of Biden’s vote in 2020, actually slightly less than the white noncollege share of his supporters.

4. Pro-Biden shifts among white college voters were greatest in the suburbs—over 10 points. However, rural white college voters also moved over 7 points toward Biden. Interestingly, urban white college voters shifted the least—around 4 points.

5. Suburban white college voters were around 17 percent of the overall vote in 2020 and a little less than one-third of the overall suburban vote.

6. Among white college-educated voters, men shifted toward Biden substantially more than women—11 points vs. 6 points. You could reasonably argue that this group of men should be the poster child, as it were, for Biden’s victory.

7. Biden actually split white college men evenly in 2020. This is a 16 point improvement for the Democrats relative to 2012.

8. White college turnout went up in 2020, as it did for almost all groups, but it went up less than white noncollege turnout.  The increase in white noncollege turnout was also greater than the turnout increases among black and Latino voters. (Census data).

9. These general patterns appear to apply to most swing states where Biden made improvements over Clinton in 2020. This includes the decisive contribution of the white college vote to Biden’s victory. For example, in Arizona available data indicate that white voters, driven by white college-educated voters, contributed around 5 points to Biden’s improved margin in the state, more than enough to account for the shift in Arizona to a Democratic advantage in 2020. Thus, it was educated whites, not Hispanics, who won Arizona for Biden. 

10. Georgia is another example. The Democratic shift from a deficit in 2016 to an advantage in 2020 can be accounted for almost entirely by a sharp shift toward the Democrats among white voters, especially white college-educated voters. As with Arizona, this shift was the major factor behind Democrats carrying the state.

Together, these data suggest that a central task for the Democrats is figuring out how to retain these improved levels of white college support. Otherwise, they could find themselves slipping back in some key states where they’ve made gains. At the risk of pointing out the obvious, Democrats’ margins in many states are way too thin to afford such slippage, particularly as they stare down the barrel of a 2022 election without Trump on the ballot.