The Election’s Big Twist: The Racial Gap Is Shrinking

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American politicians, including presidents, have often sought to exploit the nation’s racial and ethnic divides for political gain. During the Trump era, voters are not responding as expected.

The gap in presidential vote preference between white and nonwhite voters has shrunk by a surprising 16 percentage points since 2016, according to an Upshot analysis of pre-election polls, as Joe Biden gains among white voters and President Trump makes inroads among Black and Hispanic voters.

Mr. Trump’s exploitation of resentments over immigration and race was widely credited with fueling his upset victory in 2016, but similar tactics this time have not had the same effect. The president has so far failed to reassemble his coalition of white voters without a college degree across the Northern battleground states, and polls show that many white voters have been repelled by his handling of race, criminal justice and recent protests.

The decrease in racial polarization defies the expectations of many analysts, who believed a campaign focused on appeals to issues like Black Lives Matter or law and order would do the opposite. It may also upset the hopes of some activists on the left who viewed an embrace of more progressive policies on race as a way to help Democrats carve a new path to the presidency. This path would have been powered by overwhelming support from nonwhite voters, reducing the need to cater to the more conservative white voters who backed Mr. Trump four years ago. Instead, Mr. Biden leads because of gains among those very voters.

With the election less than a week away, there is still time for voter preferences to move toward those of the 2016 campaign. Back then, polls suggested Hillary Clinton was narrowly ahead in the national popular vote, yet hinted at Mr. Trump’s path to victory by showing his huge gains among white voters without a degree. Today, the same national surveys offer no comparable hint of strength for Mr. Trump among white voters.

The president’s pitch hasn’t resonated even among the kinds of voters who seem likeliest to be receptive. Trish Thompson, 69, a white Republican who works as a security guard for pipeline and fracking lands in Brownsville, Texas, voted for Mr. Trump in 2016. This time she will vote for Mr. Biden — as a vote against Mr. Trump and his “appalling” handling of the pandemic and “his misogynistic behavior and his inability to acknowledge his racial discrimination.”

Over all, Mr. Trump leads among white voters by only five points in high-quality surveys conducted since the Republican National Convention in August, compared with a 13point advantage in the final surveys before the 2016 election. Not only does Mr. Trump fall short of his own lead with that group from 2016, but he also underperforms every recent Republican presidential candidate since Bob Dole in 1996.

Mr. Biden’s gains among white voters are broad, spanning not only the groups expected to shift toward him — like white suburban women — but also the white working-class voters across the Northern battleground states who represented the president’s decisive strength four years ago.

Over all, Mr. Trump leads by 21 points among white voters without a degree, 58 percent to 37 percent, compared with his 29-point edge (59-30) in the final polls in 2016. His position with these voters is still strong for a Republican — in fact, that 21-point lead is the largest for a Republican in recent memory. But while he still runs ahead of Mitt Romney among this group, he faces a daunting deficit among the remainder of the electorate.

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By contrast, white college graduates back Mr. Biden by 21 points in recent polls, up from a 13-point edge for Mrs. Clinton in the final polls four years ago.

Mr. Trump tried to win over white voters with a conservative pitch on race and policing. Instead, Mr. Biden steadily gained among white voters in the spring and particularly in June, after the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police. National surveys showed that white voters overwhelmingly disapproved of the president’s handling of the protests in the aftermath of Mr. Floyd’s death, according to Times/Siena polling.

The president’s pivot to “law and order” amid unrest over the summer did not help him. In the final Times/Siena national survey, Mr. Biden led Mr. Trump by seven points on who would do a better job on “law and order.” Mr. Trump also failed to claim an edge on the issue in Times/Siena polls of Wisconsin and Minnesota, where the president’s team believed that unrest in Kenosha and Minneapolis could work to the president’s advantage.

The president’s weakness among white voters has eroded the party’s traditional structural advantages in the Electoral College, the House and the Senate, endangering the Republican hold on a tier of overwhelmingly white districts and states where Democrats usually don’t have much of a chance, like Kansas or Montana.

Mr. Biden has tended to make his largest gains across the Northern United States — in exactly the places where the president made his largest gains four years ago. In contrast, Mr. Trump’s support has proved resilient in the Deep South, where upward of 95 percent of the president’s former supporters say they back his re-election, giving him a better chance to weather demographic shifts in the region.

The president’s standing in the Sun Belt is bolstered by perhaps the single most surprising demographic trend of the cycle: his gains among nonwhite voters.

In recent national polls, Mr. Biden leads by 42 points among nonwhite voters, 66 percent to 24 percent. It’s about nine points worse than Mrs. Clinton’s 51-point lead in the final 2016 surveys.

Mr. Biden has lost almost exactly as much ground among nonwhite voters as he has gained among white voters, but trading nonwhite for white voters is a favorable deal for Mr. Biden. White voters outnumber nonwhite voters by more than two to one, and by an even greater ratio in the most important battleground states.

In a longer-term compilation of polling since June, Mr. Trump’s gains appear to include both Black and Latino voters, though exact measurement of such smaller groups is challenging. It’s even harder to measure subgroups: say, Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County.

The Times/Siena surveys suggest that the president’s strength is particularly significant among Hispanic voters. Across those surveys since September, Mr. Biden holds only an 84-7 lead among Hispanic voters who said they backed Mrs. Clinton four years ago, compared with a 93-2 lead among Black voters and a 94-3 lead among white voters.

The president’s strength among nonwhite voters represents an increasingly vital element of his possible path to re-election. It helps him counter a serious weakness among older white voters in the pivotal state of Florida and in other Sun Belt battlegrounds, including Nevada, which Mrs. Clinton carried four years ago.

In Times/Siena polling so far this fall, Black and Hispanic voters appear somewhat receptive to the kinds of conservative messages usually derided as racist dog whistles. In polling in September, for example, nonwhite voters split roughly evenly on whether “law and order” or the coronavirus was more important to their presidential vote. Nonwhite voters were likelier to say they thought Mr. Trump would do a better job handling “law and order” than they were to say they supported him over Mr. Biden.

It was not the first time this cycle that nonwhite voters defied the hopes of progressive activists. Black Democrats in Virginia were likelier than white Democrats to say Ralph Northam should remain as governor after the revelation of a 35-year-old racist photo on his medical school yearbook page. And Black voters backed Mr. Biden by overwhelming margins over a variety of more progressive challengers in the primary, despite his often conservative record on race and policing.

Many progressive policies for systematic change, like reparations for the descendants of slaves, defunding the police or removing Confederate monuments, fail to attract strong support in polls, suggesting that a focus on these issues could risk eroding Democratic standing. It also suggests a widening gap between the views of progressive activists and the rank-and-file of nonwhite voters.

While American politics has become less polarized along racial lines during the Trump era, the gender gap has grown. In Times/Siena surveys since September, Mr. Biden has a mere seven-point lead among Hispanic men and a 37-point lead among Hispanic women — even larger than the 20-point gender gap among white voters. And while the gender gap is smaller among Black voters, Mr. Biden has a relatively poor 78-11 lead among Black men in the Times/Siena poll.

Nonwhite men may like the president for the same kind of reasons that white men do, like a macho appeal. And the president’s populism may have some appeal to blue-collar men of all races and ethnic groups. Hispanic voters said they preferred Mr. Biden over Mr. Trump to handle the economy, but by only an eight-point margin.

Matthew Plummer, a 42-year-old Hispanic trucker in Carson City, Nev., usually votes Democratic, including for Mrs. Clinton. But he now backs Mr. Trump.

“I just want government to get back to government instead of playing games and pointing fingers, and it seems like that’s what the Democratic Party is doing,” he said. Although not a fan of Mr. Trump as a person, he said he had achieved things like improving the economy and opening conversations with North Korea.

“It seems like they’re really laying in bed with lobbyists, big pharma, all these people who just want to push big business,” he said, referring to Democrats, “as opposed to getting back to middle-class, blue-collar, regular good old folk.”


Claire Cain Miller contributed reporting.