Lyon College political science professor analyzes Presidential election trends

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Recounts in swing states have ended, virtually all lawsuits have been dismissed, and most people have come to the conclusion that former Vice President Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential contest.

Biden, who garnered a record of more than 81.28 million votes to go along with an expected 306 electoral votes, secured one of the widest presidential wins in modern history.

Dr. Scott Roulier, author and professor of political philosophy and social sciences at Lyon College, told Talk Business & Politics there have been interesting shifts among voters in recent election cycles, but one thing is for sure.

“We are an evenly-divided electorate, there’s no question about it,” Roulier said.

Conducting “election autopsies” after the votes are counted is always interesting and 2020 was no exception, he said. Biden was able to recapture a number of Midwestern states including Michigan and Wisconsin and he was able to pick off reliably red states such as Georgia and Arizona. Trump easily won Ohio and Iowa, states that had been competitive in recent cycles, and he overperformed in the swing state of Florida.

What political scientists are learning is that non-college educated whites flocked to Trump during the cycle, while college educated whites, African Americans and a plurality of Latino voters propelled Biden to the White House.

An obvious finding is that Latino voters, sometimes referred to as LatinX, are not a monolithic voting bloc. In Florida, those of Cuban descent overwhelmingly supported Trump, while those of Puerto Rican descent voted heavily in favor of Biden, he said. It would also explain why Biden seems to have overperformed in Arizona, but underperformed expectations in Texas, two states with large Latino voting constituencies.

There were other small surprises. Biden did better with evangelicals, especially Catholics, and Trump overperformed in several places with Latino and Black men.

Two other glaring trends helped to sow confusion in the days following the election — the red mirage and the blue shift. Elections watchers have noticed for multiple election cycles that Republicans tend to do better on election night, creating a “red mirage.” The reason is simple. Republican voters tend to vote more heavily on Election Day, while Democrat voters tend to opt for early voting and mail-in ballots, Roulier said. In several states, early and absentee ballots are counted later, sometimes several days later depending on the number of mail ballots. This leads to a “blue shift” in which Democrat candidates pick up significant votes in the days following the election.

The trends are not surprising or even noteworthy in most elections, but the hyper-partisan presidential race this year left many Republicans feeling scorned and suspicious as the days progressed and Biden garnered more votes in key states.

The base of both parties finds its roots in the New Deal era under President Franklin Roosevelt more than 80 years ago, Roulier said. The Democrats pulled together a coalition of working-class white voters, minorities, and progressives to form a powerful voting bloc that controlled the Rust Belt states of the upper Midwest and in parts of the South and Northeast sections of the country.

Cities like Detroit, Cleveland and others were the wealth centers in the country at the time. Democrats dominated national politics from 1932 through 1968 with only one Republican, Dwight Eisenhower, winning the White House. During that period, Democrats mostly held control of Congress.

The Republican Party base resided in the suburbs and among college educated white voters. During the 1968 campaign, the GOP began to make in-roads with white voters in the South for several reasons, according to the Cambridge Press Journal of Policy History. Nixon’s campaign adopted a strategy that has been termed the “Southern strategy” by picking up white voters who were leery of the Civil Rights movement.

Another pocket of voters, evangelicals, that are also dominant in the region, started to gravitate towards the Grand Old Party. Nixon, in 1972, and then later President Ronald Reagan, in 1980 and 1984, were able to secure mammoth electoral college wins by picking off voters that were previously part of the Democratic New Deal era coalition, Roulier said.

During the 1990s, President Bill Clinton was able, to a degree, to re-establish parts of the FDR’s coalition and was able to secure two convincing presidential wins.

As the new century dawned, there were several shifts in the electorate. Bellwether states, such as Ohio and Missouri, became more reliably Republican and in the upper Midwest, states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania became more competitive. Democrats solidified their hold on both coasts and in the Northeast. Republicans held a virtual stranglehold throughout the South, but in some states that trend began to change as the first two decades of the century unfurled.

Roulier said there is a good explanation for what is happening in a few southern states such as Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia. For decades Republicans controlled those states and passed legislation that was owner and investor friendly for companies that wanted to start off or locate there.

Add to that a culture where workers rights are more restricted and it becomes more appealing to certain sectors such as manufacturing. In the Rust Belt, workers’ unions remain powerful and costly for companies. As the last several decades passed, there was a migration of manufacturing jobs to the South.

In addition, technology-related jobs began to spring up in places such as the Washington, D.C., suburbs in northern Virginia, Atlanta, and in the “Research Triangle” near Durham, N.C. The influx of young college educated workers in the region have become a crucial component in the electorate change toward Democrats, Roulier said.

Working-class white voters, once the backbone of the Democrat Party, have shifted toward the Republican Party which has led to states in the Midwest becoming more competitive. This trend culminated in 2016 when Trump collapsed the so-called blue wall of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Biden was able to recapture those states this election cycle, but the margins were much smaller than Democrats are used to winning within those states.

President Barack Obama’s landslide win in 2008 and re-election in 2012 highlighted the changes in the South and in the suburbs that surround large cities. Republicans typically performed better with college educated and suburban voters, but Democrats have lured many of those voters into their camp. As more college educated voters flood population centers in the South, other reliably Republican states such as Texas could shift closer to the Democrats, he added.

Predicting what will happen in the next election cycle could prove to be a fool’s errand, Roulier said, and there is one unknowable factor — Trump. The president was able to amass 74.22 million votes nationwide, the second most ever in a presidential race. Participation in the contest was the highest in more than a century.

“There’s no doubt Trump was able to pull people into the process that don’t normally vote. … It might be a reason why the polling was off in some states,” Roulier said. “What we will find out is if these voters are just Trump voters or are they Republican voters. We will see.”