Americans will be dissecting the 2020 election for years to come, with analysts and ordinary voters alike parsing who voted for whom and wondering why this race was such a nail-biter. But amid all the remaining uncertainty, one thing is abundantly clear: White people, yet again, showed up for Donald Trump.
In 2016, white voters propelled Trump to the presidency, with 54 percent voting for him and 39 percent voting for Hillary Clinton, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center study. And though the end result might be different in 2020 — exit polls are by no means comprehensive or exact — early evidence shows that white people’s voting patterns look much the same: 57 percent of this group voted to reelect the president while 42 percent voted for Democratic challenger Joe Biden, according to Edison Research’s exit polls of 15,590 voters conducted outside their polling places, at early voting sites, or by phone. That makes white people the only racial group in which a majority voted for Trump, as Charles M. Blow notes at the New York Times.
But much media coverage immediately after Election Day focused on groups that made up much smaller parts of Trump’s coalition, especially Latinx voters, 32 percent of whom voted for the president, and Black voters, just 12 percent of whom did, according to the Edison Research data. News stories charged Latinx voters with helping to “sink” Biden in Florida, and journalists began to analyze Black and Latinx voting patterns region by region with the hope of figuring out why some voters from these groups turned out for Trump.
It’s true that Trump appears to have gained about 3 percentage points each with Black, Latinx, and Asian American voters since 2016 (exit polls appear not to have broken out Indigenous voters, instead lumping them into the category of “other”). And pointing out that none of these groups are monolithic is an important corrective to the inaccurate idea that “people of color” are homogenous or always vote as a bloc.
But it’s also increasingly clear that Black, Latinx, and Indigenous voters were core to giving Biden an edge in key swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Arizona. And as analysts drill down into what happened on Election Day in states and counties around the country, it’s crucial not to lose sight of what’s staring us in the face: The support Trump has always received from white people.
This year, the majority of white Americans voted for Trump, even after a recession and a botched response to a pandemic that has left more than 200,000 dead. And if we simply treat this fact as obvious while Black and Latinx votes are worthy of analysis, we essentially give white voters a pass for backing a racist campaign — twice.
“White voters seem even more likely to vote for Trump in 2020 than in 2016, in large numbers in the majority,” Chryl Laird, assistant professor of government at Bowdoin College and coauthor of the book Steadfast Democrats: How Social Forces Shape Black Political Behavior, told Vox. “What does that say about the progress that we’ve made?”
In what seems like a tight race, there’s been a lot of focus on voters of color
The focus on voters of color started on election night. Trump took Florida, one of the first states to be called, creating the impression among many liberals that Biden was on the edge of losing. Many were looking for answers, and one that got a lot of attention was the fact that Biden had underperformed Hillary Clinton in Miami-Dade County, home to many Cuban-American voters.
In the last two days, we’ve seen numerous examinations of what happened in Miami-Dade, as well as lots of focus on Trump’s gains among Black men nationwide. The fact that Trump appears to have picked up votes since 2016 with every racial group except white men also got a lot of attention (though what appears to be a small gain among white women has been less remarked upon).
It’s perhaps not surprising that voters of color who cast their ballots for Trump have gotten so much focus — after all, Trump has made racism the core of his pitch to voters from the very beginning, when he called Mexicans “rapists” in his 2015 speech launching his first campaign. But as many have pointed out, there’s a lot of diversity among Latinx voters in the US — a categorization that covers almost 60 million people who represent more than 15 origin countries and encompass a range of generational, socioeconomic, and religious identities — and not all of them necessarily had Trump’s 2015 comments top of mind on Tuesday.
What’s more, Trump has made specific outreach to Cuban and Venezuelan Americans in recent weeks while the Biden campaign has been criticized for neglecting Black and Latinx voters. Analysis of their voting patterns — as well as those of Asian American and Indigenous voters — in the coming weeks could help push back against Democrats’ tendency to take these groups of voters for granted.
But an increasingly clear picture is also emerging of Black voters in Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania helping push Biden to victory — and of Latinx and Indigenous voters in Arizona and elsewhere making a big difference as well. And while much attention has been paid to the minorities of voters of color who cast their ballots for Trump, there’s been less acknowledgment that according to exit polls, the majority of those voters — 87 percent of Black voters, 66 percent of Latinx voters, and 63 percent of Asian American voters — chose Biden.
Instead, as artist and activist Bree Newsome Bass wrote on Thursday, there’s been a tendency “to scapegoat Black voters for a close election.”
While Biden ultimately defeated Trump, there have been many efforts to identify the blind spot or weakness among Democrats that led to a close election in the midst of a devastating pandemic. But the answer has always been there: White people once again largely backed a president who champions a brand of nationalism that is steeped in racism and xenophobia.
White people have always been the key to Donald Trump’s success
Despite his gains among voters of color, Trump’s base has always been white people. That didn’t change in 2020, when a majority of white voters backed him. And since white voters comprise the majority of the electorate — 65 percent according to Edison Research — they make up by far the largest bloc to support him. Black and Latinx voters, meanwhile, make up 12 and 13 percent, respectively.
Much attention has been paid to a tide shift among white people in recent months. It was just this summer that many white people were said to be experiencing a great awakening, a moment when anti-racism books were flying off the shelves and participants pledged to do better by learning about white supremacy and how to dismantle it. (But let’s face it, white people buying anti-racism books probably weren’t going to vote for Trump in the first place. After all, only 16 percent of white Republicans expressed at least some support for the Black Lives Matter movement in a September survey, down from 37 percent in June.)
A big part of progressives’ mission this year was getting more white people to vote against Trump. But the reality is grim: The presidential race was much closer than predicted, and that’s after Trump’s zero-tolerance family separation policy, after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor that Trump did not denounce, after Covid-19 ravaged the country, and after Trump’s impeachment. There has been no widespread rejection of Trump or white supremacy among white Trump supporters or even former supporters.
Perhaps there’s been little discussion about why white people voted for Trump because America has long taken for granted that white people will vote in their best interest — and that’s voting for whiteness regardless of their socioeconomic status or the level of education they’ve attained. There’s Trump’s most hardcore base — the vast majority of whom are white Americans who see no problem with what the president has said and done from the moment he announced his candidacy. They get riled up when he says “send her back!” of a congresswoman and tells the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” or when he implements a Muslim travel ban. “They’re aligned with him completely,” Laird told Vox.
Then there’s another group of white voters who aren’t completely aligned with Trump but look past what they dislike about him in favor of his stance on the issues that concern them the most. For example, there may be Trump voters who disagree with Trump’s racist rhetoric but don’t care enough to be dissuaded from backing him because they are pro-life or in favor of gun rights or oppose tax increases on the wealthy. They may be able to conveniently look away from his child separation policies because they like his promise to put America first. Instead of grappling with why anti-racism protests broke in small towns and cities across the nation, they just want things to go back to normal; “law and order” seems like a good solution.
Ultimately, many white voters are simply attached to what Trump represents. “These voters are very much about the idea that the status quo isn’t a problem and that we should make America great again back when we didn’t have to worry about PC culture,” Laird said. “Because when you’re in power, why would you give it up?”
This includes white women, who seem to have backed Trump in similar or even greater numbers this election than they did in 2016 — 55 percent of white female voters cast their ballots for Trump, according to Edison Research exit polls, while 43 percent voted for Biden. White women’s support for Trump has historical precedent — they have long been able to gain power in a sexist society by allying themselves with white supremacy. As historian Stephanie Jones-Rogers told Vox in 2018, “White girls and women were able to exercise power in this nation, from its colonial beginnings, because of their whiteness.” Even against this backdrop, though the fact that a large share of white women seem to have voted to reelect Trump in the midst of a recession and nationwide child care crisis that have affected women most deeply is certainly deserving of scrutiny in the weeks and months to come.
Meanwhile, Trump actually lost some ground with white men in 2020 relative to 2016. However, he still captured a majority, with 58 percent of this group voting for him compared with 40 percent for Biden. There has yet to be much analysis of Trump’s losses among white men — or what role the presence of a male candidate, rather than Hillary Clinton, at the top of the Democratic ticket played in this group’s choices in 2020.
Similarly, white youth were the likeliest to support Trump, with 43 percent of white voters between ages 18 and 29 voting for Trump, according to exit poll data analyzed by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. By comparison, just 9 percent of young Black voters, 13 percent of young Asian voters, and 21 percent of young Latino voters backed Trump.
White people have been privileged to evade being at the center of the identity politics debate because America normalizes whiteness. While other voters are solely discussed according to their broad-strokes racial groups, white people are free to deflect and scapegoat these other groups, especially in times of fear and uncertainty. Blatantly ignoring how white people vote proves the power structure is not willing to hold a mirror up to itself.
Biden has defeated Trump, and while there are many factors that have contributed to that victory, one of them is the high voter turnout among Black and Latinx voters. Equally important, though, is underscoring the fact that the majority of white American voters had little to do with it.