People cast their votes in Hillsboro, Virginia, on November 3. Voting groups are becoming less lopsided, but that is not the same as voters becoming less polarised © AFP via Getty Images

At the time of writing, the vote count continues in the US presidential election, and will hopefully do so until every vote is counted despite President Donald Trump’s unconscionable attempt to prevent it. While it looks like Joe Biden will wrest the presidency from Trump, the results will still leave Democrats disappointed. The victory will be less emphatic than polls had suggested (though the commanding lead in national polling is borne out better than many state polls in swing states). And above all, even if he loses, Trump has increased his vote share compared with 2016. This was not the overwhelming rejection of Trumpism his opponents had hoped voters would deliver.

That makes it all the more interesting to examine who voted and how, and try to glean some insight about what is driving voter behaviour. While waiting for the votes, then, let us take a look at the exit polls.

Now, exit polls should be treated with caution — all the more so this year. At the best of times, exit polls are hard to get right and can be superseded by more thorough but less immediate surveys; this year’s record early and mail-in voting makes it even harder to get a representative sample of voters. Against this, it could be argued that changes in polling responses from 2016 to 2020 are less distorted by problems that affect exit polling at all times. Even so, all the data given below come with a strong health warning.

That being said, what picture can we tentatively paint from 2020 exit poll data when we compare it with the (by now much better) data we have on voters’ behaviour in 2016?

Some observers have seen in the exit polls a sign that polarisation is becoming less severe. The finding this interpretation is based on is that within demographic voter groups, the percentage point margin between the Republican and Democratic vote share has shrunk. As my FT colleagues’ chart below makes clear, the support share for each of the two major parties has moved closer to 50-50 in most voter groups defined by gender or ethnic or educational background.

Chart showing that exit polls suggest Trump lost support among white men, but gained ground among Hispanic and black voters

There are more ways to slice the voter data that show margins shrinking. In the exit polls reported by the New York Times, the urban-rural split seems to have diminished somewhat from 2016 to 2020. Hillary Clinton’s 24-point advantage in cities with more than 50,000 people fell slightly to 23 for Biden; Trump’s lead in rural areas collapsed from 28 to nine points. Trump has also lost almost his entire lead among male voters.

All this shows that voting groups are becoming less lopsided. But that is not the same as voters becoming less polarised.

First, because the rebalancing within voting groups is not universal. For example, young voters have become even more predominantly Democratic than in 2016, according to CNN’s analysis of the same exit polls. (But Trump’s advantage among the oldest voters has almost vanished, perhaps due to his handling of the pandemic.) In terms of incomes, the Democratic lead among the lowest-paid has strengthened, while Trump’s narrow advantage among the highest-paid in 2016 has grown to an 11-point lead.

We can also look at the actual voting results by states where almost all votes have been counted. That shows a shift towards Democrats in many states Trump won in 2016 — but that shift seems on average bigger in the states Clinton won last time. So this is at best a one-sided rebalancing.

Second, voter groups could, in principle, become more balanced at the national level but more polarised at local level. For example, in the three battleground states of Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, exit polls show the Republicans’ rural advantage increased compared with 2016.

Finally, however, is the bigger point that rebalancing by itself does not mean a less polarised electorate. As my colleague Ed Luce points out in his Swamp Notes exchange with Rana Foroohar (do sign up to receive Swamp Notes in your inbox): “We may be shocked that what could be roughly 48 per cent of America voted for Trump after all that has happened, especially on Covid. But they, in turn, would be shocked that 52 per cent of America voted for what they see as an ageing prisoner of far-left forces. If this election has taught us anything (so far) it is that Americans inhabit separate universes.”

All that may be happening, then, is that those separate universes now split every voting group more closely down the middle, while in the past some groups plumped more collectively for one or the other. This, for example, seems to be what is behind Trump’s inroads into the “Latino vote”, as my colleague John Paul Rathbone describes. Political tribalism is becoming a dimension of polarisation in its own right rather than simply intensifying old cleavages — but it is not clear to me that this is something to celebrate.

US presidential election 2020

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A recent study by the LSE’s Andrés Rodríguez-Pose, Neil Lee and Cornelius Lipp has a finding that is useful in thinking about this. They establish that in 2016, the decisive voter mobilisation for Trump came from places that combined long-term economic decline with strong social capital — ie high social cohesiveness. Referring to political scientist Robert Putnam’s influential thesis that Americans have become less tight-knit and are increasingly “bowling alone”, the authors write: “Places in the US that remained cohesive but witnessed an enduring decline are no longer bowling alone, they are golfing with Trump.”

What does social capital help you do? It helps you nurture a sense of common identity — and, in particular, one that is linked to economic adversity for the group you belong to, if not for you individually. In that light, it should not be so surprising that Trump has managed to consolidate his support even in the face of economic crisis. Indeed, an economically threatening environment may help him broaden the identity with which his voters seem to identify. The lesson for the Democrats, meanwhile, is that electoral contests driven by identity politics work well for those who can appeal to the biggest identity-based groups. They may do better by leaving identity politics behind and focus wholeheartedly on policymaking.

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