New voters gave Biden a boost, but not everywhere

The highest voter turnout in more than a century brought out millions of new voters for the presidential race, powering former vice president Joe Biden’s win.

Though Biden benefited the most from the record-high turnout, according to the tabulations now nearing an end, Democratic gains were uneven. In some areas of the country, votes for President Trump grew faster compared with 2016.

These maps reflect where new voters may have played their biggest role in this election by comparing which party’s votes grew the most since four years ago. For example, in Waukesha County, Wis., outside of Milwaukee, Trump got 12 percent more votes than he did in 2016. But Biden got 31 percent more votes than Hillary Clinton, a Democratic edge of 19 points.

Counties where turnout increased at least seven percentage points

Hover on a county to see details.
Counties under 90% reporting are excluded.

It appears that more than 20 million more people voted this time than in 2016, an increase reflected across most of the nation. Factor in the people who abandoned third-party candidates — who had a strong showing in 2016 — and there were about 25 million new votes for Biden or Trump to go after.

[2020 turnout is the highest in over a century]

Where were these new voters? There were about 960 counties with turnout at least seven percentage points higher than in 2016. These counties generally showed the strongest Biden gains.

Biden gained the most in high-turnout counties

Some of the large gains in Democratic votes are clustered in suburbs, such as Northern Virginia counties near Washington, D.C., and counties around Nashville and Dallas. Though Trump still won almost all 10 suburban counties around Dallas and Fort Worth, the Democratic vote grew faster, and Trump won by fewer percentage points than four years ago.

New Democratic voters made the most dramatic impact in northern Georgia. Democratic votes increased significantly in the inner ring of Atlanta suburbs, which Biden won. But Democratic votes also grew significantly faster than Republican votes in most of Atlanta’s outer-ring counties, where Trump still won but saw his margin decline. Biden’s gain in both rings enabled his statewide win.

[How Georgia became a swing state for the first time in decades]

Biden won across the West and Northwest mainly in bigger cities and suburbs, but he also got more votes than Clinton in smaller counties that voted Republican. Utah also saw Democratic votes grow in 2020. More than a quarter of the state voted for third-party candidates in 2016, and many of these votes appeared to migrate to Biden in 2020.

For Trump, some of the greatest increases in votes arose along the nation’s southern fringe in Southern California, along the Rio Grande in Texas and in South Florida. These areas have large Hispanic or non-White populations, which typically lean Democratic.

In heavily Hispanic South Florida, Trump’s repeat win in the state got a major boost from his gains in vote-rich Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. The turnout surge in Miami-Dade, with a population that’s two-thirds Hispanic, fueled a 200,000-vote gain for Trump compared with 2016, while Democratic votes declined by 6,000. Biden still won Miami-Dade, but the shift there made it nearly impossible to win the state.

Across high-turnout counties, Trump also made significant gains in some of his strongholds, such as Tennessee. In recent decades, Republicans have become dominant there, now holding the office of governor, both U.S. Senate seats, seven of nine U.S. House districts, and control of both legislative chambers. Trump improved on his already wide margins from 2016 and won 88 of 90 counties, most by margins of more than 50 percentage points.

[The political winds in the U.S. are swirling]

One trend that helped turnout break records, despite the fear and spread of the coronavirus, was the actions states took to make voting easier. Almost two dozen states made it easier to vote by mail, and since 2016, the number of states that mailed out ballots automatically more than doubled, to 10. Additional states made it easier to vote early in person.

In Vermont, one of the states new to mailing ballots to every voter, turnout increased seven points or more in every county, with Democratic votes growing fastest. In Hawaii, which also mailed all presidential ballots for the first time, turnout spiked double digits in every county, with Trump’s votes increasing fastest.

The spike in turnout wasn’t felt equally across the country, however.

Counties where turnout increased by four percentage points or fewer

Hover on a county to see details.
Counties under 90% reporting are excluded.

Nationwide, it appears turnout increased by about six percentage points over 2016. But amid the broad national surge, turnout lagged in about 740 counties, increasing by four points or fewer, or even dropping.

Unlike in the high-turnout counties, new voters in these low-turnout counties were more evenly split between the parties. The most notable Republican gains were in Arkansas, which appeared to have some continued allegiance to the Clinton family in 2016. Trump votes also grew faster in dozens of low-turnout counties across the South and West where Black or Hispanic people are the largest race group, as well as in hundreds of counties across the Midwest with above-average manufacturing jobs and in rural areas.

[See how much your county swung in the 2020 election]

The lower-turnout counties where Biden benefited more are scattered widely across the nation. They include those that are in metro areas, counties in the Dakotas, Colorado and other Mountain West states, and in New England.

The counties with lagging turnout also include many major cities: Cincinnati, Kansas City, Mo., Milwaukee, New Orleans, San Francisco, St. Louis and St. Paul, Minn. Democrats still won big in all these counties, but in four places — the counties that include Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco, plus D.C. — Republican votes actually grew faster.

Some patterns on these maps could signal the start of new trends, or they could fade until the next election with such high voter turnout. Whether they persist may also depend on whether the measures adopted to make voting easier stay in place after the coronavirus pandemic passes.

Harry Stevens contributed to this report.

About this story

These graphics are is based on county-level presidential election results from Edison Research for counties where more than 90 percent of expected votes have been counted and on 2016 election results from Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. Data as of 1 p.m. on Nov. 24, 2020. Turnout rates were based on Census Bureau estimates of county voting-age population for 2016 and 2020.

Ted Mellnik explores and analyzes data and maps for graphics, stories and interactives.
Adrián Blanco Ramos is a graphic reporter in the graphics department at The Washington Post. He previously worked at Spanish newspaper El Confidencial focusing on data visualization, data analysis and investigative journalism. He participated in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalist’s Paradise Papers investigation.