In six states, voters cast more ballots during early voting than they did during the entire election in 2016, and then grew those numbers on Election Day. Nine additional states came close to doing the same.
It was still unclear late Tuesday which candidate would benefit most from these increases in a race that was neck and neck.
President Trump took Florida, a perennial battleground, where more than 11 million voted — an increase of nearly 1.6 million compared with 2016. In Florida’s Miami-Dade County, a Democratic stronghold that has a high concentration of Latino voters, Joe Biden led Trump by about 83,000 votes — a far smaller lead than the 290,000-vote margin Clinton had in 2016.
Democratic strategists in Florida had long worried that the national party was not investing enough resources between presidential election cycles to build sustained support among Latino voters. Meanwhile, the Trump campaign heavily focused on the state’s Latinos, particularly Cuban Americans, for years.
A different story played out in Arizona, a new battleground state, where Biden was leading with more than 76 percent of votes counted. Democrats hoped this would be a culmination of a decade of grass-roots political organizing among Latinos. Political activists have insisted that Arizona could have flipped in 2016 if national Democrats had invested more money earlier.
In both of these states, Latinos will probably play a deciding role. Early exit polls suggest that while Biden won the Latino vote 2 to 1 nationally, Trump improved his standing among Latino voters in at least two swing states since 2016: Florida and Georgia.
Some of the largest spikes in voter participation appeared in states that Trump easily won in 2016 but have since become battlegrounds because of rapid changes in their populations: Texas, Georgia, Arizona and North Carolina. All of these states have seen an influx of new arrivals, often Democrats relocating from places such as California, New York and Illinois, and large numbers of young people of color turning 18 each year. There has also been a number of Republicans and right-leaning independents repelled by Trump who were willing to vote for Democrats.
Swing states that have long been key to both campaigns saw different levels of early voting. Pennsylvania, which was decided by just over one percentage point in 2016, had about 2.5 million votes cast early, which was roughly 40 percent of the total number in 2016. Wisconsin was at about 65 percent of its 2016 number, and Michigan was at nearly 60 percent.
Over the past several months, both presidential campaigns targeted voters who didn’t participate in 2016 to try to persuade them to vote this year.
For Trump and Republicans, that meant finding those who liked the president but don’t usually vote, especially men. For Biden and Democrats, that meant connecting with voters who haven’t bothered to vote in many years and people newly eligible, including those who turned 18 since the last presidential election, naturalized citizens, and felons who regained their voting rights.
“Really why I decided to vote this time around was just how divisive the last four years have felt, and a lot of what’s gone on politically feels like tearing people apart and polarizing,” Jana Hainey, 32, an email marketing specialist from Kansas City, Mo., who cast her first-ever ballot this election and voted for Biden. “I kind of really wanted to make sure after the last four years to make sure my voice mattered.”
While much attention has been given to the bursts of new Democratic voters, especially in urban and suburban areas, Trump also inspired a number of first-time voters to get involved.
Brian Dalley, 60, who lives in Cascade, Mich., always thought the country ran just fine without his input. But following heart surgery in April, he more closely followed the news and was alarmed by protests that had turned violent in some cities and the widespread disrespect of the president.
“You’re supposed to get behind your president,” said Dalley, a plumber who was first in line at the polling place near his home Tuesday morning and voted for the first time by filling out a ballot for Trump.
In the final days of the 2020 election, the Biden campaign said it thought its voters would reflect the strength of the “Obama coalition” 12 years ago, which included historic numbers of young people and voters of color.
It was a bullish claim given that Democrat Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016 was due, in part, to her difficulty motivating precisely those voters in certain key states. That and a surge of support for third-party candidates delivered, on the margins, an electoral college victory to Trump.
“To me, 2016 was not a story of what Trump did, it was a story of what Hillary Clinton and the Democrats failed to do. They failed to hold on tightly to that Obama coalition,” said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster. “But it’s too simple to say it was a turnout issue. There is a reason people don’t turn out.”
After the 2016 election, Trump’s strength among White voters without college degrees became a topic of intense focus. But Clinton’s relative strength with White college graduates was also a factor.
“These white college graduates, they were more evenly divided before, and for a while they were Republican. But over time they have moved into the Democratic coalition in a powerful way, led by college-educated white women,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster, who said anti-Trump sentiment has accelerated the trend.
Since the 2016 election, the share of voters without college degrees has fallen by nearly 5 percent nationally, according to an analysis of census data by William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.
And some of the most dramatic demographic changes have transpired in battleground states. In Arizona, for example, the share of White voters without college degrees fell by more than five percentage points since the last election, while the share of Hispanic voters increased by more than 6 percent.
White men without college degrees fell as a percentage of eligible voters by about 3 percent in Georgia, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Pennsylvania and, to a slightly smaller degree, in Florida, according to that data. White women without college degrees fell as a proportion of the electorate by about 3 percent in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Ohio, South Carolina and Texas.
Meanwhile, the share of Hispanic residents who are eligible to vote grew by 4 percent in Colorado, 3 percent in Florida and 3 percent in Texas — all states that saw a huge increase in voter participation this year.
The burst of first-time voters could be seen in the line that formed at a polling location at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, on Tuesday.
Renna Rebischke-Smith, 18, cast a provisional ballot for Biden because “there are a lot of issues on the table that affect me.” Fiontay Williams, 31, a health-care worker voted for Biden because of Trump’s handling of the pandemic. And Savannah New, 20, voted for Trump because of his support for gun rights.
Across the country, first-time voters for Trump also included Jairo Acedo, a 26-year-old truck driver in Phoenix who worried that a Biden presidency would negatively affect his life, and Ouedia “Exie” Nowling, a 67-year-old living in Pensacola, Fla., who wasn’t interested in politics until Trump was elected.
First-time presidential voters who picked Biden included Leila Ahmed, an 18-year-old college student in Idaho who came to the United States from Kenya in 2005 and who is alarmed by the racism she has seen in the country, and Dejah Wright, a 28-year-old in Atlanta who was not a fan of the former vice president but didn’t want Trump reelected.
In Chicago on Tuesday, there was a block party atmosphere at the United Center, the home of the Bulls and the Blackhawks that was transformed into a polling location. In line was Christian Torres, 19, who was voting for the first time — making him the first in his family to vote in a U.S. election.
His parents and older siblings are from Guadalajara, Mexico, and are undocumented. His younger siblings have yet to turn 18. He voted for Biden, who he hopes will reform the country’s immigration system.
“They don’t have a voice like I do,” he said of his family. “So I want to be their voice.”
Scott Clement and Emily Guskin in Washington; Moriah Balingit in Cascade, Mich.; Erin Chan Ding in Chicago; Annie Gowen in Kansas City, Mo.; Jasmine Hilton in Columbus, Ohio; Pam Kelley in Huntersville, N.C.; Hannah Knowles in Phoenix; Brittney Martin in Houston; Lori Rozsa in West Palm Beach, Fla.; T.S. Strickland in Pensacola, Fla.; Reis Thebault in Atlanta; Kevin Williams in Dayton, Ohio; and Carissa Wolf in Boise, Idaho, contributed to this report.