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Trump-Biden voters could decide the 2020 election

Nine percent of Trump’s 2016 voters say they’re planning to vote for Biden, our data suggest.

- May 19, 2020

After the 2016 election, analysts spilled tubs of ink arguing that “Obama-Trump” voters helped swing the election. Analysis by John Sides for the Voter Study Group (which both of us have worked with) found that 9 percent of Barack Obama voters from 2012 switched to Donald Trump in 2016, for about 6 million voters overall. Disproportionately white, non-college-educated and concentrated in electorally vital states from Florida to the Great Lakes, these Democratic defectors shifted enough votes to help Trump win Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, which gave him an electoral college win despite losing the national popular vote.

Will party switching influence the 2020 presidential election? Our analysis suggests that, yes, a significant number of Trump’s 2016 voters are ready to vote for the presumptive Democratic Party nominee, Joe Biden.

How we did our research

We examined vote switching in the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape surveys since the start of the year, examining the answers of more than 85,000 nationally representative registered voters. These data are not quite ideal for analyzing vote switching from 2016 to 2020, since the surveys retrospectively asked who voters supported four years ago. But we believe our results offer important insights into the prevalence and characteristics of Trump-Biden voters, nonetheless.

Based on these data, we find that 9 percent of Trump 2016 voters are currently planning to vote for the former vice president. This group of Trump-Biden voters is twice as large as the percentage of Hillary Clinton voters from 2016 who this year say they plan to vote for Trump. That would give Biden a net advantage that could help decide the 2020 race.

Why did Trump win in 2016? More blacks — and fewer whites — actually voted.

Who are the Trump-Biden voters?

Our analysis of the 2,546 Trump-Biden registered voters from all Nationscape surveys since the beginning of January finds an interesting distribution along race and education lines. Approximately one-third are white and did not have a four-year college degree. One-third are white and did graduate from college. The final third are nonwhite voters across education lines.

Notably, a full 60 percent of Trump-Biden voters are male, and 55 percent of them are ages 45 or older. That’s consistent with other recent polling showing Biden currently performing much better than Clinton did in the 2016 election with older voters. About 4 in 10 Trump-Biden voters self-identify as Democrats; around 3 in 10 identify as either Republican or independent. Forty percent of Trump-Biden voters say they are ideologically moderate, and another one-quarter say they are ideologically conservative.

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These swing voters are economically progressive

These Trump-Biden voters’ views may be summarized as progressive on economics and moderate to conservative on social issues. For example, 70 percent of Trump-Biden voters support increasing taxes on those earning over $600,000 per year, and 60 percent of these voters back tax cuts for those earning $100,000 or less annually.

Nearly 6 in 10 Trump-Biden voters support steps to ensure students can graduate from college debt-free or to enact a jobs guarantee, respectively. More than 7 in 10 voters back expansive steps to combat global warming through new clean energy investments. More than 70 percent support paid family leave, and about two-thirds support a $15 per hour minimum wage. On health care, they support a public option for government health insurance, at 70 percent; less than half support a Medicare-for-all proposal.

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At the same time, they are socially conservative

Trump-Biden voters present an interesting mix of views on the proper role of government in society. On immigration, for example, a plurality of Trump-Biden voters oppose Trump’s Mexican border wall. Nearly three-quarters back a path to citizenship for “dreamers,” or those who arrived as children without documents. But nearly half of voters support moving from a family-based immigration system to one based on merit.

Fully 78 percent believe that government should promote traditional family values in society; nearly half support allowing vouchers for private or religious schools; and more than 60 percent think the Ten Commandments should be allowed to be displayed at public schools and courthouses.

By wide margins, Trump-Biden voters oppose reparations for slavery and believe that there are only two genders, male and female. On guns, they express moderate views: 62 percent oppose banning all guns, while 85 percent support background checks for all gun purchases.

While attention has generally been focused on how new voters and 2016 nonvoters may cast their ballots, this pool of potential Trump-Biden switchers could help decide the next U.S. president.

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John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira are senior fellows and co-directors of the politics and elections program at the Center for American Progress. They recently co-authored the report The Path to 270 in 2020.