Where Do Democrats Win White Voters?

For decades, column after column has been written on how diverse America has become. From John Judis and Ruy Teixeira’s 2002 book, The Emerging Democratic Majority, to the 2020 election postmortems, analysts have devoted hundreds of thousands of words to the diversification of the American electorate.

These statements are not without merit. America is diversifying, and it is doing so rapidly. At the turn of the century, exit polls estimated that white voters were 81% of the electorate. Since then, their share has dropped in every single presidential cycle — by 2020, they made up just about 72% of the electorate, and this figure is projected to fall further in the coming years.

Sources: Edison/VNS Exit Polls, Catalist

The problem with putting too much emphasis on this angle is that it overlooks present conditions in its attempt to see the future. For all the decline that their voting power has seen over the last few decades, white voters still constitute a supermajority of the American electorate. To better understand the current state of American electoral politics, then, it is important to gain a better understanding of the white vote.

There is an obvious and understandable reason that the diversification of America lends itself easily (albeit misleadingly) to the narrative of an emerging Democratic majority: whites are still significantly more Republican than not. While Democrats consistently win the nonwhite vote, no Democrat has won a majority of the white vote since Lyndon B. Johnson did in 1964, and despite their leftward drift over the last decade, white voters still backed Donald Trump in 2020 by about 12 percentage points. Meanwhile, there has been an underlying, and growing, divide in preference by educational attainment; in 2020, college-educated whites backed the Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in recent memory, while non-college whites stuck with the GOP by near-record margins.

Sources: Edison/VNS Exit Polls, Catalist

But although a lot of time has been spent analyzing the educational divide, less attention has been paid to regional variance. The fact remains that white voters still vote very differently by state and by region even after controlling for education, as a simple look at AP VoteCast’s 2020 statewide estimates would suggest. For example, whites in Georgia vote very differently from whites in Maine, despite both states having similar levels of degree attainment.

For this reason, it’s important to also take a deeper look at the other sources of variance in the white vote. In particular, it’s worth going down to the county level and examining which party white voters there backed, and then seeing if there are any underlying commonalities that emerge among these areas.

The following map shows our best modeled estimates in figuring out which party white voters backed in the 2020 presidential election at a county level. (Note that these are estimates and should be treated with appropriate uncertainty — there are a couple places, like rural New Mexico, where we suspect this might struggle, but on the whole, we believe it is a fairly accurate picture nationwide.)

Where Did White Voters Vote for Democrats?

As the best-performing Democratic presidential candidate among white voters since Barack Obama in 2008, Biden supplemented his broad coalition with whites from across the political and geographic spectrum. His appeal in diverse major metropolitan areas, college towns, and tourist enclaves held up consistently across the United States. 

Biden won white voters in most of the nation’s major metropolitan areas, including Seattle, the Bay Area, Denver, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and New York City. Much of that success lay in his appeal to a mixture of college-educated suburbanites and urbanites. The prevalence of technological, governmental, and financial jobs, high levels of urbanization, and secularization likely go a long way towards explaining the Democratic margins with whites in deep-blue areas like San Francisco, Denver, and New York, and it was no surprise to see Biden comfortably win those areas in November 2020.

But some of the metros whose white voters Biden won, like Miami-Dade, might initially conflict with expectations. In truth, however, Republicans narrowed Democratic margins in the county by appealing to with Hispanic voters — particularly Cuban-Americans. Biden likely lost Hispanics in this county, but he carried the white vote thanks in part to a large population of LGBTQ+ voters, seniors and Jewish voters, combined with the fact that Republican-leaning retirees are more concentrated on Florida’s western and northeastern coastlines. 

With that said, there were multiple significant metros where Biden lost the white vote. Phoenix and Houston stand out in this group due to the sheer size of the voting populations in Maricopa and Harris counties. Both counties group large, Republican-voting, suburbs into the same defined regions as their cities proper, unlike many eastern metropolitan areas. Other metropolitan areas where Biden performed less well among white voters, like Fort Worth and Charlotte, can be chalked up to the effects of religiosity-driven cultural conservatism in the suburbs — a theme we’ll examine in more detail soon.

Nevada’s Clark County is particularly unique. With a county college attainment rate that is 8 points lower than the national average, Clark’s white population is Republican enough to keep Nevada competitive, but not Republican enough to move the state into the GOP column. Democrats have won 5 of the last 6 major statewide elections in the Silver State, but never by more than 5 points.

In counties based around college towns, some of which are coterminous with major metropolitan areas, Biden did similarly well with white voters. This is hardly a surprise given the extremely-Democratic lean of young voters and the growing educational divide. Examples from some of the country’s different regions include Alachua County in Florida (University of Florida), Tompkins County in New York (Cornell University), Whitman County in Washington (Washington State University) and Clay County in South Dakota (University of South Dakota). The voting behaviors in these areas reflect the views of students, faculty, and other professionals with positions in higher education, and this is a fairly liberal group on the whole.

Biden’s strength with resort-town whites was also particularly pronounced in Sunbelt counties like Taos County in New Mexico, Eagle County in Colorado, Grand County in Utah, and Teton County in Wyoming. Impressive natural scenery and ample ski slopes attract outdoors-minded newcomers from urban Democratic communities like the Bay Area and Denver. These voters, especially retirees, are typically affluent, well-educated whites who bring their liberal political preferences with them. In states like Colorado, such dynamics have increased the Democratic vote share among whites in areas that are otherwise rural and Republican.

Another important angle to examine is Biden’s strength with college-educated whites and the gains he made with this demographic, which fueled Democratic suburban trends in the northeast and the nation as a whole. Suburban counties in metros like Philadelphia, New York, and Minneapolis-St. Paul rocketed to the left, and a prime example of this is Somerset County in New Jersey.

Once a Republican bastion (the county supported Democratic presidential candidates just three times between 1900 and 2004), Somerset broke decisively for Joe Biden by 21 points in 2020 and doesn’t appear likely to revert any time soon. Rapid diversification and associated population increases have driven recent Democratic growth, but inroads with unaffiliated and soft-Republican white voters have played the most important role in this 64% white county. By carrying a previously unwinnable demographic while boosting minority turnout, Biden was able to comfortably win areas like this, in a prime example of how educational polarization reshaped the landscape of American politics.

Religiosity And Regionalism Affected Voting Patterns Among Whites

Educational polarization and urbanization are not the only two lenses through which to analyze the white vote. For all that educational polarization has done to explain shifts in partisanship (as shown by Atlanta and Dallas rocketing left), it cannot fully explain the differences in baseline partisanship nearly as well. To better understand this, it becomes necessary to consider a more comprehensive picture. Religious affiliation (i.e. denomination) and religiosity levels, among other factors, explained wide differences in how both non-college whites and college-educated whites voted across regions. 

Throughout New England and the Pacific Coast, widespread secularism makes both college and non-college whites significantly bluer than the national average. Elsewhere in the Northeast, a comparatively large Catholic population has raised the Democratic floor among whites across the educational attainment spectrum.

Interestingly, a higher concentration of Catholics might also go some way towards explaining why whites in parts of the Midwest are significantly more Democratic than their Southern counterparts, and why they are more Democratic than whites in other demographically similar areas nearby are. In fact, Democrats actually won the white vote in heavily-white, Catholic counties like Ashland County and Douglas County in Wisconsin, despite the educational attainment for those areas being significantly below the state’s average.

More generally, evangelicalism is heavily correlated with Republican vote share among whites, and so its relative absence in secular and Catholic areas helps explain why these regions tend to have higher-than-expected white Democratic vote shares. Meanwhile, Protestant denominations that affiliate with evangelicalism are much more Republican. Nowhere is this religious and cultural contrast among similarly-educated white voters on greater display than in the South.

Southern rural areas have some of the highest levels of religiosity and racial polarization in the nation, and this combination makes them much more Republican than similarly-white areas elsewhere in the country — in fact, Democrats did not win the white vote in a single rural county in the South. But this is not just limited to rural areas; Biden still failed to win the white vote in diverse, Democratic-trending Atlanta metro counties like Gwinnett and Cobb, and the surprisingly more Republican white splits extend to other southern metros, such as Fort Worth and the Charlotte suburbs.

This likely has a good deal to do with southern cultural conservatism, which is elevated relative to the nation thanks in part to marked Protestant religiosity, particularly among white Baptists. For this reason, support for abortion is exceptionally high in the Midwest, but extremely low in the South. This regional mix of religiosity and racial polarization results in something quite striking: whites in virtually every southern county are significantly more Republican than their northern counterparts.

By stemming Trump-era Democratic bleeding among non-college whites while also making substantial gains with college-educated whites, Joe Biden ended up becoming the strongest Democratic presidential nominee with white voters since Barack Obama in 2008. But while educational polarization is extremely instructive in helping us understand the trends with white voters, it is not necessarily enough to help us understand the baseline partisanship of an area, and using it as a catch-all risks obscuring some very important differences across states and regions. As always, issues are rarely simple enough to be fully examined through one single lens.

A special thanks to Max McCall, Jesse Richardson, Ryan Brune, Ethan Chen, and James Bedwell for their help with this project.

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I’m a software engineer and a computer scientist (UC Berkeley class of 2019 BA, class of 2020 MS) who has an interest in machine learning, politics, and electoral data. I’m a partner at Split Ticket, handle our Senate races, and make many kinds of electoral models.

My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying political science and international studies at the College of New Jersey. As a co-founder and partner at Split Ticket, I coordinate our House coverage. I write about a variety of electoral topics and produce political maps. Besides elections, my hobbies include music, history, language, aviation, and fitness.

Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or harrisonwlavelle1@gmail.com

2 responses to “Where Do Democrats Win White Voters?”
  1. Hey — really enjoyed this article, and very much appreciate y’all’s work. Think you may have made a slight mistake in citing Spokane County (Eastern Washington University) as a Democratic county based around a college town. I think you probably meant to put Whitman County (Washington State University).

    1. Yep, you’re right. Thank you 🙂

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