Joe Biden has won the majority of electoral votes and defeated incumbent Donald Trump.
With a majority of the results now declared in the US presidential election, it is clear that while Biden won the popular vote by more than 4m votes, what mattered most was his performance in the battleground states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania – all of which voted for Trump in 2016.
We can see a more granular picture of how Biden won the election by looking at how every county’s vote has changed compared to 2016.
Who swung to Biden?
While a full demographic breakdown of the results will not be available for several days yet, we can get a clue as to how different people voted by looking at the profile of each county’s population and seeing how their vote changed from 2016.
Biden gained votes in metropolitan areas – and crucially, the suburbs.
A big reason Biden won this election was because of the big turnouts in urban areas and his huge gains in their suburbs.
Of the 436 large metropolitan counties, 71% saw increased support for Biden in this election compared to 2016.
Urban-rural divide persists with cities swinging to Biden
Trump actually gained votes in rural counties, with 54% of them swinging to him after already favouring him by large margins in 2016. In Decatur county, Iowa – a rural place where about 93% of residents are white – Trump had a 40-point advantage over Biden. Just four years ago, Trump’s advantage was 30 points over Clinton and in 2012 Republican Mitt Romney’s advantage over Democrat Barack Obama was a mere four points.
Biden gained votes in and around large metropolitan areas. Democratic swing in the Philadelphia and Detroit suburbs outweighed Trump’s gains in rural counties, helping him flip Pennsylvania and Michigan. Biden also gained votes in smaller metropolitan areas, like Pima county, Arizona.
This result reveals the widening political polarisation between those who live in cities and suburbs and those in the rural areas around them.
Biden made large gains in college-educated areas
Biden gained votes in the large majority of counties where at least 20% of people have four-year college degrees. The rest of the country swung the other direction, supporting Trump by even wider margins than in 2016.
Areas with more college-educated people swung to Biden
For example, in Gwinnett county, Georgia – where one in three people have college degrees – Biden won by about 18 percentage points. Just four years ago, Clinton only had a six-point advantage. This represents a wider trend: among the counties with over 30% of the population holding a college degree, some 87% swung to the Democrats.
Trump rose to the presidency in 2016 by activating a patchwork of working class voters in rural America. These voters turned out in even larger numbers for Trump in 2020, but that wasn’t enough to offset the increased turnout in areas with more college-educated people.
Areas with younger voters swung heavily toward Biden
Young Americans, who traditionally don’t vote, turned out in large numbers for Biden in 2020. This has shifted the whole country over to the Democrats, especially areas with a higher proportion of young people.
Counties with more young people helped Biden
Among the 366 counties where at least a quarter of people are aged under 35, 67% swung towards Biden compared to the 2016 presidential election. This isn’t just big cities. In Whitman county, Washington, where half the residents are under 35, Biden won by about 10 points. Just four years earlier Clinton had just a four-point advantage and in 2012 Obama lost the county by three points.
Polarisation may have led to record turnout
One of the clear takeaways of this election was that the places that convincingly voted for Trump in 2016 voted for him again in 2020 by an even larger margin. This wasn’t true for Democrats: the places Clinton won at least 60% of the vote in 2016 didn’t give Biden a larger margin in 2020.
But moderate counties – the ones where neither candidate won 60% of the vote in 2016 – swung toward Biden in 2020.
The election results reveal a deepening divide in America, not just along partisan lines but along along geographic boundaries. Diverse metropolitan areas and their suburbs with a higher density of college-educated people were politically activated by the last four years of the Trump presidency and turned out in record numbers. More rural areas, often overwhelmingly white and working class, doubled down on their support for Trump – and their disdain for Democrats.
This increase in intensity on both sides of the political spectrum led to record turnout in this election, even amid a pandemic.
Some 64% of eligible voters turned out to vote in this election with ballots still to be counted, the highest level in 50 years.
The swing figure used in this article is the percentage point difference in the Democrat-Republican vote margin between the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. Blank counties or states have no results at the time of publishing. Data sources: AP for election results. American Community Survey and National Center for Health Statistics for demographic information