Trump’s Lost Ground Since 2016 and His November Challenges

by Dante Chinni September 25, 2020

With Election Day closing in, Democratic nominee Joe Biden continues to hold a solid lead over President Donald Trump in most polls. And the American Communities Project’s 15 county types help explain what’s behind Biden’s lead and the size of the task Trump faces in closing the  gap.

A yearlong merge of data from the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll looked at through the ACP types, suggests that Trump has lost ground in communities that are crucial to his reelection chances. The numbers also indicate a larger realignment in the electorate may be in the works.

Overall, the numbers, which include responses over the course of 2020, show Biden leading Trump by about seven points — a lead that has been remarkably consistent for the Democrat in monthly polls through the year. But a closer look at the figures across the ACP types shows Trump has lost ground in each of the community types compared to the 2016 results. And some types have seen particularly meaningful shifts.

Trump Challenges in Metros

Most problematic for the president is the shift in the vote in metro areas, something that becomes apparent when looking at Trump’s head-to-head numbers against Biden in the Big Cities, Urban Suburbs, Middle Suburbs and Exurbs.

As we have noted often on this site, “the suburbs” are not a simple thing to understand. They are geographically and demographically complex and some lean Democratic, while others lean Republican. However, the 2020 poll numbers on these four community types give them a much bluer cast than they had four years ago.

Community Type 2016 Results 2020 NBC/WSJ Poll Merge
Big Cities Clinton +36 Biden +36
Urban Suburbs Clinton +18 Biden +25
Middle Suburbs Trump +13 Even
Exurbs Trump +18 Trump +7

Biden has improved on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 margin in each type, except for the Big Cities, where Biden has the same massive 36-point edge. The Urban Suburbs, which have been trending Democratic, look even more so in the polling data. Biden’s 25-point edge is higher than any Democratic presidential candidate has received from these counties since 2000.

But the bigger story is in the other two suburban types.

The Middle Suburbs essentially won the 2016 election for Trump when they swung heavily to him in 2016. The blue-collar counties had been close in every election since 2000 (with no candidate winning them by more than six points) until Trump’s 13-point win four years ago. And because they tend to be located in the Industrial Midwest, they pushed Trump over the top in very close races in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

In this merge of data, however, the Middle Suburbs look more like they usually did before 2016. Trump and Biden are tied in the counties. That number should be a flashing red light on the Trump team’s dashboard.

Just as remarkable is the number in the Exurbs. Those communities tend to be home to better-educated and slightly wealthier voters (“chamber of commerce Republicans”). They have been reliably Republican for a long time. Since 2000, every Republican candidate for president has won these counties by at least 13 points. Trump won them by roughly 18 points in 2016.

And yet in this merge of data, Trump leads in the Exurbs by seven points. That would be an enormous slide in a consistently Republican community, but it fits with what other data show about the challenges Republicans face with college-educated white voters, which make up a large chunk of the Exurbs.

Why are these four community types so important? Because of the number of votes they produce. In 2016, more than 62% of all votes cast came from these four types.

Elsewhere in the ACP

And outside of those four community types, things don’t look a lot better for Trump in the 2020 merge of data.

There have been big shifts against the president in College Towns and the African American South. Similar moves can be seen in Hispanic Centers. Trump still wins in reliably Republican Military Posts, but by less.

And Trump still has big leads in less-diverse rural communities, such as Rural Middle America and Working Class Country. But even those communities, which are rightly considered his base, have given up some of their margins for him.

Community Type 2016 Results 2020 NBC/WSJ Poll Merge
African American South Trump +1 Biden +6
College Towns Clinton +4 Biden +19
Evangelical Hubs Trump +50 Trump +41
Graying America Trump +22 Trump +15
Hispanic Centers Clinton +2 Biden +6
LDS Enclaves Trump +23 Trump +19
Military Posts Trump +17 Trump +14
Rural Middle America Trump +28 Trump +22
Working Class Country Trump +46 Trump +44

The Caveats

There are some caveats with these numbers where the Covid-19 pandemic is concerned, particularly in College Towns, where the populations in November may be different than normal because of online learning. In a broader sense, it’s unknown how mail-in voting and other challenges to in-person voting will impact 2020’s turnout and results.

Another important note, because these numbers stem from a yearlong merge of data, they may miss community-level shifts in the electorate in recent months — even if the race’s national figures have been very stable.

And, of course, there’s still time for voters to change their minds. The debates have not yet happened, for instance. The 2020 campaign has been full of talk of how the polls “got it wrong” in 2016, at least where the Electoral College vote is concerned, when the vote seemed to shift late to Trump.

But together, these numbers show a race that is leaning strongly toward Joe Biden as of late September 2020. Parsing the numbers using the ACP types only makes the pro-Biden tilt more noticeable. If nothing else, the numbers suggest President Trump has serious work to do if he wishes to be reelected.

Vol. 3 2020-2021

Deaths of Despair Across America

The American Communities Project is undertaking a 30-month study of Deaths of Despair in its 15 community types.

Learn More