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How Biden won the 2020 election: Exit poll analysis

How Biden reached electoral victory
How Biden reached electoral victory 12:14

Joe Biden was projected as the winner of the 2020 presidential election largely because he was able to convince enough voters that he could better handle the coronavirus pandemic and that he had the right temperament for the job, according to CBS News' analysis of the exit poll data.

The data show that voters who supported Biden were looking for a candidate with good judgment and for someone who could unite the country. Bringing the country together might be difficult, since voters who backed President Trump did not say they saw the coronavirus as a serious problem — as Biden voters do — and roughly half of these voters say they're scared of a Biden presidency.

The president-elect had the support of some groups that traditionally vote Democratic and made some inroads with some not-so-traditional Democratic groups, like men and seniors.

Concern about the coronavirus pandemic

Just over 50% of voters said it was more important to contain the coronavirus immediately, while 42% said it was more important to rebuild the economy. Voters who were more concerned about the virus overwhelmingly backed the former vice president. 

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Exit polling data on coronavirus and the economy.  CBS News

Nationally and in states he won, more people said Biden would do a better job handling the virus than Mr. Trump would. 

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Exit polling data on which candidate would better handle the coronavirus pandemic.  CBS News

Views of the candidates

Four years ago, both Hillary Clinton and Mr. Trump were viewed unfavorably by the national electorate — but this year, more voters held a favorable impression of Biden. Mr. Trump's favorability did improve some from four years ago, but more voters overall had a negative view of him than a positive one. 

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Exit polling data on the favorability of the candidates. CBS News

Biden also outscored Mr. Trump on having the right temperament to serve as president. The president has improved on this measure since 2016, but more than half of voters felt he did not have the right temperament to serve effectively.

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Character mattered. Those who were looking for someone to unite the country and for someone with good judgment went big for Biden.

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Biden won with a coalition of different kinds of supporters across the country — here are some of the major groups that helped Biden capture the White House: 

Independents: Big shift to Biden

Independents went narrowly for Mr. Trump in 2016 (by 4 points) but swung to Biden this year. He won with a 14-point lead among them nationally, the largest margin recorded among this group since Bill Clinton won independents in his reelection bid in 1996.

This same trend can be seen across the 2020 battleground states, including those that Mr. Trump won. Biden won among independents in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin — all states where independents voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 — and often by double digit margins.

Independent voters nationwide had an unfavorable view of the president and most said U.S. efforts to contain the coronavirus are going badly. Roughly four in ten independents voting for Biden report that they did not vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016, including just over one in 10 who say they voted for Mr. Trump four years ago. 

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Those who sat out 2016 went for Biden

About one in 10 voters nationwide didn't vote in the 2016 presidential election, and six in 10 of these voters backed Biden. Four in 10 of these voters are under age 25, but nearly half are older, so they were old enough to cast a ballot in 2016. Most of these voters said they were unhappy about the way the government is working. 

Men: Biden didn't win them but made gains

Biden and Mr. Trump will largely split the male vote nationally.  Historically, men have mostly voted Republican for president, and they backed Mr. Trump by 11 points in 2016, so this was a noteworthy gain for Biden. 

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Some of this gain comes from Biden's inroads into Mr. Trump's margins with White men. Mr. Trump won White men by 31 points in 2016, but that margin was cut to 18 points this year. Nationally, White men with college degrees have swung from a 14-point margin for Mr. Trump in 2016 to about even now. The president had a two-point edge this year. This group has a more favorable view of Biden than they do of Mr. Trump. 

White men without college degrees were a big part of the Trump coalition, and they continued to back him by wide margins. But in Michigan and Wisconsin, states that Biden flipped from red to blue, Biden's vote share with this group was roughly 10 points higher than Clinton's.

Seniors: Swung to Biden in key states, improved nationally

So far, seniors have swung from Republican to Democrat in the battlegrounds of Michigan and Pennsylvania. In both of these states, older voters were more likely than younger voters to pick the coronavirus as their top issue.

And in Arizona, where seniors make up three in 10 voters, they split their votes between Biden and the president. In 2016, Mr. Trump won this group by 13 points, and he also won the state.

Nationally, Biden also made inroads with seniors. Mr. Trump won this group in 2016 by 7 points, but had just a 3-point edge this year.

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Young voters: Biden gained on Clinton's margins

It wasn't just seniors but young voters who helped boost Biden too. Voters under 30 are making up about 17% of the electorate, similar to their share in 2016, but they supported Biden in bigger numbers than they did Clinton: a 27-point advantage for Biden, compared to a 19-point margin for Clinton. 

Sixty-two percent backed Biden — up from the 55% who voted for Clinton in 2016.  In fact, slightly more voters under 30 voted for Biden than they did for Barack Obama in 2012, (although this was short of the 66% of the youth vote Mr. Obama won in 2008.) 

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In the battleground of Wisconsin, Biden beat Mr. Trump by about 20 points among young voters, far larger than Clinton's 3-point margin in 2016.

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Thirteen percent  of the national electorate said they had never voted in an election before this year, and these new voters went for Biden (66%) over Mr. Trump (32%) by a margin of about two to one. About half of those new voters are under the age of thirty, and they are more diverse racially than voters overall. 

Women: Continued strong support

As they have since 1984, women made up a higher percentage of the national electorate than men. They voted for the Democratic candidate for president since 1992 and they did so again this year. 

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Biden beat Mr. Trump by 13 points among women, matching Clinton's margin in 2016, and Biden extended the margin among women slightly in some of the key states that mattered most, namely in the upper Midwest. White women with college degrees helped Biden in states like Michigan. They went for Biden by about 20 points, expanding on Clinton's 6-point margin.

Black and Latino voters: Support for Biden, but some warning signs for Democrats?

As they have in all recent elections, Black voters went heavily for the Democratic candidate. Nationally, exit polling data so far shows Biden has not improved on Clinton's performance with Black voters from four years ago. Eighty-seven percent of Black voters are supporting Biden, compared to 89% for Clinton four years ago. Mr. Trump won 12% — an improvement from 8% in 2016. Mr. Trump's improvement comes from a slight boost among Black men. He won 18% of their support this year, up from 13% in 2016. Black men nationwide who cast a vote for president mostly identify as Republican and conservative. 

Exit polls currently estimate the Latino share of the national electorate at 13% — two percentage points higher than in 2016. Nationally, 66% of Latinos voted for Biden — the same percentage that voted for Clinton in 2016. 

But in some key battleground states  — notably Florida and Nevada — fewer Latinos voted Democratic this year than four years ago. In Florida in particular, where Latinos made up one in five voters, Biden beat Mr. Trump by just about five percentage points, a far smaller margin than the 27-point margin Clinton had with this group in 2016. Most Cuban voters — a third of all Latino voters in Florida  — voted for Mr. Trump. Florida Latinos said Mr. Trump would do a better job than Biden handling the economy. 

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What's ahead?

With the country so politically divided, it seems unlikely that Biden's message of unity will resonate with those who didn't support him. A mere 5% of Mr. Trump's voters had a favorable view of Biden, and nine in 10 said they would be concerned or scared of a Biden presidency. 

CBS News exit polls include in-person interviews with Election Day voters and phone interviews that measured the views of absentee/by mail voters and early voters. The surveys were conducted by Edison Research on behalf of the National Election Pool at 115 polling places among a total of 15590 Election Day voters as well as absentee and/or early voters. 

Exit poll percentages may have updated since this article was published. 

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