• Politics

How Joe Biden Built a Different Democratic Coalition

7 minute read

Standing outside a Walmart in Sterling Heights, Mich., the choice seemed simple to Heather Abro. She voted for President Donald Trump in 2016, “because I wanted to give someone who was not a politician a chance.” Besides, she “couldn’t connect” with Hillary Clinton: “I didn’t like her.”

This year Abro, a 42-year-old high-school math teacher who identifies as Catholic and has voted for both parties in the past, will cast her ballot for Joe Biden. “I think about what we look like to the world and sometimes it’s embarrassing,” she says, citing Trump’s handling of the pandemic, embrace of conspiracy theories and appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. “We teach our children to think before they talk, and he’s not modeling that.” She’ll vote for Biden this time because she thinks he’s a decent man. But mostly because “he’s not Trump.”

If Biden wins on Nov. 3, it will be largely because of college-educated suburban women like Abro. Fleeing Trump in droves, they’re the biggest and perhaps most important cohort in the Biden political coalition, an unlikely alliance of angry young voters, voters of color, terrified seniors, and exhausted suburbanites who make up the broadest base of support for a Democratic presidential nominee since Bill Clinton.

The former Vice President to Barack Obama linked himself to his boss throughout the Democratic primary, but polls suggest he could wind up with a more durable coalition. Biden has shored up Obama’s base of young voters and voters of color: Americans under 30 are on track to vote at record levels in 2020, overwhelmingly for Democrats. Biden has maintained the gains Democrats made in the suburbs in 2018, winning suburban voters — particularly suburban women– by more than 20 points. Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic has allowed the Democratc nominee to build a durable lead with seniors, who are especially vulnerable to the disease and disapproving of the President’s handling of it.

And while Trump handily won white evangelical and Catholic voters in 2016, Biden is now even or even narrowly leading with white Catholics in some polls— something only two Democrats have achieved in the last 50 years. Biden has also narrowed Trump’s lead with non-college whites and rural voters, the key component of the President’s base.

If the polls are right, assembling this coalition would amount to a rare electoral feat: attracting broad swaths of historically Republican voters, without losing the young, urban, racially diverse Democratic base. “He’s leading in some cases by double digits with independents, white college-educated voters, suburbanites, and seniors,” says John Anzalone, Biden’s lead pollster, who also polled for Obama and Hillary Clinton. “He’s created a coalition that’s completely unique in Democratic politics for the last 20 years.”

He’s had help from his opponent. Unlike in 2016, Trump is running as an unpopular incumbent, not a celebrity outsider. The pandemic, which Trump has flubbed, became the central issue of the campaign.

But Biden brought a variety of strengths to the contest. He has cultural traction with non-college white voters that Clinton lacked, and attracts little of the visceral loathing that Clinton inspired. And his promise of restoring decency and competence to the White House seems to be resonating with an exhausted and demoralized electorate.

In 2016, young voters and voters of color didn’t turn out for Clinton the way they had for Obama, which may have cost her key states. But record youth turnout in the 2018 midterms suggests a generation of formerly apathetic young Americans may be turning into dedicated voters, according to Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. A summer of racial justice protests has only strengthened their political resolve. In 2016, just 5% of young voters had attended a protest, she said; by 2020, 27% had. “Young people are essentially mobilizing one another,” Kawashima-Ginsberg says.

So are their grandparents. One of the most interesting trends of the 2020 election has been the exodus of white senior citizens from the Republican Party, largely because of Trump’s response to the coronavirus. Trump won seniors by 9 points in 2016, according to Pew. In an NPR/Marist poll released last week, Biden led with seniors by 6 percentage points, as voters over 65 disapproved of Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic by a 15-point margin.

“Voters over the age of 65 are actually comprising the biggest share of voters who didn’t vote in 2016 who are now voting in this election,” says Tom Bonier, executive director of the liberal data firm TargetSmart.

Any path to presidential victory winds through the American suburbs, and there, too, Biden is trouncing Trump. Trump won suburban voters by four points in 2016, according to exit polls. But Democrats erased that edge in 2018, winning suburban districts in red states like Oklahoma and Texas. Biden now leads among suburban voters by 20 points, according to a an Oct 7 Fox News poll, and by 25 points among suburban women. “That’s where the votes are,” says Joel Benenson, a pollster for Obama and Hillary Clinton. “If you’re dominating in the suburbs, that’s a hard deficit to make up for Donald Trump.”

Biden’s strength in the suburbs illustrates how the very qualities that made him vulnerable for much the primary—his moderate politics, his familiar face, his desire to appeal to the white-working class and reticence to embrace policies favored by the left-wing activist base—have made him formidable in the general. “All of that made him the object of suspicion particularly for younger Democratic voters in the primary,” says veteran Democratic strategist David Axelrod. “But they’re an advantage now.”

Biden is also working to shrink Trump’s advantage with groups that favor the Republican. By focusing on economic issues and avoiding hot-button culture war issues, he’s made gains with the white voters without a college education who make up the bulk of President Trump’s base. Trump still leads with non-college white voters by 14 points, according to the Fox News poll. But he won them by 36 points in 2016, according to Pew. Biden doesn’t need to win a majority of voters without a degree to kill Trump’s advantage; he just needs to lose them by less than Clinton did. “Culturally, she did not feel kin to them in the way that Biden does, the idiom in which Biden speaks, the stories he tells, the constant drawing on his working-class roots,” says Axelrod. “He is of them in a way that she was not.”

The 2016 election was rare in that both candidates were deeply disliked, and many of those so-called “double-haters” broke for Trump in the end. This time, Biden’s unfavorables aren’t as high as Trump’s (or Clinton’s), and voters have four years of a Trump presidency to inform their decision. “If he’s winning over any sector of the Trump electorate, it’s people who felt Trump was the better candidate in 2016, felt he brought a level of disruption that was necessary,” says Joe Brettell, a media consultant who has worked for Republicans in the past. “Now they’re ready to get back to a tried-and-true type of president out of central casting.”

People like Heather Abro, in other words. “I just feel like he’s unequipped,” Abro says of Trump, echoing the views of 64% of suburban women who disapprove of the President. “I think he’s in over his head.”

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Write to Charlotte Alter at charlotte.alter@time.com