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America is not as polarized as you think

It’s certainly true that America is becoming more polarized politically, and that the percentage of true independent and undecided voters is declining.

Elections tend to be relatively closer in recent years. For example, in 2020 Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump by 4.5% of the popular vote, unlike Lyndon Johnson’s nearly 23% trouncing of Barry Goldwater in 1964.

Also, people tend to vote along party lines much more nowadays. In 1984, Republican Ronald Reagan won in a landslide over Democrat Walter Mondale, winning by more than 18%. Meanwhile, Democrats in the House of Representatives received more than 5% more votes than Republicans. That’s a 23% difference, as evidently many voted for Democrats in Congress while also casting a vote for a Republican for president.

Much of that started to change in the 1990s, as many more Americans apparently began voting down ballot.

But many people still change their votes.

And for many others, their enthusiasm waxes and wanes each election period, so their likelihood of showing up to vote decreases as their enthusiasm does.

Recent elections and exit polls show that there can still be major swings in elections.

(Exit polls tend to be more reliable than other polls for a couple of reasons. First of all, they tend to poll many more people than polls ahead of time. Secondly, they polls actual voters, not just adults, not just registered voters, and not just likely voters. Thirdly, you can calculate the results and the percentages to see if they come close to the actual election results.)

Many elections remind us there can be much volatility every two years.

Consider the following:

Virginia elections

The state of Virginia has witnessed major voting swing shifts in the last decade. The state of Virginia has elections in odd years (literally!), being one of the few states in which voters cast their ballots in off years. So by the time they vote, the party in power in the White House is having an “off” year. The party in power in the White House tends to struggle more during mid terms. It also struggles more a year or two into the presidency.

Despite Democrats’ loss in Virginia in 2021, they tripled their turnout from 2015.

  1. In 2013 and 2015, Virginia Republicans absolutely trounced Democrats in the House of Delegates winning by 13.4% points in 2013 and by a whopping 26% in 2015. But in 2017, just a year into Donald Trump’s presidency, things flipped back, as Democrats in the Virginia House of Delegates won by almost 10%. That’s about a 36% swing in only 2 years!
  2. Democrats in Virginia took back control of the House of Delegates in 2019, and they won the popular vote by almost 10%.
  3. Joe Biden then went on to win Virginia by 10% in 2020, the largest Democratic win for the presidency since Franklin Roosevelt defeated Thomas Dewey in 1944.
  4. However, despite Biden’s 10% victory in Old Dominion, Democrats in Congress only won it by just under 5%.
  5. About 160,000 people who voted for Biden didn’t seem to bother to vote for the Democratic congressional representative candidates. Meanwhile, about 85,000 people who voted for their Republican congressional representative candidate didn’t bother to vote for Trump
  6. Republicans gained the Virginia House of Delegates back in 2021, winning by 4%.
  7. Despite Democrats’ loss in Virginia in 2021, they tripled their turnout from 2015. Less than half a million voted for a Democrat in the House of Delegates in 2015, while more than 1.5 million voted for Democrats in 2021. Republicans grew their voter turnout by a little over 60%. Impressive, but nowhere near as impressive as Democrats’ increase in turnout.

Arizona

People don’t realize just how big of an upset the presidential election was in Arizona in 2020.

Republicans greatly outnumbered Democrats in the exit polls. About 35% of voters were Republicans, whereas only 26% were Democrats. So Republican voters outnumbered Democrats by 30% there. But Republican Donald Trump didn’t win by 30 points. Instead he lost. Not but much, but he lost.

Biden defeated Trump by 0.3% points, or about 11,000 votes. It was razor close, but it was impressive that Biden was that close at all.

Consider that in the Arizona State House of Representatives, Republicans trounced Democrats that same year in the same voting period.

More than 2.5 million voted for a Republican for the state House of representatives, while just under 2.1 million voted for a Democrat.

Meanwhile, just 2 years earlier, in 2018 — a very bad year for Republicans nationally — Republican Doug Ducey won the Arizona gubernatorial election by 15%.

Apparently Trump had a very poor brand in Arizona in 2020.

Trump won Arizona independents by 3% in 2016, but then he lost independents by 9% in 2020. That’s a 12% swing among independents. (He also lost 2% of Democrats as well as 2% of Republicans from 2016 in Arizona.)

Florida

But while Arizona didn’t turn out so well for Trump in 2020, Florida was the opposite. Trump actually grew voters by a whopping 1 million voters from 2016, increasing his margin by about 300,000 voters.

Georgia

Georgia was more similar to Arizona.

It was a massive defeat for Republicans. Both Republican candidates for Senate lost, and Trump lost. Although all were close races, the fact that Democrats could win at all there would seem anathema for a southern state like Georgia.

In 2014, Republicans for Congressional elections received 16% more of the vote than Democrats.

However, there had been warning signs for Georgian Republicans there. The 2018 gubernatorial election was very close, the percentage of conservatives in exit polling dropped 2% from 2016 to 2020, and Congressional Republicans won by only about 2% more of the vote than Democrats in 2018. That’s a 14% drop from 2014.

A big reason Trump lost Georgia in 2020 despite winning it in 2016 was because he lost a ton of support from moderates and independents. In 2016, he lost the “moderate” vote by 19%, whereas in 2020 he lost the “moderate” vote by 32%.

He had won independents by 11% in 2016, and lost independents by 9% in 2020. So there was a 20% swing among independents in Georgia from 2016 to 2020.

Texas

Texas has traditionally bed a Republican state, although things have tightened a bit in recent years.

However, in Southern Texas, the Latino vote has been moving more toward Republicans. And quickly.

Mitt Romney won 13% of the vote in Starr County, Texas in 2012. Donald Trump won 47% of the vote in Starr County, Texas in 2020. Most of the Southern Texas counties have shifted quite a bit toward Republicans in recent years.

The Latino vote in Texas has shifted considerably toward Republicans. In 2016, Trump lost the Latino vote in Texas 66-28%, while he lost it by only 58-41% in 2020.

There are some warning sings for Republicans overall, however. Republicans won congressional elections in 2014 by about 27% (60%-33%), then that tightened to only 20% in 2016 (57%-37%), then tightened even more in 2018 to only 3.4% (50.4%-47%). But then the margin widened again in 2020 to 9% (53%-44%).

Still pretty solid in Republican territory, but not nearly as much as it used to be.

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