If current results hold, Joe Biden will have won the election by flipping five states that Donald Trump won in 2016—Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—four of them by less than one percent of the vote. Many commentators on the progressive left are giving credit to voters in major cities, particularly black voters, claiming they turned out in larger numbers and pushed Biden to victory. As several elected officials put it in the Chicago Sun-Times, black voters and their allies “delivered Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin for Joe Biden.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez fleshed out the major city thesis a little more in a New York Times interview:
If the party believes after 94 percent of Detroit went to Biden, after Black organizers just doubled and tripled turnout down in Georgia, after so many people organized Philadelphia, the signal from the Democratic Party is the John Kasichs won us this election? I mean, I can’t even describe how dangerous that is.
Voter data suggests a different story. The suburbs surrounding major cities, which tend to be whiter and more highly educated, did much more to swing the election to Biden than the populations of the cities themselves. Moreover, what we might call the “Kasich voters”—people who voted Republican in their House race but did not vote for President Trump—proved crucial for victory in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Let’s tackle the major cities in four of these states—leaving out Arizona, because it hasn’t made city-level data available and its counties are too big to be of use for this analysis. Before we proceed, there are two things to keep in mind: First, remember that states are still counting (and recounting) votes. Second, when I refer to “net” votes for a given candidate, I mean the difference between their margins of victory (or defeat) in 2020 and 2016. For example, Donald Trump won Georgia by about 231,000 votes in 2016 but is losing it by about 14,000 votes now, so he incurred a net loss of 245,000 votes.
Rep. Ocasio-Cortez is correct about Detroit. Indeed, 94 percent of Detroiters voted for Biden. But 95 percent of them voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. In fact, Donald Trump actually saw a net gain of about 6,000 voters in the city of Detroit this time around. Biden arguably won Michigan in the suburban counties surrounding Detroit. In a state that went to Donald Trump by about 10,000 votes in 2016, Joe Biden earned a net gain of 86,000 voters in the Detroit suburbs, which include Monroe, Macomb, Livingston, Oakland, and Washtenaw counties.
In Philadelphia, organizers indeed turned out more people to vote—for Donald Trump. Biden sealed his election victory by scoring big gains not in the city itself but in its suburbs. In the city of Philadelphia, Donald Trump won 19,000 more votes than he did four years ago while Joe Biden won 8,000 fewer votes than Hillary Clinton did. This 27,000 vote deficit was more than offset by Biden’s overperformance in the suburbs (Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Lehigh, Montgomery, and Northampton counties), where he netted some 112,000 votes, including 66,000 Kasich voters. President Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 by fewer than 45,000 votes.
Democrats in Milwaukee succeeded in increasing Democratic turnout by 3 percent, but that only amounted to a 3,000-vote net gain. This was a pittance against Trump’s 23,000-vote Wisconsin victory in 2016. On the other hand, Milwaukee’s biggest suburb, Republican-leaning Waukesha County, saw its number of Democratic voters increase 31 percent, netting Joe Biden 10,500 votes. Kasich voters in Waukesha numbered 7,900. Obviously, that wasn’t enough to achieve victory. The knockout punch arguably came from outside the Milwaukee metro area in Dane County, where 85 percent of residents are white and 51 percent have bachelor’s degrees. It was here that Biden earned a net gain of 35,000 votes. Another viable candidate for the knockout punch is the number of Kasich voters statewide: over 50,000.
An interesting, and perhaps predictable aside: There was only one suburban county in this entire analysis that voted for Donald Trump at a higher rate than it did in 2016. Can you guess? It was Kenosha, the site of major protests this past summer, where Trump’s margin of victory increased from 0.3 percent in 2016 to 3.2 percent in 2020.
Finally, let’s look at Georgia and the city of Atlanta. Georgia’s data is complicated by two facts: The state has only county-level voter data, not city-level; and Atlanta’s county lines do not align well with racial or suburban characteristics.
The city of Atlanta bifurcates two counties, Fulton and DeKalb, which each have suburban communities of their own. Lehigh University Professor Karen Beck Pooley estimates 87 percent of African Americans in the Atlanta metro area live in suburbs. And many of the metro area’s suburban counties have a nearly even white-black balance. Meanwhile, Biden’s margin of victory is hovering around 10,000 votes, so practically everyone’s vote was needed to win, including those who registered to vote because of Stacey Abrams’s efforts and the state’s 28,549 Kasich voters.
The urban vs. suburban trends observed in Detroit, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee essentially hold true with Atlanta. Pooley describes Clayton County as “historically black” along with DeKalb County and part of Fulton County. These counties have the highest proportion of Democratic support by far. So, for the sake of our analysis, let’s imperfectly call these three counties “Atlanta” and call the other counties in the metro area (Newton, Rockdale, Douglas, Henry, Gwinnett, Fayette, Paulding, and Cobb) the suburbs.
In the 2020 election, there were a total of 702,300 Democratic voters in the suburbs and 784,600 Democratic voters in “Atlanta.” For the suburbs, that represented an increase of 43 percent and for “Atlanta,” an increase of 31 percent (it’s not clear what makes Rep. Ocasio-Cortez believe turnout doubled or tripled—Democratic turnout in the metro area’s most black county, Clayton, actually increased at the lowest rate of them all). Joe Biden’s margin of victory was 14 percent higher than Hillary Clinton’s in the suburban counties while it was 2 percent higher in “Atlanta.”
The stat that perhaps best sums up the Atlanta area is that, compared to Hillary Clinton’s performance, Joe Biden saw a net gain of 160,900 voters in the suburban counties and 146,000 in “Atlanta.”
While there is no doubt heavily Democratic major cities formed the foundation of the party’s support as usual, they did not swing the country from a Trump victory in 2016 to a Biden victory in 2020. The numbers suggest that the suburbs played a much bigger role.
Saying so doesn’t diminish the praise that community leaders rightfully deserve for getting their constituents to the polls (especially in places where it’s historically been difficult). But it does correct some of the misleading, under-researched, or outright false narratives circulating in the news.
It also demonstrates that, for better or worse, the middle- to upper-middle-class suburbanites whom the left often derides as “Karens” and “dream hoarders” still have the power to swing elections. They had a major impact on this one by voting for Joe Biden in far higher numbers than they did for Hillary Clinton.
And, in a way, that’s a good thing. Some say elections are best won by candidates who turn out their base, wavering voters or the impact on national polarization be damned. The data on this election demonstrates Joe Biden won primarily by doing the opposite: He reached across the partisan divide and won crucial votes in Republican-leaning and swing counties. Politicians and strategists already gaming out 2022 or 2024 should keep Biden’s winning strategy in mind.