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How changing U.S. demographics have reshaped the electorate since 2016

Election season is in full swing, and President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden are both on the campaign trail. How have shifting demographics and an increasingly diverse voter base altered the electoral landscape since 2016? NPR’s Domenico Montanaro joins Judy Woodruff to discuss population changes in competitive states and declining support for Trump among suburban voters.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The general election season is officially in full swing, and both presidential campaigns are mapping their path to November.

    But shifting demographics and a more diverse electorate have changed the voting picture in many ways since 2016.

    To help walk us through some of these changes, I'm joined by NPR's senior political editor and correspondent, Domenico Montanaro.

    Domenico, welcome back to the "NewsHour." It's very good to see you.

    So, let's start by talking about the voters. It all hinges on them, the people who make up the electorate. Tell us how that electorate has changed. How does it look different from 2016?

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    Well, I was really curious about this, because so many people keep talking about the 2020 election as if it is the same thing as the 2016 election.

    So I talked to the demographer at Brookings, William Frey, and he walked me through some of the big changes. The biggest one is that white working-class voters from 2016 to 2020 have dropped four points. They went from 45 percent in 2016 to 41 percent as a share of eligible voters, is what we're talking about.

    And, meanwhile, if you look at white voters with a college degree and Latinos, each of those have gained two points each overall. If you were to combine white voters with a college degree and Latinos, two groups that vote overwhelmingly Democratic, and pit them against white voters without a college degree, who vote overwhelmingly for President Trump, you see that the gap has almost completely vanished from 2016, when whites voters without a college degree had a nine-point advantage over white voters with a college degree and Latino.

    So, really, we're seeing a big change here. And President Trump's base is really shrinking.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So interesting.

    So, let's zero in on the states that are most competitive, the states where the candidates are focusing most of their attention. What are the issues on the ground? What does it look like?

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    Well, if you look at our battleground map, there are about 16 states that are really in the competitive category.

    And when we say that, we talk about states that lean toward President Trump, toss-up states, and states that lean toward Joe Biden. So, you can see here, within those states, the trend also continues.

    When you look at white voters without a college degree, in 14 of those 16 competitive states, you see whites without a degree on the decline. Conversely, you see Latinos on the rise in 12 of those 16 states. So, those demographics making some big changes, big shifts.

    And it's part of why you see, in a place like Wisconsin, for example, and Arizona, where you have two sort of differing reasons for the states to be competitive.

    In Wisconsin, a Rust Belt state that was super close in 2016, you had whites without a college degree down five points, and yet whites with — whites with a college degree up three points. That's the real ball game there. Latinos are down in Wisconsin, but, if you look at Arizona, totally different story.

    You have white working-class voters, whites without a college degree down, and Latinos up six points. And the big difference here as far as 2016 to 2020 and why Joe Biden is competitive is Latinos. They now make up about a third of the overall eligible voters in Arizona.

    But a thing to keep in mind, this is not about who's going to vote. This is just who's eligible to vote. And, as you can see, with 31 percent of Latinos in Arizona being eligible to vote, that's a big difference from 2016, when only — they only made up 15 percent of the electorate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, one voting bloc, Domenico, that's getting a lot of attention this year, suburban voters, especially suburban women.

    We know President Trump won suburban voters in 2016. But the midterms saw a change in the suburbs. What does it look like now?

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    There's been a huge shift.

    In 2016, as you mentioned, President Trump won the suburban — won suburban voters narrowly, 47 to 45, when you look at the Pew Center's validated voters survey. Compare that to 2020. When you look at our poll, the "PBS NewsHour"/NPR/Marist poll, you have Joe Biden with a 61-36 advantage over President Trump in the suburbs.

    If those numbers hold, it makes it very difficult for the president to win reelection. And campaign managers who we talk to, Republicans, up and down in these competitive House races, why would these states — these House races continue to be competitive, when these are Republican-leaning suburban districts? And that's why, because President Trump is a drag at the top of the ticket for them.

    At the same time, the group that he can try to get out is those white voters without a college degree. They only turned out a 58 percent rate in 2016. There's room for them to grow, because that's only about on par and even down from some past presidential elections.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A lot of wild cards, but some really important information looking hard at the electorate.

    Domenico Montanaro of NPR, thank you so much.

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    You're so welcome. Thanks for having me.

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