WASHINGTON — Any election victory can be seen from a variety of angles — marginal gains here, voter flips there — but the story of Joe Biden's 2020 win and his narrow recapturing of the northern Democratic "blue wall" states might be best explained by vote boosts among three groups: younger voters, diverse urban voters and suburbanites.
Let's start with younger voters. Some wondered whether the pandemic would sap votes and impact from the country's big college-town counties. The data showed it didn't.
Nationally, counties labeled as College Towns by the American Communities Project data journalism effort at George Washington University produced bigger margins for Biden than they did for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Overall, he did 5 points better. That was true in the "blue wall," as well, and one big place where the impact can be seen is Dane County, home of Madison and the University of Wisconsin.
Clinton did very well in Dane in 2016, winning the county by 47 percentage points and more than 146,000 votes. But Biden ran up the score to a margin of 53 percentage points and more than 181,000 votes. Biden edged President Donald Trump by about 20,000 votes in the state.
You can also see Biden's margin and vote tally bumps in Michigan's Washtenaw (University of Michigan) and Ingham (Michigan State University) counties and in Centre County, Pennsylvania, home of Penn State University. Some of that may be attributable to more liberal voters coming home in 2020 to vote against Trump.
For any Democrat to win the White House, a candidate needs the urban vote to turn out, and Biden got that, too. The big-city vote is crucial to Democrats because of the sheer number of votes it brings. Growing turnout can be just as important as growing margins. Winning by 20 percentage points when 400,000 go to the polls is a lot better than winning by 20 points when 300,000 go to the polls.
That's what happened in Wayne County, Michigan, home of Detroit. Biden won the county by 37 percentage points, the same margin Clinton won it by in 2016. But this year, 861,000 people cast votes, compared to 782,000 in 2016. The result? Biden netted 323,000 votes out of Wayne, compared to the 290,000 votes Clinton netted in 2016 — a difference of 33,000 votes.
How big a difference is that? In 2016, Trump won the entire state of Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes.
And beyond Wayne, you can see similar patterns in Milwaukee and, of course, Philadelphia, where the votes aren't yet final but where big turnout helped carry Biden to victory in Pennsylvania, the state that pushed him over 270 electoral votes.
Despite social media conspiracy theories about Biden's margins in urban areas, big cities simply tend to lean heavily Democratic, and when their voters turn out, it's a Democratic advantage. That happened this year.
And just beyond the cities, the Democrats have extended their territory into suburban America in the last decade or so. Last week, a growing edge in the vote in key suburbs in Michigan and Pennsylvania, as well as margin shifts in Wisconsin suburban areas, powered Biden's win in those states.
One place you can see the impacts is in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia. Biden won Montgomery by 26 percentage points. That was 5 points better than Clinton did in 2016. But even more important for Biden, the bigger margin came with an increase in turnout. He netted 131,000 votes out of the county, 38,000 more than Clinton netted in 2016.
You can see similar big gains in margin and votes in Oakland County, Michigan, outside Detroit. In Waukesha County, outside Milwaukee, Trump still won, but by fewer votes, which also helped Biden there.
Less than a week after Election Day, this is just the beginning of trying to understand what happened in 2020. The votes aren't even completely tallied yet, and more time will yield more detailed and sophisticated analyses.
And it's not yet known whether any of these moves in margin or turnout will be durable going forward. The 2020 presidential race was an outlier in a long list of ways. But when trying to understand how the Democrats rebuilt their "blue wall" in the upper Midwest this year, these three kinds of voter communities are a crucial part of the story.