A Divided Nation: the Lead Writing Team’s Analysis of the 2020 US Presidential Election

This article was written collaboratively by the Falmouth Anchor’s Lead Writing Team: Pavandeep Singh Josan, Beatrice Steele, and Scott Thomson |

Over a month has now passed since the US election, arguably one of the most consequential and important elections of the 21st century, particularly for the West. Since the election, broadcast hours and column inches have been filled with pundits and commentators offering their takeaways and opinions of what demographic trends say about the changing nature of American society, the divisions that these changes have caused, and the electoral impacts that result from these divisions. Now that some time has passed, however, electoral reports and post-election studies reveal a new depth of data, from which we can conduct a reasoned and detailed analysis of the election, focusing on two distinct factors: youth participation and urban-rural divisions. 

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In terms of youth participation, 2020 surpassed all expectations. According to NBC, youth turnout across the board has reached figures of over 53%, the highest since 2008. In an election where every vote mattered in closely fought swing states such as Arizona and Philadelphia, the role that young people played in choosing the presidential nominee cannot be denied.

On election night there was significant youth support for Joe Biden. CIRCLE, the Centre for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, shows that 61% of voters from the ages 18-29 voted for Biden, an improvement on the 55% that voted for Clinton in 2016.

Most pronounced were the votes of young people of colour, who voted for Joe Biden en masse. CIRCLE further reports that young black voters supported Biden with a majority of 87%, Asian voters with 83%, and Latino voters with 73%.

More than any other state, Georgia saw a wave of young people of colour supporting the Democratic Party. Black voters of the ages 18-29 gave Biden a staggering majority of 90%. As of today, the state of Georgia has a Democratic majority of only 0.3%, meaning that it is unquestionable that almost unanimous support from Georgia’s black youth pushed Biden to victory in that state.

But how do young people feel about Biden’s policies? One California voter, studying at the University of Exeter, is positive that the Democratic Party listens to the voices of students: “In terms of education, Biden proposes student debt relief and free community college.” They also state that “[Biden’s] progressive plans to combat climate change resonate with young people who will inherit the problems caused by fossil fuels.”

However, while young people showed clear support for Biden, there is also a degree of disillusionment with the presidential nominee. Bernie Sanders, not Joe Biden, was the young people’s choice in the Democratic Primaries. Despite losing overall, the Vermont senator held either a majority or a plurality among 18-29 year olds in every state except Mississippi before dropping out of the race.

This uncertainty about the future of the Democratic Party is echoed by a Michigan voter studying at Falmouth University. They warn that “the moment Biden is sworn into office, young Americans will find themselves with idle hands and covered eyes, forgetting that they are still living within a dangerous, capitalist, and imperialist nation”.

The intergenerational divide that exists between the young and old is just one example of a fissure within American society that has come to have a noticeable electoral and political impact. There exists another long-standing division that has widened over recent years and come to exert a significant influence on American democracy. This division is the one between rural and urban areas in America. 

An analysis of the extent to which the urban-rural divide played a role in the 2020 election is particularly interesting when considering whether recent electoral trends in the UK contain parallels to this division (the 2019 “Divided Britain?” report by The Policy Institute at King’s College London provides a comprehensive introduction to political polarisation in the UK). This means that as well as considering the extent of divisions between urban and rural areas in the US, we are also able to include a comparison to the state of politics in the UK through an analysis of whether an urban-rural divide exists in Britain (between Cornwall and London, for example). It is important to note here that we are not attempting to portray British and American experiences as homogeneous, and neither should one believe that political parties in the US and UK are mirror images of each other (there are differences between the Democrats and the Labour Party, and the Republicans and the Conservative Party, for example). So, read this part of our analysis with that caveat in mind.

There is a well-known polarity evident in the voting habits of rural and urban areas. Bloomberg reported last year that the suburbs were getting more Democratic, while rural America became a Republican stronghold. This observation seems to have held true for the 2020 election. Prof. Guian McKee, an academic at the University of Virginia’s Miller Centre, told CBS19 News that the election has revealed much about why localities, urban or rural, tend to vote in the same direction as their neighbours: “We’ve had a really striking pattern that shows there is a strong identification of where people live. We call it a ‘geographic sort’ that Americans increasingly live among their fellow partisans in their immediate communities.”

Conversely, the Asia Times reported that the famous divide between urban and rural areas appeared to be narrowing as the results of the 2020 election were analysed. According to Urban C. Lehner and the exit polls conducted by Edison Research, Trump had won the rural vote, but by a much smaller margin than he had done back in 2016. Lehner blames this change on a number of contributing factors, one of the most important being Biden’s ability to poll higher than Hillary Clinton in places such as the rural counties of Texas. In the end, however, Lehner still concedes that the urban-rural divide has persisted since the days of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, and while it has narrowed on occasion, it probably will continue to be a defining quality of any election.

The urban-rural divide is not simply an American phenomenon. To link this back to home, Cornwall is an incredibly rural county, and has voted as such in 2017 and in the earlier EU Referendum. The stark difference between the Cornish opinion and the London mindset is demonstrated by one event more than any other – its decision to Leave. The resultant projection of the loss of EU funding was derided by some Remain voters in a poor show of “told-you-so” politics, as is examined in Sam Farley’s brilliant article for The Independent

There is undoubtedly a modicum of superciliousness at the root of many analyses of the urban-rural divide. It is prudent to avoid this tone. It is reasonable to expect Cornwall, holding its unique place in Britain, to show curiosity about its future role. Rural areas suffer different issues to urban ones, such as the brain-drain of young people towards the city, and therefore instinctively vote for those who promise regeneration. In another vein, the London-centric campaign of Jeremy Corbyn might not have appealed to Cornish voters in the 2017 election. The challenge for Labour in the next election is that of building careful bridges in these Conservative strongholds. It can be done; in 2005, the Liberal Democrats possessed the most seats in Cornwall, and were still neck-and-neck with the Conservatives in 2010. 

Indeed, the key here seems to be the acknowledgement of rural areas, which has been an effective strategy for Biden. “The Biden-Harris Plan to Build Back Better in Rural America” presents a vision of new opportunity for rural America, one predicated on the argument that Trump has failed to deliver the jobs he promised. Given the better performance of the Democrats in these communities, this message appears to have been received well.

America in 2020, then, is a nation divided more so than at any other point in its recent history. Alongside intergenerational, racial, and urban-rural divisions, the US has seemed unsure of its global role, in a way that arguably hasn’t been seen since the end of the Second World War. One senses that the US has become the older, fading superpower, unsure of its role and capacity for global leadership in a century which will bear the death of Pax Americana, the rise of Asia to global prominence and a new era of superpower competition with an increasingly assertive China. It seems as if just when the free world needs US leadership, it has gone conspicuously missing.

How has the election and its aftermath affected global perceptions of the US? The California voter studying at the University of Exeter, is of the view that the acrimonious aftermath of the election, in which President Trump shared unsubstantiated claims of election fraud, will serve to further diminish America’s global perception: “American democracy has a crucial reputation and many look to the US as a symbol of freedom. The fact that the US president, often cited as the world’s most powerful man, is claiming that the election was rigged like this is unprecedented.” 

These views are reflected in data published by the Pew Research Center, a non-partisan think tank based in Washington, D.C. The think tank published a report on the US’ global reputation after election day this year, based on an analysis of survey data stretching back three Administrations (to the presidency of George W. Bush). Its research found that the US has experienced a sharp decline in its global reputation since 2017, in almost every region of the world. For reference, in the UK, the percentage of respondents holding a favourable view of the US fell to 41% this year, the lowest on record since surveys began in 2000.

The term “inflection point” has been widely used by commentators, journalists, and even the president-elect himself over the course of this election campaign. It is certainly an effective political slogan, though it does arguably possess a real-world significance too. An analysis of the electoral data from the election makes it clear that America is heavily divided. A key task in the coming years for all sides will be to repair divisions and unite a fractured nation. The future of both the American project and global democracy depend on it.