Vote switching from 2016 to 2020

Prof Diana C. Mutz

Samuel A. Stouffer Chair in Political Science and Communication at the University of Pennsylvania where she also serves as Director of the Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics.

Sam Wolken

Joint Ph.D. student at the Annenberg School for Communication and the Department of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. His research focuses on the role of the media environment in shaping public opinion and political behavior.

Section 2: Voters

Almost nothing about the 2020 presidential election seemed like business as usual. Record-breaking turnout during the height of a pandemic. Widespread concerns about the legitimacy of the outcome even before the first vote was cast. The steepest quarterly decline in U.S. GDP in modern history. Ongoing and widespread protests for racial justice. Nonetheless, one thing about the 2020 election was not at all unique: the consistency of individual voter behavior.

In the 1940 presidential election, when the first ever over-time study of voter preferences was conducted, the researchers were surprised to find that fully 92 percent of their sample remained consistent in their voting preferences throughout the presidential campaign. In other words, people knew where they stood before the presidential campaign began, and the campaign changed few people’s minds about which candidate to support.

Over seven decades later, we know that this pattern is not uncommon or unique to that era. For example, despite the novelty of Donald Trump’s 2016 candidacy and campaign, the same pattern was clear; around 90 percent of voters supported the candidate of the same party in 2016 that they had supported in 2012.

What about 2020? To analyze who switched and why in the 2020 election, we utilized a national panel study that interviewed voters in October 2016, shortly before the election, and then again in October of 2020, immediately before the 2020 election. This random probability sample was collected by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. By comparing people’s reported vote preferences at both points in time, we can estimate the number of vote switchers in the recent election. In addition to identifying the number of “switchers,” we asked those who reported a different preference in 2020 to explain their change of heart relative to their 2016 vote.

As shown in Table 1, around 90 percent of those who voted for Trump in 2016 also supported him in 2020. Given the extreme loyalty of Trump’s base, this probably would not surprise anyone. But more importantly, it is entirely consistent with previous elections under far more mundane conditions, long before concerns about mass polarization emerged. Interestingly, Democratic voters were even more consistent, with over 94 percent of those who voted for Clinton in 2016 also voting for Biden in 2020. Likewise, the percentage of those vote switchers who defected to the candidate of the other major party remained tiny, at around 4 to 7 percent, with a slight advantage to Biden in converting more Republican voters than Trump converted Democratic voters.

Table 1. Individual vote preferences in 2020 as a percentage of vote preferences in 2016

We asked these switchers to explain in their own words why they changed their minds. Overall, most switchers were motivated by dislike of the opposition rather than enthusiasm for the candidate they supported:

“I don’t like Trump. But I am terrified of what a Biden or Harris presidency would do to our nation.”

“I’m not voting FOR Biden. I’m voting AGAINST Trump.”

“Anyone. But. Trump.”

“The way Donald Trump is acting as a president is a disgrace for the entire human race.”

“I don’t like Biden. He is a weak candidate.”

What is perhaps most noteworthy about Table 1 is what happened to the roughly five percent of voters who supported third-party candidates in 2016. Regardless of partisan leanings, the stakes of the election outcome were perceived to be far higher in 2020 than in 2016. As shown in Table 1, the split among third party voters favored Biden. The explanations offered by those who switched from being third-party supporters in 2016 to supporters of one of the major parties in 2020 reflected their sense of the increased salience of their choice, and their fear of wasting their votes on a minor party candidate:

“Voting outside of the 2 party system is almost like not voting at all.”

“A vote for a Libertarian is a lost vote.”

“Can’t in good conscience vote for Trump, and a vote for the green party is a wasted vote.”

Although third-party voting is generally a small percentage in most elections, it was particularly tiny in 2020. Given the razor-thin margins in some states in 2020, this change may well have made a difference.

As the authors of The People’s Choice first highlighted, vote “switchers” hold formidable leverage over the outcome of presidential elections, since their realignment simultaneously takes a vote away from one party and adds a vote to the other. We have yet to determine whether unusually high turnout in 2020 benefitted Trump or Biden or both equally. But Biden clearly gained a slight edge by means of shifting more Republicans than Trump did Democrats, and by attracting more voters who supported a third-party candidate in 2016.