The coronavirus dominated voters' thinking, but those concerned about rising infections sided with Joseph R. Biden Jr. while those who wanted the economy open went for President Trump.
As the country faces a dual national crisis — a monthslong pandemic and economic devastation — voters were deeply divided on what mattered more: containing the coronavirus or hustling to rebuild the economy, according to early exit polls released Tuesday.
Their opinion of which was more important fell along starkly partisan lines, with those who viewed the pandemic as the most pressing issue favoring Joe Biden for president, while those who named the economy and jobs leaned toward re-electing President Donald Trump.
Reflecting a pervasive pessimism, nearly two-thirds of voters said they believed that the country was heading in the wrong direction — and those voters overwhelmingly picked Biden. And while Trump had attempted to focus the campaign on anything other than the pandemic, it clearly remained the defining issue: More than 40 per cent of voters said it was the most important issue deciding their vote, far more than any other issue.
Similarly, if not surprisingly, views on these issues were also deeply divided along partisan lines, with the overwhelming majority of Trump supporters calling the economy excellent or good while an equal share of Biden supporters said it was doing poorly.
Views of the virus also cleaved to politics: Roughly 4 in 5 Trump supporters called it at least somewhat under control, while even more Biden voters said it was "not at all under control."
Those who reported that the pandemic had taken a personal toll tended to back Biden. More than a third of all voters said they or someone in their household had lost a job or income over the past eight months, and most of those voters favoured Biden.
Those who did not vote in 2016, a group that the Trump campaign said would be key to reelection, appeared to show up in significant numbers — but they mostly turned out to oppose him. First-time voters appeared to favor Biden by wide margins.
Far fewer said they knew someone who had died from the virus, but among those who did, the vast majority chose the former vice president.
Moderate voters also swung heavily for Biden, in a tacit rejection of the "radical" label that Trump had sought to pin on him. Throughout his term, Trump has alienated moderates with his rhetoric and was never seen favourably by most independent voters.
It was these voters at the center whom Biden had most aggressively targeted, using a message of unity and American tradition to offer voters a respite from the bombast of the current president, and to push back against the Trump campaign's portrayal of the Democrat as a tool of the left.
For the first time, not one but two probability-based, scientifically sound voter surveys were conducted amid the election. The exit polls, conducted as usual by Edison Research on behalf of a consortium of news organizations, was carried out by phone with voters who had cast ballots early, and by in-person interviews at voting places.
The Associated Press also conducted its own voter survey, called VoteCast, using a panel of online respondents assembled by NORC, a research group based at the University of Chicago.
Both the AP and the Edison polls were conducted with more than 10,000 respondents, allowing a high level of precision when looking at subgroups within the national electorate, and allowing state-level analysis. The overall trends in the results were consistent between the two organizations' surveys.
In contrast to four years ago, a very small share of voters, in the single digits, said they had decided within the past few days, according to the exit polls. Four years ago, 13% said they had decided in the final week.
Polls throughout this election season had shown that roughly 4 in 5 voters held strong opinions on Trump and his leadership. Among those voters who cast ballots for him four years ago, roughly 9 in 10 supported him again this time. But Biden held onto an even stronger share of Hillary Clinton's 2016 supporters.
Among white voters, there were stark divides along lines of gender as well as education. While Trump appeared on pace to come close to repeating his blowout win in 2016 among white voters without college degrees, Biden held a commanding lead among white voters with a college education.
That group was one among many — including suburbanites and political independents — that Trump had narrowly won when facing Clinton, but whose support he had long since lost.
In certain key states, Biden appeared to fall short of Clinton's support four years ago among Latino voters, particularly men. In Florida his lead was in the single digits with Hispanic voters, and in Texas he was barely winning 3 in 5. But elsewhere his margin among Hispanic voters was much stronger, and nationwide he ran ahead of the president by more than 2 to 1.
Written by: Jennifer Medina and Giovanni Russonello
Photographs by: Calla Kessler
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES