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How The Electorate Has Changed Since 2016

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President Trump's base has gotten smaller. In 2016 Trump won a record margin among white voters without a college degree. But in the last four years, those people have declined as a share of the eligible voting population both across the country and in states critical to the presidential election. That is according to census data compiled by the Brookings Institution. NPR's senior political editor Domenico Montanaro has been analyzing this data. He's here now. Hey, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey there, Mary Louise.

KELLY: I have to note this does not sound like great news for the president.

MONTANARO: No. I mean, President Trump is facing an uphill battle for reelection as it is because he's slipping with groups he won in 2016, whether that's suburban voters, seniors or whites. But according to this data, which I have to give credit to the demographer Bill Frey at Brookings, another major problem for Trump isn't just the margins but that a core group of his voters are simply a smaller percentage of eligible voters now. For example, you mentioned President Trump was carried to victory by whites without a college degree. But those voters are down as a share of eligible voters from 45% of the country to 41 now.

Here's another way to look at it. In 2016 whites without a college degree, those core Trump voters, outnumbered whites with a college degree and Latinos together, those Democratic-leaning voters, by nine points. Today it's just one. And notably here about Latinos, they went from 12% of eligible voters to 14%. They're simply aging into the share of eligible voters and are only going to increase.

KELLY: All right. Well, let's dig into what's going on here. Are we seeing these demographic changes playing out differently in different parts of the country?

MONTANARO: Well, I was really interested to see how they're playing out in the battleground states and how it might affect the election. And in 14 of 16 battleground states, there's been a decline in whites without a college degree. Conversely, when it comes to whites with a degree, they've gone up in 14 of 16 states - so the reverse. Latinos have increased in 10 of them and Asian Americans in nine, including notably in Texas and Nevada.

Take a couple of very important states or regions in the Sun Belt - Arizona, for example. Trump won it narrowly in 2016. Biden's been leading narrowly in the polls there, and a big reason for that is this demographic shift. Whites without a college degree there - down five points, while Latinos are up 6 and now account for almost a third of all eligible voters in Arizona. In all of those former blue wall states - Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and even Ohio, a place that's drifted more away from Democrats - these are all places where whites without a college degree make up more than half the voting-eligible population. But whites without a degree are on the decline, and whites with a degree on the rise.

KELLY: What about suburban women, Domenico? Where are they in this? Did the data show anything about the role that they could play in this election?

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, look. You know, women with degrees who vote overwhelmingly Democratic and have been in many ways the backbone of the resistance to President Trump and helped Democrats take back the House in 2016 - they are on the rise, while women, white women, without degrees have been declining over decades, and they've gone down another two points as a share of the voting-eligible population just the last four years.

KELLY: So tie all this up for us. What might this indicate about President Trump's path towards reelection?

MONTANARO: Well, when looking at these numbers, the one place he could hope to do better is on turnout. Just 58% of whites without a college degree turned out in 2016. In 2004, when George W. Bush was reelected, they turned out at a rate of 61%, so there's a little room for them to grow. Now, that would make them - that would make turnout this time if they didn't - you know, they would have to turn out this time, you know, more so than in 2016. Why they would do that it's not exactly clear, but that's the path that President Trump is aiming for.

KELLY: Intriguing. NPR's Domenico Montanaro, thank you.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.