The Black Lives Matter movement, but not COVID, encouraged voters toward Biden

It was a turbulent run up to the 2020 U.S. Presidential election: COVID-19 struck, ending and upending lives and livelihoods, while the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and other Black Americans led to Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests nationwide.

Group of protesters in masks in the streets, one carries a large sign that reads BLACK LIVES MATTER.
On June 5, 2020, 50,000 protesters marched through the streets of Philadelphia during a Black Lives Matter protest. (Image: Shawn Kornhauser)

There has been much conjecture around the effect these momentous events had on the 2020 election, but a new Penn study offers the first evidence that the Black Lives Matter movement encouraged swing voters more toward Biden than toward Trump. During the election, many pundits voiced concerns that the BLM protests would drive swing voters toward Trump, given his campaign’s “law and order” emphasis, and the lack of widespread support for defunding the police. Instead, increased awareness of discrimination against Black Americans encouraged support for the Democratic candidate.

The study also found that concern about COVID-19 and the dramatic drop in GDP that ensued, had little effect on vote choice.

The study used responses from six nationally-representative probability surveys of more than 3000 random Americans each from October 2012 until October 2020, collected by the Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics at Penn. The surveys also included panelists who were reinterviewed from survey to survey. By comparing those who changed presidential vote preferences between 2016 and 2020, author Diana C. Mutz, the Samuel A. Stouffer Professor of Political Science and Communication, was able to analyze the kinds of opinion changes that predicted vote choice over time.

A series of panel surveys with 3,000 people each found that the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 heightened Americans’ awareness about discrimination against Black people. This perception encouraged voters to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate out of a belief that Democrats would better address racial inequality. Concerns about COVID-19 or the financial downturn that followed did not influence Presidential vote choice in 2020.

Read more at Annenberg School for Communication.