The great irony of American history may be that precisely 75 years after the end of World War II — an important marker we celebrate this week — the United States is experiencing the first truly postwar election.
With the political conventions looming and the general election heating up, the 2020 presidential race increasingly looks like a contest that will be determined by several elements of contemporary life that began to take shape three-quarters of a century ago.
Next Saturday marks the 75th anniversary of V-J Day, the day Americans celebrated the end of combat against Japan, bringing World War II to an end. And it was with the conclusion of that great conflict that these great changes in American life were set in motion or accelerated.
The fate of President Donald J. Trump and of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. will be determined in large measure by how the two contenders fare on these measures: how their entreaties are received in the suburbs, which began their great growth after 1945; whether there are great voting differences between those with or without a college degree, a dividing line that grew after the postwar GI Bill; and how they perform among women, whose role and outlook changed during and after the war.
The fourth vital element — the emergence of minorities and their growing influence at the ballot box — cannot be discounted, though Biden has a substantial advantage among Black voters and Trump’s hopes are confined to Latino voters, especially in Florida and Texas; he’s certain to lose California, New York and New Jersey regardless of his appeal to the large number of Hispanics there.
Since 1932, no candidate has won the Democratic nomination without the support of Black voters — and these voters have sided decisively with the Democratic nominee in every election since. The big mystery for 2020: turnout, which in 2016 was only about 60%, the first decline in two decades.
Here is a brief look at the other World War II transformations that will have an echo effect 75 years later:
— The suburbs. With boosts Washington provided from the GI Bill and the highway construction boom, the suburbs ballooned after the war. They were a symbol of the two great characteristics that emerged from American victory in the conflict: prosperity and possibility.
“Back in the 1950s, if you told people you were living in the suburbs, you were telling them you were white, living in a single family home with a car,” said William Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer. “Now when you say you’re living in the suburbs, you’re not telling very much at all.”
But you are telling them one vital thing: These communities could hold the balance in the 2020 campaign. It was in the suburbs that the Democrats wrestled control of the House from the Republicans in 2018. Indeed, a USA Today study of suburban voting showed that 80 suburban counties voted more Democratic in the midterm congressional elections than they had voted in the 2016 presidential race, with a quarter of them experiencing a double-digit shift.
One of them — Cobb County, outside Atlanta, which experienced a 14 percentage-point shift, pushing the Democrats into the majority — could have enormous significance, putting Georgia within the reach of Biden, especially if he combines a strong suburban performance with high Black turnout. Indeed, in large parts of the Sun Belt, a Trump stronghold in 2016, all the growth is in the suburbs, which is why Democrats harbor long-shot hopes in Texas and Arizona.
— The College Divide. The GI Bill — “one of the greatest pieces of legislation in American history,” as former Cornell president Hunter R. Rawlings III put it in an interview — provided generous college tuition benefits to returning veterans, transforming the country. A college degree opened the gates of prosperity for millions, propelling them into a middle class that at the same time was itself burgeoning.
The college divide has rarely been as significant a factor as it was four years ago, when, according to CNN exit polls, Trump won 72% of the white noncollege male vote and paired that strong performance with 62% of the white noncollege female vote.
When the Electoral College is taken in consideration, the chasm is even more dramatic. The president won every state whose rate of college degrees was below the national average except Maine, Nevada and New Mexico. Even more significant, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton swept every state with a college-degree rate above the national average except Kansas and Utah. Trump did worse than 2012 nominee Mitt Romney in all but two of the country’s 50 counties with the highest college rates and did so by a substantial margin of nearly 9 percentage points, according to a study by the FiveThirtyEight website.
— The Gender Gap. Much has been made of how World War II opened employment to women, especially in manufacturing, where the biggest breakthroughs occurred — in part because the federal government recognized the importance of drawing women to work and, as a result, subsidized child care. It is sometimes forgotten that more women went to work in the 1950s for pay than ever before, especially married women with children. Now women account for almost 47% of the workforce.
That growth has come as the gender gap has developed. Since 1980, when women voted decisively for Jimmy Carter over Ronald Reagan and produced an 8-point gap, Democratic presidential candidates regularly have performed better among women. The gap hit 10 points twice (2000 and 2012) and grew slightly, to 11 points, in the Trump-Clinton campaign. Then, two years ago, according to an Edison Research poll, 59% of women voted for a Democratic candidate in the midterm congressional elections, far higher than the 47% of men who voted for the Democratic candidate.
The Democrats, cognizant that since 1964 more women than men have voted, are hoping to replay those results, especially among suburban women. On that alone, the election might turn. Consider one figure, from a Marquette Law School poll, combining two of the postwar political factors: White female college-educated voters in the swing state of Wisconsin, which Trump carried in 2016, favor Biden over the president by a 2-to-1 margin.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.