In the popular vote, why wasn’t Biden’s victory bigger?

A voter completes his ballot inside a privacy booth at a polling station inside Knapp Elementary School on Election Day in Racine, Racine County, Wisconsin, U.S. November 3, 2020. REUTERS/Bing Guan

In the 2020 election some Democrats, buoyed by misleading polls and their own hopes, believed that Joe Biden might win a landslide. But a quick look at recent history reveals how improbable those predictions were.

We live in an era of closely contested presidential elections without precedent in the past century. During the past nine contests stretching back to 1988, not one candidate has won by a landslide—a margin defined as 10 percentage points or more in the popular vote. Bill Clinton enjoyed the largest edge during this period—8.5% in his 1996 reelection campaign—followed by George H. W. Bush with a 7.8-point edge in 1988 and Barack Obama’s 7.2 in 2008. In four of these nine elections, the winner failed to receive a simple majority of the popular vote; in two, the Electoral College winner did not receive even a plurality.

Contrast this picture with the results of the presidential elections between 1920 and 1984. In 14 of these 17 elections, the winner won a majority of the popular vote. In two others (Harry Truman in 1948 and JFK in 1960), the winner failed to clear this threshold by less than half of one percent. In 10 of these elections, the victor won in a landslide, and two others (FDR in 1940, Ronald Reagan in 1980) the victor fell just short.

In that 64-year period, the contest between the two parties resembles World War Two, with a high level of mobility and rapid gains and losses of large swaths of territory. By contrast, the contemporary era resembles World War One, with a single, mostly immobile line of battle and endless trench warfare.

Against the backdrop of the past nine elections, how does Joe Biden’s victory measure up?

Ignoring warnings of an early red surge in the tally, to be followed by a “blue shift,” many Democrats leapt to the conclusion on election night that Biden’s margin of victory was disappointingly narrow. But as vote count proceeded, the picture changed.

The U.S. Elections Project estimates that when the tally is complete, about 158.7 million Americans will have voted in the presidential contest. Six million of these votes are yet to be counted, and we know where they are. More than half (3.3 million) are located in just five blue states—California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland. By contrast, the five largest red states account for only a few hundred thousand outstanding ballots.

There is good reason to believe, then, that the remaining uncounted ballots will strongly favor Joe Biden over President Trump. If so, Biden will likely achieve a popular vote edge of at least 6 million votes, with a winning margin of 4 percent. In the Electoral College, if the current returns hold up through the vote count and court challenges, Biden will take back the Blue Wall states—Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, along with two southern tier states—Georgia and Arizona—that haven’t tipped into the Democratic column since the 1990s.

Biden’s estimated final vote margin would place him right in the middle of the outcomes since 1988—worse than four elections, better than four other elections, and slightly ahead of Barack Obama’s successful reelection campaign in 2012. His likely haul of 306 electoral votes exceeds George W. Bush’s total in both 2000 and 2004 and ties the number of EVs Donald Trump won four years ago.

By the standards of the past three decades, Joe Biden won a substantial though not overwhelming victory. It is reasonable to ask why he didn’t do even better. But as we’ve seen, we seem to be in a period of history where landslides are hard to come by. Democrats should reserve their disappointment for their party’s performance in the House, Senate, and state legislative contests they expected to win. Joe Biden’s victory is solid given the period of history in which we are living.

Both parties must face up to some hard truths. In the past four elections, the Republican share of the popular vote has been stuck in a narrow range between 46 and 47%. Donald Trump brought more working-class and rural voters into the Republican column while driving out suburbanites and college graduates. The net gain for his party was modest at best. Despite their structural advantage in the Electoral College, Republicans cannot expect to win many presidential elections if they remain far short of parity in the popular vote.

For their part, Democrats must recognize that they defeated Trump but not Trumpism. The new coalition that the outgoing president forged will be a prominent feature of the political landscape for years to come, and there is little evidence that the forces that energized its formation have weakened. If Democrats are counting on demographic change to expand their modest popular edge into a truly national majority, they will likely have a long wait.

The unavoidable conclusion: Unless Joe Biden’s presidency is highly successful during the next four years, the 30-year cycle of narrow victories and regular shifts of power in the White House and the legislative branch will persist.