How close was Trump to winning the election?

Ian Simpson, Research Officer

Posted on the 5th January 2021

Just before the 2020 US Presidential election, we asked the question ‘could Trump win the Presidency and lose the popular vote again’? Now that results from every state have been certified and the Electoral College has confirmed Joe Biden as the victor, we know the answer to that question is ‘no’. However, it was a close-run thing.

The first thing to note is the massive increase in turnout that took place. Over 158 million Americans voted, nearly 22 million more than voted in the previous Presidential election in 2016. This is good news for democracy. People clearly thought that the election mattered.

Hillary Clinton won 3 million more votes, Biden 7 million more

In 2016, Hillary Clinton received nearly three million more votes than Donald Trump, yet lost the election due to the Electoral College system. Joe Biden more than doubled the margin of victory over Trump, to just over seven million votes, yet his victory in the all-important Electoral College was still far from comfortable.

Biden’s margin of victory over Trump in the nationwide popular vote was 4.4% (51.3% vs 46.9%). However, his margin of victory in the ‘tipping point state’, Wisconsin, the state that put Biden across the line in the Electoral College race, was a much narrower 0.6% (49.4% vs 48.8%). Biden did manage to increase his Electoral College victory by winning a further two states by narrower margins, Arizona by 0.3% (49.4% vs 49.1%) and Georgia by 0.2% (49.5% vs 49.3%).

However, these results make it clear that under the current system, it is perfectly plausible that a US Presidential candidate could receive over half the votes cast, yet still not win the election.

The Electoral College is biased towards the Republican Party

At present, the Electoral College system gives the Republican Party an in-built advantage. Twice this century, a Republican candidate has become President despite losing the popular vote, George Bush Junior in 2000 and Trump in 2016. Trump’s 2020 national vote share is lower than that achieved by all of the Democratic Party candidates in all six Presidential elections held this century, including the three candidates that did not become President – Al Gore (48.4%); John Kerry (48.3%); Hilary Clinton (48.2%), yet Trump still came close to re-election.

One of the reasons the Electoral College stayed as tight as it did, was the differential vote swings in different types of states. This shows that where votes change is often as important as how many votes change under this system, just like the First Past The Post (FPTP) system used for Westminster elections.

On average, Biden achieved bigger swings in states that Clinton won in 2016.

There were 20 states, plus the District of Columbia, which Clinton won in 2016 and that Biden was widely expected to hold, which he did. If you take the Democrat vs Republican vote share margin change from 2016 to 2020, in each of these states and produce an average, Biden improved the Democrat vs Republican margin by 4.0 points per state, on average. Biden’s best swing among these states was in Vermont, which saw a 9.0% improvement in the Democrats’ vote margin versus the Republicans. There were seven other ‘Clinton 2016’ states where Biden achieved bigger swings than in any of the 30 ‘marginal’ or ‘safe Trump’ states – Colorado (8.6% improvement in vote margin); Delaware (7.6%); New Hampshire (7.0%); Maryland (6.8%); Connecticut (6.4%); Massachusetts (6.3%); Maine (6.1%).

None of these big swings brought any extra Electoral College votes for Biden. This has echoes of the UK Labour Party piling up massive swings and majorities in big cities, which bring no extra MPs.

Biden improved the vote margin by only half this amount, 2.0 points per state on average, in the 10 states that Trump won in 2016 but where it was widely considered that Biden had a reasonable chance of victory and where he needed to make inroads in order to win the Electoral College (Pennsylvania; Michigan; Wisconsin; Arizona; Georgia; North Carolina; Florida; Texas; Ohio; Iowa). Biden’s best swing among these states was in Georgia (5.4% improvement in vote margin).

In the 20 states that Trump won in 2016 and that were considered safe for him this time, Biden improved the margin by 2.7 points per state, on average. Biden’s best swing was in Kansas (5.9% improvement in vote margin).

Introducing the National Popular Vote Compact

Just like FPTP in the UK, the Electoral College system appears ripe for reform to something that is fairer and better reflects voter choice. The National Popular Vote Compact is a movement for electoral reform in the US. Fifteen states, plus the District of Columbia have signed up to the Compact, which would see the Electoral College votes of these states go to the winner of the national popular vote. However, it needs states with a total of 270 Electoral College votes, enough to win the Presidency, in order to come into effect. Despite the voters of Colorado backing the Compact last month, it is still 74 Electoral College votes short of the target. All of the states that have signed up are reliably Democrat-voting states at the Presidential level.

At the moment, there does not appear to be any appetite among the Republican Party to consider reform of the Electoral College system. Perhaps this will change if Texas, with its 38 Electoral College votes continues to trend towards the Democrats. In 2000, Bush Junior beat Al Gore by 21.3 percentage points, in Texas (59.3% to 38.0%). In 2020, Trump’s lead over Biden was 5.6 percentage points (52.1% to 46.5%). A once-reliably Republican state with so many Electoral College votes at stake, becoming marginal, might be a trigger for bringing reform a step closer.

In a democracy, the location of your voters shouldn’t be more important than their number. Sadly, under first past the post style systems like the Electoral College, the democratic will of the people, clearly expressed, can be overruled by the arbitrary geographic rules of ‘winner’ takes all.

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