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Divided We Stand

Divided We Stand
New book about the 2020 election.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Historical Context of the 2020 Election

In Defying the Odds, we discuss the 2016 campaign. Our next book (title TBA) discusses 2020.

Historical Context:

  • Biden's raw popular vote total (78 million as of today) was the largest in history.
  • Biden's popular-vote percentage (50.9 percent as of today) was the highest for a challenger since FDR in 1932.  
  • Biden won a larger percentage than Trump in 2016, Bush in 2004 or 2000, Clinton in 1996 or 1992, Reagan in 1980, Carter in 1976, Nixon in 1968, Kennedy in 1960, or Truman in 1948.
  • Biden was the first challenger to defeat an incumbent since Bill Clinton beat George H.W. Bush in 1992.
  • Trump was the first president since Benjamin Harrison in 1892 to lose popular vote twice in successive election cycles.

 Louis Jacobson at PolitiFact:

If, as expected, Biden is certified the winner in Arizona and Georgia, and if President Donald Trump is certified the winner in North Carolina, then Biden’s Electoral College victory will be exactly the same as Trump’s in 2016: They both will have won states totaling 306 electoral votes.

Four years ago, Trump declared this number of electoral votes to be "a massive landslide." We rated that False, noting that 306 electoral votes ranks no better than the bottom quarter of Electoral College showings in American history, and no better than the bottom one-third of the showings since the end of World War II.

This means it would be equally inaccurate to claim that Biden’s win was a "massive landslide" in the electoral college.

However, the more restrained characterization by former President Barack Obama — that Biden’s victory was "decisive" — is well-supported.

Biden’s electoral vote total, like Trump’s, "was on the low side," said John J. Pitney Jr., a Claremont McKenna College political scientist. "The big difference, of course, is that Trump lost the popular vote. Biden is winning a majority of the popular vote, and by a healthy margin."


Biden’s achievement is especially notable since it occurred during a period known for high partisan polarization, experts say.


As of Nov. 13, Biden was leading in the popular vote tally by 5.37 million votes, according to the Cook Political Report's 2020 National Popular Vote Tracker. This number will probably expand, since late-counted votes in such solidly blue states as California and New York are expected to bolster Biden’s count more than Trump’s.

Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist, said Biden’s national popular vote edge could eventually reach 7 million votes.

Even before any of these late-counted votes are added to his tally, Biden has amassed a wider popular vote margin than any candidate since 1996 except for Obama in 2008, who won by more than 9.5 million votes.