Guest post by Adrian Beaumont, who joins us from time to time to provide commentary on elections internationally. Adrian is an honorary associate at the University of Melbourne. His work on electoral matters for The Conversation can be found here, and his own website is here.
Joe Biden won the Electoral College at the November 3, 2020 election by 306 votes to 232 over Donald Trump, an exact reversal of Trump’s triumph in 2016, ignoring faithless electors. Biden gained the Trump 2016 states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona and Georgia; he also gained Nebraska’s second district.
Trump has tried to get the courts to overturn Biden’s wins in a number of close states, but the courts have given Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud short shrift. The Electoral College will formalise the result when it votes on December 14. Biden will be inaugurated on January 20.
While Biden’s win appears decisive, he won three states – Wisconsin (ten Electoral Votes), Arizona (11) and Georgia (16) – by 0.6% or less. Had Trump won these three states, the Electoral College would have been tied at 269-269. I wrote for The Conversation on November 16 that Trump would have won the presidency in a situation where neither candidate won a majority (270) of the Electoral College.
According to the excellent Cook Political Report tracker, Biden won the national popular vote by 81.28 million votes to 74.22 million for Trump, a 7.06 million vote margin. In percentage terms, Biden won by 51.3% to 46.9%, a 4.5% margin, and a 2.4% margin swing to Democrats from 2016. The map at the top can be used to show 2020 margins, swings from the 2016 election or percentage increases in raw votes cast since 2016. According to Michael McDonald’s US Elections Project, turnout was 66.7% of eligible voters, the highest since at least 1948.
Trump lost the popular vote by 4.5%, but lost the tipping-point state (Wisconsin) by just a 0.6% margin. Thus the tipping-point state was 3.9% more pro-Trump than the US overall; that difference is up from 2.9% in 2012.
Biden’s popular vote margin exceeds Barack Obama’s margin of 3.9% in 2012. But Obama won the tipping-point state that put him over the magic 270 Electoral College votes by 5.4%, while Biden won his tipping-point state by just 0.6%.
This is the seventh time in the last eight presidential elections (the exception being 2004) that the Democrat has won the popular vote. But Democrats also lost the presidency in 2000 and 2016 owing to a split between the popular vote and Electoral College.
Trump held up with non-Uni whites, Biden gained in suburbs
With the exception of northeastern states like Maine and New Hampshire, Biden did not improve over Clinton’s performance with the non-University educated whites that delivered Trump his 2016 victory.
According to CNN analyst Harry Enten, Biden won owing to big improvements over Clinton in counties where she outperformed Obama’s 2012 margins. These counties had a far greater share of University-educated whites than the rest of the state in question.
Large improvements in suburban counties outside the main cities helped Biden to narrow wins in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia and Arizona. In the rest of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, Trump’s vote held up well or improved slightly from his margins against Clinton. In Georgia, Biden improved greatly over Clinton in three suburban counties she had won but Obama lost.
In my pre-election articles, I said that better-educated voters were likely to shift against Trump owing to his general behaviour. The choice of Biden as the Democratic nominee helped as he was not perceived to be a left-wing radical. Had Democrats nominated Bernie Sanders, he may have scared off some of these voters.
Coronavirus does not appear to have had an impact, with the actual results similar to what the polls said in February, before the coronavirus crisis started. I wrote about reasons the polls understated Trump in my November 16 Conversation article. It’s likely that voters were better disposed towards Trump on coronavirus than pre-election polls implied, probably because coronavirus has caused so much pain all over the world, not just the US.
My pre-election articles often referred to the economy. I believe this is the main reason non-University educated whites stuck with Trump. While coronavirus had a major impact on the US economy in April, there was a solid recovery that is continuing. The US unemployment rate was 14.7% in April, but had improved to 7.9% in September, the last pre-election jobs report. The stock market has greatly improved from its lows in March.
Hispanics swung big to Trump
Early on election night, it became clear that Trump would win Florida owing to a massive swing to him in the heavily Hispanic Miami-Dade county. This was not just a problem for Democrats due to Miami-Dade’s Cuban Americans; the big swings to Trump were replicated in other majority Hispanic counties across the country.
As the big cities usually have racially diverse populations, Biden did not perform well in big cities relative to Clinton’s 2016 margins. This is highlighted by New York City, where the most diverse borough (the Bronx) swung 11.7% to Trump from the 2016 margin. Trump gained in four of the five NYC boroughs, with the low-population and Republican-favouring Staten Island the only borough to swing to Biden, and only by 0.2%.
Australian analyst Peter Brent says Hispanics have swung in favour of the incumbent president, relative to the rest of the nation, at every election since 1992. There was a big swing among Hispanics to Bill Clinton in 1996, George Bush jnr in 2004 and Obama in 2012. The more concerning possibility for Democrats is that Hispanics have become more assimilated into US culture, and are voting more like non-University educated whites.
Disappointment for Democrats in Congress
Each state has two senators that are elected for six-year terms. One-third of the 100 senators are up for election every two years. The House of Representatives has 435 members allocated to states on a population basis, with all up for election every two years.
In the Senate, Republicans lead by 50-48 with two runoffs in Georgia pending on January 5. Democrats would need to win both runoffs to tie the Senate 50-50 and give Vice President-elect Kamala Harris the casting vote. Democrats gained one net seat, gaining Arizona and Colorado, but losing Alabama, where Doug Jones was unable to repeat his miracle win in the December 2017 by-election.
Democrats had been expected to take control of the Senate before the election, but fell well short in Republican-favouring states they had hoped to gain, like Texas, Iowa, South Carolina, Kansas and Montana. They also narrowly lost in North Carolina.
Trump’s better than expected performance and the lack of split ticket voting were the main reasons for Democrats’ underperformance. The only Senate candidate to win a state that the opposite party’s presidential candidate won was Republican Susan Collins in Maine.
In general, the two senators per state rule and the decline of split ticket voting makes it harder for Democrats to gain the Senate. Even with this loss, Trump still carried 25 of the 50 states. While there are more winnable seats for Democrats in 2022, that’s also a midterm election, where the president’s party usually struggles.
Democrats won the House of Representatives by 222 seats to 211, with two races still uncalled. In Iowa’s second, the Republican led by six votes out of almost 400,000 cast after a recount. New York’s 22nd is much closer than the 2.6% Republican margin currently shown, and will take longer to resolve.
If Republicans win these two seats, the House result will be 222 Democrats to 213 Republicans. Democrats had been expected to gain seats, but have likely lost a net 13 seats from the 2018 midterm results. The House would be worse for Democrats if not for a judicial redistribution in North Carolina that gave Democrats two extra safe seats.
Trump’s better than expected performance assisted Republicans in the House. The main reason Democrats lost seats is that they won the House popular vote by only 3.1%, down from 8.6% in 2018. While Democrats had a disappointing election, they are in a far better position than in 2016, when they lost the House by 241-194.
The urban/rural divide is shown on this map by Cook Political analyst Dave Wasserman. Democrats will have 51% of House seats, but just 16% of US land area, the “smallest geographic footprint of any majority in modern history”.
Unless Democrats win both Georgia runoffs on January 5, Biden will struggle to get his agenda passed, with both a conservative Senate and conservative Supreme Court.
This is my fourth successive report on a US presidential election. My 2008 and 2012 reports are at The Green Papers here and here, and my 2016 report is at The Conversation. My 2016 report had a massive surge in views in October and November this year, and is now easily my most viewed article at The Conversation.