How Close was the 2020 Presidential Election? It’s Complicated.

Map of the 2020 presidential election result.
Map of the 2020 presidential election result.

Figures have been updated to reflect recounts and the resulting small changes to the final voting figures.

All states (and DC) have now certified their presidential election results and while Biden won the popular vote by over seven million votes and handily won the Electoral College, it’s clear that the 2020 Presidential Election was far closer than is generally recognized; 43,423 votes in just three states made all the difference.

Please note, we’re talking about the actual results here. There’s simply no evidence of wide-scale or significant fraud. None. However, voter suppression on the other hand is real, pervasive, and a threat to American democracy. It should be talked about far more than it is. But that’s another subject.

While Trump and some of his most ardent supporters are unwilling to accept the result, the rest of the United States and the world is looking ahead to Biden’s presidency. Biden won the popular vote by over 7 million - the highest number of votes in US presidential history (Trump won the second-highest). It was a clear and decisive victory if not a landslide.

Biden won by a clear majority of both the popular vote and the Electoral College. But crucially his popular vote wins in the states that gave him his Electoral College victory were razor-thin.

With 306 electoral college votes, Biden clearly passed the 270 votes he needed to win but it was his victory in the three closest states that put him over the top. Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin all gave Biden a margin of victory of less than two-thirds of 1% in each state. The total number of votes was 43,423 (less than 0.03% of the around 155 million votes cast by Americans in the election).

A table of the election results in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin.
A table of the election results in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin.

Trump was far stronger in the most contested states than he was in the country as a whole (where Biden won by about 4 percentage points) meaning Trump had a major advantage in the Electoral College. In 2016 it was enough to win the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote, in 2020 he came close to doing it again.

The combined electoral college votes of Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin add up to 37. If these states had gone to Trump there would have been a 269–269 tie in the Electoral College and the election would have gone to the House of Representatives where Trump would have won (in a ‘contingent election’ each state gets one vote and Republicans have a majority of state delegations).

Of course, this is looking at an election in hindsight. The whole point is you can’t try and change a small number of votes in a few states to flip the election before (or after) the voting has taken place. Is 2020 unremarkable — could you say this about any presidential election — pick the closest states and show that a relatively small number of voters would change the overall result?

Not really. Trump’s strength in the Electoral College meant he came far closer to victory than you would expect from his popular vote share. If you look at the 2012 presidential election, where the percentage of the vote for both the Democrat and Republican candidates was similar to 2020, Romney would have had to have flipped 9 of the closest 15 states to change the result. These 9 states had a combined margin of 768,376 votes for Obama.

Perhaps the closeness of the result has been obscured for Democrats by the fear of a repeat of 2016’s shock Trump’s victory combined with the uncertainty as to how far Trump would go in refusing to accept losing. There’s just a sense of relief that Biden won and will be moving into the White House. Republicans seem to be too preoccupied with protesting about how Trump won rather than looking at the closeness of the actual result.

While Biden maintained a clear lead in polling throughout 2020, the election never seemed like a done deal. Perhaps it never could be with Trump’s unlikely 2016 shock victory in everyone’s memory. With polling’s mixed recent record and the genuinely increased difficulties that the industry is grappling with, no one could be certain of the result. But as some pointed out, it was Biden’s sizable polling lead that insulated him from a normal-sized polling error (which turned out to be the case).

But another way to look at 2020 is that it was almost a repeat of 2016. In 2016, the Trump campaign realized their only chance of winning the Electoral College was through the Rust Belt states. The decision of the Trump campaign in the last few days and weeks of the 2016 election to focus on these states was much commented on and maligned by many political pundits. Some like 538.com pointed out that it wasn’t a bad strategy for the Trump campaign, indeed it may have been their only plausible route to victory. They also pointed out the not inconsiderable possibility that Trump could win in the Electoral College but lose the popular vote.

Perhaps Democrats, who were hoping that 2020 would represent a wholescale repudiation of Trump, don’t want to consider how close Trump won, just like they don’t want to consider how, and why, Trump won in 2016.

So what would Trump have done differently in 2020 to win? Well, it’s hard to conceive how Trump could possibly have won the popular vote but it’s far easier to see how he could have eked out a win in the Electoral College.

The White House
The White House
Image - w:user:Geographer, CC BY 1.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One has to consider that without COVID-19 Trump could have won in the Electoral College. But could something much smaller have changed the result such as Trump’s choosing to act in the first debate (where he received much criticism for his performance) as he did in the third-scheduled debate? There was no second debate as Trump caught COVID-19 and refused to debate virtually. Maybe this would have been enough. Perhaps Trump should have been wearing a mask — it may well have cost him the presidency.

On a side note, one has to wonder what the reaction would have been of millions of Americans’ to a second Trump victory, yet again on a minority of the popular vote with the Democrat candidate gaining more than 50% of the vote? Trump would have had an even smaller percentage of the vote than the Electoral College-winner (and popular vote-loser) in 2000 or 2016 (or 1876).

Should the Trump campaign have focused more on Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin? Well with hindsight, yes but there were lots of states in play. To give the Biden campaign credit, they expanded the playing field and the critical implication of this was that it was hard to know where to spend time and energy for the Trump campaign — they were on the defensive in so many places.

There are implications for 2024 from all this. Trump or another Republican has an obvious path to victory and it runs right through the Rust Belt as well as Arizona and Georgia. Democrats will have to consider how Biden, over the course of his presidency, can firm up his support in these key states and if another Democrat was to run, how would they perform?

The 2020 results offer some indication of other states that could come into play in addition to Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin. Pennsylvania with its 20 electoral college votes only backed Biden by 80,555 votes. On the other side, Democrats will surely note that the three states with the smallest leads for Trump (in terms of % of each state’s vote) were North Carolina, Florida, and Texas with a whopping 82 electoral college votes up for grabs.

Another key question is, does Trump’s strength in the Electoral College apply to other Republicans? The debate about this will be key to Trump’s argument for why he should be the Republican nominee in 2024. If another Republican wins the nomination they will look at how they can equal Trump’s relative strength in the Rust Belt and how to win back Arizona and Georgia.

Between now and 2024, events in addition to demographic changes could combine with new presidential candidates that have strengths and weaknesses in a completely different arrangement of states. But with partisanship so high and few genuinely undecided voters, the 2020 election map gives us a good blueprint for the considerations that will dominate the 2024 presidential election strategies for both parties.

Psychology, politics, history, and moments of realisation and despair. There are attempts at humour.

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