Provided President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College margin of victory holds — and we have seen no reason so far to believe it will not — it will be the same margin won by Donald Trump in 2016.
That would leave Biden (as it did Trump) in the bottom third when ranking presidents by the percentage of Electoral College votes.
Back in 2016, Trump wrongly called his victory a “landslide.” Now, some are taking a page out of Trump’s book to claim Biden won in a landslide. But it wasn’t accurate for Trump then, and it’s not accurate for Biden now.
Here’s how Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond, who will be Biden’s director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, put it on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Nov. 22:
Richmond, Nov. 22: This was a fair election. Joe Biden won by over 6 million votes in the popular vote. 306 electoral votes, which is the exact same number that Donald Trump had that he called a landslide. So, Joe Biden won with a mandate and a landslide and now it’s time to transition.
The problem, of course, is that Trump’s 2016 electoral margin of victory — while convincing — was not a landslide by historical standards, as we wrote on Nov. 29, 2016.
The same is true of Biden’s Electoral College margin of victory. According to the media’s projected winner of every state, Biden captured 306 electoral votes, compared to 232 for Trump. That’s the same margin won by Trump in 2016 (though he ultimately lost a couple faithless electors). And as we said back in 2016, that only put Trump in 46th place out of 58 U.S. presidential elections.
“That total was not a landslide then, and it still isn’t,” John Pitney, a professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College, told us via email. “It is a clear, significant, legitimate victory, but is toward the lower end for electoral vote shares of winning candidates.”
Democrats still have plenty to be happy about, Pitney said, noting that:
- Biden’s raw popular vote total was the largest in history.
- Biden’s popular-vote percentage was the highest for a challenger since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932.
- Biden won a larger percentage of the popular vote 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.
- And when the count is final, Biden’s percentage will probably be a little higher than Obama’s in 2012 and Trump’s will be a little lower than Romney’s.
When we wrote about the historical margin of Trump’s victory back in 2016, all of the state results had been certified, and at this point less than half of the states have certified their election results. And as we did in 2016, we again add the disclaimer that these calculations assume Electoral College electors will vote according to who won a plurality of votes in their state, and that recounts will not overturn any of the state results. (Oddly, the Republican National Committee on Nov. 19 tweeted a video of attorney Sidney Powell making the baseless claim that, “President Trump won by a landslide,” and promising to “prove it.” The Trump campaign since has said that Powell is not a member of the Trump legal team.)
But provided the numbers hold up, as we said, it would be a relatively close win for Biden by historical comparison of Electoral College margins of victory.
According to current vote tallies, Biden leads Trump in the popular vote count by just over 6 million votes. By comparison, Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 to Hillary Clinton by nearly 2.9 million votes, making Trump one of five U.S. presidents to have lost the popular vote.
FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver notes that Biden’s current 4 percentage point lead in the popular vote — which Silver projects could grow to about 5 percentage points once all the votes are counted — is already a wider margin than Barack Obama’s 2012 win against Mitt Romney, though not as large as Obama’s 2008 win over John McCain, making Biden’s the second-largest popular vote margin since 2000.
“For the popular vote, an old rule of thumb is that a ‘landslide’ is 55 percent or greater,” Pitney told us. “Biden will get 51 percent, maybe a little more, but no ‘landslide’ by customary standards.”
Biden has avoided calling his victory a landslide, or anything like that, though he did claim via Twitter on Nov. 6 that the record number of votes for him in an American election gave him a “mandate for action.”
What is becoming clearer each hour is that record numbers of Americans — from all races, faiths, regions — chose change over more of the same.
They have given us a mandate for action on COVID and the economy and climate change and systemic racism.
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) November 7, 2020
It’s not unusual for presidents to claim an electoral “mandate,” even when the margin of victory is razor thin.
Two days after George W. Bush won reelection in 2004 with an Electoral College victory of 286 to 251, one of the closest in modern history, he told reporters that, “when you win, there is a feeling that the people have spoken and embraced your point of view.”
“I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it,” Bush said.
But Trump embellished well beyond that in 2016, calling his win “a massive landslide victory.”
Biden campaign officials have been quick to pick up on that, as Biden-Harris Transition Senior Adviser Kate Bedingfield did in an interview on “Fox News Sunday” on Nov. 22.
“He won 306 Electoral College votes, which is … the same outcome from 2016 that Donald Trump called a landslide when he won 306 Electoral College votes,” Bedingfield said.
That’s true. It’s also true that neither Trump nor Biden won in a “landslide.”
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