Democrats tend to win in densely populated counties, while Republicans win more sparse, rural counties. In 2020, the counties won by President Joe Biden had 67 million more residents than counties won by former President Donald Trump. Yet a social media post falsely asserts that because Biden won with fewer counties than Trump, “something isn’t adding up.”
For decades, Democratic presidential candidates have gotten more votes in densely populated, urban areas than Republicans, who have been favored in more sparsely populated, rural areas.
The same trend held in the 2020 election, when President Joe Biden won 81 million votes, defeating former President Donald Trump, who received 74 million votes. Since Biden’s votes were more concentrated in population centers, he won far fewer counties overall than Trump, whose votes were more spread out.
In fact, the counties that Biden won had 67 million more residents than the counties Trump won, according to an analysis from the Brookings Institute, which counted 551 counties for Biden and 2,588 counties for Trump.
But in the weeks following that election — as Trump and his allies were spreading the false claim that Trump had won the election — conservative commentator Charlie Kirk suggested that there was something suspicious in the outcome because Biden had won fewer counties.
The claim was recently revived by conservative activist Brigitte Gabriel in the days following Trump’s Georgia indictment, which accused him of conspiring to “unlawfully change the outcome” of the 2020 election. On Aug. 20 Gabriel wrote on X, the platform formerly called Twitter, “Biden won 477 counties. Trump won 2,497 counties. Who do you think won the election? Something isn’t adding up.”
Gabriel got the numbers slightly wrong, but the real problem is in her mathematical reasoning.
“The reason Biden won a clear majority of votes while winning a minority of counties is that his support was concentrated in populous counties,” Andrew Eggers, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, and his co-authors wrote in a 2021 paper that addressed several claims made in support of Trump’s false assertion that the election had been stolen from him.
“As Democratic support has become more concentrated in cities, Democratic candidates have tended to win a smaller share of counties even as their share of votes holds steady,” Eggers and his co-authors wrote.
“Thus, the supposedly incredible discrepancy Charlie Kirk highlighted is simply the continuation of a stable trend in US presidential elections,” the authors wrote.
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Parker, Kim, et al. “What United and Divides Urban, Suburban and Rural Communities.” Pew Research Center. 22 May 2018.
Federal Election Commission. “Federal Elections 2020 — Election Results for the U.S. President, the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.” Oct 2022.
Frey, William. “Biden-won counties are home to 67 million more Americans than Trump-won counties.” Brookings Institution. 21 Jan 2021.
Kiely, Eugene, et al. “Trump’s Falsehood-Filled ‘Save America’ Rally.” FactCheck.org. Updated 1 Aug 2023.
Gore, D’Angelo, et al. “Q&A on Trump’s Georgia Indictment.” FactCheck.org. 15 Aug 2023.
Eggers, Andrew, Haritz Garro and Justin Grimmer. “No evidence for systematic voter fraud: A guide to statistical claims about the 2020 election.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2 Nov 2021.