At least for now, long gone are the days when a U.S. presidential candidate wins an election landslide.
In 1980 and 1984, Ronald Reagan won the presidency in lopsided fashion, defeating Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale by 440 and 512 electoral votes, respectively.
Reagan also won the popular vote in those races by 9.7 and 18.2 percentage points, correspondingly.
Even in 1988, George H.W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis by 315 electoral votes and 7.8 percentage points.
Back then, there was little doubt on Election Night who would win but we were glued to the returns on TV anyway, always wondering in the backs of our minds if we’d see another Truman vs Dewey miracle scenario.
Solidly behind in the polls, Harry Truman amassed 303 electoral votes and defeated Thomas Dewey by 4.5 percentage points in the overall vote in 1948.
The 1996 US Presidential Election was the last race (to date) where the outcome on Election Night didn’t hang in the balance. To my knowledge, Bill Clinton never trailed in any poll from March to November of that year. And while some polls at different times had his opponent, Bob Dole, within a point or two, others had the incumbent president ahead by double digits.
As expected, Clinton cruised to an easy victory, compiling 220 more electoral votes and winning the populace by 8.5 percentage points. But since then, however, every presidential election outcome has remained a mystery at the start of Election Night.
And sure, in 2008 Barack Obama defeated John McCain by 188 electoral votes and 7.2 percentage points but the latter was a live dog in the polls all the way up until the election. And while most of us had a feeling Obama would win the popular vote, the Electoral College was believed to be up for grabs.
So, what happened? Why are presidential elections so close and dramatic these days?
During Clinton’s second term (the late 90s), the country started to fiercely divide ideologically, and the animosity between the two major parties – and their followers – has continued with every passing presidential election. As a result, the country has become much more regimented, politically, and less open, in a presidential sense, to change and compromise.
The last six presidential election nights (from 2000 to 2020) have been great for media network ratings because each was akin to two bloodied and bruised heavyweights duking it out in the back half of an electrifying title showdown.
… And expect more of the same in the 2024 Presidential Election.
Despite the now infamous insurrection at the Capitol and Trump’s alleged involvement, and the fact Republican voters have left the party in droves as a result, a hypothetical Biden vs Trump election today would still resemble the November 2020 official election map.
Only North Carolina, won by Trump in 2020 by 1.5 percentage points, as well as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, Nevada, Arizona, DE-1 Nebraska, and DE-1 Maine would be in jeopardy of flipping; Just 154 of 538 electoral votes total.
So, even with Trump’s popularity at an all-time low and the Republican Party in chaos, do you see any other state flipping for Biden in a hypothetical election today (Feb 2021)?
Is it surprising Trump hasn’t lost any significant support after his numerous flubs and controversies over 4 years, a collapsed economy at the end of his term, his involvement in the January 6 insurrection, and his administration’s unpopular response to a worldwide pandemic?
In fact, despite losing, Trump received a slightly higher percentage of the popular vote in 2020 than in 2016; But Biden, of course, won because he significantly gained support among those who’d previously voted for a third-party candidate versus his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, in 2016. Biden won back millions of left-leaning and middle-of-road voters who opted to support a fringe candidate four years prior (Third-party candidates received a whopping 6.7 percent of the popular vote in 2016)
Despite winning back the lion’s share of third-party voters from 2016, Biden was still engaged in a competitive race in 2020. So, it’s safe to say no matter how well President Biden performs, the 2024 Democratic nominee will likely be in for a tough fight.
Yes, inflation could disappear and Biden could preside over the fastest economic rise in US history and wouldn’t move the needle significantly.
The country is THAT divided.
Democrats and Republicans today see each other as enemies, not opponents; So most Americans, even when not casting a straight party ticket, will remain committed to their party of preference when voting for a presidential candidate.
And those open to voting for the opposing party’s presidential candidate are, in most states, too small in number to flip that state. For example, Trump won Missouri by 19.4 and 15.4 percent in 2016 and 2020, respectively. Hence, it’s safe to say the Republican candidate will carry the state again in 2024.
For example, we saw some attrition in Trump’s support in Missouri from 2016 to 2020, but it wasn’t nearly enough for Biden to threaten there. And due to Trump’s wide margin of victory in the Show Me State, it would take a colossal ideological shift among Missourians to hand the state to Democrats in just four short years.
Such a shift might have been possible in 1992, but not today.
Equally, Massachusetts will be in the ‘Win’ column for the Democratic presidential candidate in 2024 no matter how poorly the Biden Administration performs. The president carried the state by 33.5 percentage points – a deficit that’s nearly impossible for Republicans to overcome in four years in a nation so divided.
And most states, whether they lean Democratic or Republican, are in the same position as Missouri and Massachusetts.
Eight is Enough?
For all intents and purposes, we can safely assume that due to the country’s divisiveness and voter rigidity in presidential races, we won’t see any major sways in public sentiment between now (Feb 2020) and November 2024.
Ultimately, the winner of the 2024 Presidential Election will be determined by swing voters in just eight states of the 50 states: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina.
In 2024, we can expect the loser, in her/his worst-case scenario, to get at least 187 electoral votes and garner at least 45.5 percent of overall popular support.
… And the winner, in her/his best case scenario, will likely receive no more than 351 (of 538) electoral votes and 53.5 percent of overall popular support.
It’ll be close even if relatively predictable.