Whenever American voters deliver a breathlessly close finish to a fiercely contested presidential race, the weary candidates inevitably squabble over recounts, lawsuits, mishandled ballots, and charges of cheating that lead to an obsessive focus on minor, innocent mistakes. Twenty years ago, for instance, Al Gore and George W. Bush kept battling over a few dozen votes in Florida for five weeks after the polls closed on election day, with no public concession coming from either side.
The problem for Donald Trump and his supporters in this year’s struggle is that the numbers, in historical context, aren’t really that close. Fifteen days after the election, Joe Biden sits atop a clear majority of all ballots cast, with a decisive lead of 5.8 million and a 3.9% edge on his opponent. In popular vote terms, Biden not only won the highest total of any candidate in history (79,377, 347) but earned a larger share of the ballots (51.0%) than any other candidate in the last 8 elections, with the singular exception of Barack Obama’s first term landslide of 2008 (in which Biden, of course, participated as the victor’s running mate).
Over the past half century, nine presidential candidates – Richard Nixon in 1968, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980, Bill Clinton in both 1992 and 1996, George W. Bush in both 2000 and 2004, Barack Obama in 2012, and of course President Trump last time – all won the Presidency with a smaller percentage of the popular vote than Biden received this year.
In the Electoral College, Biden’s advantage (306-232) makes it all but impossible to “overturn” the popular verdict, whatever legal magic the president’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, promises to work. Ironically, the count of electoral votes exactly reverses the outcome of four years ago, when Trump topped Clinton by the same 306 to 232 score. And just as Hillary, despite her popular vote advantage, saw no chance of capturing the 36 extra electoral votes she needed to win, Team Trump has no plausible path to victory this time.
In 2000’s Bush v. Gore donnybrook, the shift of a single state – Florida – would have elected a different president, and President Bush’s final margin of Sunshine State victory amounted to 537 ballots.
This year, the closest margin in any state came in Arizona -10,466 votes – which amounts to 19 times the 2000 Florida edge for the future President Bush. And even if Trump somehow managed to flip Arizona, as well as both of the other most closely contested states (Georgia and Wisconsin), he’d still fall short of winning an Electoral College majority.
For President Trump, there’s one undeniable upside to the relatively decisive nature of the numbers arrayed against him. Unlike the defeated candidates in notorious squeaker elections of years past, he need not look back with agonizing regret at tiny mistakes that might have tipped the balance. Al Gore has no doubt spent much of the last two decades wondering how he might have eked out an extra 538 Florida votes and with them won a presidential victory. Richard Nixon lost to John Kennedy in 1960 (another record-setting, high turnout election) by just 0.16% of the popular vote, and lost five states by margins of less than 1%. Had he not insisted on campaigning in all fifty states (including Alaska and Hawaii), rather than concentrating more of his effort on some of those desperately close, thickly populated battlegrounds, he might have become president 8 years before he ultimately won (and then squandered) the White House prize.
In Trump’s case, he barnstormed the country in relentless fashion, made a gallant recovery from a dreaded disease, inspired his followers to frenzies bordering on ecstasy, and ran a far more competitive race than his dismissive critics predicted. Unfortunately, the current refusal to acknowledge the end of that seemingly endless race threatens to undermine his place in history while leaving true-believers both embittered and disillusioned.
There’s still time to pivot and to astonish his detractors once again – this time with a sudden burst of graciousness and patriotism regarding a deeply meaningful American tradition. The idea of a peaceful, genial transfer of power isn’t just a fetish of Washington’s Deep State establishment but a sacred, healing ritual of the Republic that deserves to outlive all of us. For Trump himself there will be future battles and, very possibly, some share of future victories.