Opinions

Biden’s voter margin in key states wouldn’t fill the Rose Bowl. That will affect how he governs.

More than 95,000 people attended the 2017 Rose Bowl. (Getty Images)

Joe Biden will beat President Trump by millions of votes and win 306 electoral college votes — 36 more than he needed. But the result in key states was extremely close. That slim margin says a lot about how U.S. politics has changed over the last 75 years — and perhaps what Biden needs to do to have a successful presidency.

Only a narrow margin in four states — Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and Wisconsin — enabled Biden to win. His popular vote margin in those places, like Trump’s in 2016, wouldn’t fill the Rose Bowl.

Rose Bowl seating capacity

91,100 people

Biden’s victory margin

76,700 votes

Nevada

33,600

Wisconsin

20,600

Georgia

12,000

Arizona

10,500

Trump’s victory margin in 2016

77,700 votes

Pennsylvania

44,300

Wisconsin

22,700

Michigan

10,700

Note: Rounded numbers. Biden’s victory margin

based on preliminary results as of Nov. 20.

Sources: Washington Post preliminary results;

UCLA Bruins.

THE WASHINGTON POST

Rose Bowl seating capacity

91,100 people

Biden’s victory margin

76,700 votes

Nevada

33,600

Wisconsin

20,600

Georgia

12,000

Arizona

10,500

Trump’s victory margin in 2016

77,700 votes

Pennsylvania

44,300

Wisconsin

22,700

Michigan

10,700

Note: Rounded numbers. Biden’s victory margin based on

preliminary results as of Nov. 20.

Sources: Washington Post preliminary results;

UCLA Bruins.

THE WASHINGTON POST

Rose Bowl seating capacity

91,100 people

Biden’s victory margin

76,700 votes

Nevada

33,600

Wisconsin

20,600

Georgia

12,000

Arizona

10,500

Trump’s victory margin in 2016

77,700 votes

Pennsylvania

44,300

Wisconsin

22,700

Michigan

10,700

Note: Rounded numbers. Biden’s victory margin based on preliminary results as of Nov. 20.

Sources: Washington Post preliminary results; UCLA Bruins.

THE WASHINGTON POST

That the last two presidential elections have been decided by less than 80,000 voters — or 0.025 percent of the population — is a vivid reminder of how closely divided the electorate remains. It’s a margin only slightly larger than the population of Flagstaff, Ariz.

The result should feel familiar. We’re no longer in the Cold War era, when one party would often capture much of the electoral college map and win the popular vote by double-digit margins. We live in an era of single-digit victories — and close electoral college margins.

Larger victory margins were not rare during the Cold War.

Popular vote margin

10

20%

1948

Truman

1952

1956

Eisenhower

+10.8%

+15.4%

1960

Kennedy

1964

Johnson

+22.6%

1968

1972

Nixon

+23.1%

1976

Carter

1980

1984

Reagan

+18.2%

1988

H.W. Bush

But margins have gotten slimmer in recent years.

Popular vote margin

10

20%

1992

1996

Clinton

2000

2004

G.W.

Bush

- 0.5%

2008

2012

Obama

2016

Trump

- 2.1%

2020

Biden

estimate

+5%

10

20%

Note: Biden’s victory margin based on preliminary

results as of Nov. 20.

Sources: David Leip's Election Atlas,

Washington Post preliminary results.

THE WASHINGTON POST

Larger victory margins were not rare during the Cold War.

Popular vote margin

10

20%

1948

Truman

1952

1956

Eisenhower

+10.8%

+15.4%

1960

Kennedy

1964

Johnson

+22.6%

1968

1972

Nixon

+23.1%

1976

Carter

1980

1984

Reagan

+18.2%

1988

H.W. Bush

But margins have gotten slimmer in recent years.

Popular vote margin

10

20%

1992

1996

Clinton

2000

2004

G.W.

Bush

- 0.5%

2008

2012

Obama

2016

Trump

- 2.1%

2020

Biden estimate

+5%

10

20%

Note: Biden’s victory margin based on preliminary results

as of Nov. 20.

Sources: David Leip's Election Atlas, Washington Post

preliminary results.

THE WASHINGTON POST

Popular vote margin

1948

Truman

+4.48%

1952

1956

Eisenhower

+10.8%

Larger victory margins were not rare during the Cold War.

+15.4%

1960

Kennedy

+0.2%

1964

Johnson

+22.6%

+0.7%

1968

1972

Nixon

+23.1%

1976

Carter

+2%

1980

1984

Reagan

+9.7%

+18.2%

1988

H.W. Bush

+7.7%

10

20%

1992

1996

Clinton

+5.5%

+8.5%

2000

2004

G.W. Bush

- 0.5%

But margins have gotten slimmer in recent years.

+2.5%

2008

2012

Obama

+7.3%

+3.8%

2016

Trump

- 2.1%

2020

Biden estimate

+5%

Note: Biden’s victory margin based on preliminary results as of Nov. 20.

Sources: David Leip's Election Atlas, Washington Post preliminary results.

THE WASHINGTON POST

These down-to-the-wire contests, in turn, make for weak mandates and fragile governing majorities.

How we got here

It wasn’t always this way. In the second half of the 20th century, voters were less partisan and both parties contained liberals and conservatives. That flexibility made a wider range of election outcomes possible, from landslides for either party to more even splits between two candidates.

Electoral college results

1948

1952

1960

1956

1968

1964

1972

1976

1980

1984

1988

Source: David Leip’s Election Atlas.

Note: gray states indicate third party wins or

unpledged electoral votes.

THE WASHINGTON POST

Electoral college results

1948

1952

1956

1968

1964

1960

1972

1976

1980

1984

1988

Source: David Leip’s Election Atlas. Note: gray states indicate

third party wins or unpledged electoral votes.

THE WASHINGTON POST

Electoral college results

1948

1952

1956

1960

1964

1968

1972

1976

1980

1984

1988

Source: David Leip’s Election Atlas. Note: gray states indicate third party wins or unpledged electoral votes.

THE WASHINGTON POST

But in the past 30 years, the differences between the parties — both in policy and culture — widened. Voters quickly understood which party they fit into, and which they didn’t. As a result, the electoral college map stabilized, and conditions that might have produced landslides in an earlier era produced more moderate victories. Voters still punished presidents who mishandled crises and rewarded those who presided over prosperity, but the wins and losses were more muted compared to past decades.

Electoral college results

1992

1996

2000

2004

2008

2012

2016

2020

Sources: David Leip’s Election Atlas,

Washington Post preliminary results.

THE WASHINGTON POST

Electoral college results

1992

1996

2000

2008

2012

2004

2016

2020

Sources: David Leip’s Election Atlas, Washington Post

preliminary results.

THE WASHINGTON POST

Electoral college results

1992

1996

2000

2004

2008

2012

2016

2020

Sources: David Leip’s Election Atlas, Washington Post preliminary results.

THE WASHINGTON POST

In 2020, that pattern held. Biden will likely win by 7 million to 8 million votes, a greater popular vote margin than those earned by Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Barack Obama in 2012.

In an earlier era, Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic and the subsequent recession might have led to a blowout. But Biden’s victory was too shallow to provide him with a mandate for progressive change, and his coattails were, at best, modest.

What should this all mean for a Biden administration?

First, Biden should learn from Trump’s bad example.

Trump started his term with a tenuous majority in the key electoral college battlegrounds:

Biden’s victory margin

Millions of votes

0

1

2

Arizona

10,500 margin

Biden

Trump

12,000

Georgia

Biden

Trump

Wisconsin

20,600

Biden

Trump

Trump’s victory margin in 2016

Millions of votes

0

1

2

Pennsylvania

Clinton

Trump

Wisconsin

44,300

margin

Clinton

Trump

22,700

Michigan

Clinton

Trump

10,700

Note: Rounded numbers. Biden’s victory margin

based on preliminary results as of Nov. 20.

THE WASHINGTON POST

Biden’s victory margin

Millions of votes

0

1

2

10,500 margin

Arizona

Biden

Trump

12,000

Georgia

Biden

Trump

20,600

Wisconsin

Biden

Trump

Trump’s victory margin in 2016

Millions of votes

0

1

2

Pennsylvania

Clinton

Trump

Wisconsin

44,300

margin

Clinton

Trump

22,700

Michigan

Clinton

Trump

10,700

Note: Rounded numbers. Biden’s victory margin based

on preliminary results as of Nov. 20.

THE WASHINGTON POST

Biden’s victory margin

Trump’s victory margin in 2016

Millions of votes

Millions of votes

0

1

2

0

1

2

10,500 margin

Arizona

Pennsylvania

Biden

Clinton

Trump

Trump

12,000

Georgia

Wisconsin

44,300

margin

Biden

Clinton

Trump

Trump

22,700

20,600

Wisconsin

Michigan

Biden

Clinton

Trump

Trump

10,700

Note: Rounded numbers. Biden’s victory margin based on preliminary results as of Nov. 19.

THE WASHINGTON POST

But Trump alienated voters, acting like a toddler in the Oval Office and mismanaging the coronavirus pandemic. Consciously or not, Trump self-sabotaged, which contributed to his losses. Trump’s push to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act without offering a clear alternative, and his insistence on cutting taxes for the top income bracket, hurt his reputation as a pathbreaking populist. Biden, who prides himself on being a compromising center-left Democrat, should remember that his reputation isn’t safe either, and he could hurt it by supporting too-liberal legislation such as the Green New Deal.

Second, Biden can’t make progressives’ dreams come true.

In the run-up to the election, some Democrats imagined that Biden would win in a blue wave and lead the charge for a wealth tax, expanded health care and a host of other progressive priorities.

But Biden has very little room to maneuver. If he loses even a few supporters or alienates any piece of his base, his party could take a beating in the midterms and cracks could form in his 2024 coalition. If Biden mistakes his modest victory for a broad mandate, he could put the House at risk in the midterms.

Third, Biden may be forced to govern as a relative moderate.

Biden has the chance to preside over the pandemic’s end by overseeing the distribution of effective vaccines, sending clearer messages on public health , bringing the United States back from a recession by helping restore consumer confidence and acting like a normal president after years of buffoonery. In a past era, those actions might have produced an easy reelection coalition for the Democrats. Biden’s work will need to rely on competence and compromise. He could negotiate and pass an economic stimulus package, attempt to work with Republicans and return the United States to prosperity without pushing too far left. This approach isn’t as inspired or innovative as what some progressives imagined when they co-wrote his platform — but it proactively would blunt his party’s losses in 2022 and help his party start with an advantage in 2024.

We still live in an era of close elections — and no matter how well he governs, Biden will be looking over his shoulder for his entire presidency.

More from Opinions:

Editorial Board: Trump is past exploring legal options. He’s using lies and chicanery to try to undo his defeat.

David Hill: The dirty little secret pollsters need to own up to

Michael Gerson: The GOP deserved to lose even worse. Here’s why it didn’t.

Paul Waldman: It’s time for everyone to pick a side: America or President Trump

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