The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Let’s take a closer look at Trump’s supposedly intimidating 74 million vote total

President Trump at the White House on Tuesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

In the dark and cavernous mind of President Trump, Joe Biden’s vote count in last month’s election is, on its face, evidence of mail-in fraud. Eighty million votes! How is that even possible?

What Trump doesn’t question, of course, is the significance of his own vote total, which was north of 74 million — higher than that of any president before him. And neither does anyone else.

It’s the most important number from the 2020 election, and it cries out for some context.

This is about more than parsing electoral statistics. It’s about what we take away from Trump’s muscular showing and how that’s already affecting our politics.

Liberals have been obsessing on this 74 million vote number — far more than they have on Biden’s historic showing — since the election. To them, it’s shocking evidence that Trumpism only grew in popularity over the four years in which Trump himself was conducting a national seminar in mismanagement and bigotry.

If Trump could earn more votes than any sitting president ever, the thinking goes, then clearly his movement is here to stay, and he could even get himself reelected in 2024.

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Meanwhile, Republicans in Washington are trembling like a bunch of chihuahuas in the face of Trump’s awesome power. According to The Post’s Paul Kane and Scott Clement, only 27 Congressional Republicans will even admit that Trump lost.

To Republicans, the clear message of those 74 million votes is that Trump is simply the most popular Republican in at least a generation.

The problem is: We really have no idea what that 74 million figure means, because we have nothing useful to which we can compare it.

Why? Because this was the first election that featured multiple ways of casting a ballot pretty much everywhere, including early and by-mail voting. As a result (and also because of heightened emotions in the electorate), turnout was the highest it has been in more than a century, clocking in at more than 66 percent.

Sure, most of that nontraditional voting boosted Biden, largely because Democrats encouraged it while the president cried conspiracy and urged his followers to vote the old-fashioned way.

But Trump’s vote total had to have benefited mightily, too. Every time another batch of mail-in votes showed up, bringing Biden that much closer to victory in key states, Trump’s haul grew as well.

According to the University of Florida’s Elections Project, about 20 states reported the number of mail-in ballots by party registration. In those states, about 10 million Republicans sent back completed ballots, as did about 9 million nonaffiliated voters.

Even if a sizable chunk of those independent voters didn’t support Trump, and even if we assume that some percentage of Republicans would have shown up to the polls if they hadn’t had an option, that’s probably millions of votes that Trump wouldn’t have gotten in a traditional election — and that doesn’t include data from giant states such as Texas, Ohio and New York.

Absent the nontraditional methods of voting that Trump castigates as fraud, it’s reasonable to think his vote total would have been much closer to his 2016 showing — which, for an incumbent president with all the advantages of the office, isn’t so impressive at all.

In terms of share of the total vote, which is really the only apples-to-apples comparison we can make, Trump did about the same as he did in 2016 and the same as Mitt Romney did in 2012.

The last president to lose an election in a two-way race, Gerald Ford, claimed 48 percent of the vote in 1976, compared with Trump’s 47. No one remembers Ford as having demonstrated an iron grip on his party on his way out the door.

Assuming we end up retaining the pandemic-era voting reforms that drove up turnout this year (and I think we will), it will be several cycles before we really have enough data to put either Biden’s or Trump’s vote total this year into context.

It’s likely that we’ll look back in 20 years and say that Trump’s 74 million was actually quite low for an incumbent president in the era of the expanded vote. It’s entirely possible that we won’t see an incumbent president garner fewer than 70 million votes in the next several decades.

Am I saying Trump’s showing isn’t significant? No. I put myself in the camp of people who think that even 30 million votes for Trump would be a troubling sign in a country that counts itself as enlightened.

But does it make him some kind of unstoppable phenomenon to be feared, even in defeat? Hardly. More likely, his showing falls squarely into the new normal of U.S. elections.

We just don’t yet know what the new normal is.

Read more:

Matt Bai: What will history say about Trump?

John Bolton: Four ways Republicans can move on from the election results

Jennifer Rubin: Republicans record their names on a list of shame

Eugene Robinson: Trump is causing a crisis of faith in our democracy

Greg Sargent: A scorching reply to the awful Texas lawsuit frames the stakes of the moment