When I woke up in South Africa last Wednesday morning and checked Twitter, I actually thought that President Trump had won reelection. “The results have turned out to be a damning repudiation of [Joe] Biden,” a left-wing pundit tweeted. “Team Trump looks very happy, and they should,” a Republican pollster said. Thousands of people circulated a left-of-center writer’s article in the Week called, “The Left Just Got Crushed.”
These sentiments — that even if Biden won, he should have won more “resoundingly” and that last week’s true, dark-horse winner was “Trumpism” — remained in place up until, and after, the election was called on Saturday for Biden. “Win or lose, Donald Trump wins,” one journalist declared. “Should have been a trouncing,” a Brookings Institution analyst lamented, while a Democratic House member warned her peers that the results show that Democrats “will get … torn apart” in future races. The dark mood lifted some on Saturday when networks called the race, but it’ll be back. The overall “message” of the election, the Associated Press said on Sunday — a day after Biden became president-elect — is that Trump “won more votes for president than any other candidate. Except Biden.”
But the truth is that Trump did far worse in last week’s election than he should have, and that his reelection campaign was a historic failure. Incumbency is a far greater advantage, this year, than it has been made out to be. And during an ongoing crisis, American voters tend to choose the devil they know over the one they don’t. It’s really hard to overstate the incumbent advantage in U.S. politics. In most cases, incumbent presidents not only win reelection, but also substantially increase their popular-vote margin. Twenty-one American presidents have served a second term. Among these, only three were unable to grow their vote share significantly in their second election. Between their first and second elections, Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses S. Grant and Ronald Reagan doubled their popular-vote margins over their opponents. Franklin D. Roosevelt improved his by 80 percent, and Bill Clinton by 50 percent.
Four out of the five biggest landslide elections in the 20th century were won by first-term incumbents: Richard M. Nixon in 1972, Reagan in 1984, Roosevelt in 1936 and Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956. Five of the most decisive electoral college landslides across U.S. history — setting aside George Washington’s, as he had no opponents — also have been won by incumbents: Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Nixon, Reagan and Abraham Lincoln.
The presidential historian Allan Lichtman told NPR that this is because incumbents have “name recognition, national attention, fundraising and campaign bases, control over the instruments of government, successful campaign experience” and the benefit of voters’ “risk aversion.” This can manifest as an aversion to any new risk over substantial risks people are already experiencing. Incumbents can win in recessions. Incumbents can win when lots of Americans are dying. Incumbents win even during periods of exceptionally low American satisfaction with the state of the nation. Some incumbents win reelection handily during periods of national crisis or scandal — think George W. Bush in 2004 against the backdrop of the faltering Iraq War and his top weapons inspector’s admission that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction.
In 1968, Nixon barely squeaked out a win against Hubert Humphrey. By 1972, North Vietnam’s Easter Offensive made it especially clear that the United States was losing the Vietnam War. Domestically, the country faced economic difficulties and a rising unemployment rate. But by goosing people’s fear of George McGovern’s leftism, Nixon prevailed by 23 percentage points, garnering far more new voters than the ones George Wallace ceded to him when he ended his presidential ambitions.
We don’t have a precise precedent for an election during a pandemic. Some Democrats who feel disheartened by last week’s vote bitterly suggested that, without the coronavirus, Trump would have swept — implying that Biden’s win was totally unrevealing, like when a bad sports team escapes a defeat because of the sudden onset of inclement weather. History suggests the opposite. Voters tend not to punish politicians who have deaths on their watch, such as Bush or William McKinley — as they seem not to have punished Trump for mishandling the pandemic. Whether or not it’s logical, a natural disaster can create sympathy for the man in charge. In August 1900, the Great Galveston hurricane — often considered the nation’s worst natural disaster — killed about 10,000 people across states from Texas to New York and wrought $1 billion in damage in today’s dollars. Americans rightly blamed the government’s Weather Bureau, now the National Weather Service, for playing down the risk — yet they handily reelected McKinley a few months later. Actually, an early Associated Press analysis suggests Trump did better than his average this year in American counties recently hit by coronavirus outbreaks.
A citizen drive to help Lincoln’s 1864 campaign amid the Civil War — think of it as Lincoln’s Lincoln Project — made the psychology here explicit. It used the slogan, “Don’t change horses in the middle of a stream.” In the summer of 1864, ahead of the election, nearly 70,000 men died in Lincoln’s military campaigns. The opposing party ran on a platform to end the war that was killing people’s friends and family members. Their candidate was demolished, losing the popular vote by 10 points.
The basis of the conclusion that Trump did surprisingly well was, on the right, that Trump outperformed polls — which, obviously, are not working — and, on the left, that Trump is such an anomaly that anything banal or normal such as “incumbency advantage” ought not apply to him. But given Trump’s incumbency and the state of the economy in his first three years, his baseline should have been to win comfortably. If you forget the polls and the idea that anybody voting for Trump should feel demoralizing, his electoral performance was, simply, a sensational failure. It’s not to Democrats’ advantage to move the goal posts such that a potentially historic win by a challenger — Biden — comes to feel, emotionally, like a defeat. This is the kind of narrative for which Republicans argue — not just this year, but all the time. The conservative magazine American Greatness argued on Thursday that the election “resoundingly validates President Trump’s policies,” pointing to Trump’s “historic victory” with Florida Latinos. “That is the incontestable reality,” the editorial continued, “no matter the vote [count].”
The wording here is important. A Republican triumph is an emotional “reality” that cannot be contested no matter the real reality. Insofar as the goal of much of conservative politics these days is to ding Democrats’ pride, they make themselves out as tremendous underdogs in America, such that any votes they receive are a surprising triumph and a humiliation for Democrats, who always ought to do better. Thus, every swing state or nationwide election becomes a 16th seed facing a top dog. And even a narrow loss or draw — like, say, a popular-vote loss offset by an electoral college victory — is an awesome upset, a “win,” an owning-of-the-libs, proof of Democratic weakness. The rules always shift such that even a dismal result for them can be called in their favor. In 2016, to win meant winning the electoral college. In 2020, to win means winning more people, by a raw head count, than Trump won in 2016, or maybe just more Latinos. The conservative Free Beacon actually declared Thursday that Trump “won” because he “accomplished his goal of becoming the most famous person on Earth.”
This isn’t, of course, the actual metric by which you win an American election. But it’s one of the ever-shifting rules as to what constitutes the moral victory, the psychological triumph. Those on the left often seem to buy these right-wing narratives. They wonder why they didn’t sweep and wonder, this year, why anybody stuck with Trump at all. They declare that the close result proves something grim and final about the nature of the American electorate — almost as if it doesn’t even matter who takes office in January. It does matter, though, because so much of the damage Trump wrought was through the way he ran the executive branch and his tone-setting speeches and tweets in his capacity as president. What we got is not an immediate undoing of the Trump era, but the beginning of a huge opportunity to undo it.
Despite that, I’ve also seen laments that the result does not constitute an adequate “moral repudiation” of Trump. But it’s worth considering what would have constituted a clear moral repudiation. Fifty-five percent for Biden? Sixty percent? Even that kind of blowout would still have meant 4 in 10 voters chose Trump, and those who oppose him would still have to reckon with that.
In the minds of some Trump critics, it’s unbelievable and unacceptable that anybody voted for him at all. We learned this year that partisanship is profound, that some Americans don’t think he’s as repugnant and unacceptable as others do, and that the nation still has a strong conservative streak. We’ve also learned, though, that far more Americans did consider him unacceptable — and repudiated him — than, perhaps, any other president in his position in U.S. history. Try to forget the polls that dangled a different prospect. Even a narrow Biden win, historically speaking, is a remarkably good result, and Trump’s performance shows that there is a lot of skepticism out there about him — and big openings, and work left to do.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly suggested that Texans voted for their senator after the 1900 Galveston hurricane. Senators were selected by the state legislature at the time. It also misspelled Hubert Humphrey’s first name.