The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden got the highest percentage of eligible voters in about half a century

President-elect Joe Biden answers questions from the media Tuesday in Wilmington, Del. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

A few days ago, I tweeted that the presidential race wound up being very close. This was immediately ridiculed by those who argued that President-elect Joe Biden’s win was, in fact, emphatic. But they were arguing a different point than I was. They noted Biden won the popular vote by a substantial margin; I was referring to the raw number of votes that decided the electoral college in the decisive states — i.e., the number that would need to be overturned for President Trump to change the outcome. That margin is turning out to be strikingly similar to that of 2016.

As in 2016, though, we’re arguing two different points. One is how many votes truly decided the presidential race, while the other is the size of mandate for the victor. The former is important for determining the winner, while the latter factors into what kind of authority the president-elect can claim.

And while the race was indeed close, Biden has more to write home about on the latter.

Biden’s popular vote margin currently stands at more than 5 million, according to Cook Political Report analyst David Wasserman’s great popular vote tracker. Biden leads by more than four percentage points, which is about double Hillary Clinton’s edge in 2016. Biden also won a majority (50.8 percent) and lays claim to the highest percentage of the vote for any challenger to an incumbent president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, as The Washington Post’s James Hohmann has noted.

But there’s also one way in which the size of Biden’s victory could be judged as historically significant. And that’s when you consider how many eligible voters supported him.

One of the great things about the 2020 election is that we saw the highest turnout in any election since 1900 — in part because of expanded access to mail ballots. Current projections suggest about two-thirds of eligible voters cast ballots, which would beat every election since 1900, when more than 7 in 10 eligible American voters cast ballots, according to numbers from the United States Election Project. The outcome is thus more reflective of the actual will of the American people.

That higher turnout also gives us a better gauge of just how many people who could vote supported the victor, and it’s higher than almost any election in the past century.

Wasserman’s current popular vote count has Biden at 50.8 percent, compared with Trump’s 47.4 percent. Given that the ballots yet to be counted will probably favor Democrats, Biden’s popular-vote share is expected to rise to 51 percent or more when all is said and done.

Even if he doesn’t expand beyond his current 50.8 percent, though, Biden has the highest share of eligible voters (34.04 percent) since 1972, when President Richard Nixon won in a landslide in which he lost only one state. If Biden does reach 51 percent, which is expected, he’ll have the highest share of eligible voters (34.17 percent) since 1964 — another landslide, this time for Lyndon B. Johnson.

As things stand, only five presidents-elect in the past 100 years got a higher percentage of eligible voters. If Biden can extend his popular vote share by 0.2 percent to 51 percent, only three presidents will have gotten more: Johnson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower (who did it twice).

Here’s how that would look if and when Biden gets to 51 percent, over the past century:

But there are significant reasons to believe that Biden’s mandate is less than meets the eye in the above chart, as The Fix’s Eugene Scott wrote last week.

One is that an inordinate number of people who voted for him said their chief motivation was voting against Trump, rather than for Biden. Another is that Democrats farther down the ballot underperformed him — particularly in the Senate, where voters won’t give Democrats the keys to the car, barring two upsets in January runoffs in Georgia. If voters truly wanted to let Biden run the government, they did not really provide a lot of assistance. Even his House majority will be significantly smaller than during the current Congress.

There’s also the matter of whether we got historical turnout because people were motivated or because it was simply easier to vote because of expanded mail ballots.

But when it comes to the percentage of the American electorate that affirmatively voted for Biden to become president-elect, he can accurately say it was higher than anybody in about half a century or more.