If President Trump were to lose by the current margins in the polls, it would be the greatest popular vote defeat suffered by an incumbent since 1932.
- Vice President Joe Biden is leading President Donald Trump by 10% in both the Real Clear Politics and Five Thirty Eight average.
- Were these margins to hold on election day, Biden would win the biggest popular vote landslide since 1984 US Presidential Election, almost forty years ago.
- It would also be the greatest popular vote margin by a Democrat since LBJ’s landslide in 1964, almost sixty years ago.
- By contrast, if Trump were to lose by the current margins in both polling models, it would be the greatest popular vote defeat suffered by an incumbent since 1932.
To put this in perspective, the 1932 election was so emphatic and transformative that its seismic tremors could be felt well in advance. FDR’s vice presidential nominee, John Garner, was so sure the election was in the bag that he advised FDR to: “Sit down – do nothing – and win the election.” He did just that himself – he gave only one speech, over the radio, and decided that one speech per campaign was about right. Before FDR gave a farm speech in Topeka, Kansas, Senator Thomas P Gore of Oklahoma wired him: “If every Democrat in Iowa should be put in jail on election day, you would carry president Hoover’s native state anyway.”
On November 8th 1932, the people cast a decided vote against Hoover’s old deal. FDR won the popular vote by 57.4% to 39.7%. Some Conservatives, in fact, were relieved by the outcome. Said Hoover’s secretary of Commerce Roy Chapin: “The mood of the country was such that perhaps we are lucky that we didn’t get a socialist or radical instead of Roosevelt.”
The Popular Vote in 2020
If the current polling holds up, Biden would be on track to eclipse Barack Obama’s popular vote margin in 2008 US Presidential Election, when Obama, also running during a historic recession, won 53% of the popular vote to John McCain’s 46%, a margin of 7%. Bill Clinton’s popular margin, in 1996, was 8.5%. In the 1988 US Presidential Election, George H. W. Bush won the popular vote by 53.4% to 45.6%, a margin of 7.8%
If the current polling holds up, Biden would be on track to eclipse Obama’s popular vote margin in 2008.
Biden is of course unlikely to beat Reagan’s 1984 US Presidential Election sweep, when Reagan won 58.8% of the popular vote to Mondale’s 40.6%. Nor is he likely to come close to Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 romp, in which he won the popular vote by 61.1% to 38.5%. But the best margin in nearly forty years is still emphatic, and, in and of itself, historic.
What makes a Biden blowout in the 2020 US Presidential Election so compelling is that it would occur in a modern context in which hyper-partisanship has made landslides increasingly rare. Over the course of the last 100 years, emphatic electoral victories were common, and close contests, (1948, 1960, 1968, and 1976), the exception. In all of the landslides from 1928 onward, the victor managed well more than 400, and often more than 500, Electoral College votes. In the seven elections since 1988, neither party has managed to reach 400. That is unlikely to change in the coming election. In this modern context, then, were Biden’s popular vote margin to eventuate on election day, it would be a modern, recontextualized equivalent of the landslides of the post-war era.
Biden’s popular vote margin could be a modern, recontextualized equivalent of the landslides of the post-war era.
Watch: Biden is in a stronger position than any challenger in post-war history
The Losing Margin in 2020
Trump would not rate well historically, were he to lose as a first-term incumbent. If the current Five Thirty Eight and Real Clear Politics averages were to hold up, he would lose by a greater margin than Jimmy Carter did in 1980, when Ronald Reagan won 50.7%, while Carter won a mere 41.0%, a margin of 9.7%. Carter’s loss was so severe that by 8:15 PM on election night the networks were already announcing Reagan’s victory and Carter decided to concede at once. His concession was so early, it was an hour before the polls had even closed on the West Coast. Carter was the first incumbent Democrat to fail in re-election since Cleveland in 1888. The implications for Trump, if the outcome was similar, would be stark, as it took the Democratic party twelve years to shake off its flaky image and regain the trust of the American voters. After 1932, it took the Republicans twenty years to regain favor.
If the current polling averages were to hold up, Trump would lose by a greater margin than Jimmy Carter did in 1980.
Because of the extraordinary circumstances of mass early voting, and the current disparity between national and battleground state polling, the prevailing attitude is that this will be a close, or contested election. Once the dust settles, however, posterity may take a different view.