By George F. Will
Never mind the geysers of overheated 2020 rhetoric about a constitutional crisis. Tuesday evening the nation will likely know that Vice President Walter Mondale’s elegant words of concession on election night 40 years ago are still apposite: “The American people quietly wielded their staggering power, and peacefully, without intimidation, made their choice.” The following data can help clarify the nature of this year’s choice.
Because of what Drew DeSilver of the Pew Research Center calls “the electoral vote inflation factor” — one of the electoral college’s many benefits — Joe Biden’s victory, which will be decisive in the popular vote, will be even more so in electoral votes. Since the politics of mass mobilization began in America with the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828, the winner’s share of the electoral vote has averaged 1.36 times the popular vote share. For example, in 2012 Barack Obama won 51 percent of the popular vote but 62 percent of the electoral vote (332 of 538). This inflation factor was especially dramatic, and civically beneficial, in 1960, when John Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in the popular vote by a minuscule 0.16 percent (112,827 out of 68,832,483 votes cast). But Kennedy had a 15.6 percent electoral vote advantage (303 to 219; 56.4 percent to 40.8 percent). This was 97.5 times his popular-vote margin, which gave the nation a sense of a decisive election.
So, on Wednesday many Democrats might have kindlier thoughts about the electoral college. Because Democratic candidates lost two of this century’s first five presidential elections while winning the popular vote, many Democrats have called for abolishing the electoral vote system and adopting election by direct popular vote. This year, the electoral vote inflation factor favoring Biden should have the wholesome effect of dampening Democrats’ enthusiasm for abolition.
Trump, no stickler for precision, said that in 2016 he won a “massive landslide” of electoral votes. In 45 of the 57 preceding elections the winner received a larger percentage of those votes than Trump’s 56.5 percent.
In all five of this century’s elections, 37 states have voted for presidential candidates of the same party. Twenty-two of those states have favored Republicans. None of the 15 Democratic states will vote for Trump. Biden might win three of the Republican states — Arizona, Georgia and Texas. In 2016, Donald Trump won more than 56 percent of the vote in 17 states — but not in those three. Georgia is one of eight states where more than half the voters under 40 are nonwhite. Florida, the most important swing state, is another. This is the first year when a majority of eligible voters under 40 in Texas are nonwhite.
In 2000, George W. Bush became the first person to win the presidency while losing the North. In 2004, he was reelected because he carried Ohio with 50.8 percent of the vote: John Kerry would have become president if he had switched 73,350 of the 5.6 million votes cast. Ohio was the only large state Bush carried outside the South. Starting with the election of 1896, when the state chose Ohioan William McKinley, Ohio has backed the winner in all but two of 31 elections: In 1944, it favored Thomas Dewey (whose vice-presidential running mate was Ohio Gov. John Bricker) over President Franklin Roosevelt by just 0.36 percent of the vote, and it chose Nixon over Kennedy in 1960 by 6.56 percent.
The decline of political competitiveness is apparent in these numbers: In 1976, 20 states were won by five percentage points or less. Jimmy Carter won Texas with 51.1 percent, and President Gerald Ford carried California and Illinois with 49.3 percent and 50.1 percent, respectively. In 2016, 11 were. In 1976, a majority of House seats were won by 10 points or less. In 2016, most were won by at least 20 points. The average margin of victory was 36.6 percentage points. Democrats defeated Republicans with an average of 67.4 percent of the two-party vote, Republicans won with 63.8 percent.
Finally, if, as seems likely, the turnout percentage of this year’s eligible voters soars past the 2016 level (55.67 percent) and past the highest level since after WWII (63.3 percent when Dwight Eisenhower ended the Democrats’ five-election winning streak by defeating Adlai Stevenson in 1952), credit the president for motivating voters unhappy with him. Remember the story of which Winston Churchill was fond, about the man who received a telegram reporting the death of his mother-in-law and asking for instructions. The man telegraphed back: “Embalm, cremate, bury at sea. Take no chances.”
George Will’s email address is [email protected]