Despite losing more votes in this election than he won in his 2016 victory, the president has laid out his pawns for a comeback in 2024.
One piece of data has struck me more than any other in the exit polls this year. I have written for more than a year about how an outgoing president’s approval rating has historically been very closely correlated with the percentage of the popular vote they have gone on to win in their reelection campaign. Donald Trump’s approval rating on Nov. 3 was 47%. When all the votes have been counted, he will have won almost exactly 47% of the popular vote. In other words, the correlation is not just strong this year. It is perfect.
There are many ways we can analyze these results. One of them lies in Trump’s margin of defeat in the popular vote: it is about four percentage points, almost double the margin that gave him victory over Hillary Clinton four years ago.
Trump has won the inglorious distinction of becoming the second president in American history, after Benjamin Harrison in 1888 and 1892, to lose the popular vote twice. Ultimately, more than 80 million Americans voted for his rival, an all-time record. And for the overwhelming majority of them, if we trust the exit polls once again, their support for Joe Biden was first and foremost anchored in a desire to fire Trump.
In bitter irony, the outgoing president received exactly the same number of electoral college votes as his sworn rival, Clinton, did in 2016 — a score that he described four years ago as a “landslide.” And another huge setback, he is only the 11th president to have been defeated in a reelection campaign. That’s no small blow.
Trump came close to being reelected, very close. When all is said and done, the popular vote is confined to the history books, and it is the Electoral College that determines who wins and who loses. A national shift of just 0.6% would have been enough for Trump to win 280 Electoral College votes … and a second term.
To put that into perspective, let’s remind ourselves of what many commentators haven’t stopped repeating since the 2016 election: A combination of fewer than 80,000 votes in three states (Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) would have been enough to elect Clinton. That is true.
But what is also true is that with a combination of fewer than 60,000 votes in three states where more than 11 million votes were cast (Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin), Trump would have won reelection. In other words, Clinton came close to clinching it in 2016, but Trump came even closer in 2020.
The consequences for the future are not insignificant. Presidents who have been decisively defeated — such as Herbert Hoover, who lost in 42 states in 1932, or even Jimmy Carter, who lost 40 in 1980 — are quickly thrown onto the political scrap heap. These losers have even been used as a political weapon by their opponents for years. For example, 12 years after having defeated Hoover, President Franklin Roosevelt was still using his ghost to attack his Republican opponent, Thomas Dewey, in the 1944 campaign (at a time when presidents were not limited to two terms).
The reality risks being even more complex after 2020. Yes, despite the nonsense spouted by the Trump team about unproven massive fraud, the president will indeed leave the White House on Jan. 20. That said, if he is hoping to continue to influence his party, and more generally the American political sphere, things are looking pretty promising for him.
This is particularly true bearing in mind that, although he was defeated, Trump won both a huge number of votes and a higher percentage of the vote than he did four years ago, which is a historic feat in itself. And if that wasn’t enough, some preliminary data suggest that the increase in election participation between 2016 and 2020 has helped him much more than it has hindered him. Post-election research reveals something remarkable: Many more Trump voters than Biden voters want their candidate to represent them again in 2024.
In other words, even in defeat Trump has very significant support and enthusiasm from the American electorate. It wasn’t for nothing that before even conceding victory to Biden, Trump reportedly told his advisers of his very serious intention to run again in the next election, as he will still be eligible for a second term.
Among the highest Republican circles in Washington, many have no doubt let out a huge sigh of relief at the announcement of the defeat of the man who took hostile control of their party in 2016. However, it remains to be seen whether his defeat will be enough to get rid of him completely.