Current Affairs

Was the election a repudiation of Trump?

The day after the US Presidential election, Hillary Clinton tweeted that the result was “a repudiation of Donald Trump”. Indeed, Joe Biden got more votes than any other Presidential candidate in history and, in the process, made Trump the first one-term President in almost three decades. But is it that simple? How emphatically was Trump rejected at the ballot box?

Those who expected a Biden landslide would answer – dejectedly – “not very”. Polls on the eve of the election put Biden about eight points ahead of Trump, but he only won by four points, and on election night, he was behind in key states like Pennsylvania. However, this represents an error of expectations as opposed to some last-minute Trump surge. The polls were merely off, and postal ballots (favoured by Biden voters) were simply counted later on the election evening or during the following days. The election did come down to small margins in a few swing states, but that’s not inherently surprising given the nature of the winner-takes-all Electoral College that decides the election.

What is surprising, is that an incumbent President lost. That is rare. The challenger has to suffer the bruises of a primary contest, competing with other candidates for their party’s nomination, whereas the President (usually) does not. Biden, for example, endured the embarrassment of coming fourth in the Iowa caucus and fifth in the New Hampshire primary, and was roundly attacked by the 23 other Democrats seeking the nomination, in 12 primary debates. This made him look like damaged goods in a way that Trump, effectively unopposed, did not. All the while, Biden was forced to spend while Trump was saving; in March, Biden’s campaign had less than $10m on hand, while Trump had a billion-dollar war-chest.

With such a strong incumbency advantage, it is little surprise that only three sitting Presidents have been defeated since World War Two. Political commentator Matt Bei puts it like this: “History tells us that an incumbent president has to work pretty hard to lose a re-election campaign”. Trump must have worked especially hard: he is the only sitting President since World War Two to lose without having a serious primary challenger (see table), and the only one to lose in this partisan era, when, since 1992, the presidency has ping-ponged between Democrats for two terms and Republicans for two terms.

Incumbent PresidentYearSerious primary challengerPrimary Vote (%)Result of Presidential election
Ronald Reagan198499Won
George W Bush200498Won
Donald Trump202094Lost
Barack Obama201292Won
Bill Clinton199689Won
George H W Bush1992Pat Buchanan72Lost
Gerald Ford1976Ronald Reagan53Lost
Jimmy Carter1980Edward Kennedy51Lost

The result is also an aberration in that, generally, Republicans had quite a good night. They gained eight seats in the House of Representatives (out of 435), and look to have retained control of the Senate (a net loss of zero seats out of 100, pending two elections in January). It seems like voters were quite happy with the Republicans – just not with Trump.

Having said all this, the election was evidently not an emphatic defeat of Trump – he won 73 million votes. That’s six million more than the entire population of the UK, and unlike in 2016, it cannot be said: they don’t know what they’re voting for; no one knows what a Trump presidency will be like. These voters looked at four years of a Trump presidency and actively decided to endorse it.

This present climate of hyper-partisanship is what makes answering the question so difficult. Any victory will be relatively narrow, but does the paucity of swing voters allow a relatively narrow victory to be considered emphatic? I like the conclusion of Matt Bai: “The repudiation wasn’t really overwhelming or underwhelming. It was just whelming enough… That’s probably as much as a fractured country can give”.