In the presidential election, we expected President Trump to have an advantage in the electoral college because the major battlefield states were more republican than the whole country. And that’s exactly how it went: Trump and the Republicans enjoyed the electoral college’s biggest head start in more than 70 years.
We can see how big that advantage was if we look at the margins in the two “turning point” states of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, or in the states that delivered (or could have delivered) the decisive 270th vote, which Biden and Trump for have needed the victory, average, respectively. (Biden’s turning point was Wisconsin while Trump would have been Pennsylvania, assuming he had also won Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin.) Averaged together, their margin was about D + 0.9 points, or about 3.5 points More Republican oriented as the population’s national vote range. This is important in that, as you can see in the table below, the last time a party had such a big or bigger advantage on the electoral college was in 1948, when the GOP lead was 3.8 points.
|year||National referendum||Turning point
|Turning point edge||Electoral College Edge|
|2020||D + 4.5||WI (D), PA (R)||D + 0.9||R + 3.5|
|2016||D + 2.1||WI *||R + 0.8||R + 2.9|
|2012||D + 3.9||CO||D + 5.4||D + 1.5|
|2008||D + 7.3||CO (D), IA (R)||D + 9.2||D + 2.0|
|2004||R + 2.5||OH||R + 2.1||D + 0.4|
|2000||D + 0.5||FL||R + 0.0||R + 0.5|
|1996||D + 8.5||PA||D + 9.2||D + 0.7|
|1992||D + 5.6||TN||D + 4.7||R + 0.9|
|1988||R + 7.7||MI||R + 7.9||R + 0.2|
|1984||R + 18.2||MI||R + 19.0||R + 0.8|
|1980||R + 9.7||IL||R + 7.9||D + 1.8|
|1976||D + 2.1||WI||D + 1.7||R + 0.4|
|1972||R + 23.1||OH (R), ME (D)||R + 22.3||D + 0.9|
|1968||R + 0.7||OH (R), IL (D)||R + 2.6||R + 1.9|
|1964||D + 22.6||WA||D + 24.6||D + 2.0|
|1960||D + 0.2||MO (D), NJ (R)||D + 0.7||D + 0.5|
|1956||R + 15.4||FL||R + 14.5||D + 0.9|
|1952||R + 10.9||MI||R + 11.5||R + 0.6|
|1948||D + 4.5||CA (D), IL (R)||D + 0.6||R + 3.8|
|1944||D + 7.5||NY||D + 5.0||R + 2.5|
|1940||D + 9.9||PA||D + 6.9||R + 3.1|
|1936||D + 24.3||OH||D + 20.6||R + 3.7|
|1932||D + 17.8||IA||D + 17.7||R + 0.1|
|1928||R + 17.4||IL||R + 14.7||D + 2.8|
|1924||R + 25.2||NY||R + 26.6||R + 1.4|
|1920||R + 26.2||RI||R + 31.2||R + 5.0|
|1916||D + 3.1||Approx.||D + 0.4||R + 2.8|
|1912||D + 18.7||IA (D), NJ (R)||D + 17.0||R + 1.7|
|1908||R + 8.5||WV||R + 10.2||R + 1.7|
|1904||R + 18.8||NJ||R + 18.6||D + 0.2|
|1900||R + 6.2||IL||R + 8.4||R + 2.2|
|1896||R + 4.3||OH||R + 4.8||R + 0.5|
|1892||D + 3.0||IL (D), CT (R)||D + 3.2||D + 0.2|
|1888||D + 0.8||NY||R + 1.1||R + 1.9|
|1884||D + 0.6||NY||D + 0.1||R + 0.5|
|1880||R + 0.1||NY||R + 1.9||R + 1.8|
|1876||D + 3.0||SC||R + 0.5||R + 3.5|
|1872||R + 11.8||OH||R + 7.1||D + 4.7|
|1868||R + 5.3||NC (R), AR (D)||R + 7.1||R + 1.8|
Interestingly, that choice wasn’t everything also In contrast to 2020, the Democrat (Harry Truman) won by wearing a series of tight swing conditions. But perhaps more notably, 2020 was the second consecutive presidential cycle in which Republicans had a clear upper hand in the electoral college compared to the national referendum.
In 2016, the GOP was 2.9 points ahead of the game, with Trump overtaking the turning point state of Wisconsin by 0.8 points. That slightly smaller lead reflected Trump’s narrow victory in the turning point state and Clinton’s smaller lead in the national referendum compared to Biden.
As can be seen from the table above, there have been some differences over the years in terms of which party has the electoral college advantage, suggesting that each advantage is temporary. Case in point is the Democratic upper hand in three consecutive elections from 2004 to 2012, and to a considerable extent in the latter two. Since we entered the modern era of elections – that is, since the 1965 Suffrage Act was passed – the GOP has had a lead in eight presidential races while the Democrats have had a lead in six.
But this alternating stop in the electoral college could disappear. Indeed, the last two elections reveal a potential long-term problem for Democrats, especially if we continue to have tight, competitive elections: “wasted” votes. That is, the Democrats seem to be disproportionately on the advance in some large, blue-oriented states, which helps with the national referendum, but does not bring any benefit in the electoral college. Take a state like California: Biden would have won his 55 votes, whether he won with 5.1 million votes or just 1 vote. In other words, that’s a lot of wasted democratic votes. If we extend this to the 50 states and Washington DC, the Democrats “wasted” 15.1 million votes compared to the GOP’s 8 million votes, which is 7.1 million votes – about the same as Biden’s national lead of 7 million votes and roughly its combined profit margin in California and New York.
Given the widening urban-rural divide in America, this inefficient distribution of Democrat-minded voters could continue to hurt Democrats in elections and help the GOP as the electoral college and other institutions like the Senate focus on small states. These less populous states – especially the more rural ones – are more likely to oppose Republicans.
Even further back in American history, we have seen how an electoral college party can suffer if it receives support that comes disproportionately from certain parts of the country, making it inadequate overall. From the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th century after the collapse of the reconstruction and their disenfranchisement from African AmericansDemocrats dominated the elections in the South, producing unilateral election results that favored Democratic presidential candidates. But, of course, the Democrats’ large margins in those states did not help them promote states outside the South, and as a result, the GOP tended to have at least a slight head start on the electoral college during this period. No wonder, then, that the GOP’s frequent lead on the electoral college helped win the presidency while losing the national referendum – something it managed in both 1876 and 1888, and the modern GOP in 2000 and 2016 repeated margin on the electoral college can put a thumb on the scale for the beneficiary party, especially at a time when there are many tight, competitive elections, such as the late 19th century and today.
Of course, that kind of edge is not insurmountable. It doesn’t matter if, for example, one party wins a landslide. After all, the Republicans technically had a nearly 4-point lead in 1936 when Democrat Franklin Roosevelt scored a national vote gain of 24 points. Conversely, the Democrats had a 1 point lead in 1972 when Republican Richard Nixon won the nationwide by 23 points.
Ultimately, it’s impossible to say where things will go from here – we don’t know who will run in 2024 or what the conditions will be. However, if frostbelt states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin continue to lean a little to the right, it will benefit the GOP in the electoral college – unless there is a counter-shift elsewhere in favor of the Democrats. For example, in 2020, Biden barely promoted traditional Republican states like Arizona and Georgia. Those two states alone cannot make up for the Democrats ‘loss of the Frost Belt trio, but democratic improvement in these states and elsewhere in the Sun Belt (where does Blue Texas go?) Could undo the Republicans’ current lead on the electoral college.