Donald Trump Is a Historically Big Loser

Joe Biden is the most successful presidential challenger since FDR.

Biden smiles in front of a large blue screen as his wife Jill, standing beside him, waves.
Jill and Joe Biden in Wilmington, Delaware, early Wednesday morning. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Well, pending official certification and probably some empty threats and the rejection of some nuisance lawsuits, it’s over. Donald Trump is not going to be president again; Joe Biden will take over in January. And Biden’s win is one of the most impressive in American history.

Defeating a sitting United States president is an extraordinarily hard thing to do, but with the vote count mounting in his favor, Biden turns out to have done it with relative ease. Per current estimates, he will receive something like 51.3 percent of the national popular vote, 3 percentage points more than Hillary Clinton and a higher total than any candidate challenging an incumbent president since FDR got 57 percent against Herbert Hoover in 1932. That’s more than Ronald Reagan got (50.7 percent) in his 1980 win over Jimmy Carter, which is still (accurately!) heralded as a paradigm shift in American politics. When you factor in how high turnout was, Biden will likely end up getting a higher share of all the votes that were theoretically available than Reagan did in his 1984 reelection landslide or Barack Obama did in 2008.*

There’s some disappointment among Democrats nonetheless. The party will be losing a few seats in the House, and will need to win two early-January special elections in Georgia in order to reach 50 seats in the Senate.

Indeed, it would have been better for the Democratic agenda if the party had gained control of the upper chamber of Congress. But this failure should be taken in the context of the Senate’s structure: It’s an institution intentionally designed to overrepresent the smaller states, which, at present, are disproportionately Republican. Even that advantage, though, as replicated in the Electoral College, was not enough for Trump. He lost despite having a structural head start, the advantages of incumbency, and a party that made its best efforts to prevent as many Americans as possible from voting against him during a pandemic.

Trump did turn out more voters than the polls indicated he would. He won about 12 million more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016. The MAGA ideology seems likely to persist as a force in American politics. But Joe Biden turned out 16 million more Americans than voted for Hillary Clinton. It is a truly unprecedented coalition; the opportunity to cast a ballot against Donald Trump turns out to have been one of the most appealing and galvanizing choices that has been put to the American electorate in the country’s 232 years of existence, and now the 45th president will take his place with the embarrassments, failures, and Herbert Hoovers of history. He deserves it.

Correction, Dec. 3, 2020: This piece originally misstated that only FDR and William Henry Harrison had gotten higher shares of the vote than Biden when challenging an incumbent president. Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson did as well.