Yes, they’re still counting

It’s now two weeks since election day in the United States, but the counting of votes is still going on. Several states have quite significant numbers still to go – 6% of the expected total in Massachusetts and Maryland, 9% in Maine and 16% in New York.*

None of that, however, will change the basic shape of the result. Democrat Joe Biden has won a clear victory; he currently has 51.9% of the two-party vote, a lead of 5.7 million votes over Republican Donald Trump. Those numbers will come up a bit further, although not as much as I estimated last week: instead of 52.5% his final tally will be something like 52.2%.

For comparison, Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012 with 52.0%, George Bush Jr in 2004 had 51.2% and Bill Clinton in 1996 had 54.7%, the biggest margin of recent times.

All those results look a bit different if you take the raw figures instead of factoring out the third-party vote as I have done. Some American pundits are particularly impressed with the fact that Biden has a majority of the total vote (currently 50.9%), a mark that eluded both Hillary Clinton in 2016 and her husband in 1992 and 1996. But the third-party vote (1.8%, about two-thirds of it with Libertarian Jo Jorgensen) counts for nothing towards the result; those who choose to vote for third parties are practically indistinguishable from those who don’t vote at all.

The national swing of 1.1% to the Democrats was the second-smallest recorded since 1888 – that of 2016 (0.9% the other way) was the smallest. The swings of 1996, 2004 and 2012 were also historically low. Decisive results seem to be a thing of the past.

The distribution of that swing is also remarkable. As far as I can tell, it’s the most uniform swing ever recorded. The average deviation from the mean is only 1.3%, half what it was in 2016. More that half the states swung in just a narrow band from about 0.5% to 2.5%; the largest swing was 4.3% to the Democrats in Colorado. Nine states moved the other way, the biggest movement being 2.4% in Hawai’i.

In the electoral college, things look a bit different, for reasons we looked at last week. Biden has a margin there of just 74 votes, 306 to 232: exactly the same margin as Trump won by in 2016, in an election that was regarded (although not of course by him) as very close. Only two presidents in the last fifty years – Bush Jr (twice) and Jimmy Carter – have run things so tight in the electoral college.

Yet even that isn’t the best measure of how close the election was. What matters is not how many electoral votes separated the two candidates, but how many votes on the ground would have had to shift for that to change. And the answer is, shockingly few: Trump needed to hold onto just three more states to win, and even the most decisive of those three, Wisconsin, was won by Biden with just 50.3% of the two-party vote.

On that measure the election was even closer than 2016. (Wisconsin was the tipping-point state then as well, with Trump having a margin of 0.4%.) If the electoral college were to stay the same, the Republicans would only need a uniform swing of 0.3% in 2024 to put themselves back in the White House.

As it happens, the electoral college will not stay the same. This is a census year, so before the next election the allocation to the various states of seats in the House of Representatives – and therefore in the electoral college, which is based on total congressional delegation, or representatives plus senators – will change to reflect changes in the distribution of population.

That will help the Republicans, although probably not enough to change the size of their target. The south of the country, particularly Texas and Florida, has been gaining population at the expense of the north and midwest, so Democrat-held states will in aggregate be worth fewer electoral votes. One estimate would imply a net loss of four seats in the electoral college.

But although the growth areas are still tending to vote Republican, they are doing so less and less, as evidenced by Biden’s wins in Arizona and Georgia. Demographic change is a fickle friend, as both parties have discovered at different times.

* I am mostly relying on the New York Times’s compilation of the results, supplemented by the Green Papers where it seems to have later figures. The clerk of the House of Representatives will eventually produce an official tally, but that takes months.

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