In The News Quiz March 15, 2021

Weekly Quiz 9: Monday, March 15, 2021

Linking Bitter Partisanship & America’s 50/50 Elections

One of Donald Trump’s regular claims after the 2016 election was that he had won a “landslide” victory. This was demonstrably untrue—he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton and won the three states key to his Electoral College victory by a total of barely 77,000 votes. Trump’s assertion also points to a striking feature of recent presidential elections: the popular-vote outcomes tend to be close. Since 1988, no winning president has received as much as 53 percent of the popular vote. (Joe Biden won 51.3 percent in 2020.) Nine straight razor-thin presidential elections: that’s the longest such streak in American history.

Who cares? a political junkie might respond. Close elections are exciting, mobilizing turnout and drawing attention—isn’t that good for democracy? Well, yes and no. A succession of close elections helps to breed the kind of toxic mistrust that contributes to gridlock (an inability to address major policy issues, like climate change or immigration) and bitter partisanship.

In most decades before the 1990s, once or twice a president (and their party in House and Senate elections) won big, by 10 percentage points or more. After such a clear victory, the winning party struts its stuff—and enacts the programs they ran on. The losing party slinks away to figure out what went wrong. But if elections are close every time, there’s no incentive for the party that barely lost to reform itself: instead fights break out over election rules or even charges of “stolen elections”—at an extreme, leading to the horrifying January 2021 Capitol insurrection.

With eyes already turning to the 2022 midterm election and then 2024 contest (Google “Trump 2024” for the red-hot debate), might this streak of close elections be broken? Chances are that in 2022, given narrow Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, that the House, Senate, or even both might switch to Republican control. That sets up a titanic clash for control of the U.S. government in the 2024 election…and very possibly another closely-fought outcome.

Read the following articles that detail some of these issues:

Quiz Content