Election 2024: Close Presidential Elections Have Become the Norm
from The Water's Edge, Renewing America, and Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy

Election 2024: Close Presidential Elections Have Become the Norm

Each Friday, I look at what the presidential contenders are saying about foreign policy. This Week: It will be a break from recent practice if either party’s nominee wins big in November.
A voter's jacket after leaving a polling place in Washington, DC, on November 6, 2012.
A voter's jacket after leaving a polling place in Washington, DC, on November 6, 2012. Yuri Gripas/Reuters

The odds are good that whoever wins the U.S. presidential race in November won’t win by much. 

Consider this. In the first ten presidential elections after World War II, the winning candidate won the popular vote by more than nine percentage points six times. Four times the winner won by more than fifteen percentage points. 

More on:

United States

Election 2024

Elections and Voting

Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy

In the nine presidential elections since then, no candidate has won by as many as nine percentage points. Only three candidates have won by more than five percentage points. And that happened just once in the last six elections, when Barack Obama defeated John McCain in 2008 by seven percentage points. 

These numbers may even understate how close U.S. presidential elections have become. Two of the last six elections were won by the candidate who lost the popular vote, something that had happened just three times before in U.S. history and not since 1888. Had 43,000 votes switched in the right states in 2020, the candidate who lost the popular vote would have won half of the last six presidential elections. 

No other period in U.S. history matches this string of close elections. The longest previous streak began in 1876, when seven consecutive elections were decided by single digits. This was also a time when the winning candidate twice lost the popular vote (1876 and 1888). 

Our new era of close races favors Republican presidential candidates. The Electoral College gives disproportionate weight to small states, which in recent years have leaned red. The Republican tilt is so strong that in 2020 Joe Biden had just a 50-50 chance of winning if he outpolled Trump by three percentage points nationally. The fact that he beat Trump by 4.4 percentage points and still nearly lost highlighted the Electoral College’s tilt. 

One might argue that close elections are good for a democracy. Knowing the outcome can go either way encourages voters to go to the polls. In 2020, the United States saw its highest voter turnout in absolute terms—nearly 160 million Americans voted. The 2020 election also saw the highest voter turnout as a percentage of the voting-eligible population—66.7 percent—since 1900.

More on:

United States

Election 2024

Elections and Voting

Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy

But a string of close elections can also be debilitating for a democracy. Narrow wins mean that the victor gets a muddy mandate to govern, and narrow losses encourage the losing party to double down on existing policies rather than build a different and bigger coalition. The problem is exacerbated when many voters believe, wrongly it should be said of U.S. elections today, that their votes are “stolen” during the electoral count. The fact that the loser of the popular vote can nonetheless win the election only makes matters worse. It’s all well and good to say “them’s the rules.” But it violates the innate sense most people have that in a democracy the person with the most votes should win.

Unfortunately for the United States, barring a major shake-up, we are headed toward another close election—and possibly another one where the loser of the popular vote becomes president. If so, that would place additional stress on an already ailing American democracy.

Campaign Update

Earlier this month, the Republican National Committee (RNC) and third-party groups filed suit in Arizona state court challenging the state’s Elections Procedure Manual. It is the document that tells Arizona officials how to conduct and certify elections. RNC chair Ronna McDaniel claimed that the document is “designed to undermine election integrity.” This week the Democratic National Committee and the Arizona Democratic Party filed legal motions to join the case on the other side. The Democrats contend that “MAGA Republicans are attempting to meddle with elections for one simple reason: they know when more eligible voters cast their ballot, Republicans lose.” Such lawsuits are likely to multiply in the coming months as both political parties try to bend election rules, which vary from state to state, in their favor.

Polls show that most Americans don’t want to see a re-run of the 2020 election with Biden pitted against Donald Trump. But don’t expect candidates to come off the sidelines at the last moment to upend the race. By next Friday, the deadline for getting on the primary ballot will have passed in all but six states: Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, and South Dakota. Those primaries will held in either May or June. That’s a problem because a majority of the Republican delegates will be allocated by March 12 and a majority of Democratic delegates by March 19.

The Candidates in Their Own Words

The death of Russian dissident Alexi Navalny prompted an outpouring of denunciations of Vladimir Putin. Biden led the way, saying: “Make no mistake: Putin is responsible for Navalny’s death.” Similar statements came from a range of leading Democrats and Republicans.

Trump wasn’t one of them. He waited three days to mention Navalny. Even then, his post on Truth Social merely used the dissident’s death as a pivot to decry problems in the United States:

The sudden death of Alexei Navalny has made me more and more aware of what is happening in our Country. It is a slow, steady progression, with CROOKED, Radical Left Politicians, Prosecutors, and Judges leading us down a path to destruction. Open Borders, Rigged Elections, and Grossly Unfair Courtroom Decisions are DESTROYING AMERICA. WE ARE A NATION IN DECLINE, A FAILING NATION! MAGA2024.

Nikki Haley criticized Trump’s (non-) response to Navalny’s death:

It’s actually pretty amazing that he, not only after making those comments that he would encourage Putin to invade NATO, but the fact that he won’t acknowledge anything with Navalny. Either he sides with Putin and thinks it’s cool that Putin killed one of his political opponents, or he just doesn’t think it’s that big of a deal. Either one of those is concerning. Either one of those is a problem.

Trump and Haley’s differences didn’t end there. An audience member at a Fox town hall in Greenville, South Carolina, asked the former president what he plans to do about the “unnecessary billions of dollars in foreign aid we have given specifically to Ukraine.” Trump said he would tell European countries to “start paying up” because the war in Ukraine affects them more than it does the United States because “we have an ocean in between us.” He also claimed that the United States had spent $150 billion more on Ukraine than Europe had. In fact, Europe’s overall aid commitments to Ukraine exceed U.S. support, and Europe’s military aid commitments to Ukraine nearly rival U.S. support.

Haley challenged Trump’s position on Ukraine in an interview with NPR Morning Edition:

This is about preventing war. The focus is making sure that Ukraine has the equipment and ammunition they need so that they can finish this. They have a great fighting force. We just need to give them the tools to finish this.

She added:

I would encourage my fellow Republicans to understand that we need to prevent war. And the only way we prevent war is if Ukraine defeats Russia…. I think it’s terrible that Trump has pulled back from Ukraine. And that not’s good for America. It’s only good for Russia.

The results of tomorrow’s Republican South Carolina primary vote will show whether Haley’s decision to hit Trump on Ukraine has helped her gain traction with Republican voters. An average of polls of South Carolina Republican voters shows her trailing Trump by twenty-five percentage points on the eve of the vote.

What the Pundits Are Saying

Ronald Brownstein argued in The Atlantic that “the long decline of the Republican Party’s internationalist wing may have reached a tipping point.” As a result, “a return to power for Trump would likely end the dominance of the internationalist wing that has held the upper hand in the GOP since Dwight Eisenhower. The bigger question is whether a second Trump term would also mean the effective end for the American-led system of alliances and international institutions that has underpinned the global order since World War II.”

Peter Feaver wrote in Foreign Affairs that “the precise policies of a future Trump administration are impossible to predict, not least because they would bear the characteristics of a president who is emotional, undisciplined, and easily distracted. But there is good reason to think Trump 2.0 would be Trump 1.0 on steroids. His return would result in a more unilateral, more aloof, and sometimes more aggressive United States, less committed to upholding the geopolitical structures and liberal values that are already under growing pressure.”

Elizabeth Saunders argued in Foreign Affairs that “Americans cannot change, and thus should not lament, the fact that their leaders look beyond the water’s edge through a political lens. But they should expect the politics of foreign policy to be healthy, and today, the core elements of a hardy foreign policy are either missing or endangered.” She acknowledged that “reviving a healthy culture of debate will be difficult because it requires that elites refrain from demonizing government officials for every misstep, or for simply serving in their posts. It will require that elites and commentators distinguish between honest disagreements and attempts to violate democratic norms and rules. It will require that they call out people who do not give officials leeway and who instead engage in wanton, anti-elite attacks. But both parties must engage in such restraint and enforcement if foreign policy is to get back on track.” 

The Campaign Schedule

The South Carolina Republican primary is tomorrow (February 24, 2024).

The State of the Union address is thirteen days away (March 7, 2024).

The start of the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee is 143 days away (July 15, 2024).

The start of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago is 178 days away (August 19, 2024).

Election Day is 256 days away.

Inauguration Day is 332 days away.

Sinet Adous, Aliya Kaisar, and Shelby Sires assisted in the preparation of this post.

This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.

Creative Commons
Creative Commons: Some rights reserved.
This work is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) License.
View License Detail