Can Biden encompass the opposition he embodied?
President-elect Joe Biden successfully embodied the opposition to a polarizing opponent — President Trump. Biden must now seek to encompass it.
Trump was propelled in 2016, just as Biden was 2020. Yet, as Trump proved, the key to presidential success is whether Biden can now consolidate that embodied opposition into personal support. The first was the more passive and less difficult; the second is harder and will be determinative.
In 2016, Trump embodied the opposition to Hillary Clinton. After a quarter of a century in the national spotlight, Clinton had amassed a substantial opposition. Though she won 65.9 million votes, she won just 48.2 percent of the total. Of the 51.8 percent of those who did not support her, Trump won 46.1 percent, placed almost perfectly for electoral vote victory.
Trump had approximately an additional 5.7 percent of the electorate that he could potentially encompass. This is of course a rough estimate, as some voted for third parties (e.g., the Green Party) that made them unlikely Trump targets. Still there were some Clinton voters (exit polling showed some conservatives and Republicans voting for Clinton) who could be Trump targets. Trump’s potential for encompassing significantly more of the Clinton opposition was very real; after all, most incumbent presidents increase their support percentage in reelection.
Over four years, Trump only made a minor inroad on that 5.7 percent. Despite winning 74.2 million votes in 2020, Trump only won 46.9 percent of the votes cast — just 0.8 percentage points more than in 2016. Compared to 2016, Trump only encompassed 14 percent of his additional 2016 potential.
Against an opponent like Clinton — or without COVID-19, or without the voting surge COVID-19-induced rules changes produced, or with significant third-party siphoning off votes as 2016 — perhaps Trump’s increase would have been greater, or perhaps the one he registered would have sufficed to win reelection. Against his non-polarizing opponent Biden, it clearly was not.
Instead in 2020, Biden turned the tables and Trump became the polarizing opponent. Biden won 81.3 million votes and 51.4 of the electorate, 15.4 million votes and 3.2 percentage points more than Clinton in 2016. Looked at from the other perspective, Trump’s collective opposition won 53.1 percent of the vote and Biden won all but 1.7 percent of it. In 2020, Biden was far more successful embodying the opposition vote than Trump had been in 2016.
The question now is whether Biden, unlike Trump over the last four years, can encompass this opposition vote. Can he transform it from Trump opposition to Biden support? Biden starts off with clear advantages.
First, as noted, he embodied a far larger percentage of the opposition vote to Trump than Trump was able to embody the opposition to Clinton. Having won a person’s vote is consequential; it gives the voter a personal stake in the candidate and a predilection to support again — a reason why America’s incumbent presidents win overwhelmingly. Second, the horrific Capitol riots give Biden a further opportunity to encompass — if not further enlarge — the Trump opposition.
Yet there are conflicting signals for Biden too. In comparison to elected incumbent presidents’ defeats, Biden’s margin was small. Over the previous century (1916 to 2016), only three elected incumbents have lost reelection and have done so by an average of 10.9 percentage points. Biden’s 4.5 percentage point margin is lower than any of those previous three.
Also, Biden’s presidential coattails were extremely limited. Although Democrats won three seats and control of the Senate, they have lost 10 House seats thus far. For Biden, that is a net loss of seven total congressional seats. Trump, an admittedly polarizing figure, lost nine (three in the Senate and six in the House) in 2016.
In 2024, Biden will likely not have COVID-19 depressing his opponent’s vote totals and likely will not have relaxed voting requirements increasing his own. He also may not benefit from facing as polarizing an opponent as Trump in 2020 — exactly what undermined Trump when he ran against Biden instead of Clinton.
Difficult as similarity may exist between Trump and Biden, they shared a first presidential election dynamic. Each faced an extremely polarizing opponent who allowed them the chance to embody that pronounced opposition. As Trump discovered though, a fortuitous circumstance is only opportunity — not destiny. Even as an opportunity it is a short-lived sprint to realize the political potential.
When Biden is sworn in on Jan. 20, he will immediately begin a race against the clock to encompass the substantial Trump opposition he embodied in November. Compared to Trump four years earlier, he has a decided head start in that race, but it is arguably no less important than the one he won in November. It will determine not just his race four years from now, but his presidency over the next four years.
J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987 through 2000.