The 2020 Election Was Not Primarily About Trump As a Person

Samuel J. Abrams November 9, 2020

With the 2020 election winding down and a Biden victory in the books, countless articles will be published about both the campaign and results, and one piece has already posited that the election was not only a “staggering repudiation of Donald Trump. Of him. Personally” and that the nation “…just witnessed the most thoroughgoing repudiation of any national politician in the modern era.”

The problem with such a pronouncement is that it does not sync up with either vote or attitudinal data which provide a more clear view on how Americans see Trump.

More specifically, despite the record breaking turnout last week, Donald Trump’s loss to President-elect Biden – while decisive – was not a landslide. As of November 9th, Biden won just 51.9 percent of the two-party vote and won by a margin of about 4.4 million votes nationally. Certainly the number of voters supporting Biden will increase as more early and absentee ballots are recorded, but these margins are lower than the last two incumbent Presidents who were defeated when seeking their second term.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan carried 55.3 percent of the two party national vote and beat President Jimmy Carter by 8.4 million votes. Twelve years later, Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush, capturing 53 percent of the two-party vote and 5.8 million more votes than Bush. Biden’s defeat of Trump at the polls is anything but a slam-dunk or a mandate and even when Biden’s final numbers are included, unless he wins by significant margins, it is hard to claim that 2020 was a repudiation of Trump as a politician; the outcome looks nothing like 1984 where Reagan beat Mondale by close to 17 million votes or Nixon over McGovern in 1972 with a margin of 18 million votes and these margins with millions of fewer total votes cast.

In addition to votes themselves, we have survey data from AEI’s Survey Center for American Life which was collected right before the election and explicitly asked about if one’s views of Trump are based on what he has done as president or because of who he is and what he stands for. The responses to this important question are quite strong: American voted for him based on his policies, not his persona. Sixty percent – an unquestionable majority – based their assessment of Trump on what he has done as President, compared to just 39 percent for who he is and what he stands for.

And, it is useful to note, that many in the press seem to have already forgotten that neither candidate was well liked in general: According to RealClearPolitics, an average of just 41.8 percent of Americans had a very or simply favorable view of Trump for whatever reason and an average of 50.3 percent of all Americans had a favorable for the new President-elect.

Trump’s ethical lapses and misdeeds do not appear to have been much of a liability. The survey disturbingly found that when asked if they thought that an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life, a majority of Americans (54 percent) still believed that this was possible. Trump was not rejected on the basis of his unsavory personal life; he was mostly evaluated on his policy positions, his successes, and many failures.

President-elect Biden did not win in a landslide and the survey data suggests that the 2020 election was not a national referendum on Trump. This was a very close election. Republicans gained seats in the House and are likely to retain control of the Senate. Biden will have the challenge of finding common ground with all Americans, but Biden already took the right steps when he declared in his acceptance speech that “It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again, listen to each other again.”

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