The Presidential Election: Biden Didn’t Win; Trump Lost

In national elections, the U.S. president’s party normally picks up seats in the House of Representatives as they ride the president’s coattails to victory, and the president’s party typically loses House seats in mid-term elections, when the president is not on the ballot. Election results in the House can be seen as an indicator of the popularity of the party, in contrast to the popularity of the presidential candidates.

Exceptions to this empirical regularity tell a story. One way to interpret recent presidential election results is that Trump did not win the 2016 election; Clinton lost it. And, Biden did not win the 2020 election; Trump lost it.

Looking back at changes in the party composition of the House of Representatives since 1960, there are five exceptions to that typical pattern. In every election from 1960 to 1986, the party that won the presidential election gained seats, and in mid-term elections when the president was not running, the president’s party lost seats.

In 1988 the first President Bush was elected, but the Democrats gained seats in the House of Representatives. The second exception was in 1992, when President Clinton was elected but the Democrats lost House seats. This outcome appears to be due to Ross Perot’s third-party candidacy, which garnered 19 percent of the popular vote, likely most of them from Bush supporters. Some evidence on this is that even as Republicans picked up seats in the House, many voters voted for a Republican candidate for the House but Perot for the presidency.

The third exception came in 1998, a mid-term election in which the Democrats picked up seats even though President Clinton was not on the ballot.

My focus here is on the last two exceptions, in 2016 and 2020. In the 2016 election that put President Trump in the White House, the Democrats gained House seats but Trump managed to win the presidency. One way to interpret this is that despite the rising popularity of the Democratic party in 2016, Hillary Clinton was a weak candidate. Trump didn’t win the election; Clinton lost it.

My view on this (one shared by many) is that Hillary Clinton came across as a very unlikable person, which cost her votes. Now, Trump also came across as unlikable, but he was entertaining. So, voters chose the entertaining unlikable candidate over the non-entertaining one.

The next exception is the 2020 election, in which the Republicans gained House seats while Trump lost the election. Following the reasoning above, it appears that the Republicans gained popularity, but Trump was unable to capitalize on that trend to be reelected.

This outcome is doubly remarkable because not only was President Trump unable to win reelection when his party gained House seats, he was the incumbent, and incumbents almost always win reelection. The evidence suggests that Biden did not win the election; Trump lost it.

I attribute this entirely to Trump’s personality. He is an arrogant, egotistical, obnoxious bully, and those characteristics became much more evident when he was in the White House than when he was campaigning in 2016. If his policies had been exactly the same but he had the personality of Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton, he would have been a shoo-in for reelection. Voters liked his party. They just didn’t like him.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, and author of the Independent Institute book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History.
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