American elections tend to swing on a pendulum. No one party usually holds power for too long. Since 1952, for example, only once has a party won the presidency three elections in a row.
Yet, partially through a little bit of bad luck and two electoral college-popular vote splits, the Republican Party looks like it could be on the way to an unpleasant distinction.
If President Donald Trump, in fact, loses the popular vote in 2020, it will be the first time since the founding of the Democratic Party in 1828 that either the Democratic or Republican Party has lost the popular vote this many times in a span of eight elections.
Obviously, we don’t know what the November result will be. There’s still a little over two months to go and things can change.
That said, pretty much none of the nonpartisan analysts I know expect Trump to win the popular vote. Today, former Vice President Joe Biden leads the national polls by somewhere around 8 to 10 points nationally. A high number of Trump’s paths to a second term revolve around him pulling off a win in the electoral college, while losing the popular vote, just as he did in 2016.
A loss by Trump this year would mean the Republicans have lost the popular vote 7 out of the last 8 elections since 1992.
The highest previous total for most popular vote wins in a span of eight elections since 1828 was six. It’s happened multiple times. The Democrats did that from 1932 to 1960 (and 1936 to 1964). The Republicans did it from 1896 to 1924 (and 1900 to 1928).
Both of those streaks were so long that they were a part of the reason each of those periods were designated as their own “party systems”.
Of course, winning a few elections by a point here or a point there can merely be luck. That’s why it’s also important to look at the vote share each party is receiving. Let’s say Biden beats Trump by 8 points nationally, and Trump receives exactly 46.0% of the vote.
If that math works out exactly, Republican presidential candidates will have averaged a mere 45.2% of the popular vote since 1992. That’s the lowest for the Republican Party presidential candidates over an eight election span since the party first competed in a presidential election in 1856.
Now, part of the reason the long term average is low for the Republicans is the third party candidacies of Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996.
However, even if you were to look at the margin between the Democratic and Republican nominees, this eight-election stretch is the worst for the Republicans in the popular vote outside aforementioned periods of 1932 to 1960 and 1936 to 1964.
What’s the cause of the Republicans’ struggles in the popular vote? It could be a lot of things.
The optimistic view for the party is simply that the popular vote is the wrong metric for understanding Republicans’ strength. The purpose is to win elections and Republicans are doing so on the presidential level. After all, they have won three of the last seven presidential elections. And if Trump wins again in November, it will be four of eight.
And besides, most stretches of dominance for one party usually abates after a period of time. If that’s the case, then the Republicans, by winning the electoral college three times since 1992, have weathered the storm of doing poorly in the popular vote pretty well.
The pessimistic view for Republicans is that the electoral college/popular vote splits have mostly been luck. George W. Bush only won Florida and with it the presidency by 537 votes in 2000. Trump snuck in by carrying the determining states in the 2016 election by less than a point.
Further, the only Republican to take the popular vote during this stretch (Bush in 2004) scored the lowest winning margin of any incumbent who was reelected since the Republican Party’s founding.
It could be that the recent Republican electoral college wins mask a deeper weakness. And because Republicans don’t realize their problems, they’ll do nothing to address them.
Still, we’re probably getting a little bit ahead of ourselves. An election still needs to be fought. Right now, though, history looks to be in the offing for Republicans. The bad type of history.