Add another election lie to the long, long list.
Former President Donald Trump has tried for nearly two and a half years to convince Americans that he was the rightful winner of the 2020 presidential election he lost fair and square to Joe Biden. He is still trying today, in 2023, as he seeks the Republican presidential nomination once more.
But Trump’s latest supposed piece of evidence, like his previous supposed pieces of evidence, is complete bunk.
In a speech to a Republican gathering in Florida on Friday, during which he repeated his usual lie that the 2020 election was “rigged and stolen,” Trump pointedly noted that Biden got more votes than Trump in fewer than a fifth of US counties in 2020. Trump then said, “Nothing like this has ever happened before. Usually it’s very equal, or – but the winner always had the most counties.”
Facts First: Trump’s claim that the winner of every presidential election before 2020 always carried the most counties is false. The two previous Democratic winners before Biden, Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, carried a minority of counties in each of their victories. Obama won about 28% of counties in his 2008 victory and even fewer, about 22% of counties, in his 2012 victory, according to figures provided to CNN by David Wasserman, a prominent analyst of election data who is a senior editor at The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter. Like Biden, Obama won the national popular vote by millions even as he carried fewer than a third of counties.
Biden carried about 17% of counties while beating Trump in 2020, a smaller percentage of counties than Obama carried while winning in 2008 and 2012, but there is nothing odd about the 2020 figure. In fact, it’s easy to explain. Land doesn’t vote, people do. In the current political era, Democratic presidential candidates have tended to be dominant in the most populous counties, some of which have hundreds of thousands or even millions of people, while Republicans have tended to do best in areas with fewer residents.
“There is nothing suspicious about winning the presidency with a smaller number of counties,” William Frey, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution think tank, said in an email. “Counties vary widely in size, with large urban and suburban counties – areas where Biden did best – housing far larger populations than most of the outer suburb, small town and rural counties that Trump won.”
Here’s an example of why winning a county is not inherently significant. Trump handily carried Loving County, Texas, in 2020 – but that county had an estimated mid-2020 population of 65 people. Biden, conversely, handily carried Harris County, Texas, which had an estimated mid-2020 population of 4.7 million people.
If you’re counting all county victories as equal, that’s a tie, one county for Trump and one county for Biden. But Biden netted more than 217,000 extra votes from the 1-for-1 trade.
The split between vote totals, which determine who wins the election, and the counties-carried tally, which is an inconsequential matter of trivia, could keep getting wider. Said Frey, a well-known demographer: “The residents of Biden-won counties represent faster growing parts of the population – people of color, college graduates, foreign born and single people – than those the that dominate Trump counties. Trump counties will continue to grow more slowly than Biden counties.”
The county numbers for Clinton, Obama and Biden
Here is what happened in the last five presidential elections won by Democrats; all of these candidates lost a majority of counties while comfortably winning the Electoral College and popular vote. The county figures are all courtesy of Wasserman. He excluded Alaska, which uses a system of boroughs rather than counties.
Bill Clinton, 1992: Won 1,524 counties out of 3,112, or about 49%. Won the Electoral College 370 to 168. Won the popular vote by 5.81 million.
Bill Clinton, 1996: Again won 1,524 counties out of 3,112, or about 49%. Won the Electoral College 379 to 159. Won the popular vote by 8.20 million.
Barack Obama, 2008: Won 875 counties out of 3,113, or about 28%. Won the Electoral College 365 to 173. Won the popular vote by 9.55 million.
Barack Obama, 2012: Won 693 counties out of 3,113, or about 22%. Won the Electoral College 332 to 206. Won the popular vote by 4.98 million.
Joe Biden, 2020: Won 538 counties out of 3,113, or about 17%. Won the Electoral College 306 to 232. Won the popular vote by 7.06 million.