That's unpossible!

I keep seeing a series of claims about the supposedly unbelievable fact that Joe Biden has surpassed 80 million popular votes. It is, in some quarters, seeming proof of fraud (the most votes, evah? How could this be?). But, of course, it is hardly surprising as such a number is simply the result of basic math.

First, population growth means that in each election it is almost certain that more votes will be cast than in the previous election. After all, there are more people in the US in 2020 than in 2016. More people translates into more voters.

After all, the top 10 votes won by presidential candidates all come from the last five elections:

  1. Biden 2020, 80.0 million (and counting)
  2. Trump 2020, 73.9 (and counting)
  3. Obama 2008, 69.5 million
  4. Obama 2012, 65.9 million
  5. Clinton 2016, 65.8 million
  6. Trump 2016, 62.9 million
  7. Bush 2004, 62.0 million
  8. Romney 2012, 60.9 million
  9. McCain 2008, 60.0 million
  10. Kerry 2004, 59.0 million

The pattern is pretty clear. 2008 stands out because it was a higher turnout than 2012 and 2016 and Obama’s victory in 2008 was more decisive (7.2 percentage points in 2008 versus 3.9 in 2012).

Second, turnout matters. While we do not yet know the final tallies, it is clear that this is going to be, as predicted, a high turnout election. For example, turnout in 2008 was higher than in 2012.

The United States Elections Project estimates the voting-eligible population (VEP, i.e., citizens 18 or older who are not felons sans voting rights) this cycle at 239,247,182. To date, according to CNN, 153,917,016 votes have been tabulated. That would be a VEP turnout of 64.33% (and this is not the final number).

It should be noted that VEP turnout in 2016 was 59.2%. This is important to note because the basic math tells us that even if the population had not grown from 2016 to 2020, the candidates would get higher numbers of votes in 2020 because ~65% of something is more than ~59% of something. And so, more voters and a higher percentage of participants equals more votes overall.

In other words, if you are taking a higher percentage of a higher number, the totals will be even larger in an absolute sense!

Crazy, right?

I know this won’t convince the doubts in trumpland, but it is pretty darn straightforward.

And given that Trump lost the popular vote last time and has consistently had an underwater approval rating essentially his entire presidency, it is no shock at all that his opponent would win more votes than he would. Ergo, even as Trump’s absolute total would grow, it always stood to reason that his opponent’s number would be even higher.

Remember: Trump’s chances of winning were about the Electoral College. He was never seen as having any serious chance of winning the popular votes.

And yet, I have seen a lot of stuff like this (and I do not know who this guy is, but he has over 200,000 followers–I use this simply as an example):

And, I would note, no incumbent president originally came to office by losing the popular vote by almost 3,000,000 votes. And no incumbent president has ever had the kind of consistent disapproval as this one has had. Also: since incumbent presidents tend to win, the universe we are discussing here is quite small–in the 20th Century there have only been four who have lost up and until now: Taft, Hoover, Carter, and Bush–and only nine total since the Founding. These are not the kind of numbers about which significant patterns can be ascertained.

But let me underscore again: any attempt to place Trump in a broader historical pattern (such as it is) like this is problematic because he is an outlier to start with due to the size of the popular vote/electoral vote inversion that brought him to office in the first place.

(Side note correction on the tweet above: to my knowledge, there has been no fighting against audits or recounts).

Or, one could just accept this kind of galaxy brain reasoning:

And FWIW, 5.8 million have viewed Biden’s tweet as of this morning, not that those numbers tell us anything about vote totals.

But, of course, people who think boat parades can tell us something about national political support aren’t likely to want to listen to basic math discussions.

There is also the rather bizarre notion that they are willing to believe Trump’s numbers, but not Biden’s. The theory seems to be that the massive fraud that was perpetrated only had time to fill in fake ballots for Biden, which is also supposed to explain why there was not fraud for the Senate and House.

So, we are supposed to believe this was both the most signifant and widespread fraud ever perpetrated, but also one of the lamest because the fraudsters couldn’t be bothered to fill in Senate races, too.


FILED UNDER: 2020 Election, Democracy, Democratic Theory, US Politics, , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. gVOR08 says:

    In other news, a minute ago U. S. population hit 330,646,556. No, 557. No, 558. No, …never mind. The Mostest EVAH. USA! USA!

  2. Kathy says:

    Trump and his cult can take solace in the fact that with Pessimus’ share of the popular vote and $3, he can buy a coffee at Starbucks.

  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    Math, even arithmetic is hard, particularly when you need to take off your shoes.

  4. Jay L Gischer says:

    You know, that tweet perfectly encapsulates Trump in the sense that the only thing that matters to him is ratings/attention.

    However, I know I look forward to not paying as much attention to the day-to-day of the government, and I suspect that many others do, as well.

  5. ImProPer says:

    “No incumbent president in history has increased their vote by that number and lost re-election but the Dems say there’s nothing to see here, move along, this was all fair & square and now they’re fighting recounts and full audits. All of this makes sense under one premise: Fraud.”

    I don’t believe any incumbent president in history that has demonstrated such poor leadership as Trump had gotten the same amount of votes, let alone more, during reelection. I’m highly skeptical that people who didn’t vote for him the first time, thought, gee I was wrong about him, I sure like how these last four years have went, and pulled the lever for him during reelection. I find it actually inconceivable.

    “Biden’s Thanksgiving Day Address gets just 1000 views online, a record low. Observers say a candidate with “80,000,000” votes would get many more online viewers. Numbers don’t lie, or add up!” Donald J Trump

    Biden, for better or worse, is boring, and doesn’t attract a cult, or the morbidly curious wanting to witness a train wreck in real time. Trump made decision to to sell his soul become a human opiate along time ago. He deludes himself that this is brilliance, rather than an absolute lack of character, and self respect. His dabbling with numerology to gain respect is bizarre and unseemly, but of course totally unsurprising.

  6. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kathy: Not where I live–we have sales tax added at 8%, so a 12 oz drip of the day is $3.19. 😉

  7. DrDaveT says:

    The theory seems to be that the massive fraud that was perpetrated only had time to fill in fake ballots for Biden, which is also supposed to explain why there was not fraud for the Senate and House.

    Um. They’re the same ballots…

  8. @DrDaveT:

    Um. They’re the same ballots…

    The argument is that whatever votes Biden needed to win were ballots wherein the only vote on those ballots were for Biden (that the fraudsters didn’t have time to also bubble in Dems for Senate, too).

    It is a dumb theory, but it has a certain logic to it.

  9. Flat earth luddite says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    The man used to have to get naked to count to twenty-one.

    Thank you Dorothy!

  10. Flat earth luddite says:

    Highly coffee WITH cream & sugar, Or Short double latte. At least in my neighborhood.

  11. Flat earth luddite says:

    I didn’t win edit button lottery darn it. Bigly coffee. Unlike Cracker, we don’t have sales tax this side of the river. Starbucks only game on town. Fortunately I’m only minutes away from superior coffee next suburb over

  12. Jc says:

    Gee 66% of eligible people voted in this election year. A year where 100% of people had little or much else we could do. What the heck else are we supposed to do? I am surprised it was not higher. Throw in the 25 million unemployed etc… these numbers should surprise no one on turnout

  13. Moosebreath says:

    Here’s an interesting analysis of Pennsylvania voting this year, showing the effects of a massive increase in voting, while most counties the percentage of votes tightened. Some data points:

    “Statewide, voters cast 13% more presidential votes this year, and 64 out of 67 counties saw increases of more than 10%. Leading the pack were Pike County, with 24.7% more votes, and Monroe County, with a 20.2% increase.

    The smallest increases came from Centre County (1.8%), Philadelphia (4.8%), and Indiana County (9.1%), all likely affected by large numbers of college students absent from campus due to the coronavirus.”

    ““Biden, let’s not forget, set an all-time record for the number of votes won in [Philadelphia]. However, it does stand out as the one place where Trump really did boost his vote share in a large county,” said David Wasserman, an elections analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.”

    “If you’re looking for what changed compared with 2016, nowhere comes close to the suburbs.

    The four collar counties around Philadelphia all saw the Democratic margin increase by five digits — from a 14,646-vote gain for Biden in Bucks County to a net gain of 40,700 votes in Montgomery County.”

    “There were only 10 counties where Trump both increased his percentage of the vote and his net vote. There were 19 where Biden did both. And there were 38 where Trump got more net votes, but Biden increased the percentage going to Democrats, preventing those places from turning into even bigger gains for Trump.”