In 2020 the Republican Party broke its own record by losing the presidential popular vote for the fourth consecutive election. The previous GOP record was three elections beginning in 1992 when Bill Clinton defeated President George H.W. Bush and ending in 2004 when President George W. Bush won reelection.
Yes, “Dubya” in 2000 and Donald J. Trump in 2016 were elected because an Electoral College win overrides the popular vote total. Nonetheless, a president or candidate popular enough to win both the people’s vote and the Electoral College symbolizes and idealizes how Americans think the system should work without the “quirk” in the Constitution.
The fact is that after landslide Republican victories in 1980, 1984, and a sizable win in 1988, five GOP presidential nominees and two incumbents lost the popular vote in seven of the next eight quadrennial elections.
Why that happened involves a complicated set of variables including rapid social, cultural, religious, educational, demographic, and political change occurring on a grand national scale since 1992.
How that happened can be seen in voter data over the last four presidential elections from four age groups: 18 to 29, 30 to 44, 45 to 64, and 65 plus. All the data shown for the years 2008-2016 is from the Roper Center’s “How Groups Voted” compilation. For 2020 I used CNN and NBC exit polls with matching age group voting data. (Roper not available.)
Examining the data will help determine if the GOP is on track to lose the popular vote for the fifth consecutive time in 2024. But before we explore these revealing percentages, here is a quick decades-old conversation summarizing a Republican mindset that has permeated GOP policy and philosophy.
After Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection, a veteran GOP strategist told me that unless the party can attract the youth vote, winning the White House again would be problematic. The strategist was alarmed that 18-to-29-year-old voters accounted for 17% of those casting ballots, and Bill Clinton won them by 20 percentage points. Then the strategist shared his hope for future GOP wins: “When the kids grow up and start paying lots of taxes, they will vote Republican.”
Did that happen? The answer is a mixed bag, with increased GOP margins for older voters, though not large enough margins to win the national popular vote. It takes time to undo youthful Democratic voting habits that turn into established middle-aged behavior.
What follows are 18-to-29-year-olds voting percentages over the last four presidential elections (when the GOP lost the popular vote). Their share of the voting electorate is shown in parentheses.
2020: Biden 60% – Trump 36% (17%)
2016: Clinton 55% – Trump 36% (19%)
2012: Obama 60% – Romney 37% (19%)
2008: Obama 66% – McCain 32% (18%)
With 18-to-29-year-olds, the average marginal difference favors Democrats by 25 percentage points over the last 16 years.
In 2020, Joe Biden walloping Trump with under-30 voters by 24 percentage points meant that Trump had to make up the difference with older voters. As shown below, the 30-to-44-year-old’s were acting somewhat according to the GOP’s plan of “growing up and voting Republican,” but Democrats still prevailed. Again, voter electorate totals are in parentheses.
2020: Biden 52% – Trump 46% (23%)
2016: Clinton 51% – Trump 41% (25%)
2012: Obama 52% – Romney 45% (27%)
2008: Obama 52% – McCain 46% (29%)
For 30-to-44-year-olds, the average marginal difference favoring Democrats falls to only 7.25 percentage points – a dramatic decrease from the Democrat’s 25-point average marginal difference garnered from the 18-to-29-year-olds.
The next, largest, and most hotly contested voter group are 45-to-64-year olds. Republicans gained ground, but not enough to win the overall popular vote.
2020: Biden 49% – Trump 50% (38%)
2016: Clinton 44% – Trump 52% (40%)
2012: Obama 47% – Romney 51% (38%)
2008: Obama 50% – McCain 49% (37%)
The average marginal difference favoring Republicans is three percentage points for this all-important group. This is a pitiful percentage in what should be the GOP’s most fertile age demographic during their peak earning and taxpaying years.
In 2020 this enormous group comprising 38% of voters decreased their support for Trump from 2016, contributing to Biden’s 51.4% to 46.9% national popular vote win over the incumbent president.
At last, and shown below, is some good news for Republicans. The 65-plus age group is increasing in number and will continue to grow when the youngest of the 1946-to-1964-born baby boom generation reaches age 65 in 2029. Seniors traditionally are the most loyal Republican voters. In 2020, 65-plus were 22% of voters while only 17% of the U.S. population, meaning seniors are “fighting above their weight” by five percentage points.
2020: Biden 47% – Trump 52% (22%)
2016: Clinton 45% – Trump 52% (16%)
2012: Obama 44% – Romney 56% (16%)
2008: Obama 45% – McCain 53% (16%)
Republicans won seniors with an average marginal difference of eight percentage points in the last 16 years. Again, not good enough for the GOP to win the popular vote. Trump won 65-plus voters but did not increase his winning percentage from 2016. Meanwhile, Biden increased the losing margin by two percentage points over Hillary Clinton in 2016, giving him an edge to win in states such as Arizona and the Rust Belt with their large concentration of older white voters.
Unfortunately for the GOP, it appears that the four age groups have well-established voting behaviors. Therefore, it would take an unforeseen set of factors for voters to suddenly favor the Republican nominee in numbers large enough to win the popular vote in 2024.
Not that winning the popular vote couldn’t happen, since, in politics, anything can and does occur. However, suppose in 2024 that the party loses the popular vote for the fifth consecutive election. Then Republicans will need lightning to strike a third time, delivering an Electoral College win. Statistically improbable, but nothing is impossible.