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Are close presidential elections the new normal?

In the last 20 years, the only bigger margin was Barack Obama's win in 2008.
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WASHINGTON — More than a month after Election Day, the biggest political story for many Americans is how close the presidential race was. President-elect Joe Biden won by more than 4 points, but polls and some observers were expecting a win in the 10-point range.

Taking a longer view, however, the relative closeness of the race shouldn't have been a surprise. It was less an outlier than standard operating procedure. In fact, the United States is in its longest run of single-digit popular vote elections in a very long time.

Biden's 4.4-point victory in November was the second-largest popular vote win by any presidential candidate since 2000.

Biden's margin of victory was bigger than George W. Bush's 2.5-point win in 2004 and Barack Obama's 3.9-point win in 2012. The only bigger margin? Obama's "landslide" win in 2008, which was only a 7.2-point victory over John McCain.

Another sign of how close presidential elections are this century: The two other races — in 2000 and 2016 — ended with splits in the popular and Electoral College votes. Al Gore won the popular vote by about half a percentage point and Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by about 2 points on their way to losses in 2000 and 2016.

And it's not just the popular vote that's been tight. Since the 2000 election, only once has a presidential candidate carried more than 30 states in the Electoral College: Bush won 31 states in 2004.

Thirty states may sound like a lot. But it used to be quite common for a presidential winner to break 30 states.

From 1980 to 1992, every presidential winner captured more than 31 states. Ronald Reagan's 49-state domination of Walter Mondale in 1984 is well known, but he also won 44 states in 1980. George H.W. Bush won 40 states in 1988. And in 1992, Bill Clinton carried 32 states when he defeated the elder Bush.

From 1920 to 1992 (that's 19 presidential elections featuring Democratic and Republican winners) the presidential victor carried fewer than 32 states only three times — in 1948, when there were only 48 states, 1960 and 1976. The massive territorial wins that are now rarities were once commonplace.

That gives some sense of how big an outlier this closely divided time is from the political norm. But here's another way to think about it: Every presidential election since 1988 has been decided by single-digit margins in the popular vote. That's nine straight presidential elections.

The last time the country had that kind of a run of close races? You have to go back more than a century to the Reconstruction Era.

From 1876 to 1900, every one of the seven presidential races was decided by single digits, and some of those races were truly tight. Three were decided by less than a single percentage point in the popular vote. And, it should be noted, that was the last era that produced split popular vote/electoral vote decisions, in 1876 and 1888.

That looks a lot like the divides today but very different from the presidential history from 1900 to 1984, when voters' ties to either party looked much less solid.

Consider 1956 to 1972, when Republican Dwight Eisenhower won the popular vote by more than 15 points, Democrat Lyndon Johnson won by more than 22 points and then Republican Richard Nixon won by more than 23 points. Further back, in 1928, Republican Herbert Hoover won by 17 points, and four years later Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt won by almost 18 points. Those kinds of shifts feel almost impossible today.

The point is twofold.

First, close presidential elections have become the norm over the last two decades. Anyone expecting a blowout in 2020 was expecting something truly extraordinary, particularly against an incumbent president. The closeness of elections for more than 20 years shows how divided the country is.

Second, those deep divides have made it very difficult for either party to get anything done. The United States is a big country, and real change requires a mandate from the voters — big presidential wins and congressional margins for either side. And that isn't the path the country seems to be on right now.

For the last four years, voters have decried the country's divided nature. Many pointed specifically to the White House as the root of the problem and opted for a change in leadership in 2020. That change is coming in January, but the underlying splits remain.