When Small Numbers Make a Large Difference to the Outcome

The US Presidential Election results are out for the most part and Joe Biden is the President-elect as per the projections made by most news channels. Unless the incumbent President Donald Trump comes with a ‘novel’ mechanism to legally contest the result, Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States along with his running mate Kamala Harris as the Vice-President. Going by the current state of affairs in the Trump campaign, it is unlikely the (incumbent) President will post any significant legal challenge to the President-elect.

As usual, after the election results, news analysts and anchors started publishing the reports and op-eds on why Trump had lost, and Biden won. It appeared some of these reports were prepared in advance of the Presidential election, and were just fine tuned a little bit to suit the final tally. There is no way that a complex Presidential election could be analyzed in a day by typing on a laptop, without doing a deeper analysis of the ground realities. In all likelihood, the same analysts and anchors may have had reports for the alternate scenario (Trump getting re-elected) and wouldn’t have hesitated use those reports had such scenario occurred. Professional news analysis demands such ‘reports’ be ready and pick a report for publication based on the result. Thus, news analysts may not be offering anything new for an intelligent reader by expounding upon why Trump had lost the election. There is one critical factor this article tries to explore, which explains the voting pattern in different states in US, and what that means for the future US Presidential Elections.

80/20 principle in Presidential campaigns

In business management, a lot of emphasis is laid upon the 80/20 principle, which is the equivalent of saying ‘80% of revenue comes from 20% of customers’. The Presidential campaigns in US seem to apply this principle in a paradoxical way – spend 80% of campaign finances on 20% of voters. The readers must be familiar with swing states and safe states in the US, and how the 20% of voters spread across the swing states determine the Presidential election come. Most of the campaign finances go there and the Presidential candidates make multiple trips to these states in the runup to election day. If you recall, the incumbent President Trump made a trip to Pennsylvania just before he was reported COVID-19 positive in early October and former President Obama’s electrifying speech (in support of Joe Biden) was made in Philadelphia region a week before the Election day. Ultimately, it was the result from Pennsylvania that the news channels relied upon to make the final projection of Joe Biden as President-elect. Both the Democratic and Republican campaigns were cognizant of the statistics in these swing states and ran numerous campaigns to make people ‘swing’ as much as possible.

For a thriving democracy such as the US, the exclusive focus on 20% of the voters seems scary as it implies the candidates can’t change the mindset of 80% of the voters. Worse, even within the swing states, the campaigns target certain towns or cities that would make all the difference. For instance, Trump visited a small city Muskegon in Michigan (a swing state) in mid-October and made a speech at the airport while Biden conducted a drive-in at Atlanta in Georgia (another swing state) around the same time. Both the candidates were operating with the same data on what cities or counties would make the difference. Thus, it would be the 5% of the voters spread in specific cities or counties that determine the final election result. No wonder, the final difference in popular vote for both candidates after all the votes had been counted would be around 3%!

The effectiveness of news analysis, discussions and debates

The 2020 Presidential Election has been projected as the most important election by both Democrats, Republicans, media outlets and international observers. But strangely enough, the opinions of 95% of the US citizens remained unchanged despite numerous discussions among the analysts on television, and candidates spending billions of dollars in political advertisements, conducting rallies and other campaign events. Statisticians might try to pick a ‘fault’ in this analogy by saying the opinions may have changed, and the ‘changes’ may have offset each other. But the fact of the matter is that the states that comprise 80% of the voters (if not 95%) have been consistently turned in red (Republican) or blue (Democrat) electoral votes in Presidential Elections over the past two decades (Georgia might be the only exception).

While we can’t expect 80% of the citizens in any country to change their opinions in any election, let’s pick a reasonable percent, say 25%, and ask the most pertinent question to the media. Can’t the news analysts, anchors and executives affect the opinions of 25% of the voters with all their data, analysis and rhetoric? Or is it that news channels are exactly split between the support for one candidate versus the other, thereby effectively resulting in no change of opinions among the 25% of the voters? Or is that the US voters are so hard-wired as to not change their opinion regardless of what’s happening in the country?

The news channels ‘cancelling out’ each other between Trump and Biden, leading to the offset of opinions, isn’t a valid reason as most of the channels in US were upfront about Trump’s failure to control the growing number of COVID-19 cases besides his impeachment proceedings about a year ago. Trump lost the election anyway, but news channels can’t claim the credit as they hardly influenced the voters with their reporting. Thus, the only plausible explanation (pertaining to 80% of voters unaffected on their opinions) is that the US voters in the states that have consistently turned in red or blue are hard-wired. But how come they are so hard-wired?

Red states and blue states

Various reasons have been attributed to explain why some states consistently voted red and other states voted blue over the past two decades. The rise of evangelicalism in the Southeast, Southwest and some states in the Midwest is the most oft-cited reason for the Republican party’s firm control of the red states during the Presidential Elections. Both Bush and Trump secured around 75% of evangelical vote during 2004 and 2016 Presidential Elections. Though evangelicalism itself is as old as the history of the US, its rise has significantly spiked over the past few decades, which had significantly affected the outcome of the US Presidential Elections since 2000. It is hard to imagine that 243,000 deaths in US due to COVID-19 (as of this writing) would affect their voting choice as most of these deaths are from the blue states (with the exception of Texas and Florida).

The blue states are more urban and cosmopolitan in nature, and over a period of time they had increasingly identified themselves with the Democrats. Ongoing issues such as immigration, relief programs and climate change are more prevalent in these regions; the Democratic party has been more receptive to these concerns, which put them in a comfortable footing to gain their electoral votes. Since these states vote for a Democrat anyway, Trump’s not-so-good performance on COVID-19 wouldn’t be a significant factor in altering their voting pattern.

Thus, it was left to the swing states to affect the outcome, just as it happened in the previous Presidential Elections.

How one per cent of votes made a difference to Biden

With only 5% of the voters forming a crucial bloc to elect the US President, both the campaigns would have focused exclusively on these voters. The latest tally shows a 3% difference Biden and Trump in popular vote. Compare this with 2% difference in 2016 Presidential Election (Hillary Clinton won the higher popular vote though Trump won the election) – Biden got 1% more votes (with some statistical approximation) in 2020 as compared to Clinton in 2016! All this shows how narrow the Election has been and it could have gone either way.

So, what caused Trump’s debacle?

Even if Biden gained by only 1% votes as compared to Hillary in 2016, what really caused the shift in those voters’ minds? Is it the FBI investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 Presidential Election that Trump had won, or the impeachment trial last year? Or is it the fact that Trump couldn’t control the rising number of COVID-19 deaths? Or is it the brash speaking style of Trump?

While all these factors (against Trump) may have played a role, it is hard to pick the most significant one. It might be alluring to pick COVID-19 as an obvious choice, however, Trump’s brash speaking style may have played a role in turning away the (1% or about 1.5 million) urbane citizens in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Detroit, Madison, etc. But, if the number is that low, we should rather have an optimistic look at the five-decade long career of Biden as a senator and solace ourselves saying ‘experience matters’.

-Chandrashekar Katipelli (Author of the Book ‘Gandhi & Lincoln’, Founder & Managing Director of, and Co-founder of Metdine)

Picture Credits: AP

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