Biden's narrow victory means power-sharing with the Republicans

Joe Biden won the American presidential election, but by such a narrow margin that, when combined with the outcome of the congressional elections, and especially the possibility of a Republican-controlled Senate, his power to achieve much is likely to be severely constrained, writes Richard Johnson

The narrowest of victories

The 2020 American presidential election was close. It was close in the only way in which an election can be meaningfully said to be close – in that a relatively small number of votes shifting could have produced a different outcome.

Joe Biden won the same number of electoral votes as Donald Trump did four years ago, but by an even narrower margin. Biden’s electoral college majority rests on about 45,000 votes across three states, making 2020 the second closest election in over four decades.

Biden’s electoral college majority rests on about 45,000 votes across three states, making 2020 the second closest election in over four decades

Biden’s popular vote win, of course, was substantial. With votes still being counted, Biden won 51% of the vote and a margin of about 5.5 million votes over Trump. This is a major achievement, and it represents a clear majority mandate for the president-elect.

However, these figures do not demonstrate the clear repudiation of Donald Trump that many commentators expected. Biden did better than Hillary Clinton, but Donald Trump also generally outperformed his own 2016 result. Trump won a larger share of the popular vote and improved his support across many demographic groups from four years ago.

Unification of the anti-Trump vote

What explains Biden’s majority was not a movement en masse of disgusted Trump voters to the former vice president. Joe Biden owes his popular (and electoral college) margins to the unification of the anti-Trump electorate.

In 2016, 5.7% of voters supported third party candidates. In 2017, only about 1.8% did so, based on the latest returns. Of those who voted for a third party last time, 60% reported switching their vote to Biden, compared to only 25% switching to Trump.

92% of 2016 Trump voters stuck by their candidate, and 40% of first-time voters voted for Donald Trump.

The congressional elections – disappointing for the Democrats

If Biden’s electoral college victory was not as convincing as some had expected, Democrats’ performance in the congressional elections was even more of a disappointment. Democrats lost about half a dozen seats in the House of Representatives, when most commentators had predicted substantial gains.

The House of Representatives’ district boundaries were drawn in 2011, shortly after the Republicans secured historic gains in state legislative elections, winning some chambers for the first time since the nineteenth century.

Republican legislators drew boundaries which are highly unfavourable to Democrats. In 2012, Democrats won the popular vote in the House elections by over a million votes, but the Republicans retained their majority. Four years ago, when Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, Republicans held the House.

Republicans will control at least 29 state legislatures next year. This result enables them once more to draw both state and federal legislative districts in many states with relative impunity

Under these unfavourable boundaries, it’s a wonder that the Democrats have a majority at all. Democrats failed to reverse Republicans’ grip on state legislatures in this year’s election. Republicans will control at least 29 state legislatures next year. This result enables them once more to draw both state and federal legislative districts in many states with relative impunity. The Supreme Court effectively gave its blessing to partisan gerrymandering in the 2019 case Rucho v Common Cause.

The Senate and the key run-off elections in Georgia

The Republicans look likely to hold the Senate, assuming the Democrats are unable to gain two Senate seats in Georgia in run-off elections in January. The failure to gain control of the Senate represents a major constraint on the Biden presidency.

Biden will be the first president since George HW Bush in 1989 to lack a Senate majority during his first hundred days in office. Divided government means that Biden’s ability to pass any meaningful left-of-centre legislation is almost impossible.

Do not expect a reversal of the Trump tax cuts, 80% of the benefits of which went to the top 1% of earners. Biden will not be able to pass meaningful climate legislation, fundamentally reshape America’s immigration system, or pass public healthcare.

The Republicans could play havoc with Biden’s presidency

What's more, Senate Republicans could prevent Joe Biden from staffing his own administration. Thousands of executive branch appointments, including the Cabinet, must be confirmed by the Senate. Without Senate support for his nominees, Biden would be forced to ask figures from the Trump administration to stay in post, or he would have to rely on ‘acting’ executive branch officials, weakening his ability to steer clear change through the executive branch.

Republicans may not impose a total blockage on Biden’s executive branch appointments – but they probably will when it comes to appointing federal judges

It is not clear that the Republicans will try to impose a total blockage on Biden’s executive branch appointments – although, it is likely they will do so when it comes to appointing federal judges. Instead, moderate Republicans, like senators Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski, could provide Biden with the necessary votes to shepherd through his appointments.

In effect, these Republican senators will be the gatekeepers of the Biden administration. Do not expect an administration which incorporates many figures from the left of the Democratic Party.

Wiping clean the Trump slate…

The changing of the guard in the White House is significant. Donald Trump, seemingly by choice, tended to use his executive branch powers to implement policy change, rather than seeking legislation, even when he controlled Congress. This means that many of Trump’s policy changes are easily reversable by the stroke of President Biden’s pen. Biden will be able to reverse Trump’s orders on immigration, environmental regulation, and international agreements.

…but not when it comes to the federal judiciary

However, a Biden presidency may not have a free hand, even with his executive actions. Donald Trump’s most enduring legacy will be his transformation of the US federal judiciary.

With the replacement of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Amy Coney Barrett just before the election, the Supreme Court is further to the right than at nearly any other time in post-World War II history. The Supreme Court may choose to intervene to limit what Joe Biden can achieve through his executive powers, especially if they face resistance from Republican state governments.

A power-sharing Presidency?

In practice, Joe Biden will be sharing power with Republicans. He will have to make appointments and craft policy that receive Republicans’ blessing. He will have to ensure that he uses his executive branch powers sparingly, to avoid Supreme Court and state government rebuke.

For all the talk of a second FDR, Biden’s presidency looks more like the last two years of the Obama presidency – constantly thwarted by a Republican Senate, but with an even more hostile court.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Richard Johnson
Richard Johnson
Lecturer in US Politics & Policy, Queen Mary, University of London

Richard joined Queen Mary in 2020. Previously, he was a lecturer at Lancaster University. He has held visiting research and teaching positions at Yale University, Cambridge University, and Beijing Foreign Studies University. He studied at Cambridge and Oxford.

With a focus on race and American democratic development, he has written about African American candidates in predominantly white contexts, the ‘two Reconstructions’, liberal Republicans and civil rights, school segregation, the racial politics of Barack Obama’s Chicago, the fundraising strategies of working-class candidates, racially polarised partisanship, and the racial policies of the Obama and Trump administrations. Current projects include an analysis of US foreign policy through the lens of its domestic institutions, the ‘favourite son’ effect of presidents in their home state, and American populist traditions.

Richard Johnson is also interested in British politics, particularly the history of the Labour Party. He has written a number of pieces on Labour Party history, the left and the EU, UK trade policy, and psephology.

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