Trump’s Bogus Swing State Claim

At a rally in Georgia, President Donald Trump continued to make baseless claims about the 2020 election being “rigged,” drawing false comparisons at one point between President-elect Joe Biden’s performance in swing states and that of the last two Democratic presidential nominees:

  • Trump said Biden beat Hillary Clinton “in the swing states, but she beat him everywhere else.” That’s false. Biden outperformed Clinton in every state — not just swing states.
  • He also wrongly said “President Obama beat Biden all over the country, except in some of the swing states.” When comparing the candidates by percentage of total votes, Obama did better than Biden in most states, including four of the six swing states being contested by Trump. And Biden would still win the presidency without the two other contested states.

The president visited Valdosta, Georgia, on Dec. 5 to campaign for the state’s two Republican senators who were forced into runoff elections against their Democratic challengers. But the president spent most of his 90-minute speech repeating false, misleading and unsupported claims about the election that he made just a few days earlier in an online video that he billed as perhaps “the most important speech I’ve ever made.”

At the rally, Trump insisted that he won Georgia (“You know we won Georgia, just so you understand”) and Wisconsin (“Well, actually I won Wisconsin”) — even though both states have certified Biden as the winner after recounts. Georgia counted its ballots three times.

Trump also repeated bogus claims about secret, illegal ballot “dumps” in both states that we have already debunked. This time, the president suggested that the ballot “dumps” explain what he described as a “very interesting” and “statistically impossible” anomaly in some swing states won by Biden. (His campaign has gone to court to challenge the results in Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Arizona.)

After correctly noting that he won Florida, Ohio, South Carolina and Iowa, the president said this:

Trump, Dec. 5: And we won all over the place. And many of these swing states, you know, it’s a very interesting statistic. President Obama beat Biden all over the country, except in some of the swing states where Biden beat him badly. How does that work? And they say it’s statistically impossible. He beat crooked Hillary. Think of this. He beat crooked Hillary in the swing states, but she beat him everywhere else. Let me tell you, this election was rigged.

All of that is wrong.

“There is no such thing as a ‘statistical impossibility,’ for starters,” Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told us in an email. 

Biden vs. Clinton

Using Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, we looked at the 2016 results and found that Biden outperformed Clinton in every state — not just swing states – both by the number and the percentage of votes. (The unofficial 2020 results were as of Dec. 8.)

Stewart said he prefers comparing candidates by percentage of votes, but without minor party candidates’ vote totals. By that measure, we found Clinton outperformed Biden in only six states (California, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada and New York) and Washington, D.C. Only one of them — Nevada — is a swing state where Trump has been contesting the results. Clinton barely edged Biden there, garnering 51.29% of the Nevada vote, compared with Biden’s 51.22%.

In his own analysis of the 2020 and 2016 elections for us, Stewart said he found “what political scientists would call a ‘uniform swing’ for Biden nationwide,” with some minor variations.

“[T]he way elections work, it would be unlikely a winning candidate would do better (compared to 4 years before) in only the close states and not the uncompetitive states,” Stewart said.

Stewart provided this scatterplot that shows a “uniform swing” toward Biden.

Source: Charles Stewart III, MIT

“There are 51 circles, one for each state plus DC. The diagonal line is where every state would be if the vote share for Biden = the vote share for Clinton,” Stewart said, explaining his chart. “As you can see, the circles are sitting mostly right on top of the line, which is consistent with Biden being just a few points ahead of Clinton in almost all the states.”

By any measure, Trump’s wrong to say that Clinton beat Biden everywhere, except swing states.

Biden vs. Obama

We also reviewed the 2012 and 2008 election results and found that Barack Obama did have a higher percentage of the total vote than Biden in most states: 29 states in 2012 and 37 states (plus Washington, D.C.) in 2008. But Obama also did better than Biden in four of the six swing states now being contested by Trump — Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania — in 2008 and 2012. As a percentage of the vote, Biden did better than Obama only in Georgia and Arizona — two other states where Trump is contesting the results. 

However, even without the electoral votes in Georgia (16) and Arizona (11), Biden would still have enough electoral votes to beat Trump. The unofficial election results show Biden with 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232. It takes 270 electoral votes to become president.

By vote totals, Biden did better than Obama in nearly all states — although that’s not surprising since there were also far more people who voted in 2020 (158,507,629) than had voted eight years ago in 2012 (129,237,642) and 12 years ago in 2008 (131,473,705):

  • 2012: Biden received more votes than Obama did in 2012 in all but five states – Mississippi, Iowa, North Dakota, Ohio, West Virginia. Biden did better than Obama in all the swing states that Trump has been contesting: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Nevada, Arizona and Georgia.
  • 2008: Biden received more votes than Obama did in 2008 in all but 11 states. Obama did better in two swing states that Trump has been contesting: Michigan and Wisconsin.

So, no matter how one looks at the election results, Trump is also wrong to say that “President Obama beat Biden all over the country, except in some of the swing states.”

By total votes, Biden did better than Obama in most states, including swing states. By vote percentage, Obama did better than Biden in most states, including in most swing states.

Once again, the president is peddling false information that fails to support his baseless claim that the election was “rigged.”

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Swing State Watch is an occasional series about false and misleading political messages in key states that will help decide the 2020 presidential election.

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