Trump underperformed average GOP candidate in key states

Biden’s overperformance boosted his election, according to VAR metric

Many Republicans stood by President Donald Trump because they believed he could pull out more voters, but he missed several benchmarks in several battleground states. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Many Republicans stood by President Donald Trump because they believed he could pull out more voters, but he missed several benchmarks in several battleground states. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 21, 2021 at 6:30am

One of the key reasons Republicans stuck with President Donald Trump for so long is because of his perceived electoral success. A quantitative look at the 2020 results, however, shows a president who underperformed the average GOP candidate. 

Some Republicans believe Trump has unlocked a winning formula and cultivated a populist coalition that includes growing numbers of minority voters, giving the GOP a blueprint for the future. Trump’s son Eric called it “the greatest movement in American history,” and Republicans credit the president for their double-digit gains in the House. 

Setting aside the glaring reality that the Trump coalition was not large enough to keep the White House, maintain control of the Senate or regain the House, there’s another way to measure Trump’s electoral strength.

Vote Above Replacement, or VAR, measures the strength of political candidates relative to a typical candidate from their party within the same state. That initial benchmark is derived using Inside Elections’ Baseline, which captures a state’s political performance by combining all federal and state election results over the past four cycles into a single average. 

For example, in Arizona after the 2020 elections, the Republican Baseline was 51.1 percent compared to 47.6 percent for Democrats. That means we would expect a typical — or “replacement level” — Republican to receive 51.1 percent of the vote and a typical Democrat to win 47.6 percent. We can then compare individual candidate results to those benchmarks. 

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In the 12 presidential battlegrounds, Trump posted a positive VAR in just four states. That means he did better than an average GOP candidate in Iowa (+1.7), Michigan (+0.3), Minnesota (+1.6) and Pennsylvania (+2), but worse than an average GOP statewide candidate in Arizona (-2), Florida (-0.7), Georgia (-3.8), Nevada (-0.8), North Carolina (-0.7), Ohio (-1.4), Texas (-3.2) and Wisconsin (-0.1). Of course, Trump still won four of those states, but his superhero electoral status has some flaws.

Biden was a more valuable asset for his party. He had a positive VAR in 10 of 12 battleground states including Arizona (+1.8), Florida (+1.5), Georgia (+3.5), Michigan (+1.3), Minnesota (+1.3), Nevada (+4.1), North Carolina (+0.3), Ohio (+2.1), Texas (+4.9) and Wisconsin (+0.9). Of course, Biden didn’t win all of those states, but it’s clear why Democratic candidates for the House and Senate weren’t afraid to be endorsed by or seen with their presidential nominee before the election. Biden underperformed an average statewide Democratic candidate in Iowa (-0.8) and Pennsylvania (-0.5).

Four years ago, Trump underperformed, or had a negative VAR rating, in seven of the 10 closest states but still won the election through the Electoral College because Hillary Clinton did even worse. She had a negative VAR in the four closest states (Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) and that was enough to lock her out of the presidency. 

Through all the bravado of his victory, it was easy to lose sight of the fact Trump won just the right states by just the right amount to win in 2016, and had very little room for error in his bid for reelection. In 2020, Biden outpaced Clinton by the right amount in the right states to secure the Electoral College, even with a 7-million-vote margin nationally.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.