- - Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Expect 2020’s presidential race to be very close. Behind that simple pronouncement, growing political complexities are reshaping presidential outcomes. Long-term historical trends are reversing and promise near-term political and policy consequences.

Regardless of next year’s candidates, three major trends already presaged a tight race: the close vote percentages of the two major parties, increasing votes for third parties and the close margins of recent races.

First is the two major parties’ amazingly close vote averages. Over the last century, 1916-2016, Republicans averaged 48.5 percent of the popular vote and Democrats 47 percent. Over the last half-century, 1968-2016, the same closeness prevailed — Republicans averaged 48.5 percent to Democrats’ 46 percent. While their positioning reversed over the last quarter-century, 1992-2016, the closeness remained — Democrats averaging 48.7 percent and Republicans averaging 45.1 percent.

These are so tight, an average swing of less than 2 percent of the popular vote could reverse the two major parties’ positions. A reason these averages are so close is the rise in votes going to third parties.

Over the last century, combined third parties’ share of the popular vote averaged 4.5 percent. This seemingly inconsequential amount (compared to other nations) has big implications. For one thing, with the two major parties so routinely tightly bunched, they are effectively fighting to win less than half the electorate.

Further, third parties’ vote share has been increasing. Over the last half-century, their average increased to 5.5 percent. Over the last quarter-century, it increased to 6.2 percent. In 2016, it fell just below at 5.9 percent — despite lacking a single prominent third-party candidate.

Together, these two trends have produced a marked drop in presidential elections’ margin of victory.

Over the last century, the average victory margin was a whopping 10.6 percent. Even in the last half-century, thanks to several landslides, the average margin was 8 percent. However, in the last quarter-century the average margin has dropped by more than half to just 3.6 percent.

Of the century’s five closest presidential elections, all occurred in the last half-century, with three (2000, 2004 and 2016) in the previous five elections. Republicans have dominated in these, winning four of five and each of the last three — two with popular vote minorities.

Significant conclusions arise from these trends. America has an inherent balance — if not in every contest, then within a small number of them. Even when one major party has won big, the other soon rebounds. Thus, there has been a long period of balance — over the last century and recent elections.

In contrast to the two major parties’ closeness within a relatively short span of presidential contests, individual elections frequently showed wide margins. However, this trended down over the last half-century — plummeting in the last quarter-century.

Third parties’ recent increased success with the nonaligned electorate is part of the reason. Formerly in most elections, more of the electorate swung to one of the two major parties. Since 1992, three elections have seen third-party voting at 5.9 percent of the popular vote or higher.

An important point to watch for in 2020 is whether 2016’s spike (the highest since 1996) will continue — and significantly whether it will be attributable to a single candidate. In the past, third-party voting surges were attributable to particular candidates — La Follette (1924), Wallace (1968) and Perot (1992 and 1996) — who lacked staying power. Last election’s surge lacked a dominant individual third-party candidate, but still recorded the highest third-party voting in 20 years.

If generic third-party voting is indeed rising, the two major parties’ positions could become increasingly partisan. The dynamic would be self-reinforcing. The two major parties’ core supporters would become an increasing share of their presidential votes. With swing voters a decreasing amount — and their base increasing — the major parties’ positions would aim for more partisan appeal.

Finally, close elections benefit Republicans — or at least, they have benefited more from them. Democrats appear to need swing voters more in order to offset Republicans’ greater popular vote efficiency, which allows them to win proportionally more Electoral Votes with them. Conversely, Democrats’ popular votes are less effectively placed, tending toward large totals in states have already won.

The 2020 election promises to be important for its impact on these trends, as well as for its winner. Ultimately, the interaction of these trends will determine who wins the presidency — and how campaigns will be run — now and for elections to come.

• J.T. Young served in the Office of Management and Budget and at the Treasury Department.

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