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Joe Biden got nearly 13 million more votes in 2020 than Barack Obama did in 2008, but won in several hundred fewer counties.
Record turnout in urban areas added millions of votes to Biden’s total.
Many of the counties Obama won are very small, and didn’t have much effect on his raw vote count.
As members of the Electoral College certified Joe Biden’s win over President Donald Trump, a popular social media post claimed that election results from 2008 show that Biden’s 2020 victory is simply not plausible.
The Dec. 10 Facebook post makes the case this way:
"Biden won more votes in 2020 than Obama did in 2008?
"OK, now let’s factor in the number of counties won. Obama: Votes 69 million; Counties: 873. Biden: Votes 80 million; Counties: 477
"Yeah, I call bulls---."
This post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
The claim’s numbers for Biden are a bit off. The county tally is preliminary, and political scientists we reached said it could end up closer to 500. And Biden ended up with nearly 81.3 million votes. That means Biden won about 12.8 million more votes than Obama won, despite winning considerably fewer counties.
That said, the figures reflect shifts in American voting patterns, not some sort of funny business with the vote count.
The explanation lies in record high turnout and the growing number of votes in urban centers since 2008.
In 2020, 66.2% of the eligible population voted. In 2008, turnout was 61.6%. Combine that with general population growth, and this election had millions more people voting — according to the U.S. Elections Project, 27 million more.
"Both Biden and Trump won more popular votes than any previous nominees of their parties," said University of Wisconsin’s Barry Burden.
The increase was so large that Biden could have lost the election and still have had more votes than Obama got in 2008.
But the jump in turnout wasn’t evenly spread around. The surge favored Biden and added even more to his total compared with Obama.
"Voter turnout in 2020 was relatively higher in large battleground states with large urban areas," said DePaul University political scientist Wayne Steger. "Turnout in states won by Biden was 43% greater in 2020 than in 2008."
The Facebook post puts a lot of weight on the simple number of counties won, but the link between the number of counties and the number of votes is thin, and it’s become thinner since 2008.
"Republican voting has become increasingly concentrated in rural counties, which, on average, have relatively small populations," said political scientist Steven Smith at Washington University in St. Louis.
Nearly 200 rural counties that voted for Obama in 2008 voted for Trump in 2020. Penn State University’s Robert Speel said that reflects more than a geographic shift. It reflects the sort of people who voted for Biden.
"College graduates are concentrated in urban and suburban counties, with relatively few living in rural counties," Speel said. "White college graduates used to be part of the Republican voter base, but a majority of them voted for Biden this year."
These factors added up to more voters for Biden, coming out of a smaller number of counties.
The impact on Biden’s vote total was particularly strong in reliable Democratic strongholds. In Los Angeles County alone, Biden picked up nearly 1 million votes more than Obama did in 2008. In King County, Wash., Biden did 360,000 votes better. Even in Cook County, Ill., surrounding Obama’s hometown of Chicago, Biden bested Obama’s tally by more than 100,000 votes.
"It has become easier for Democrats to achieve a majority of the vote with a steadily smaller share of counties," said University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket.
Bloggers, Facebook post, Dec. 10, 2020
Guardian, 2008 presidential election results by state and county, March 9, 2009
Mark Newman, Maps of the 2008 US presidential election results, Department of Physics and Center for the Study of Complex Systems, University of Michigan, accessed Dec. 14, 2020
University of Florida, U.S. Elections Project, accessed Dec. 14, 2020
David Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Elections, State and county statistics, accessed Dec. 14, 2020
Los Angeles County, County election results, accessed Dec. 14, 2020
Washington Post, 2020 turnout is the highest in over a century, Dec. 11, 2020
Michigan Secretary of State’s Office, Election Results by County, accessed Dec. 14, 2020
Politico, 2020 results: Michigan, accessed Dec. 14, 2020
New York Times, 2008 California results, Dec. 9, 2008
Email exchange, Robert Speel, associate professor of political science, Penn State University, Dec. 14, 2020
Email exchange, Steven Smith, professor of political scientist, Washington University in St. Louis, Dec. 14, 2020
Email exchange, Barry Burden, professor of political science, University of Wisconsin, Dec. 14, 2020
Email exchange, Wayne P. Steger, professor of political science, DePaul University, Dec. 14, 2020
Email exchange, Seth Masket, professor of political science, University of Denver, Dec. 14, 2020