Republican Michigan congressional candidate John Gibbs is falsely claiming that the 2020 election results could not possibly be correct – and citing irrelevant statistical tidbits as his supposed evidence.
“I think when you look at the results of the 2020 election, there are anomalies in there, to put it very lightly, that are simply mathematically impossible,” Gibbs said during a televised roundtable discussion that aired this past weekend on WOOD TV8 of Grand Rapids.
Gibbs has the endorsement of former President Donald Trump. He is a former US Department of Housing and Urban Development official who is trying to unseat incumbent Rep. Peter Meijer, who voted to impeach Trump after the 2021 insurrection at the Capitol, in the Republican congressional primary in Michigan’s 3rd District.
To justify his “simply mathematically impossible” claim, Gibbs cited two pieces of supposed evidence that are not evidence at all.
First, like Trump has since 2020, Gibbs talked about Trump’s performance in so-called bellwether counties – the small list of counties that had for decades been won by the presidential candidate who also won the presidency. “A bellwether county,” Gibbs said, “is a county such that whichever candidate wins it, they won the election with 100% predictability. Well, President Trump won almost every single bellwether county but still ended up losing the election somehow, which is very anomalous to say the least.”
Next, Gibbs pointed to the fact that Trump got more votes in the 2020 election he lost than he did in the 2016 election he won.
“Usually – actually, always – if a presidential candidate gets more votes the second time than (the) first time, you always win,” Gibbs said. “But President Trump got something like 15-20% more votes than he got the first time yet still lost, which is probably mathematically impossible – certainly unprecedented in history.”
Gibbs has made this latter claim in even stronger language in the past, claiming in an April interview that it was “almost certainly mathematically impossible” for Trump to have lost in 2020 while improving upon his vote total from 2016 and that this “never” happens.
Facts First: Nothing in the 2020 election results was mathematically impossible. Losing the election while winning almost every so-called bellwether county is neither impossible nor a sign that something improper happened; in any given election, any particular county or group of counties can be less aligned with the nation than it had been in previous elections. It is also entirely possible mathematically for a president to legitimately lose a reelection race while earning more total votes than he did when he won his previous race. Trump was the fourth incumbent to have this happen, though the first in more than a century.
Let’s look at his two claims one by one.
Then it lost its bellwether status with a sudden thud. In the 1936 election, the Republican presidential candidate, Alf Landon, won Maine but only one other state, Vermont, while getting demolished by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
There is, clearly, nothing magical or permanent about being considered a bellwether state. Similarly, there is nothing magical or permanent about being considered a bellwether county. At any time, a county can fall out of step with the nation for an endless list of reasons – reasons that have nothing to do with fraud.
David Hopkins, an associate professor of political science at Boston College, said in an email: “Occasionally, a particular county will have a lucky streak of voting for the winner in five or six consecutive elections, but those streaks always end eventually – just like winning streaks in sports don’t go on forever – and don’t reveal anything about the legitimacy of the national outcome.”
Hopkins said, “There is no such thing as a county that can show who won the national election with ’100% predictability.’ There are over 3,000 counties in the US, and every single one of them has sometimes voted for the losing candidate in a presidential election.”
It is true that, in the 2020 election, Trump carried 18 of the 19 counties that had previously gone for the Electoral College winner in every presidential election from 1980 through 2016, as The Wall Street Journal reported in 2020. But that’s an interesting little factoid, not an impossibility or proof of fraud. The website FiveThirtyEight pointed out in 2021 that, in the 2016 election Trump won, opponent Hillary Clinton carried 16 of the 35 counties that had gone for the winner in every election from 1980 through 2012. Those 16 counties having fallen off the bellwether list in 2016 wasn’t an impossibility or proof of fraud, either.
Also, “bellwether” is an imprecise term that can be defined in different ways. For example, Washington Post journalist Philip Bump reported last week that, if you define bellwether as a county that was carried by the winner of the country’s popular vote in each presidential election from 1980 through 2016, rather than by the winner of the Electoral College, Biden won all six of the counties that were on that bellwether list as of 2020.
It was not mathematically impossible for Trump to get more votes in 2020 than in 2016 but lose in 2020. In fact, it is not even particularly confusing how this happened.
The population kept growing and kept getting more diverse, voter turnout spiked, third-party candidates earned a much lower share of the vote than they did in 2016 – and, critically, Biden improved on the Democrats’ 2016 vote total by even more than Trump improved on his own 2016 vote total.
Trump earned more than 74 million votes in 2020 versus about 63 million in 2016, an improvement of more than 11 million votes. But Biden earned more than 81 million votes in 2020 compared to fewer than 66 million votes for Clinton in 2016 – an improvement of more than 15 million.
The result of Biden’s performance was that he beat Trump 306-232 in the Electoral College.
The end. There is just no valid reason to declare that there is some sort of statistical mystery here, let alone a statistical impossibility.
And contrary to Gibbs’ claim, there is precedent, too.
President Grover Cleveland lost the 1888 election despite earning more than 10% more votes than he did when he won in 1884; President Martin Van Buren lost the 1840 election despite earning more than 45% more votes than he did when he won in 1836; President John Quincy Adams lost the 1828 election despite earning more than 300% more votes than he did when he won in the messy 1824 election in which he was chosen as president by the House of Representatives.
All of this was a long time ago, under very different social and electoral circumstances. But it still disproves Gibbs’ statement that it was “certainly unprecedented in history” for Trump to lose with more votes than he earned four years prior.
In a statement Friday, Gibbs stood by his false claims and said he “could not be more honored” to be “attacked” by CNN. He went on to criticize CNN at length and denounce “the Fake News industry” for supposed bias in favor of Meijer.
UPDATE: This article was updated Friday to add a statement from the Gibbs campaign.