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Election history: What past elections tell us about 2020

Published: Nov. 3, 2020 at 6:06 AM EST|Updated: Nov. 3, 2020 at 6:50 AM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - While 2020′s presidential election may feel like the most divisive, a local political scientist says it’s probably in the running for second.

Garrison Nelson, a University of Vermont professor of law, politics and political behavior, says the election of 1860 claims the top spot in American history. President Abraham Lincoln ran against three other candidates and won with less than 40% of the vote, but had a massive victory in the Electoral College. After that, seven states left the Union. But Nelson says there is a big shift in mindset now.

“The tribalism of American politics today is so much more profound and so much more deep-seated,” said Nelson. “This is why people are fearful of a violent response to this election.”

Historically, presidential candidates running for reelection have the upper hand and rewin states they won before. But that may not be the case this year. Nelson says in past elections, incumbent candidates usually only lose one or two states in their second run. For example, he says in 2008 only two states flipped in the reelection of President Barack Obama.

While this would seem to indicate President Trump would have the edge, Nelson says he’s not so sure. There are a few states that are still undecided and may flip against Trump in favor of Joe Biden.

“Because he is such a unique candidate, we really have no parallel by which to compare him to,” said Nelson. “He could win big or lose big. We really don’t know.”

Nelson says it won’t be over once the polls close Tuesday night. But if the process and outcome end up in the Supreme Court, he doesn’t think President Trump has the conservative advantage he thinks he has. Nelson calls Trump-appointed Justice Gorsuch a “Reagan Republican” and says he would vote against the president, causing him to lose.

Nearly 100 million Americans have already voted before Election Day. Nelson says he thinks that’s in part inspired by President Trump’s criticism of early voting and mail-in ballots.

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