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Counties won and votes received don’t correlate in presidential race

December 18, 2020 GMT

CLAIM: “They want us to believe that Joe Biden won 200 fewer counties than Obama but somehow got 9 million more votes? I don’t think so…”

AP’S ASSESSMENT: Missing context. It’s true that President-elect Joe Biden received more votes than former President Barack Obama did in 2008, while winning fewer counties. Posts questioning Biden’s win based on these metrics lack the key context that the number of counties won does not correlate with the number of votes received nationwide.

THE FACTS: Data from The Associated Press shows that Biden won the presidential election with more than 81 million votes in 2020, but won just 527 of the United States’ 3113 counties.

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Comparatively, in 2008, Obama won about 69 million votes, and 875 counties.

Social media users this week claimed it couldn’t possibly be true that Biden received more votes but won fewer counties than Obama, suggesting it must be a clue toward fraud or false reporting in this year’s election.

“They want us to believe that Joe Biden won 200 fewer counties than Obama but somehow got 9 million more votes? I don’t think so…” read a screenshot of a Twitter post shared more than 2,400 times on Facebook.

While that post’s numbers are slightly off, it’s true that Biden legitimately won more votes and fewer counties than Obama. That fact is not indicative of any significant fraud or irregularity, which election researchers have said was not detected in the 2020 election.

Jan Leighley, a political scientist at American University, told the AP the “supposed puzzle identified in these posts is an inappropriate/illogical comparison.”

“The claim implies that these two electoral outcomes (counties won and number of votes cast) should be highly correlated, or are even causal,” Leighley said in an email. “They are not—one is a measure of a geographical region vote, the other the number of votes cast.”

Counties across the United States vary dramatically in size, from populations of a few hundred people to several million. Trump won many smaller counties this year, while Biden pulled majorities in some of the nation’s largest counties, such as Los Angeles County in California and Maricopa County in Arizona.

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Biden did win fewer small counties than Obama won in 2008, but he won by higher margins than Obama did in urban areas such as Los Angeles County and Washington’s King County, data shows.

The total number of votes Biden received doesn’t correlate with the number of counties he won.

His higher total vote tally compared to Obama is instead more likely related to higher voter turnout, fueled both by a growing population and a larger portion of the electorate voting in 2020 than in 2008.

About 27 million more people voted for president in 2020 than in 2008, according to the United States Elections Project. Both President Donald Trump and Biden received record numbers of votes this year.

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This is part of The Associated Press’ ongoing effort to fact-check misinformation that is shared widely online, including work with Facebook to identify and reduce the circulation of false stories on the platform.

Here’s more information on Facebook’s fact-checking program: https://www.facebook.com/help/1952307158131536