270 to Win
Post-Democratic Primary Update
As the Democratic primary winds down, with a Biden nomination a delegate-math inevitability even if contests remain on the calendar, it is time for one of the few updates I plan to my forecast, this one, the post-primary update. Of course, this update comes at a time of incredible turmoil, not only in America, but worldwide, as the unprecedented COVID19 pandemic unfolds — bringing the global economy to a halt and forcing much of the world’s population into self-imposed quarantines. In the July 2019 release of this forecast, I said that little could occur that could alter the basic contours of this election cycle: Democrats are fired up in a way they were not in 2016 because of negative partisanship powered by backlash to Trump and thus would increase their turnout significantly and be less likely to defect to third-party candidates.
I also said, “barring a significant shock to the system, Democrats recapture the presidency.” Significant disruptions I identified included an economic recession, but with the market humming along, willing to handicap Trump even on trade wars with China and Europe, and rate cuts keeping the economy around its 2016 metrics in terms of growth and unemployment, a recession seemed unlikely. Now it is all but certain this fall’s general election will take place immersed in a serious one, with some early reports suggesting potential unemployment numbers, at least in the short term, well into the teens.
To be sure, voters will likely see this recession as they saw the first term of Obama’s presidency, in context. No president can do much to avoid a total standstill of the global economy from an unprecedented virus. But Trump’s mismanagement of the underlying pandemic causing the economy to melt down will be judged by voters, and it’s already clear that the president’s missteps in the early days of the pandemic are exacerbating America’s economic woes.
If Trump had political capital to spend heading into this crisis, that would be one thing. But after the Russia investigation was followed in short order by the Ukraine scandal, Trump’s political capital tank is already on empty, with few Americans outside of Republicans capable of trusting him. Trump will be heading into the fall with the dubious distinction of being the most embattled, controversial, and scandal-plagued president to seek reelection in the history of the republic — and that was before this virus emerged to create a massive public health disaster and destroy his strongest claim for reelection: the economy.
But Donald Trump does have one formidable asset to help his reelection prospects: political polarization and hyperpartisanship, which even in the face of a recession and potential fallout from COVID19 management will likely provide him with a steady and reliable base of support, preventing the type of erosion in approval ratings we saw in the second term of George W. Bush’s tenure. Although most Republicans hung with Bush throughout his second term, right-leaning independents had largely abandoned him as early as 2007. Then, when the economy began to implode during the later stages of the 2008 Democratic Party primary and during the summer of 2008, even some Republicans finally began to desert him. The effect of Republican desertion on Bush’s overall approval ratings was profound. His overall job approval numbers collapsed another 10 points, dropping to as low as 28 percent and hitting just 60 percent among Republicans in the waning days of his tenure. Trump’s robust support among Republicans, which has held steady at a 90/10 split throughout it all, allows his overall approval rating to remain in the low 40s — at least theoretically competitive for a second term.
Democrats, no doubt, are hopeful that as spring turns to summer and the scope of the economic damage begins to set in, a similar situation as befell George W. Bush will befall Donald Trump. While that’s not impossible, there have been important changes in mass political behavior over the past decade that suggest that Trump might be able to evade Bush’s fate. My dissertation research finds a sharp change in public opinion starting in 2008-2009 as two events unfold simultaneously — the collapse of the American economy and the election of America’s first black president — findings that are also confirmed by the Pew Research Center’s polarization research. And elections over the past decade have bucked trends of decades past, making candidates whose scandals or behaviors would have once been disqualifying competitive for public office by the virtue of partisanship — candidates such as Roy Moore in Alabama, who lost out on a Senate seat by just over a point despite multiple allegations of child molestation that emerged during his candidacy.
A recession will certainly provide a potent test of the old “fundamentals” models that my research challenges. Make no mistake about it: If “the economy, stupid” still matters, it needs to matter here, and it should put the presidency completely out of grasp for Trump. Along with the state-level analysis presented here, economic fundamentals models under a recession will predict dismal electoral prospects for Trump. I assume these models have elements in them to prevent them from making forecasts akin to the Reagan/Carter map from 1980, which of course we will not see because the electorate of 1980, which was rich in liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, and a Southern realignment hitting its stride is long gone.
Now, the parties are largely ideologically homogenous and partisanship has evolved to become a social identity, an individual’s “ride or die,” which makes the prospect of red states breaking in favor of Biden seem unlikely, especially given the salience of white racial identity in contemporary Republican politics. In an America in which partisans are willing to inflict bodily harm on each other over politics, it seems unlikely that a mere recession, even an intense one, could move them off of their preferred presidential candidate in the ways it did prior to the polarized era, when the economic-fundamentals models, like the dinosaurs once did, ruled the Earth.
If the economic-fundamentals models retain even half of their old vitality, what we should see this fall is something on par with Obama’s 2008 Electoral College dominance of John McCain, which was produced under similar, collapse-in-progress economic distress. As of today (March 24th), I’m not willing to say such a map is absolutely impossible but I’m bearish on it as two critical components of that 2008 map, Indiana and Missouri, have drifted sharply to the right over the past decade, each becoming about 5 points more Republican and tossing both of their incumbent Democratic senators out of office in 2018 in what was a blue wave year. To recreate an Obama map takes more than turnout surges of Democrats and Independents. In states like Indiana and Missouri in 2020, some Republicans would have to break from Trump. These two states are becoming more like Kentucky or West Virginia in this regard. And until, and unless, that 90/10 breakdown among Republicans starts to crack, nationally and in states like Indiana, Donald Trump remains theoretically competitive for reelection, with a tight popular vote window (floor to ceiling). I’ll be watching Republican political behavior in the coming weeks closely for signs of breakage, but I will be surprised to see it.
But even without a big assist from the looming recession, by avoiding a Sanders nomination, and with it, total party meltdown, Democrats are well-positioned for the fall general election. The changes to my original ratings from July 2019 reflect this reality and are universally positive for Democrats. When the original forecast was released, I said that the party’s nominee did not matter at all unless the nominee ended up being Bernie Sanders, and the reason that a Sanders nomination mattered was that it would be “disruptive.”
To illustrate what I mean by that, under a Sanders nomination, it is my belief that the traditionally nonhierarchical and, shall we say, strategically challenged Democratic Party would easily have been pushed both by their well-meaning consultant class and naturally moderate and well-read candidates and by a shrewd, calculating GOP into turning the 2020 cycle into a referendum on socialism instead of what it needs to be for the negative partisanship model to function at capacity: a referendum on Trump. With Sanders as the nominee, most, if not all, of the Democratic Party’s “frontline” candidates would have ended up with a muddled message- liable to spend as much time contrasting themselves with Sanders (and socialism) as their GOP opponents and Trump.
As GOP strategist Rick Wilson aptly points out in his latest book, and former RNC Chairman Michael Steele and I painfully poke fun at in his podcast, Democrats already seem to struggle with the concept of referendum effects and, specifically, the power of tapping into or exploiting them. Due to their deep-rooted (seemingly unshakable) belief in the “median voter theory,” Democratic candidates/consultants/strategists would have fractured into chaos over a Sanders nomination. It would have been an unmitigated disaster the GOP was already positioning themselves to capitalize on. And although the many progressives reading this see Biden’s nomination as an unmitigated disaster, citing his bland moderation, this or that policy from 30 years ago, or general lack of what might be called “stump agility,” I can assure you, Biden fills the role of “generic Democrat” perfectly fine, and that is all that is really required from Democrats to win this election. Because as Sanders supporters are just now coming to learn, while 2016 was about revolution, 2020 is about one thing and one thing only: making the scary, bad man go away.
Dissatisfaction with the party’s nomination process is largely powered by people’s (and the media’s) unrealistic expectations of what these nomination contests can produce, precisely because it is reliant on the voting public. It’s a common mistake — we tend to see the world from our own perspective, and in your perspective, you watched a dozen debates, assessed more than 20 Democratic hopefuls, and tried to select the one you felt best suited to the job vis a vis your own ideological biases. From this perspective, candidates like Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, Julian Castro, even late-stagers like Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg were closely examined by the electorate and found wanting. But the truth is, only five candidates ever received any real scrutiny through the year-long primary process, and of those, only two were particularly well known by average voters, which you, dear reader, are not one of. It’s not an accident that in presidential nominations, the person or persons leading the Invisible Primary are the same people that come out at the end, cycle after cycle. There are occasional exceptions — a Bill Clinton here and Barack Obama there. And these trend-buckers are the reasons we see 20 candidates throw their hats into the ring.
Biden, though unexciting to many millennials and Gen Z voters, is perceived by party mainstreamers as highly electable. These perceptions carry important implications for the behaviors of donors, volunteers, candidates, and tertiary actors such as the punditocracy, who hold important narrative-setting power in the electoral ecosystem. Biden will likely be pushed towards selecting fellow primary contender Amy Klobuchar as his running mate, and in the two-person debate last Sunday, the candidate shrewdly dominated the news cycle by announcing that he will select a female running mate.
Given her performance in the Democratic primary and status as a popular senator from Minnesota, Klobuchar likely leads Biden’s short list. Klobuchar’s reputation for bipartisanship and moderation will be immensely attractive to traditional Democratic strategists who will likely be looking at the VP slot via a regionalism lens, looking to solve the “Midwest problem.”
But whether this is the right lens depends on how you diagnose that 2016 loss. I don’t want to put words in the party’s mouth, but if media surrogates and candidate statements are any indication, it appears Democrats believe their 2016 losses in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, which, as a reminder, were surprise losses, were due to the failure of Hillary Clinton to win over white, working-class voters. The movement of these Obama-to-Trump voters was the decisive element in Clinton’s loss, and the recovery of them must be the central element of any plan to recapture the Midwest.
This diagnosis, that Clinton underperformed Obama among white, working-class voters, is not quantitatively wrong. This is a mathematical fact. Where this diagnosis runs into trouble is misunderstanding why Clinton underperformed Obama among white, working-class voters and what, if anything, can be done about it. Because underlying the cycle-specific trends are the realities of the long-term demographic, coalitional realignments of the two parties, where the Republican Party is becoming a rural-based party of whites, particularly working-class whites (but more accurately, non-college-educated whites), and the Democratic Party is becoming an urban/suburban party, racially and ethnically diverse in a society that is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, and where college education is becoming a reliable predictor of Democratic candidate vote choice (so much so that I use it to predict Democratic candidate vote share in my modeling).
What this means, of course, is that every four years, fewer white, non-college-educated voters (especially those in rural areas) vote for Democrats. And this has profound impacts in the Midwest, because the traditional Democratic strongholds were often, in more rural, heavily unionized areas of these states. Which is why Democrats look at these areas as, “I used to win here, and I should be winning here now.” Which brings us back to the Obama-to-Trump voters. Some of these voters are actually “pure” independents. They broke against the Democrats in 2016 because they were the status quo. In data I worked with from Morning Consult, about 30 percent of Obama-to-Trump voters expressed unfavorable views of Trump as of last fall. My belief is that this group is likely the pure independent chunk, voters I call “change voters,” who we might expect to swing away from Trump in 2020 now that he represents the status quo (especially under an economic recession environment).
As for the rest? As Dave Weigel observed in his analysis of the March 10 primary states, rural, white, working-class voters seem to be continuing their long-term dealignment/realignment away from the Democratic Party and to the Republican Party in the 2020 primary because Biden lost ground compared to Hillary’s performance in previous Democratic strongholds in rural areas; more evidence that the long term dealignment/realignment makes the prospects of Biden winning back white, working-class voters seem unlikely.
Instead, Democrats should be worried about their own coalition, especially given the significant ideological fractures in it, because that weakness played a critical role in their 2016 loss. And that weakness occurred in large part due to the same strategic miscalculations Democrats seem inclined to repeat in 2020 — focusing on rural/white, working-class voters rather than party unity and turnout of their own coalition. That said, 2020 is not 2016. If Biden picks a moderate like Amy Klobuchar, he’s still going to win the election in the very same way that Democrats completely ignored Donald Trump in their 2018 campaign strategies, but still picked up 40 House seats. This was true before COVID19 came along to destroy the economy and highlight Trump’s many management shortcomings, but the pandemic and economic collapse are going to exacerbate Trump’s problems.
That said, strategy, candidate quality, and especially candidate demographics can still matter on the margins and Democrats will roll into the fall general election with one clearly exploitable weakness: disaffection within the progressive base. The GOP will seek to exploit that weakness and Democrats would be wise to shore up every weak spot because as I argued above, until I see evidence indicating otherwise, my belief is that polarization and hyperpartisanship will dull the effects of economic fundamentals, which, if the Abramowitz “Time for Change” model is of any indication, are likely going to be painting gloomy pictures for Trump’s reelection prospects.
A great example of how strategy can affect, maybe even offset, atmosphere is GOP turnout in 2018, which is the one thing that cycle that took me completely by surprise and ended up throwing off my Senate/Georgia governor race calls. I expected that like Democratic voter turnout in the Obama years, Republican voter turnout would roll back in 2018, given that the GOP controlled both the presidency and both chambers of Congress. This was certainly the case for Democrats in the 2010 midterms, when the so-called Obama Coalition left Obama at the altar after he delivered them the legislative miracle of Obamacare.
But that did not happen. Instead, as I show in my voter file analysis presented here, Republican turnout in 2018 actually increased. Even more surprising, despite a giant wave at the backs of Democrats, turnout for Republicans still outperformed that of Democrats in all of the 25+ districts I analyzed. Yes, you read that right. Despite huge turnout surges for Democrats, proportionately, Republicans still outvoted Democrats in 2018! Further, and this is important, given the margins that the 40 Democratic House winners won by, combined with the size of the turnout surges seen by Democrats and independents in those districts, these Republican surge voters did not vote for Democrats. This is quite a different story than the wishful one told not only by the media, but by Nancy Pelosi herself, who speaks of 2018 as a story of disaffected suburban Republicans voting for Democratic House candidates.
Now, are there some realigning Republicans, disgusted by the Trump GOP, who are telling their liberal friends and neighbors they voted for a Democrat in 2018? Absolutely. But I deal in data, and the data tells a different story about the forces that powered the 2018 wave. Yes, it captures a massive shift of independents moving to the Democrats after voting for Trump in 2016, but the myth of the disaffected 2018 Republican appears to be just that, a myth. Instead, the 2018 suburban transformation was largely powered by millennials and Gen Z voters, voters of color, and college-educated women, many of whom had been lazy about voting prior to the election of Donald Trump but now see their votes as America’s last line of defense. It was the surge to the polls by these voters, Democrats, but also independents, that my 2018 model anticipated and it’s these voters who power the 2020 version, too.
Of these “surge” voters, the most vulnerable to turnout failure are young voters and voters of color and the intersection of these two demographics: young voters of color. And for these voters, ideological representation matters. The argument for two moderates on the Democratic ticket is that it avoids alienating disaffected Republicans who might be willing to support the ticket so long as it’s digestible. But again, the 2018 data doesn’t offer much empirical evidence of Republican support at the ballot box for Democrats beyond the average “crossover” rates typical for the polarized era and certainly, the same strategy to court Republicans came up empty in 2016. And the strategy is not cost free. It will, to some extent, cost Democrats support among some Bernie Sanders supporters. While nominating someone on the far left is certainly not ideal, it may not be ideal for the party to go forward with two moderates on the ticket either, because it leaves their progressive flank exposed to what will be a high-tech assault from the Trump campaign and from the RNC who recognize the importance of disaffection among the progressive base plays in their hopes to retain the presidency and control of the Senate.
As the losing ideological faction from the primary, progressives are about to become the targets of a well-financed, sophisticated propaganda campaign hosted by Republicans attempt to fracture the “not-Trump coalition” and reduce the vote share needed for Trump to carry swing states to the pluralities he reached in the 2016 cycle. If 2020 plays out like 2012, 2008, 2004, or even 2000, with typically low protest-balloting rates, Trump’s path to 270 becomes not just difficult, but nearly impossible because of the president’s low approval ratings. Failing to shore up support among liberal voters, especially at a time of great fiscal calamity could prove to be the Democrats’ Achilles’ heel- as it was in the 2016 cycle.
In addition to progressive defection, Democrats were also left exposed in 2016 when turnout among voters of color, especially black voters, receded from its Obama Era highs. For older voters of color, potential VP pitfalls lie more along lines of racial representation. The data is irrefutable: Black voter turnout increased in 2008 and 2012 for Barack Obama because black voters rallied around a candidate who represented them. In 2008, that increased turnout was part of a large coalition that gave Obama a huge victory, but in 2012, that turnout offset the loss of independents, who broke in favor of Mitt Romney that cycle. Black turnout in places like Cleveland and Columbus allowed Obama to win Ohio anyway.
Compelling research by political scientist Davin Phoenix in his book, The Anger Gap: How Race Shapes Emotion in Politics, explains a trend I saw over and over in post-Trump election voter data: Black voters are less sensitive to what I call the Trump Effect. Phoenix’s research shows that due to institutional racism and the pervasive poverty and discrimination it has wrought on black communities, black voters responded to the election of Donald Trump differently than their white counterparts. Where whites, especially college-educated whites, have demonstrated a strong, stable turnout boost in post-Trump elections, powered by fear, black turnout increases have been far more modest. Given this, that black voters (as well as Latino voters) would likely be responsive to what the political science research calls descriptive representation necessitates racial diversity on the presidential ticket.
My theory and modeling has Biden winning, so why does the VP pick matter? In fact, doesn’t arguing the VP matters undermine my central claim? As I said above, Biden wins with Klobuchar and he wins with Harris or Stacey Abrams. But that VP pick may affect the ability to flip two Georgia senate seats or cut the GOP’s only defense-to target Bernie supporters- off at the knees by putting a liberal on the ticket. I see the selection of the vice president as a risk mitigation factor, although I have no doubt my research solves the risk mitigation equation differently than traditional Democratic campaign consultants would suggest. Because elections in the polarized era are won by out-voting the other party’s coalition, and turnout is most variable among younger voters and voters of color, if I was running Biden’s campaign, I would want to ensure strong turnout among those groups. That’s how Obama won in 2008 and how Biden can best secure a win in 2020.
Now on to the ratings update. As a reminder, because my forecasting work predicts the two-party vote share for Democrats in each state on Election Day using fixed demographic data, and not polls, it’s not going to provide you the exciting weekly (or even daily) updates you’ve grown accustomed to from the probability models like the 538 model or this up-and-coming probability model by Jack Kersting, which you really should check out. My model is the first of its kind — a demographics model predicting vote share, not a probability of winning. It uses a state’s party competition level (Cook PVI Scores, known as partisan voting indexes), percent of college-educated population, and percent of nonwhite population to estimate Biden’s two-party vote share; a quantitative methodology that performed quite well in anticipating where Democrats would gain seats in the House of Representatives in 2018.
Though all of the forecasters and analysts hit 2018, my theory and model stood out due to its lead time — 4 months — and for its ability to identify what I call the second-tier races that did not become obviously competitive to race handicappers until well into the fall cycle. My model (but more importantly, the theory that powers it) knew these districts had demographic characteristics that could drive a massive political change in them under a high-turnout scenario — and predicted exactly that type of turnout scenario by applying the political science concept of “negative partisanship” to voting behavior.
Because I am forging my own way as an election forecaster/analyst, and because I am not a methodology snob (yes, there is such a thing as a methodology snob), I am allowing myself to make use of both my quantitative model’s output and some qualitative assessments to make my final predictions on race classifications. However, I am less inclined to rely on the qualitative resources than I was in 2018 because when I did get things wrong in 2018 (other than missing that Republican turnout surge) it was because I overrode what my model was telling me about a contest.
One such race was Amy McGrath’s effort to flip Kentucky’s sixth district — a district my model was bearish about flipping due to low rates of college education and its high Cook PVI score (I use these as a proxy to measure polarization) rating of R+9. I continually overrode KY 6 to rate it as a “flipping seat” because of how compelling a candidate Amy McGrath was, how much money her race attracted from the DCCC, how good her veteran-themed campaign ads were, and ultimately, how convinced the Beltway media world was that disaffected Republicans existed.
The failure of KY 6 to flip, and my foolish belief that it would despite my own model’s insistence it couldn’t (not to mention, I’m an expert in political polarization!), marked the last time I gave credence to what I call the Chuck Todd Theory of American politics (really I could call it the standard theory of American politics — it is the prevailing wisdom and Chuck Todd is surely not special in this regard). Surely, if candidate quality was a major factor in election outcomes, if electoral outcomes were largely products of “swing” voters, AKA the “median voter,” and if soft Republicans disaffected about Trump could be reasoned with, Amy McGrath would be in the House of Representatives right now. That she’s not suggests that what mattered in Kentucky’s sixth district in 2018 was its demographic reality, identified and modeled by my research, and sadly, something candidate quality can do little to override. Kentucky’s sixth simply lacked the demographics capable of producing a turnout surge of Democrats and left-leaning independents large enough to overcome what is a sizable Republican partisan advantage. The model knew, and I should have listened to it! Just like the model knew that Buckhead, a ritzy neighborhood in Atlanta with a 65 percent college education rate and a medium income of 82K was going to elect a Democrat to Congress, no matter how bearish my Atlanta friends were about it.
Yet, the model wasn’t always right. It predicted Andrew Gillum (more recently the “embattled” Andrew Gillum) could win the Florida governor’s race in a high-turnout environment because of Florida’s extensive nonwhite population. But what the model didn’t foresee was that Republican turnout surge instead of the anticipated decline. And the model is also incapable of handicapping Democratic electioneering underperformance. Because the model leaves no doubt about it. Florida Democrats should be winning elections and if they aren’t, it’s because of their strategic approach.
I mention this because in this update I’m giving you access to the two-party vote share estimates produced by my model for each state (with 95 percent confidence intervals derived with the help of Ohio State emeritus professor and statistics god Brian Pollins). My strengths lie in theory (ideas of how things work). Although I am just fine at basic numeric literacy, I am quite pedestrian at complex statistical analysis. Designing a model capable of turning my big ideas into quantitative reality was nothing short of a miracle, and I am not ashamed to admit it. We all have our strengths and our weaknesses and as you all know, I am insufferably confident about my strengths. Thus, it was with ignorance that I met a criticism about “confidence” in my forecast with genuine confusion, thinking these critiques were being leveled at my personal confidence. Turns out it was about the model’s confidence — who knew? Perhaps I would have, had the criticism come from a place of helpful sincerity and not hostility. Anyway, last Labor Day at the American Political Science Association annual conference Brian helpfully explained this to me and volunteered to help me figure out a way to convey modeling uncertainty by deriving state-specific confidence intervals from my model’s output.
So, you will note, each state is now rated with a race rating AND an estimated two-party vote share with a 95 percent confidence band. And because of the disclosure of the two-party vote estimates, you will note that even though my model says that Biden will win Florida, I am manually handicapping Florida down to a toss-up. Fool my model once FL Dems, shame on you…
Does this mean the model doesn’t work? No, at least I don’t believe so. If you look back at the model’s estimated vote share for 2018 compared to the actual Democratic candidate vote share in the districts I analyze, the model performed pretty darn well. The same is true for the 2018 model’s forefather, which was a retroactive model of Virginia’s 2017 state legislative elections. Keep in mind, this is a very different type of forecast than the ones produced by probability models you see on 538. In my work, I do not model all 435 House races and all of the senate races in each cycle, only the most competitive ones. This was due to data collection time constraints when I first launched this project, largely. But it was also because in modeling, n of the model size can inflate significance in covariates and I wanted to set mine up to fail. If I was going to tell the world that I could predict Democratic election victories based on the presence of (or lack of) polarization, college educated population, and diversity, I wanted to be damn sure I was right first.
Ultimately, Democrats might carry Florida, should carry Florida, but because those same basic facts existed in 2018 and they failed to do so, I am hesitant to take that leap again. One more note about Florida, and why it might ultimately “foil” my model again. Florida leads the nation in 70- and 80-year-old population and has the fifth-lowest percentage of children. Along with bingo, older folks love to vote, especially those in those two highest age groups — often putting up turnout numbers in the 80 percent range. But this “old people factor” is not generalizable to other states aside from maybe Maine, so it cannot be accounted for in my model.
Changes from the July 1, 2019, forecast
Arizona: Toss-up to Lean D
With Biden winning the nomination and Mark Kelly (a former astronaut) on the Senate ballot, things are looking very good for Democrats to flip this realigning state completely blue in 2020. It’ll be quite the political transformation for the state that made Sheriff Arpaio famous. One thing to watch here in 2020- even with the Green Party candidate withdrawing and throwing support behind the Democratic Party’s 2018 senate nominee Kyrsten Sinema, the Green Party candidate still pulled in 2.4% of the vote after significant targeting of progressives via the state’s GOP. It was a prototype of the strategy the RNC plans to deploy to support Trump and their senate candidates in 2020 outlined above. More on this when my senate and House ratings drop.
Nevada: Lean D to Likely D
Nevada looks good for Democrats. And frankly, you can’t live in a world in which Arizona is likely turning into a blue state (at least while Democrats are energized) and Nevada doesn’t end up in Biden’s column. The Nevada caucuses met the admittedly low bar for success set by their big sister, the Iowa caucuses, as votes were counted, reported, and a winner was announced all on caucus night. Nevada also beat the Iowa caucuses on turnout. Although falling a bit short of its inaugural (reorganized) 2008 participation rates, 2020 turnout well-exceeded its 2016 rates. This was an important benchmark for Democrats, because both the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary posted average turnout — far short of the blockbuster turnout numbers seen in elections since Trump and short of what analysts, including yours truly, were expecting in these contests.
To be sure, this cycle’s Iowa caucuses faced two abnormalities that no doubt disrupted them. The caucuses were held the day after the Super Bowl, which had apparently never happened before. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the final three weeks leading up to the caucuses, including the day of the caucuses itself, were disrupted by Trump’s impeachment (show) trial in the Senate, which forced many of the candidates to leave the Hawkeye State and return to D.C. But New Hampshire’s primary, although also impacted by impeachment, should have been largely unaffected, and although turnout was fine, it certainly was not blockbuster. Seeing turnout almost reach 2008 levels in Nevada was a positive sign for Democrats, and as it turns out, it was also a harbinger of things to come as the South Carolina primary met its 2008 benchmarks, as did turnout in many of the Super Tuesday states. Turnout in the Virginia Democratic primary that day nearly doubled its 2016 numbers.
I should note: Although the correlation between primary participation and general election turnout is generally weak, especially for Democrats, presidential elections are different, and 2008’s massive turnout of the primary coalition that gave Obama the nomination heralded significant upticks in voting participation in the presidential election that fall, particularly among groups less likely to vote, such as minority voters and young voters. Failing to see a turnout increase in the Democratic primaries materialize definitely would have been a troublesome sign for Democrats and would have forced me to reassess my confidence in a Democratic victory in the fall. Please note, current turnout collapses due to COVID19 are not signals of Democratic performance in the fall.
Montana: Safe R to Likely R
With the entrance of popular Gov. Steve Bullock into the state’s Senate race, Montana is moving from Safe R to Likely R, with potential for further upgrade later. Bullock will need to demonstrate dominance among independents in polling out of Big Sky Country to truly be competitive there under a high-turnout scenario, as will his ticket-mate, Joe Biden. But more importantly, they’ll need every single Democrat and left-leaning independent in the state to show up and vote. Which is a problem, because although a great many Democrats and left-leaning independents will be inspired to vote in 2020 due to Trump fear, I assume the Bullock campaign’s resources will largely be spent on conversion. And I’m just not sure it’ll work against Steve Daines, a center-right, traditional, conservative. Regular followers will know that I’m generally bearish about conversion (although sometimes it works, most recently in the Kentucky governor’s race against controversial Republican incumbent Matt Bevin, who along with a reputation for Trump-like divisiveness also curtailed the state’s Obamacare Medicaid expansion program). Conversion in the polarized era is hard, and it is difficult to find evidence of it in polling data from the past decade. Further complicating things for Bullock is that the targets most susceptible to this type of conversion effort aren’t likely to be offended by a guy like Daines, who is already in office. And the resources spent on this effort are resources that will not be spent maximizing the turnout of people who would vote for Bullock if they could be motivated to show up.
So, Montana will be worth watching at least. A recession and COVID19 blowback might have more influence in Montana than in other red states because in Montana there are more independents (the dominant independent group there are right-leaning independents, which is why Montana usually breaks in favor of Republicans). But the race will add spending and attention to an otherwise ignored state and given the inflated polling of other long-shot Senate bids, like Tennessee’s 2018 Senate race with former Gov. Phil Bredesen, may produce enough “false flag” polling (pollsters: be sure to always put those party labels on the ballot questions!) to attract attention from the Biden campaign, or possibly Bloomberg, who will be spending on Biden’s behalf.
Virginia: Likely D to Safe D
As I mentioned, turnout nearly doubled in the Virginia Democratic primary and despite a coordinated effort dubbed Operation Chaos by Virginia’s Second Amendment groups galvanized by Virginia’s newly sworn-in Democratic trifecta passing a gun background check bill and a “red flag” law, few Republicans utilized Virginia’s open primary rules to sabotage the Democratic primary by voting for Bernie Sanders (Fun fact: I tested this in my VA primary poll and found that although yes, some Republicans indeed planned to show up and vote for Sanders, they were greatly outnumbered by others who planned to vote for either Biden or Bloomberg. Although the percent of Republican identifiers doubled in 2020 over their numbers in the 2016 primary in Virginia, Republicans still made up a paltry 6 percent of the primary electorate, a far cry from the 23 percent who indicated in our poll at least a soft intent to vote.
But I digress. Virginia’s days as a “purple” state are behind her due to the state’s atypically high rates of college education (a trait she shares with her fellow former swing state, Colorado). I’m not sure we’ll be seeing Virginia return to two-party competition in statewide contests unless college-educated voters end their long-term realignment to the Democratic Party. The way people think of suburban realignment is as a fixed pool of voters changing their affiliation from Republican to Democrat, or at least from Republican to independent. There are certainly some Republicans that left the GOP as it shifted sharply to the right, embracing populism via the Tea Party, then Palinism, which morphed into Trumpism. But this exodus largely occurred before Trump entered the picture, although his candidacy did seem to push out a final surge. And in terms of elites, since 1994, far more Democrats have left their party than Republicans (due to the Southern realignment). During the course of the Trump presidency year, although 19 Republican office holders have quit their party, 15 Democrats have done the same, most recently, a freshman House member in New Jersey who is almost surely regretting that decision today.
Instead, the political metamorphosis in America’s suburbs is largely powered by generational replacement and the coming of age of America’s two largest, most diverse, and best educated generations in history: millennials, who are at the front end of the generation, 40, and at the bottom end of the generation, in their late 20s, and Generation Z, which is currently only about half enfranchised. Millennial college grads are bucking the trend their Gen X parents followed when they became Republicans (because back in the 1980s, Greed was Good and Alex Keating was cool). Instead, some are becoming Democrats, or at least left-leaning Independents. That said, people have a high propensity to adopt their parent’s political attitudes in a process known as political socialization. Generally, 80 percent of individuals adopt their parent’s political attitudes while 20 percent end up like me, forever facing uncomfortable, stilted, small-talk conversations over their Thanksgiving turkey.
Because of this reality, generational replacement is a slow process, but several additional factors are speeding things up. Nowadays, geographic mobility is a reality of the modern economy, so today’s college graduates often find themselves settling in suburbs outside major cities in states they didn’t grow up in. And although the GOP’s race problems aren’t exactly new, the issues they have long faced with black voters over conservatives’ resistance to civil rights legislation are now spreading to other minority groups, such as Latino and Asian voters, a byproduct of the party’s increasingly strident rhetoric on policy issues that touch on race, such as immigration and social welfare programs (as the GOP’s 2012 autopsy report correctly noted: This rhetoric is isolating America’s growing minority population and, I can tell you, frustrating the Gen Z and millennial Republicans who are at the mercy of the party’s Boomer leadership).
The suburbs of today are not the suburbs of yesterday. Because millennials are entering their 30s and 40s, they are entering the suburbs and raising their children there, as their parents did before them. And like generations before them, as they have come into “real” adulthood they are maturing politically, starting to become more interested in politics and in voting. And if they were casual voters in 2016, they, and to a lesser but still important extent their college-age equivalents in Generation Z, are rabid about it now. They showed up in what was, for these age groups, huge numbers in the 2018 midterms, and will likely repeat that in the 2020 general. And their presence in the electorate, both Democrats and independents, is reshaping the political landscape of America’s suburbs.
Does this mean there are no former Republicans who now call themselves independents voting for Democrats in the ‘burbs? Of course there are! But they play a supporting role — they aren’t the lead actors.
Texas: Likely R to Lean R
Like in 2018, my expectation in terms of the statewide ballot in Texas is that Democrats are going to turn in a very competitive performance but will likely come up short. To actually win statewide, they need a massive turnout increase among Latino voters, and I’m not sure that the Democratic Party truly grasps that yet. Which is funny, right? Because Republicans have recognized the power of descriptive representation among Latino voters for decades, finding and promoting talented Latino politicians all across the country in the Southwest and in Florida and tapping into human beings’ innate desire for sameness. Even Beto O’Rourke, for all the improvements he made to running for statewide office in Texas (the most important of which was abandonment of what I call the “Embarrassed Democrat” platform) still didn’t quite grasp that Latino turnout is the ONLY path to victory. If he had, he would have invested less time and resources on visiting all 250-something counties and more money on Latino turnout. If the Democrats finagled $50 million dollars out of Bloomberg and spent it all on Latino turnout this cycle, Biden could potentially win Texas. Of course, that would also require effective messaging: It is one thing to talk to voters, but what you say to them matters, a lot in convincing them their vote matters.
The best asset Biden has for winning Texas is the fact that Democrats will likely believe deeply in the potential for that Senate seat to flip — plus, there are nine (that’s correct, nine) House seats within reach deep in the heart of Texas, in the realigning suburbs around Houston and Dallas. These districts either got underinvested in or even outright missed in the 2018 wave (I highlighted these races back in August of 2019 here). Add to this an effort by Texas Democrats to pick up seats in the state legislature, perhaps enough to give them control of the state house for the first time since the Southern realignment ran its course through the state, and you have very similar circumstances to conditions we’ll be seeing in Iowa and North Carolina, where Democrats will also benefit from multiple competitive races helping to boost overall turnout. This earns Texas a lean R, for now.
Georgia: Lean R to Toss-up
And that leaves us with Georgia. The Peach State, and the state I spent six years living in as I pursued my doctorate at the University of Georgia (Go Dawgs, Woof, Woof, Woof). Although I initially rated Georgia as Lean R, and that is the rating the state warrants under the model, it has now gone from holding not one, but two Senate races! Those two Senate seats which, by the way, are likely going to be pivotal for Democrats’ hope to take control of the Senate, have certainly increased the salience of Georgia for the party. Despite their best efforts, the party was unsuccessful in convincing the state’s star Stacey Abrams to run, and indeed, her decision to sit out was a major factor in my decision to initially rate Georgia as Lean R.
But it was a strategically shrewd move for Abrams, who likely appears somewhere high up on Biden’s VP list. While coming up short, her candidacy for the state’s governorship in 2018 was impressive. For a black female to come within a hair’s breadth of winning the governorship of Georgia — GEORGIA, for God’s sake, in a congressional midterm cycle, no less? So please, don’t @ me with the “but she couldn’t even win her own race” tweets. Georgia is an R+5 state, and as in many red states, Republicans have strategically used control of state government there to erect barriers to voting. Drop Stacey Abrams in Virginia and I’m not sure anyone would want to run against her. So important to remember that a politician’s electoral performance (and their issue positioning/ideology for that matter) is conditional on where they serve/run for office and in the polarized era, what matters for that is the party composition of the district/state. Take a 2018 loser like Claire McCaskill, whose Missouri Senate seat went from R+5 to about R+9 during her tenure, and drop her off in a state like Wisconsin (EVEN), and McCaskill is still serving in the Senate.
Back to Georgia. For the special election, well-known preacher Raphael Warnock has entered the race against incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to the seat last fall to fill an unexpected vacancy created when the state’s senior senator, Johnny Isakson, had to retire suddenly due to illness. What you may not know, because it’s super-weird and election nerd wonky, is that this special election is like Mad Max of Thunderdome + WrestleMania, except it’s more like 20 candidates of all stripes enter, and two will leave. That’s because the state’s rules governing appointment-filled vacancies and elections require winners to exceed a 50 percent +1 benchmark to avoid a runoff. And because this election is a special election to fill out a two-year term, there will not be a primary first to whittle down the competition to a single Republican and Democratic nominee.
So, with more than a dozen candidates running in it, this election seems all but certain to end in a January 2021 runoff between the top two vote-getters. Things became far more complicated for the GOP when Rep. Doug Collins, a fervent Trump supporter and MAGA adherent, decided to challenge Loeffler, a “country club conservative,” in the special rather than conceding defeat after trying to pressure Kemp into appointing him to the seat instead of her. Despite immense pressure from Georgia’s pro-Trump base, Kemp appointed Loeffler for two reasons: broader electability in what the party knows will be a competitive Senate cycle and her ability to self-finance her race (she donated $20 million dollars to her own campaign).
A quick aside on this. Bashing the big-money biases of candidate selection from both party’s organizations is easy to do, and money is quite obviously a terrible sickness on the American political system, but I do want to point out that both the DNC and RNC are facing serious constraints due to the costs of modern campaigns that drive these decisions. With Senate races costing around $100 million dollars in the post-Citizens United environment, the parties are increasingly forced to turn to millionaires (and more recently billionaires) to run for office because they are the only ones who can come up with the type of money needed to compete. Collins, who was supported by Georgia’s vibrant Republican grassroots community, didn’t take too kindly to being passed over for the Senate seat largely due to funding potential and is willing to jeopardize the party’s ability to hold the seat over it (well that, and a dash of good ol’ fashioned ideological extremism) and will now have plenty of fodder to use against Loeffler who is one of four senators under scrutiny for selling stocks in the run-up to the pandemic.
IF Georgia Democrats can thread the needle and somehow get their field to winnow and get Warnock over the 50 percent threshold on Election Day in November, they could flip that seat. But that’s a mighty big “if,” for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that the Democrats have ideologues in their party, too, which can make coordination difficult. Having two competitive Senate seats in a state that broke for Trump by just 5 points in 2016 in a low-turnout environment makes Georgia a toss-up state for the Biden team. And because a state like Georgia is superfluous to an Electoral College victory (you only need 270 EC votes to accomplish that) this is where things like candidate quality, strategy, and VP selection can make a difference. Under a scenario where Stacey Abrams or even Kamala Harris is on the ticket, Georgia could become ground zero.
What does it all mean?
Collectively, the update reflects the consolidation of the Democratic primary around a digestible candidate decently positioned to capitalize on anti-Trump blowback constrained by polarization and hyperpartisanship, the forces that constitute the fundamentals of the 2020 presidential election. Democrats and left-leaning independents are fired up, galvanized by negative partisanship and ready to vote Trump out. But Republicans, at least as of today, are equally determined to keep him. I want to make something clear- this update largely ignore what is all but guaranteed to be a serious economic recession as well as the toll the COVID19 pandemic ends up taking on American lives.
Can a mismanaged response to COVID19 that exacerbates the death toll and economic collapse and ensuing recession further complicate Trump’s already dismal reelection picture? Absolutely. When I said “barring a shock to the system” and listed economic recession it was not because I expected such an effect would help Trump electorally. Indeed, I’m not sure Trump would be capable of benefitting from any “rally around the flag” event, which the pandemic certainly could qualify as, because it is simply not in his nature to behave in ways that would allow him to rally the public around him, at least not outside a very constrained window of time.
If I had to guess, voters will likely hold Trump largely blameless for the economic collapse but the management of the country’s response to the pandemic is another matter. That said, after watching the Trump presidency play out, with the revelations of the Mueller Report — deftly deflected by Attorney General Barr in what I admiringly note was a brilliantly executed public relations effort — and the stunning revelations from House’s investigation into the president’s actions in the Ukraine scandal unable to move Republican voters off of the 90/10 approval perch, until I see data that shows Trump’s Red Wall cracking, I remain bullish on his ability to remain at least competitive for reelection in 2020. In other words, it’s hard for me to imagine the political map remade and Democrats suddenly competitive in places like Arkansas, which is what we have seen historically when presidential elections have corresponded to periods of massive economic or societal upheaval. Polarization and hyperpartisanship makes such an outcome unlikely, but if signs of such a democratic reawakening were to emerge, I will be sure to tell you.
Between now and the September update, we will have ample time to assess these possibilities. Until then, faithful followers, long days and pleasant nights.