Category Archives: The Big Picture

Analysis of the 2020 House Election using electoral trends, history and data.

FORECASTING THE HOUSE: WHAT REPUBLICANS NEED TO “LIKELY” WIN CONTROL

This is Part 2 in a short series projecting which party will win the House in 2020 given different possible presidential outcomes. Because it is a presidential election year and given the intensity of partisanship and increasing number of straight-ticket voters, the presidential results will be the best measure of the national environment and the most important factor in the House elections. This series will explore what those presidential results will mean for the House and which party can expect to win a majority of seats based on the various possibilities. You can find Part 1 here.

Quick Recap
If you did not read Part 1 of the article series, go read it for context. If you did (or are too lazy to go read it), here’s a quick recap. The goal is to determine what the 2020 presidential popular vote will need to be for:

  1. Republicans to be guaranteed to re-take the House
  2. Democrats to be guaranteed to hold the House
  3. Republicans to be likely (but not guaranteed) to re-take the House
  4. Democrats to be likely (but not guaranteed) to re-take the House
  5. Democrats and Republicans to be about equally as likely to control the House.

Last week’s post focused on #1 — what the presidential popular vote margin needs to be to create an environment where Republicans safely win the House. As you can see in the chart below, 4.7% is the end of “Safely Republican” territory and 4.6% is the start of the “Likely Republican” zone. Again, go read Part 1 to see exactly how this was determined.

Calculating the Likely Republican Presidential Popular Vote
Today we are continuing with the Republican side of the arch. What margin do Republicans need in the presidential popular vote to be likely to win the House?

Here are the variables we will take into account:

  • Each district’s 2018 margin. This will be the baseline for the 2020 results.
  • The incumbency advantage. FiveThirtyEight estimates that incumbents have a 2.7% incumbency advantage. So, for candidates who were incumbents before 2018, they will get no additional boost. Candidates who won an open seat, will get this 2.7% boost. Candidates who beat an incumbent in 2018 will get double the 2.7% (5.4%), to account for the incumbency advantage of their opponent that they overcame in that election.
  • Each district’s 2016 presidential vote: We will assume that the Republican loses in any seat in which Clinton won > 50%. These are highlighted in blue.
  • The 2018 midterm’s national environment. Because the environment leaned 7.3% in Democrats’ fav or, this will be subtracted from the Democratic candidate’s margin.

The chart below shows, according to the above variables, which Democratic seats Republicans are most likely to win. For this calculation, we will assume that Republicans win districts exactly in this order. Of course, this is not precisely how things would really play out, but it should, on the whole, represent what Republicans will need to win back these districts.

The districts in which Hillary Clinton won >50% of the vote, and which we therefore assume Democratic congressional candidates will win, are highlighted in blue.  

So, how many seats do Republicans need to win to fit our “Likely Republican” category. I am going to be mildly conservative in this calculation whereas for the “Safely Republican” category, I wanted a number that all but guaranteed a Republican victory, and was therefore extremely conservative. 

Here are the safeguards I am building into the calculation as to what Republicans need in order to “likely” win back the house. You can compare this to the “Safely Republican” safeguards, which were much more conservative. 

  • 5-seat cushion. Meaning I am estimating what Republicans need to win 223 seats, not the bare-majority 218.
  • Assuming that Republicans lose two of the four seats with candidates embroiled in scandal: Steve King (IA-04), Duncan Hunter (CA-50), Chris Collins (NY-27), Ross Spano (FL-15)
  • Assuming that Democrats win every seat where Hillary Clinton won >50% of the vote in 2016.

This means that Republicans will need to flip: 19 to take the majority, + 5 seat cushion + 2 to make up for seats lost due to scandal.  So, Republicans need to flip 19+5+2 = 26 seats.

The 26th seat that Democrats would flip is NY-19, which is north of New York City and encompasses much of the Hudson Valley and the Catskill Mountains.  This seat is currently held by Antonio Delgado, who beat an incumbent by 5.2%. If we adjust for incumbency (+5.4%) and the Democratic environment of 2018 (-7.3%), we find that, in a neutral environment, Delgado could expect to win his district by 3.3%. Therefore, Republican will need a 3.4% lead in the national environment, measured by the presidential popular vote, to likely win the House.

Now we can fill in the rest of the left-half of the graph. I have made a change to the graph to include a “Lean Republican” and “Lean Democrat” rating. This is the range where a party has a slight advantage, but one that could be easily overcome by just a few close districts swinging the wrong way. If Republicans win the presidential vote by in between 4.6% and 3.4%, they are likely, but not guaranteed, to take back the House. Since “Likely Republican” ends at 3.4%, we can fill in 3.3% as the start of the next zone, “Lean Republican”. The arrows indicate where new information was added.

The next post will complete the chart. We’ll calculate presidential popular vote for the Safely Democrat, Likely Democrat, Lean Democrat, Lean Republican and Toss Up categories.

FORECASTING THE HOUSE: WHAT REPUBLICANS NEED TO SAFELY WIN CONTROL

This is Part 1 in a short series projecting which party will win the House in 2020 given different possible presidential outcomes. Because it is a presidential election year and given the intensity of partisanship and increasing number of straight-ticket voters, the presidential results will be the best measure of the national environment and the most important factor in the House elections. This series will explore what those presidential results will mean for the House and which party can expect to win a majority of seats based on the various possibilities.

As we get closer to election day, presidential polling will begin to expose the national political environment and how the country feels about the two parties. But because the presidential election is so far away and the Democratic primary is up in the air, the House generic ballot — which asks poll respondents to choose between a generic Republican and generic Democrat for the House — is a better measure of the nation’s feelings on the two parties than presidential polls.

Eventually, taking both of these indicators into account will give the best picture of where House Republicans and Democrats stand. As election day gets closer, I will start relying more heavily on presidential polls and start using the House generic ballot less to measure the national environment and more to understand if voters plan to distinguish between their presidential and congressional votes.

Specifically, the goal of this series is to determine what the presidential popular vote will need to be for:

  1. Republicans to be guaranteed to re-take the House
  2. Democrats to be guaranteed to hold the House
  3. Republicans to be likely (but not guaranteed) to re-take the House
  4. Democrats to be likely (but not guaranteed) to re-take the House
  5. Democrats and Republicans to be about equally as likely to control the House.

By the end of this series, the chart below will be filled. Today, though, the task is to fill in only the bottom-left portion of the graph — the presidential popular vote margin that Republicans will need to safely win control of the House. The percentages around the semi-circle represent margins over the opposing party in the presidential popular vote. 

So, what margin do Republicans need in the presidential popular vote to safely win control of the House? Heading into the 2020 elections, Republicans will need to net at least 19 seats to win back the House. The current makeup of the House is 235 Democrats, 197 Republicans, one independent and two vacancies. One of these vacancies, NC-03, is a safe Republican seat, meaning Republicans effectively have 198 seats. The other vacancy, is NC-09, will have a special election next week due to election fraud tainting the 2018 election. Lastly, the independent is Justin Amash in MI-03, who renounced his Republican identity after clashing with Trump and the party after calling for impeachment.

I am going to be extremely conservative in this calculation, because I want a number that will ensure Republicans control of the House barring wild circumstances.

As I’m being very conservative, I’m going to build in a lot of room for error on the Republican side. The safeguards are:

  • A 10-seat cushion. Meaning I am estimating what Republicans need to win 228 seats, not the bare-majority 218.
  • Assuming that Republicans lose the four seats with candidates embroiled in scandal: Steve King (IA-04), Duncan Hunter (CA-50), Chris Collins (NY-27), Ross Spano (FL-15)
  • Assuming that Democrats win every seat where Hillary Clinton won >50% of the vote in 2016.

Totaling these, in order to reach the “safe” zone, Republicans need to win 33 additional seats: 19 to take the majority + 10 seat cushion + 4 to make up for seats lost due to scandal.

To find out which 33 seats will be easiest for Republicans to flip, we will take several things into consideration. The presidential popular vote that Republicans will need to take that 33rd seat will be our margin for them to “safely” take the House.

Here are the variables we will take into account:

  • 2018 margin. This will be the baseline for the 2020 results.
  • Incumbency advantage. FiveThirtyEight estimates that incumbents have a 2.7% incumbency advantage. So, for candidates who were incumbents before 2018, they will get no additional boost. Candidates who won an open seat, will get this 2.7% boost. Candidates who beat an incumbent in 2018 will get double the 2.7% (5.4%), to account for the incumbency advantage of their opponent that they overcame in that election.
  • 2016 Presidential Vote: Again, we will assume that the Republican loses in any seat in which Clinton won > 50%. These are highlighted in blue.
  • The 2018 midterm’s national environment. Because the environment leaned 7.3% in Democrats’ favor, this will be subtracted from the Democratic candidate’s margin.

The chart below shows, in order, which Democratic seats Republicans are most likely to win, given our conditions and assumptions. The districts highlighted in blue are ones in which Hillary Clinton won >50%, which this overly-cautious projection model assumes that Democrats will win. 

The 33rd seat that Democrats would flip is TX-32 in northeastern Dallas County. This seat is currently held by Collin Allred, who beat an incumbent by 6.5%. If we adjust for incumbency (+5.4%) and the Democratic environment of 2018 (-7.3%), we find that, in a neutral environment, Allred could expect to win his district by 4.6%. Therefore, Republican will need a 4.7% lead in the national environment, measured by the presidential popular vote, to safely win the House.

Keep in mind how many safeguards were build into this: a 10 seat margin, assuming Republicans lose four incumbent-held seats due to scandal and giving Democrats every district where Clinton won >50%. Therefore, if Republicans clear the 4.7% hurdle, they have the House all but guaranteed in the bag.

So, now we can fill in the first part of our chart! The arrow points to the newly filled in projection. We know that Republican’s will take the House (barring something crazy) if they win the presidential popular vote with anywhere between a 100% margin and a 4.7% margin.

The next few weeks will be dedicated to filling in data for the rest of the chart, which will become more useful as the presidential election nears and the national environment starts to become clear. 

NOT-SO-FRIENDLY-FIRE: REPUBLICAN HOUSE PRIMARIES

This is the second of two posts looking ahead to 2020 House primaries. Last week’s post looked at Democratic primaries and this week’s looks at Republicans. 

Incumbents almost never lose their primaries. In the last 37 House elections since 1946 over 98% of incumbents running for reelection have won their party’s nomination. Over the last twenty years that rate has been 99% — only 49 incumbents have lost primaries.

In 2018, two House Republicans incumbents lost their primaries: Mark Sanford (SC-01) and Robert Pittenger (NC-09). Sanford lost because he did not fully embrace Trump and his populist base. He signed a letter requesting that Trump release his tax returns, disapproved of the president’s push to drill off the Atlantic coast and said that the president was “partially to blame for the demons that have been unleashed” after the shooting at a congressional baseball practice in 2017.  The president went on to endorse Sanford’s opponent the afternoon of election day.

Pittenger’s pro-business Republican identity left room for an opponent who appealed to Trump’s more populist base. And while Pittenger did tie himself to Trump, his opponent, Mark Harris, effectively caricatured Pittenger as a member of the Washington establishment (The Swamp) and won over populist Trump supporters.  

Sanford and Pittenger lost their primaries because they were creatures of a pre-Trump Republican era. That isn’t to say they were otherwise perfect candidates — Sanford’s 2009 weeklong disappearance to Buenos Aires for an affair while he was governor did him no favors. Nor did the federal investigation into Pittenger’s real estate business help him. In the end, though, it was Trumpism that did the establishment incumbents in.   

Is the same dynamic true now? Do incumbents critical of Trump or who lack a Trumpish appeal face the greatest threat from Republican primaries? Sort of.

Of the six Republicans most vulnerable to a primary, only two are in the position because they aren’t Trump-ey enough. That’s largely because most Republicans have either gotten on board with the Trump agenda or have decided to retire. Continuing last week’s fun alliterative categories, we’ll call Republican incumbents who distance themselves from the president “Trump Traitors”. The other four are embroiled in scandals and we’ll call them “Scandalous Statesmen”.

Trump Traitors
One of Trump’s biggest critic in the House is Justin Amash (MI-03). Amash was the lone Republican to call for Trump’s impeachment following the release of the Mueller Report. This, unsurprisingly, was not popular with the president, who called him “one of the dumbest & most disloyal men in Congress”.  It was also not popular with Republicans — a June poll showed Amash trailing GOP state Rep, James Lower, 49-33. This is a departure from 2018 and 2016 when Amash didn’t face any challengers and 2014 when he won his primary by over 14%.

In July, though, Amash announced he was leaving the Republican Party to become an independent, making him the first House Republican to do so in nearly 20 years.  So, while technically this does not count as a Republican primary challenge, it’s close enough to be included here. The 2020 election will be interesting, given that there will be three major candidates — a Democrat, a Republican and Amash — unless Amash decides to run for president as a Libertarian, something he’s signaled is a possibility.

Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) is one of three Republican representatives who holds a district that Hillary Clinton won in 2016. He only won his 2018 general re-election by 2.6% (51.3-48.7), so has been positioning himself as a moderate. He has only voted with the president on 37% of the time since his reelection — far and away the lowest score of any Republican. Unsurprisingly, Fitzpatrick faces a challenge from the right. The first is a man named Andrew Meehan who, in a rather painful to watch announcement video, calls Fitzpatrick a “Democrat masquerading as a Republican” and an “anti-Trump, Trump-hating RINO”.  Given the quality of Meehan’s video and campaign website, Meehan doesn’t have the organizational expertise to take on Fitzpatrick who has raised nearly a million dollars this cycle. As of now, Fitzpatrick seems safe but would be in danger if a more formidable conservative enters he primary.

Scandalous Statesman
Republicans have a problem in Steve King (IA-04). He’s long been criticized for his flirtations with racism and white supremacism. He was rebuked by Republican leaders in 2013 for saying that immigrants have “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert”. His expanding list of controversies culminated this year in a defense of rape and incest, arguing that without it, there might be no population left on earth.  Unsurprisingly, Republicans want him out. He only beat his 2018 Democratic challenger, J.D. Scholten, by 3% in a district that leans Republican by 23%. With Scholten running again, national Republicans are lining up behind state Senator Randy Feenstra. Feenstra has almost $340,000 in the bank, which could help him overpower King’s $20,000. King has represented the area since 2003, meaning that voters have consistently re-elected him even after seeing his warts, which is a promising for his primary chances. Given that he’s one of the only Republicans in the country who could manage to lose the heavily Republican leaning district, expect establishment Republicans to throw support and resources to a more electable Republican. 

Chris Collins (NY-27), Duncan Hunter (CA-50) and Ross Spano (FL-15) are all in trouble for various accusations of corruption. Collins faces an indictment of insider trading; Hunter is facing federal accusations that he stole money from his campaign to “take their family to Italy, buy their children school lunches and fly a relative’s pet rabbit to Washington; Spano admitted that he violated campaign finance laws for failing to disclose “loans” from friends. The charges against Collins and Hunter and accusations against Spano all emerged after the 2018 primaries, meaning that they haven’t had to face their party’s voters with these accusations in the open. Primary challengers can also attack Collins’ and Hunter’s electability in a general election, claiming that they are endangering a safe Republican seat. Collins only won his 2018 general election by 0.4% in a district that leans 22.9% Republican, earning the distinction as the House Republican incumbent who most underperformed his district’s partisan lean. Hunter didn’t do much better — winning by 3.4% in a district that leans Republican by 21.6%.

Challengers have emerged against Collins and Hunter races. New York state Senator Christopher Jacobs, who is running against Collins, raised $446,000 in the second quarter of 2019 while Collins raised just $9,000. Hunter already faces five Republican primary challengers including Larry Wilske, a former Navy SEAL who raised over $200,000 in the last quarter. Spano, however, faces no primary challenger yet and had a relatively strong second quarter, raising over $200,000, making him seem like the safest of the three scandal makers.

The Takeaway
These are not the only Republican incumbents who will face viable primary challengers in 2020. Other incumbents including John Carter (TX-31) and Ted Yoho (FL-03) have primary opponents may eventually pose a threat, but don’t seem to viable right now. Chances are that Carter, Yoho and almost every Republican incumbent not mentioned above will easily win their party’s nomination. Even some of the six that I presented as vulnerable will probably breeze past their primary opponents next year.

The biggest factor in any of these primary races, though, is not fundraising totals or even the scandals. It is the president. The president’s blessing would probably even overcome egregious scandals, but endorsing controversial figures may be dangerous for a president hoping for reelection himself.

If Trump explicitly endorses or tweets support for a candidate — incumbent or challenger — they will have the upper hand. Similarly, if a candidate can successfully paint their opponent as anti-Trump, they have a good shot at winning over the party’s base. Remember, about  90% of Republicans approve of Trump, meaning that to defy him is to defy the party: a terrible strategy for trying to win the party’s primary.

Having Trump as party leader has created a primary season less fractured than that of the Democrats. The president’s kingmaker status will scare off and neutralize most party dissension and snap Republicans into line — at least through primary season. After winning their elections, many of these Trumpist tones may die down in favor of moderate appeals.  Until then, though, expect to see Republicans bringing out their ropes as they tie themselves as tightly to the president as possible.

NOT-SO-FRIENDLY-FIRE: DEMOCRATIC HOUSE PRIMARIES

This is the first of two posts looking ahead to 2020 House primaries. This post will look at Democratic primaries and next week’s will focus on Republican’s. I largely relied on a report by Common Dreams, endorsements by Justice Democrats, and an article by Sabato’s Crystal Ball to identify vulnerable incumbents.

Incumbents almost never lose their primaries. In the last 37 House elections since 1946 over 98% of incumbents running for reelection have won their party’s nomination. Over the last twenty years that rate has been 99% — only 49 incumbents have lost primaries.

When insurgent candidates do beat incumbents, though, it makes headlines. The most famous Democrat in the House (besides maybe Nancy Pelosi) is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She holds the title because of her surprise primary win in 2018 over the Joe Crowley, who was the Democratic Caucus Chairman and the number four Democrat in the House leadership. The only other Democratic newcomer to defeat an incumbent last year was Ayanna Pressley, another nationally known figure. Together, Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez form half of the “squad” a group of four progressive Democratic women who have pulled the party leftward and been the focus of national media, Republican ire and Democratic infighting since their elections. All this to say, an insurgent beating an incumbent is rare, but when it happens, can be big news.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, whose primary goal is to elect Democrats to the House, took a controversial step to protect incumbents earlier this year. In March, the committee announced that it would no longer hire political vendors that work for Democratic primary challengers. Whether or not this will help Democrats keep the House — some saw this as a way to keep more electable, moderate Democrats in at-risk seats — it infuriated progressives. The executive director of the progressive organization, Justice Democrats, tweeted “This is in direct response to the election of AOC and Ayanna Pressley.” The founder of a progressive consultant firm, New Deal Strategies, called the DCCC an “incumbent protection racket”.

So, how are Democratic primaries shaping up as we head towards 2020? The following is an overview of what are looking to be the most interesting and competitive primaries. It is not a comprehensive list of all incumbents who will face a viable challenger or are at risk of losing the party’s nomination.

I’ve separated the incumbents who face — or are likely to face — viable primaries into five groups.  Some incumbents fall into more than one category, but I have put them into the one that seems to be the dominant reason for their primary challenge.

  1. Moderate Mistakes: Representatives seen as too ‘moderate’ or ‘corporate’ for their districts.
  2. Progressive Problem Makers: Representatives seen as too ‘progressive’ or as causing problems within the caucus.
  3. Leadership Loons: Members of the Democratic leadership.
  4. Presidential Pursuers: Representatives who are seeking the presidential nomination.
  5. Vulnerable Voters: Representatives who have faced close primaries in recent years as incumbents.

Moderate Mistakes

The biggest (and most dramatic) bucket is #1: The Moderate Mistakes. These are the incumbents that risk a primary due to their moderate voting record or public image. Some of these candidates have business relationships and take campaign donations from corporate PACs, giving them the derisive title, corporate Democrats.

The left wing of the party and affiliated groups want to replace these more moderate incumbents with progressives. These groups seem to have made the concession that a far left progressive might not do well in a purple, moderate district. That’s why they are largely targeting moderate incumbents in deep blue, safely Democratic districts. Their aim is to pull the party leftward by replacing moderate incumbents in safely Democratic seats.

I’m not going to detail each of these elections because most have the same story: A reliably blue district. A ‘moderate’ incumbent who has made statements or taken votes that infuriate progressives. A progressive insurgent who claims that the incumbent does not truly represent their constituents and that it’s time for a new generation of leadership. It’s worth noting, though, that Lipinski, Clay, Beatty and Cuellar have opponents that have been endorsed by Justice Democrats, the group that helped AOC and Pressley get elected and is now a proxy of sorts for them. Justice Democrats requires endorsees to refuse corporate PAC donations and to sign onto their extremely progressive platform — Abolish ICE, Green New Deal free public college, Medicare for All, etc.  Races that have challengers with endorsements from Justice Democrats or other progressive organizations — Our Revolution, Indivisible, PCCC, Move On, Democracy for America — will be the most heated and interesting primaries among the “Moderate Mistakes”.

Progressive Problem Makers

On the other end are the outspoken progressives who have drawn the ire of Republicans and, more importantly, of Democrats. The two that actually could have viable primary opponents are Ilhan Omar (MN-05) and Rashida Tlaib (MI-13). I’m not going to go into the drama surrounding accusations of anti-Semitism here — you’re one Google away from that.

Omar’s comments in particular have angered some Democrats and have them searching for a primary challenger. Her district very liberal, but includes the white suburbs surrounding Minneapolis. These demographics would appear to have cross-cutting effects for a progressive, Somali-American Muslim woman.

Tlaib, though, is even more vulnerable than Omar. Tlaib is a Muslim and Palestinian-American representing a district that is 57% black. In 2018, Tlaib just barely won the primary with just 31% of the vote, enough to eek out the plurality over her competitor Brenda Jones who got 30%. Several African American candidates — including Jones — were running that year and split of the black vote. The right black candidate could coalesce that constituency in 2020.

Leadership Loons

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary upset was a big deal because she ousted the number four House Democrat, a national political figure. Party leaders are natural targets for Democrats who are upset with the status quo. If you want to change the party and get your voice heard, it makes sense to attack those at the top. But not every leader is vulnerable. Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, for example, isn’t going anywhere. So which leaders could be?

The highest-ranking Democrat that might realistically be in trouble is Steny Hoyer (MD-05), the House Majority Leader and the highest-ranking Democrat after Speaker Pelosi. He already has two challengers, one of which has received some serious attention. She’s running in the mold of AOC — pushing the Green New Deal and Medicare for All while claiming that Hoyer is out of touch and beholden to donors. Hoyer faces criticism from the left for his ties to Wall Street, his vote to authorize the Iraq War and opposition to big progressive programs like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.

Cheri Bustos (IL-17) is the Chairwoman of the DCCC. She infuriated progressives with the new policy blacklisting vendors who provide service to challengers. She continued to infuriate liberals with plans to attend a fundraiser for her pro-life Democratic colleague, Dan Lipinski. She eventually backed out, but anger does not dissipate quickly. She’s also a member of the New Democratic Coalition, a moderate branch of House Democrats, further opening her up to a progressive challenger.

Hakeem Jeffries (NY-08), Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, holds the job of AOC’s 2018 primary rival before she successfully ousted him. Rumors of an AOC backed challenger began late last year.  She has since tamped down these rumors, but Jeffries will probably face a progressive opponent for accepting corporate PAC donations, supporting of charter schools, ties to the banking industry, etc. He might also face some residual anger for defeating progressive hero Barbara Lee in the election for Democratic Caucus Chair.

The other four party leaders are all Chairs of House committees. Jerry Nadler (NY-10): House Judiciary Committee, Nita Lowey (NY-17): House Committee on Appropriations, Richard Neal (MA-01): House Ways and Means Committee, Elliot Engel (NY-16): House Foreign Affairs Committee. Their vulnerabilities all come in familiar form — some combination of being too moderate and a general anti-establishment fervor among progressives. I’m not going to go into each of their individual circumstances, but importantly, two of the four — Neal and Engel — have opponents officially endorsed by Justice Democrats, so they could be in the most trouble.

Presidential Pursuers

Then there are the dreamers. There are currently three Representatives running in the Democratic Primary for president: Seth Moulton (MA-06), Tulsi Gabbard (HI-02) and Tim Ryan (OH-13). Each of these candidates could probably have safely won the party renomination to the House, but risk that every day they stay in the presidential race. Being on the presidential trail means they can’t spend as much time in their district with constituents. It also could make voters back home feel like a stepping stone. Why re-nominate a representative who doesn’t really want the job?   

Gabbard in particular seems vulnerable. She already has a viable primary opponent in state Senator Kai Kahele and has raised negative $20 for her House campaign in the second quarter of 2019. Her heterodox political ideology grinds with Democrats and her a rough history on LGBT issues, abortion rights and support for the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad could be problematic in a deep blue district.

Moulton also faces legitimate primary if he decides to run for the House again. Criticism over his failed attempt to block Nancy Pelosi’s leadership is a weak spot and could be a focus of the primary. He already faces primary challengers, including Salem City Counselor Lisa Peterson who thinks there is room to Moulton’s left in the primary.

Tim Ryan, who tried to take on Pelosi as the House Democratic leader in 2016, seems safer than both Moulton or Gabbard if he heads back to the House. He doesn’t have any official challengers yet and won his primary in 2018 with 87% of the primary vote.

Vulnerable Voters

Both Yvette Clark (NY-19) and Carolyn Maloney (NY-12) faced relatively close primary elections in 2018. Clark in particular just scraped out a 53-47 win over Adem Bunkeddeko, a son of Ugandan refugees who had been endorsed by the New York Times. Clark, though, is extremely progressive, leaving little room for Bunkeddeko on her left. He ran instead on a message of anti-establishment/machine politics. He is running again in 2020, making Clark one of the most precariously positioned incumbents. Maloney is probably in less trouble than Clark as she won her primary 60%-40%. It was not an extremely close election, but still indicates a vulnerability that the right candidate could exploit.

The Takeaway
So, what’s the big takeaway? It’s not particularly important to remember every endangered incumbent, their district and their challenger. Even the incumbents covered above is not a comprehensive list of all vulnerable representatives, nor will all of these incumbents face tough primaries. The big takeaway is that the Democratic party is not at peace — there is tugging and pulling and fighting coming from many different wings within the party.

Looking at primaries highlights intraparty challenges that Democrats will face in the coming years. Chief among these is: what kind of a party do Democrats want? Do they want a big tent party with room for moderates like Henry Cuellar and pro-life Dan Lipinski? The 2020 primaries will help identify what kind of leaders Democratic voters want and how willing they are to throw out their current representatives in an effort to transform the party.  

THE 2018 MIDTERMS CONTINUE: NORTH CAROLINA’S 9TH

The 2018 midterms will finally end next month. North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District will hold a special election on September 10 for a seat that should have been decided in November 2018. Those election results were thrown out by the state’s election board due to allegations of election fraud against McCrae Dowless, a member of Republican candidate Mark Harris’s campaign staff. He was charged with improperly collecting absentee ballots, forging signatures on absentee ballots and changing or filling in votes.

The District is traditionally Republican — No Democrat has won there since 1962 and Trump carried it by 12%. It runs from southeast Charlotte eastward through more rural and majority black counties. Union County, which includes the exurbs of Charlotte, was Harris’s stronghold. He won by 20% (over 17,000 votes) in Union County which allowed him to lose both Mecklenburg County (home to Charlotte) as well as the more rural and less populated Districts to the east and still win the election.

In the (invalidated) 2018 election, Republican Mark Harris beat his Democratic opponent, Dan McCready, by just 905 votes.  Such a close election was bound to set off a competitive rematch. And so it has: Cook Political Report and Inside Elections have the race rated a “Toss Up” and Sabato’s Crystal Ball has it as “Leans Republican”.

Dan McCready, a marine veteran and renewable energy businessman, is again the Democratic nominee. He ran unopposed in the primary and is running as a moderate — disavowing some of the party’s more progressive figures and vowing not to support Nancy Pelosi for speaker in the 2018 race. On the Republican side is Dan Bishop, a state senator most famous for sponsoring the controversial “bathroom bill” to require transgender people to use public bathrooms that align with the sex indicated on their birth certificates.  Also on the ballot: Libertarian candidate Jeff Scott and Green Party candidate Allen Smith.

Polling has been scarce and hasn’t told us much about who is leading. The only external poll in the race found Bishop with a 46% to 42% lead over McCready. This poll, though, was taken back in May and found 10% of voters were undecided and had a 5.2% margin of error. The only other poll is from McCready’s camp and had the two candidates tied at 46% with 8% of voters and a 4.6% margin of error. These two polls don’t give us much indication of a favorite. They both show a tight race and have margins of error and enough undecided voters that the race could go either way.

The current polling doesn’t tell us much about who is winning. So, what other indicators do we have?

Good Signs for Democrat Dan McCready:

  • McCready had no primary opponent. Primaries can cause intraparty schisms and drain candidates’ bank accounts, hurting them in the general election. McCready was able to glide through the primary season while his opponent, Dan Bishop, was battling it out with fellow Republicans.
  • McCready has been campaigning for nearly 28 consecutive months. He announced his 2018 campaign in May of 2017. His opponent, on the other hand, has been running for 5. McCready has had ample time to get his name recognition up, meet voters and spread his message.
  • McCready has dominated Bishop in fundraising. As of July 30, McCready had outraised his opponent $3.4 million to $1.2 million. McCready also had $1.8 million left in the bank compared to Bishop’s $340 thousand. As I wrote in a previous post, candidate fundraising in the general election usually doesn’t actually change the race that much. But it will allow McCready to stay on the air through election day, which could tip the scales in a very tight race. More importantly, though, it is an indicator of grassroots support and heightened enthusiasm.
  • The district has an urban(ish) core and lots of black voters. The district did vote for Trump by 12 points in 2018, but is the archetypal district that is swinging towards Democrats. It comprises a good portion of southeast Charlotte and its suburbs, meaning there are likely plenty of suburban voters — the kind we saw swing towards Democrats in 2018, handing them the House. And while the district stretches eastward into rural counties, these counties have high proportions of black voters, a core Democratic constituency.
  • Lastly (and in my opinion an underrated factor) is that Democrats did not commit election fraud. The Republican in 2018 received national bad press for tainting the election process, something Americans on both sides of the aisle view as sacrosanct. It’s not hard to imagine this recent Republican betrayal driving Democrats to turn out and Republicans to stay home.

Good Signs for Republican Dan Bishop:

  • This is historically a Republican leaning District. Both Trump and Romney carried it by 12 points. No Democrat has won the seat since 1962. A 12 point swing in three years is a huge jump and a lot of things would have to go wrong for Bishop and right for McCready for it to happen.
  • 2018 was a banner year for Democrats. They won the House popular vote by 8.6% and netted 41 House seats. But that may have passed. And if the national mood of the country is not as friendly for Democrats, it will be tough for them to win in a district that Trump carried by 12%. According to FiveThirtyEight’s 2020 poll aggregator, Democrats are currently leading in the generic ballot by about 6%. Special elections, though, are hard to predict and don’t always align with the national environment. But the possibility of a less Democratic national mood is a good sign for Bishop.
  • Outside spending is heavily weighted in Bishop’s favor. While McCready has dominated in direct campaign contributions, Bishop has the weight of the NRCC and Congressional Leadership Fund behind him. The two groups have reserved around $3.8 million in ad spots through election day. The DCCC pledged to spend $2 million on the race. The $1.8 million gap effectively neutralizes McCready’s advantage in campaign fundraising and may even be more effective because outside groups are often more amenable to drafting negative ads.
  • This is an off-year election and off year elections have lower turnout. Generally, low turnout elections benefit Republicans because their base of older white voters are more likely to turn out than younger minority voters who lead Democratic.
  • Dan Bishop avoided a runoff in the Republican primary, allowing the general election to happen in September rather than in November. Charlotte’s municipal elections take place in November and will likely turn out Democratic voters in the city. Bishop will benefit from the lack of overlap between the municipal and congressional elections.

The winner of this seat is not going to affect the current House power balance. Democrats hold 235 seats and Republicans effectively hold 1991There is a vacancy in NC-03 due to the death of Representative Walter Jones, but this is a heavily Republican district and expected to elect a Republican in the September special election. After this election the House balance will be either 236-199 or 235-200 — an insignificant difference. More importantly, the winner will have the incumbency advantage in 2020 and a good chance of holding onto the seat. Depending on how close the House race is next year, one extra seat could be meaningful.

And perhaps even more importantly, the results will tell us a few things about the current national environment. If McCready wins the election — or even if he loses but the race is much tighter than Trump’s 12-point margin — Democrats can breathe a bit easier. This would mean that the blue wave of 2018 has not completely receded and may stay through 2020. On the other hand, if Republicans again carry the seat by close to 12 points, they may have a better shot at winning back the House than the generic ballot indicates.

Lastly, the election is a testing ground for the parties’ 2020 messaging. Dan Bishop has been attacking Democrats as socialists, focusing his jabs against progressives like Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Bernie Sanders. McCready has run as a moderate — distancing himself from those same progressive figures and party leaders like Nancy Pelosi. His campaign slogan is “country over party”.

We are one month from election day and the race is up in the air. The polls show a tight race and no other indicators show a clear frontrunner. So, without any clear indicators, I’m moving from clear, hard data to opaque, soft guesswork. The previous Republican’s dabbling with election fraud caused this special election and left the district without congressional representation for nine months. This betrayal of America’s most fundamental institution — free and fair elections — leaves voters with a bad taste.

The election is still up in the air, but election fraud is, understandably, not popular. This could cause Republicans to stay home and drive Democrats to the ballot box. Election fraud is not a good look for Republicans and could give McCready the win in this traditionally Republican district. 

THE GENERIC BALLOT: SEAT ALLOCATION VS THE POPULAR VOTE (PART 2)

The 2020 elections are still 16 months away and yet pollsters are out in force, giving us just enough information to break out our crystal balls and make wildly irresponsible predictions. This is the last post in a four-part series looking at the Generic Ballot and its utility as an election predictor. You can read the first post in the series here

The Republican Party’s structural electoral advantage in federal elections is well documented in liberal circles. Republicans won two of the last five presidential elections while losing the popular vote. The Senate — where states get equal representation — gives rural, Republican-leaning states undue voting power relative to their populations. Republicans have so heavily gerrymandered the House that Democrats are consistently underrepresented relative to their portion of the popular vote.

Our focus here at ESY is the House — questions about the presidency and Senate will have to wait. We’ll concentrate on the last claim: Do Democrats face a structural disadvantage in House elections?  To start, it’s important to understand two measures of bias in the House. We’ll then look at how these biases have come into play historically and, finally, how that relates to the generic ballot.

The Median House District
One way to measure bias in the House of Representatives is to compare the median House district’s electoral margin to the national popular vote. If you were to line up all the House districts from most Democratic to most Republican, the median House district would be the one directly in the middle. Number 218 out of 435. The district that would tip control of the House from one party to the other. The distance between this district’s margin and the national popular vote is one way to measure the House’s bias.

In 2018, Democrats led the House Popular Vote by 8.6%. In the median House district, California’s 10th, Democrat David Harder won by 4.5%.  If the whole nation voted 4.5% more Republican, Democrats would still have carried the popular vote by 4.1%, but lost CA-10 and, with it, control of the House. In this way, Republicans had a 4.1% structural advantage in the House in 2018.

David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report uses this measure to argue that Democrats have faced a disadvantage in the House since the 1960s.

The Seat Bonus
The other way to measure bias in the House bias is to measure each party’s “seat bonus”. A party’s seat bonus is the gap between their share of seats in the House and their share of the popular vote.

In a perfectly proportional system, a party that wins 53% of the vote would receive exactly 53% of the seats. The House, though, is decided by 435 individual elections rather than proportional allocation, making a perfectly proportional distribution of seats unlikely. In 2018, Democrats won 53% of the popular vote and won 235 of the House’s 435 seats, which translates to 54%. The Democratic seat bonus, therefore, is 1%.

This is perhaps a more intuitive way to measure the House’s bias. It also paints a more complex picture of the parties’ structural advantages and disadvantages in this legislative body. Unlike the “Median House District” measure, the “Seat Bonus”, over the years, has swung back and forth between the parties.

Tracking the “Seat Bonus”
The following graph shows Democratic and Republican overrepresentation in the House, measured by their proportion of seats minus their percentage in the national House popular vote, from 19722The 1972 redistricting was the first to take place under the Supreme Court’s “one person one vote” ruling which mandated districts of roughly equal proportion, making that election a natural starting point. to 2018. It’s a graph of each party’s “seat bonus”.3All data in the graph is rounded to the nearest 1%


Data: Brookings Vital Statistics on Congress

The graph shows three eras in the House. From 1972-1992 Democrats consistently benefited from a seat bonus while Republicans faced a heavy seat penalty. From 1994 – 2008, things were a bit more muddled, with Republicans and Democrats both usually benefitting from a seat bonus, but Republicans typically getting more of a bump. Lastly, from 2012-2016 Republicans got a strong seat bonus while Democrats faced a penalty. The most recent election 2018, seems to break this last era of Republican overrepresentation, but we will have to wait to see where the trendline goes in 2020 and after.   

These three eras line up almost perfectly with which party had control of the House. Democrats had majorities from 1972-1992, from 2006-2008, and again in 2018 while Republicans did from 1994-2004 and from 2010-2016. The party that won a majority in the House almost always received a bigger seat bonus. Out of 24 elections, only 1994 breaks the trend. And over these 24 elections, the party that won the House majority received an average 6% seat bonus. This bonus, however, has decreased from an average of 8% between 1972-1982 to 4% from 2008-2018.

The reason for the seat bonus deserves its own blog post and will be the focus next week. Some preliminary explanations:

1) Swingy seats are (proportionally) overrepresented. In 2018, there were 91 seats that fell in the range of +10 Republican to +10 Democratic. Since seats can range from +100R to +100D — a total range of 200 points — the 20-point range of +10R to +10D represents 10% of the total possible range. One might expect 10% of House seats to fall within this range. Instead, 91 seats (21% of all House districts) fell in this range. Because these close seats are overrepresented, a party will be disproportionately rewarded for marginal gains around 50% of the two-party vote.

2) Seats have different levels of elasticity — meaning they respond differently to changes in the national environment. According to FiveThirtyEight, for every change in 1% of the national popular vote, Michigan’s 5th District — the most elastic district in the nation — will move 1.24%. On the other side is Pennsylvania’s 3rd, which will only change .72%. Perhaps the swingy seats are also the most elastic, meaning that a party will be disproportionately rewarded for marginal gains around 50% of the two-party vote.

Again, these are just ideas. Next week we’ll dig into the data.

Below is chart similar to the one above, but this one uses the two-party popular vote, which excludes any votes for third parties.


Data: Brookings Vital Statistics on Congress

It looks almost identical to the first graph, with one big exception. In this graph, both party’s trendlines are consistently a few percentages lower.  When third party votes are included in the popular vote total, both Democrats and Republicans over-perform in House to a greater extent than when these votes are excluded. The reason for this is clear: third party votes rarely translate to real representation in the House. Third party votes increase the raw number of votes in the popular vote, meaning that Democrats and Republicans will receive a lower percentage of the total vote percentage. But because third party candidates almost never get elected, Democrats and Republicans do not see their overall representation in the House go down.

Tracking the Median House District
The Median House District measurement has shown a consistent bias in favor of Republicans for decades. Take a look at this graph charting the median seat in the House and Senate relative to the presidential popular vote. Every presidential year from 1968-2016 (excluding 1980), Republicans have had a two to six-point advantage. And that advantage has risen since the turn of the century, reaching about 5.5% in 2016.

This discrepancy comes from how Republican and Democrats are distributed among districts. Democrats are heavily concentrated in cities and urban areas; Republicans tend to be more spread out among rural, exurban and suburban districts. There are more districts with very high portions of Democratic voters than there are districts with very high portions of Republican voters. While party density makes it very easy for the individual seats, it also leads to a lot of wasted votes. Read my last post for more detail, but due to natural sorting and gerrymandering, Democrats waste more votes than Republicans. These wasted votes largely explain why the median House district is more Republican than the national popular vote. In 2018, Democrats won 180 seats by a 15% margin or greater while that number was just 126 for Republicans.

But…the Generic Ballot?
The Generic Ballot estimates the House popular vote which is used to project seat allocation between the parties. To understand the Generic Ballot’s utility at projecting seat allocation, it’s necessary to understand how well it predicts the House popular vote (which we covered in the first two pieces in this series) and how well that popular vote translates to seat allocation (which we covered in the last post and here).

According to FiveThirtyEight’s poll aggregator, Democrats lead the 2020 two-party Generic Ballot 53.7% to 46.3%, a 7.4% margin (as of July 13). This number is bound to change over the next year and a half. As 2020 approaches it will likely mirror the presidential election polls and in the meantime will track President Trump’s approval rating.

A 7.4% lead, though, would probably push Democrat’s past the Republican “Median House District” bias, giving them control of the House. Along with control of the House, Democrats would probably benefit from the “Seat Bonus” bias, giving them a greater than 53.7% (234 seats) share of House seats. Democrats didn’t get that “Seat Bonus” in 2018, winning about 8.6% in both the Popular Vote and seat allocation. However, as we saw from Republicans in 1994 and Democrats in 2006, it is common for a party to not receive a big bonus the first year that they re-take the House but then to see the bonus factor in the next election.

As we learned in the first post of this series, the Generic Ballot is pretty good measure of the national popular vote. It’s a good indicator of the national mood and predicts well how many House seats each party will win. We will end with two caveats to this. One: The Generic Ballot is much less reliable this far out from election day. Two: The House of Representatives is not decided by the national popular vote. It’s decided by 435 individual single-member districts with local factors and unique candidates. In this sense, there’s nothing at all general about House elections.

THE GENERIC BALLOT: SEAT ALLOCATION VS THE POPULAR VOTE (PART 1)

The 2020 elections are still 16 months away and yet pollsters are out in force, giving us just enough information to break out our crystal balls and make wildly irresponsible predictions. This is the third post in a four-part series looking at the Generic Ballot and its utility as an election predictor. You can read the first post in the series here

The Generic Ballot is a poll question that aims to measure the national popular vote for the House of Representatives. Respondents are asked to choose between a nameless Republican and Democrat for Congress. Gallup asks it this way: “If the elections for Congress were being held today, which party’s candidate would you vote for in your congressional district — the Democratic Party’s candidate or the Republican Party’s candidate?”

Each party’s number of seats in the House of Representatives, however, is not determined by the national popular vote. A party that gets 45% of the popular vote will not always (or usually) receive 45% of seats in the House. Instead, we hold 435 individual elections, district by district. There are, therefore, two degrees of separation between the Generic Ballot and House seat allocation. The Generic Ballot predicts the national House popular vote which then can be used to estimate each party’s seat allocation.

How U.S. House Elections Work
The current conception of U.S. House elections — 435 individual districts with one representative each — is not mandated by the Constitution. Regarding seat apportionment among the states, the Constitution stipulates that states have House representation proportional to their population and that each state has at least one representative. As for elections, the Constitution says that only these representatives should be “chosen every second Year by the People of the several States.”

Instead, the Uniform Congressional District Act, a federal law passed in 1967, mandates the use of single member districts in all states with more than one representative except Hawaii and New Mexico.4These two states were given exceptions, allowing them to continue electing representatives at-large. Both states have since done away with this practice. Without this statute, a state could theoretically establish multi-winner elections, where all of a state’s voters choose from the same slate of candidates and the candidates with the most votes fill the number of open seats in order of votes received. If, for example, there were eight candidates running for three open statewide seats, the top three vote getters in the statewide election would fill those three seats. As of now, though, this is against federal law.

Maine did run ranked choice elections in 2018 for House and Senate, rather than traditional plurality elections. But even in this system, the state is split up into proportional districts according to population and each district gets one representative. With this caveat, the this single-member district, first past the post system of choosing representative dominates U.S. House elections. So that’s what we will focus on here.

Why Party Seat Allocation Differs From The Popular Vote
Single member districts mean that some votes will not be represented. The votes of Republicans in a heavily Democratic districts, Democrats in heavily Republican districts and third-party voters are essentially useless. And in close elections — say a candidate wins 51% to 49% — nearly half of the electorate’s votes go without representation. Unsurprisingly, on a national scale, this means party representation does not match the national popular vote.

A key concept is the ‘wasted vote’. There are two kinds of wasted votes. Type One is a vote that does not go the winner. So, in a 60-40 election, the 40% of votes that did not go to the winning candidates are Type One wasted votes. A Type Two wasted vote is any vote for the winning candidate over the threshold to win the election. It is essentially an additional vote that the candidate would have won without. In an election with a 50% winning threshold, any vote over that 50% mark is a Type Two wasted vote. One might think that, on a national level, the number of Republican and Democratic votes would balance out. There are two big reasons that this does not happen.

1) Natural Sorting
Democratic and Republican voters are not spread evenly across the country or within states. Democrats are concentrated in urban areas while Republicans are spread out over larger, more rural areas. When congressional districts are drawn, Democrats are often naturally placed into districts that are overwhelmingly Democratic due to their heavy concentration in cities and urban areas. This creates a lot of Type Two wasted votes. If an urban district is 85% Democratic, that 35% over the 50% mark are unnecessary for Democratic representation and wasted votes. On the other hand, Republicans tend to live in suburban, exurban and rural areas. They are more evenly dispersed around the country, making it rarer for a district to be overwhelmingly Republican. This distribution is more efficient for Republican voters, because if they live in more 60-40 districts than 85-15 districts, they have cast many fewer wasted votes.

2) Gerrymandering
Gerrymandering is the drawing of congressional districts to favor one party over another. Because state legislatures are responsible for drawing congressional districts, they often try to maximize their party’s federal representation.

The two methods used in gerrymandering are ‘packing’ and ‘cracking’. Both involve maximizing the opposite party’s number of wasted votes. Packing is drawing a small number of congressional districts that heavily overrepresent the opposition party’s voters, creating a lot of the Type Two wasted vote. Cracking is the opposite of packing — diffusing the opposition’s voters into districts so as to create Type I wasted votes.

Most gerrymanders are a combination of Packing and Cracking. Imagine a state that has 100 voters: 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats and five congressional seats of 20 people each. A Democratic legislature could draw the districts to look like this:

1) 20 Republicans
2) 7 Republicans + 12 Democrats
3) 7 Republicans + 12 Democrats
4) 8 Republicans + 13 Democrats
5) 8 Republicans + 13 Democrats

The Republican Packing in District 1 along with the Republican Cracking in Districts 2 – 5 allowed Democrats to win four out of five seats in a state that his half Republican.

Natural Sorting and Gerrymandering are the two biggest reasons that the national popular vote and seat allocation among the parties do not match. There are, of course, other reasons: third party votes, unequal district sizes, differing voter turnout in districts, etc. But these two are the biggest structural and geographic factors of our system that ‘distort’ House representation away from the popular vote. Now that we know what causes the gap between popular vote and House representation, we can look at how significant this gap has been in the past, how much it matters today, and which party tends to benefit from it. Next week: SEAT ALLOCATION VS THE POPULAR VOTE (PART 2)

THE GENERIC BALLOT: 18 MONTHS OUT

The 2020 elections are still 18 months away and yet pollsters are out in force, giving us just enough information to break out our crystal balls and make wildly irresponsible predictions. This is the second post in a four-part series looking at the Generic Ballot and its utility as an election predictor. You can read the first post in the series here


Last post I argued that the Generic Ballot — the polling question that asks respondents if they plan to vote for a Republican or Democrat for Congress — is fairly predictive of election results when the poll is taken right before or on election day. But what about a year and a half out, as we are now from the 2020 election?

Early Generic Ballot polling is tough to track down, but Real Clear Politics has aggregated such polls since the 2004 Bush v. Kerry presidential race. The sample here is very small, only four presidential election cycles, so adjust skepticism accordingly.

In the chart below, I have averaged the results of the first five Generic Ballot polls taken in an election cycle, starting 19 months out from the election5Notice that not every cycle has polling data going back 19 months before the election. 2004 in particular, lacks very early polling data..


Data: RealClearPolitics

In 2008, 2012, and 2016, the early polling was surprisingly accurate, missing real election results by a net average of only 1.7%. The 2004 election polling, though, breaks this trend. The earliest polling projected a Democratic win of 10%, but Republicans won the House Popular Vote by 2.6%, leading to a 12.6% polling miss.

Lacking more historical data, it’s hard to determine if the error in 2004 is an outlier or not. If it is, and early Generic Ballot polling is generally within 1 to 3% of real election results, we could say that the numbers we see now are predictive of what’s to come in 2020. And while control of the House could hinge on this 1-3% polling error, the Generic Ballot polls would still be able to show the world of possible outcomes and which is most likely.

If 2004 is not an outlier, though, and Generic Ballot polling really will miss the mark by double digits about a quarter (or more) of the time, the Generic Ballot this far out cannot show us the world of possible outcomes, or the likelihood of these outcomes. Predicting that the House Popular Vote could be anywhere between a net +6 for Democrats and a net +6 for Republicans does not narrow election outcomes in any helpful way.  Because we can’t determine how likely a polling error like 2004 is the Generic Ballot this far out it should not be treated as predictive.

With that caveat, here are all the Generic Ballot polls taken within the past two months from pollsters receiving at least a B- pollster rating by FiveThirtyEight. Note that Morning Consult and Politico have conducted all but one of these polls, which raises the probability that there is a consistent statistical bias in their results, meaning that the data should be treated with even more skepticism.


Data: FiveThirtyEight

Clearly, Democrats currently have a consistent advantage in the Generic Ballot, averaging out to 7%. And while, again, this is not predictive 18 months out from election day, it does expose three important things about the current political environment.

1) The wave that swept Democrat’s into power in the House in 2018 has not dissipated. In that election, Democrats carried the House Popular Vote by 8.6%. So, Republicans may have closed this gap by a point or two, but the pro-Democratic sentiment largely remains.

2) Most voters’ Generic Ballot responses are determined by their feelings about Donald Trump. His net approval rating during this two-month period has ranged from about -9% to -13%. Not exactly the same as Generic Ballot polling, but close enough to give the impression that Trump’s approval is a big factor in down ballot decision making (at least in polls).

3) The small gap between Trump approval and the Generic Ballot average is important, though. While most voters who approve of Trump will vote a Republican Representative, and voters who disapprove of Trump will vote Democratic Representative, there is a small number of voters who distinguish between the top of the ticket and down-ballot races, And while this population is small and shrinking, it still exists. When control of the House can hinge on just one seat, any swing can be determinative.

The big question is if Trump will be able to turn his poor approval rating around. He has been stuck around -9 to -13 for most of the last year. If he can pull it closer to even, Republicans have a good chance to win the Generic Ballot and to take the House. If he continues to slum it down near negative double digits, 2020 will almost certainly see continued Democratic control of the House, likely control of the Presidency and possible control of the Senate. That’s the order Democrats are likely to hold or take power: House -> Presidency -> Senate. It’s hard to imagine a world where Democrats win the Presidency and lose the House or where they win the Senate and lose the Presidency and/or House.

Control of the House, though, is not determine by the Generic Ballot or the House Popular Vote. It is decided district by district. Whichever party wins in a majority (or plurality if there are 3rd party winners) of the 435 House seats will hold the House. In the next post we’ll look at how closely the House Popular Vote correlates to seat allocation between the parties and what this means for the 2020 election. The big question we’ll aim to answer: how much do Democrats or Republicans need to win the House Popular Vote to take control of the House?

THE GENERIC BALLOT: PSEPHOLOGY’S CRYSTAL BALL

The 2020 elections are still 18 months away and yet pollsters are out in force, giving us just enough information to break out our crystal balls and make wildly irresponsible predictions. This is the first post in a four-part series looking at the generic ballot and its utility as an election predictor


Democratic presidential primary polls have been dominating election headlines, but some congressional polls have been been released too,  albeit to much less fanfare. We should probably ignore these polls — it’s too early for them to be predictive. Prognosticating off these preliminary numbers is rash, reckless and generally unwise. And so that’s exactly what we will do here in a three-piece series. This post will focus on how predictive the “generic ballot” is on, or close to, election day. The next post will look at how valuable these numbers are now, given that the election is still a year and a half away. The last will look at the relationship between popular vote and seat apportionment.

In “generic ballot” polls, respondents are asked to choose between a nameless Republican and Democrat for Congress. Gallup asks it this way: “If the elections for Congress were being held today, which party’s candidate would you vote for in your congressional district — the Democratic Party’s candidate or the Republican Party’s candidate?” It measures national support for the two parties without some of the baggage carried by their polarizing national figures (think Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Mitch McDonnell, Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, etc.). It can also bring forward nuanced voter trends. For example, some voters might support a Democrat for President but Republican for House because they want the grinding impotency of split government. Another might vote the same way but because they support Trump but want continued House oversight. Another might choose to reward the current power dynamic because the economy is strong.

Final generic ballot polls — the ones taken within a few days of the actual election — are a better indicator of election outcomes in midterms years than in presidential years. Since 1948, the final generic ballot has missed the real midterm vote by an average of only 2%. The fallibility of the generic ballot in presidential years, though, is clear in the chart below.6Galup data from 1988 was not available.7Data is based of ‘likely voters’ for 1976 and 1996-2006 and ‘registered voters’ otherwise8The two-party generic ballot was used when available (2004-2016)9Data from Real Clear Politics was rounded to nearest integer to make it consistent with Gallup’s data


Data: Gallup101968-2000, Real Clear Politics112004-2016

Since 1968, the generic ballot has missed the real House popular vote by an average of 4% and until 2008, it consistently overestimated Democratic support.  Both of these problems have been ameliorated in recent years, resulting in a more accurate and balanced  generic ballot since the late 1990s. And even though the generic ballot is less accurate in presidential years, it is still correlated with election results.12Data is based on the chart above. However, data from Real Clear Politics (2004-2016) is rounded to two decimal places rather than the nearest integer as in the chart

A party that performs better on the generic ballot will generally earn more votes in the election. The R2 in the bottom left corner indicates how much of the variance in the dependent variable (Democratic Margin in the Two-Party Vote) can be explained by variance in the independent variable (Democratic Margin in Generic Ballot). In English: R2 shows how well Variable 1 can explain or predict Variable 2. Here, R2 equals almost exactly 0.5, meaning that about half of the variance in the popular vote can be explained by the generic ballot.

Looking at the equation above the R2 value, the trend line has a slope of 0.54. This means that in general a 1% increase in a party’s margin in the generic ballot translates to about a 0.54 % bump in the House popular vote. There is still plenty of variation, though (see how the data points are not clustered too closely along the trend line), so this is not at all a perfect measure for any individual election. Even with this variation, and the knowledge that a lead in the generic ballot usually overestimates electoral success, a party is better off leading the generic ballot than trailing. And their better off leading with a larger margin than a smaller one.

Two caveats to this data. First, the makeup of the House of Representatives is not determined by the popular vote. Seat apportionment, gerrymandering, demographic & partisan sorting and other structural imbalances mean that a party’s share of the national House vote can differ substantially from the share of seats they actually win. Second, this data is from polls within a few days of the elections. We’re still a year and a half away from November 2020. The next two posts will focus on understanding these qualifications to the generic ballot.

FUNDRAISING IN THE BATTLEGROUNDS

If you don’t care about fundraising details, here’s a summary up top: The races with lots of money on both the Republican and Democratic sides are going to be closely contested and combative. So will the primaries that have multiple high fundraising candidates within one party. GA-07, GA-06, NM-02 and NY-11 are shaping up to be exciting general elections; GA-07 and GA-06 will also feature interesting primaries.

Data: FEC

As Democrats vow to reduce the influence of money in politics, it’s notable that the top five Quarter 1 fundraisers for the 2020 House “Toss Ups”13As rated by Sabato’s Crystal Ball and The Cook Political Report are Democrats. The top slot goes to Antonio Delgado from NY-19, the newly minted Representative who won in 2018 with the help of an $8 million war chest. Both Sabato’s Crystal Ball and the Cook Political Report rate the district a Toss Up, but Delgado’s impressive cash flow and his opponent’s $2,300 fundraising total are a good sign for the incumbent.  

The other battleground incumbents brought in, as expected, plenty of money as well. The exceptions are Jared Golden from ME-02 and Kenny Marchant from TX-24. While they both vastly outraised any competition — Golden, in fact, has no competitor and Marchant’s strongest fundraising opponent14Who I interviewed! pulled only $19,000 — their numbers should raise alarm bells. As a previous post detailed, fundraising and advertising is rarely definitive in congressional races. Kenny Marchant has a massive $1.7 million stashed, so the tangible impact of his fundraising is even less consequential. Instead, the numbers matter because they can indicate voter enthusiasm. 

Some non-incumbent challengers also had impressive Q1 hauls. Carolyn Bordeaux in GA-07 raised $372,000. Bordeaux was the 2018 Democratic nominee who lost to Republican incumbent Rob Woodall in the closest House election in the nation. Woodall announced his retirement earlier this year, drawing further attention to the seat on both sides of the aisle. Perhaps even more impressive on the Democratic side is first time candidate, Nabilah Islam, raising $102,000.  While Bordeaux’s numbers suggest an impressive donor list from last cycle, Islam’s fundraising indicate her political aptitude as a newcomer and an appetite for a younger, diverse, more progressive candidate.

Next door, in GA-06, money is flowing both to Democratic incumbent Lucy McBath and her highest profile challengers, Karen Handel and Brandon Beach. National attention focused on this district back in 2017 for what became the most expensive House race of all time, with spending on the race totaling $55 million. And that well is not dry. McBath raised $482,000, the 6th highest total among candidates in Toss Up district. Handel, who won the 2017 special election but lost in 2018 to McBath, collected $260,000 and State Senator Brandon Beach totaled $124,000.

The last two notable races are NY-11 and NM-02. In the former, incumbent Max Rose raised 603,000 and his challenger, Republican State Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, raised $301,000. In the latter, incumbent Xochitl Torres Small raised $453,000 and Yvette Herrell, the 2018 Republican nominee seeking a rematch, raised $211,000.

These races — GA-07, GA-06, NY-11 and NM-02 — where both incumbent and challenger(s) raised impressive amounts of money will get the most national media attention, featuring highly engaged voters and inter-party contention. Before the general though, candidates need to clear the primaries. The races with multiple candidates from the same party with impressive fundraising — so far GA-07 and GA-06 — are the primaries to watch. They’ll likely expose intra-party division and clashes between different wings of the parties.