Category Archives: The Big Picture

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

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 19721The 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”.2All 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.3These 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 election4Notice 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.5Galup data from 1988 was not available.6Data is based of ‘likely voters’ for 1976 and 1996-2006 and ‘registered voters’ otherwise7The two-party generic ballot was used when available (2004-2016)8Data from Real Clear Politics was rounded to nearest integer to make it consistent with Gallup’s data


Data: Gallup91968-2000, Real Clear Politics102004-2016

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.11Data 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”12As 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 opponent13Who 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.

POLITICAL FUNDRAISING IS OVERRATED

Congressional candidates have started to shake their collection tins. Most candidates see fundraising as a top priority, as an unfortunate necessity so they can pay staff, run polls, travel and, most of all, run advertisements. The media fixates similarly on money — analyzing fundraising hauls, ranking candidates and pontificating on what it all means.

It’s all overblown. When you ask, “Is anybody actually persuaded by these political ads?” The answer is: not really. There’s plenty of research showing that money has little effect on the outcome of congressional races. Voters hold their political affiliation tightly and their grip is unlikely to be broken by a congressional campaign, no matter how much money it has raised. Split ticket voting is increasingly rare — meaning that the national environment and upper-ballot races are far more important than any congressional candidate’s political messaging.

While political ads might not sway the outcome of a general election, they are useful:

  1. When a candidate is unknown. Political ads are good at telling voters that a candidate exists. They can build name recognition and give voters a first impression. Political ads are bad at persuading voters to change their mind about a candidate they already know. These dynamics make fundraising more important for lesser known candidates . This means that advertisements are more important for challengers than for better known incumbents. Once candidates have raised enough money to build name recognition, their efforts have diminishing returns. Similarly, in races heavily covered by the media where candidates are well known, political ads don’t have much effect.
  2. In primaries. Unlike in the general election, primary voters are choosing between candidates only from their team14Unless it’s an open primary, in which case there will be some non-party members.. They don’t have their minds made up along partisan lines and are more willing to swing between candidates. Additionally, primary candidates are usually less well known than general election candidates and, as discussed in #1,  ads are more effective for political unknowns.
  3. As an election indicator. While fundraising may not be that important in actually persuading voters or determining the election outcome, it is a sign of grassroots support. It also indicates who donors think will win. Donors want to tie themselves to the winning horse, so the strongest candidates are also more likely to tally big fundraising numbers.
  4. In building a media narrative. The media loves to cover political advertisements — just look at the coverage of the 2018 Georgia Gubernatorial election. Brian Kemp’s ads got national and local press — likely reaching more voters than the advertisements themselves. Candidates can put out ads in order to establish a media narrative — and it works. Mark McKinnon, a media advisor to several Republican presidential candidates, said in an interview with NPR “sometimes, we just put out an ad, and it’ll only be up for a day. And we knew that it wouldn’t get seen by voters, but it would get coverage by reporters.”

So, what does this mean for first quarter fundraising totals (all of which became available April 15)? The big picture: look for totals outside the normal range as these could be signals that an incumbent is vulnerable or that a challenger is particularly formidable. For battleground incumbents, a haul of about $250,000 to $500,000 looks normal. For challengers (non-incumbents), than number is about $50,000 to $100,000. For most congressional races, though, their hours and hours of ‘phone time’ are trivial. Come the general, candidates from both parties will be flush with cash and have no problem establishing name recognition.

Later this week we’ll dig into these Q1 fundraising numbers for the 2020 battleground
districts15Those rated “Toss Ups” by either Sabato’s Crystal Ball or The Cook Political Report and what it means for the candidates and races there. Sneak peak: The biggest fundraiser in any of these races was Antonio Delgado from NY-19 with a whopping $755,000.

PARTY TIME: INDEPENDENTS

This is the fifth post in the series “Mercurial Nation”, which looks at the elements that make up the political climate (the ‘mood’ of the country) and how they will affect the 2020 House Race. For three weeks we have focused on the major voting coalitions — Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Party affiliation is the strongest single indicator of voter choice. It can determine feelings about the economythe direction of the country and even financial wellbeing.

RECAP FROM THE LAST TWO WEEKS
Twenty-six percent of Americans consider themselves Republican, 31% percent Democratic, and 38% Independent, according to a recent Pew study. Because independents who lean towards one party vote for that party at almost the same rate as party members, they will be considered party members for this analysis. When these independent leaners are included in party totals, 39% of the public is Republican, 48% is Democratic and only 7% is Independent.

The charts below show who Independents, Democrats and Republicans are. This is different than showing how demographic groups align. For example, the first chart shows that 45% of Independents are women, but it does not show what percentage of women are Independents.

THE INDEPENDENT VOTING BLOC
Gender

Race  
AgeEducation
Data: PewMore Pew
*Used 2016 presidential vote as a stand in for party

Independents differ demographically from both Democrats and Republicans. The share of men among Independents, 55%, is higher than the general voting population. It’s even higher than that of the Republican Party, typically considered a male-dominated voting bloc. Independents are less white relative to the overall voting population (50% vs 70%) and are much more Hispanic (23% to 9%). Independents are also younger than partisans — 59% are under 50 years old while the same is true for 52% of Democrats and 42% of Republicans. Independents are also much less educated than both Democrats and Republicans. 46% of Independents have only ‘high school or less’ education, while 32% of Democrats and 34% of Republicans say the same. In some ways (age, racial diversity) the Independent voting bloc looks more like the Democratic Party) while in others (gender, education levels) it aligns more closely with the Republican Party.

Policies & Ideologies (Net Support)

Policies & Ideologies Continued

Data: Pew

Independents fall in-between Democrats and Republican on most political issues. These numbers do not measure intensity of individual voters’ feelings but how the voting bloc is split. Independents sit in-between Democrats and Republicans for five of the six policies in the chart. The exception is marijuana legalization, which Independents support in greater number than both Republicans and even Democrats. In addition to marijuana legalization, Independents are closer to Democrats than Republicans on support for same sex marriage, immigration, and a belief that the economy is generally unfair. The one issue on which Independents more closely align with Republicans is wanting a smaller government.  This ideological combination — socially liberal and wanting a smaller government — signals a libertarian streak in the small portion of the country that considers themselves true non-partisan independents

Independents are Less Engaged
Independent voters are less engaged than party members.   ‘No lean’-ers are almost half as likely to vote in 2018 as Republican party members — 33% compared to 61%. Relative to Republicans, Democrats vote at a slightly lower rate, 59%, but still vastly outperform Independents.

Their disengagement is as a result of their independence and a cause of it.  A lack of interest in politics causes independents to identify as such, simply because they are disengaged from political life. Other Independents do not alight ideologically with Democrats or Republicans, and, without a team to support, are less likely to engage in political activity. The directionality runs both ways.

Independents Don’t Like the Parties
The partisan antipathy dominating contemporary politics is not isolated to Democrats’ and Republicans’ mutual disdain for each other. Independents partake as well. But while most voters view their own party favorably and the other unfavorably, Independents are more even handed. 37% of Independents have an unfavorable view of both parties, 22% have a favorable view of both parties, and about 20% view one of the two parties favorably.
Independents who do lean towards a party say that “other party’s policies [are] bad for the country” is the number one reason for their partisan lean. These partisan leaners even view members of their own party unfavorably more than half of the time.

Independents Aren’t as Important as We Think
Independents are seen as the crucial tie-breakers in a nation evenly divided by two political parties — if independents swing towards one party, so goes the nation. This is not true. Independents (the only data available here is for leaners and non-leaners alike, so that what is used here) voted for Trump in 2016, but the popular vote went to Clinton. A similar split happened in 20002004 and 2012.  Elections can turn on how well each party turns out its base — a task that is often more challenging for the larger, but less engaged Democratic Party. The parties and their candidates cannot expect to win by only targeting the 7% of truly independent voters if it means sacrificing a portion of their base.

When choosing between energizing the party base versus swinging moderate/independent voters, the question parties should ask themselves is ‘why not both?’ In earlier posts, I suggested that the parties might do well by highlighting issues that 1) are seen as priorities by the general public and 2) the public supports their policies over the opposing party. But maybe they instead should focus on issues that 1) excite their base and 2) are supported by independents. If they go with route #2, Democrats should emphasize health care, the ‘unfair’ economy and socially liberal issues like marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage. Republicans have less to work with, but could highlight limited government and the economy (especially if it holds strong through 2020). 

PARTY TIME: DEMOCRATS

This is the fourth post in the series “Mercurial Nation”, which will look at the elements that make up the political climate (the ‘mood’ of the country) and how they will affect the 2020 House Race. For three weeks we will focus on the major voting coalitions — Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Party affiliation is the strongest single indicator of voter choice. It can determine feelings about the economythe direction of the country and even financial wellbeing.

RECAP FROM LAST WEEK
Twenty-six percent of Americans consider themselves Republican, 31 percent Democratic, and 38 percent Independent, according to a recent Pew study. Because independents who lean towards one party vote for that party at almost the same rate as party members, they will be considered party members for this analysis. When these independent leaners are included in party totals, 39% of the public is Republican, 48% is Democratic and only 7% is independent.

The charts below show the makeup of the Democratic and Republican parties. This is different than showing how demographic groups align. For example, the first chart shows that 61% of Democrats are women, but it does not show what percentage of women are Democrats.16I don’t know how, but I feel like the ‘all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares’ logic applies. The ‘Democrat minus Republican’ rows show the difference in how much each bloc is composed of a given demographic.

Gender

Race

Age

Education

Race & Education

Religion 

…Religion Continued

Urban, Suburban and Rural

Data: Pew, More Pew
*Used 2016 presidential vote as a stand in for party
** Used Data from CNN Exit Polls

THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY
The stereotypes about the Democratic party are true: the party has more women, minorities, college educated voters and religiously unaffiliated voters than the country overall. And when compared to the Republican party these gaps are even more pronounced. But the size of some of these coalitions — like minorities and college educated voters — are often overstated. The media rarely makes the distinction between a demographic group being overrepresented in a party versus a demographic group making up the vast majority of the party. So which numbers in the charts above can help give a more nuanced understanding of the Democratic Party’s demographics? 

First, The Democratic Party has a huge gender gap — much bigger than that of the Republican Party — of 61% women and 39% men. Women, though, only account for 38% of Democratic Representatives and 37% of Democratic Senators. So while 2018 may have been “The Year of the Woman”, even the Democratic Party, being 60% women, dramatically under-elects them.

White people make up a majority of the Democratic party. But all the talk about the Democratic Party being the party of minorities has skewed perceptions here. It might be surprising that 57% of Democrats are white, but it is less so when you know that 70% of the general electorate is. Uneducated white voters make up 32% of the Democratic Party. While this is low — especially because they makeup 45% of the electorate — it is still a big coalition within the party. The Democratic Party, known for repelling uneducated whites, is one third…uneducated whites.

Similarly, Democratic youthfulness and education levels are often overstated. Only 20% of Democrats are 18-29 years old, almost exactly the same percent that is 65+ (19%). The majority of Democratic voters, 61%, are in-between 30 and 64 — precisely the same percent that are in the same age range for the country overall. And even though the Democratic Party is thought of as the party of college graduates, it’s not really true. A majority of the party, 62%, does not have a bachelor’s degree. And while the percent of Democrats with a college education is greater than that of the general public, the 4% divide is not as stark as media and stereotypes would have us believe.

Democrats are religiously diverse. Seventy one percent of the party is religiously affiliate. The largest religious coalition in the party, Protestants, make up 34% of the party. And while the party under-represents white religious voters, this is because the party under-represents white people generally. The exception is white evangelical voters, who make up 35% of the Republican party and 20% of the general electorate, but only 8% of Democrats.

Lastly, the Democratic urban/suburban/rural split matches the country well. Urban voters are underrepresented in both parties. How is this possible? Suburban and rural voters vote at much higher rates than their urban counterparts, so while Urban voters may lean more heavily towards democrats, they still make up a smaller portion of the party.

What A Democrat Wants
The charts below show what percentage of Republicans and Democrats think a given policy “should be a priority for Trump and Congress” relative to the general public. It also shows which party voters think handles those policies better.


Data: PewPewGallupPollingReport 

Democrats are in a good position for campaigning. For each of the Democrat’s top seven priorities, the public believes they are better with the issue than Republicans. The most important issue to Democrats, “Health Care Costs”, was a winning issue for Democrats in the 2018 midterms. And its easy to see why — the general electorate prefers Democrat’s approach by a seven point margin. It’s also an the second most important policy issue for the public, trailing “The Economy” by just one percent. The general electorate most strongly prefers Democratic leadership in “Climate Change” and “The Environment”, although only 44% and 56% of all voters think they should be a priority.

The two policy areas that could give Democrats trouble are “The Economy” and “Terrorism”. They are both relatively far down among Democratic priorities — ranking eighth and tenth — and voters prefer Republican leadership on the issues. So, while Democrats can probably avoid these issues in the primary, they have two options for the general.

1) Avoid these issues on the campaign trail. This, however, could make them seem disinterested in matters that are top priorities for much of the country. Not usually a winning campaign strategy.

2) Emphasize and debate these issues on the campaign trail. If they hold the line on their unpopular policies without persuading voters, though, it will cost them votes. They will have to communicate their policies in a way that voters like. The three ways to do this are: win over public opinion with strong arguments, frame the issues in bland, inoffensive platitudes or adopt the more popular Republican stance on the issues.

One optimistic scenario for Democrats is that candidates in purple or red districts can embrace more conservative stances on the economy and terrorism — demonstrating and independent and moderate nature — while holding the line on other liberal policies higher on the Democratic priority list to keep the party base energized. This strategy worked for Jared Golden in Maine’s Second Congressional District, who put “Jobs and Economy” as the first issue on his website, ran ads emphasizing his bipartisan economic proposals, but also supports liberal cornerstones like Medicare-for-All and a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.

Another possibility, one that makes this exercise seem a bit futile, is that voters don’t care about policy. Some research shows that voters — rather than forming opinions on their own and voting for politicians with similar ideas — take their queue on policy from political leaders. The idea that voters don’t care much about policy is not too wild. Trump transformed the party of free trade into a tariff-loving community in just two years. When Democratic primary voters break down their first and second choice presidential candidates, the plurality of Biden supporters choose Sanders, perhaps the most dissimilar candidate in the field, as their second choice. And vice versa. 

This policy agnosticism is probably due to the increasing sports-like nature of party politics. Voters support their team rather than strict ideological beliefs. There is however, a small number of voters who are without a team. Next week on ESY…a look at independent voters.

PARTY TIME: REPUBLICANS

This is the third post in the series “Mercurial Nation”, which will look at the elements that make up the political climate (the ‘mood’ of the country) and how they will affect the 2020 House Race. The next three weeks will focus on the major voting coalitions — Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Party affiliation is the strongest single indicator of voter choice. It can determine feelings about the economy, the direction of the country and even financial wellbeing.

Nobody Knows the Parties
Perceptions of Republican and Democratic voters are wildly inaccurate. Take a guess at a) What percent of Republicans make over $250,000 per year and b) what percent of Democrats are gay, lesbian or bisexual.  The real numbers is in Footnote 1. —>17A) 2.2% B) 6.3%

If you overestimated both, you’re not alone. The chart below compares the share of the Republican and Democratic parties that belong to a demographic group versus public perception. People overestimate, by 1736% (!!!), the percent of Republicans who make over $250,000 per year.

Data: The University of Chicago Press Journals18Douglas J. Ahler and Gaurav Sood, “The Parties in Our Heads: Misperceptions about Party Composition and Their Consequences,” The Journal of Politics 80, no. 3 (July 2018): 964-981

To understand the real makeup of the U.S. electorate, the next three posts will break down the country’s main voting blocs: The Republican Party, The Democratic Party and Independents/Unaffiliated Voters.

Twenty six percent of Americans consider themselves Republican, 31 percent Democratic, and 38 percent Independent, according to a  recent Pew study. Because independents who lean towards one party vote for that party at almost the same rate as party members, they will be considered party members for this analysis. When these independent leaners are included in party totals, 39% of the public is Republican, 48% is Democratic and only 7% is independent.

The charts below show the makeup of the three coalitions. This is different than showing how demographic groups align. For example, the first chart shows that 53% of Republicans are men, but it does not show what percentage of men are Republicans. The ‘Democrat minus Republican’ rows show the difference in how much each bloc is composed of a given demographic.

Gender

Race

Age

Education

Race & Education

Religion 
…Religion Continued

Urban, Suburban and Rural

Data: Pew, More Pew
*Used 2016 presidential vote as a stand in for party
** Used Data from CNN Exit Polls 

THE REPUBLICAN PARTY
The charts mostly speak for themselves: The Republican party is overwhelmingly white (86%), religious (only 12% are unaffiliated) and skews older (58% over 50). But with a bit more context, some less obvious numbers jump out.

While there is some truth to stereotypes of the Republican Party — old, male-dominated and white — they obscure demographic nuance. The party is surprisingly diverse when it comes to gender, age, education levels and where voters live. Forty severn percent of Republicans are women; Sixty five percent live in urban or suburban areas; Sixty six percent have some college experience; Only 25% of the party is 65 and older and only 35% live in rural areas. And while this just reflects that there are fewer older and rural people in the country overall, it still means the party is more diverse than stereotypes suggest.

This more-diverse-than-one-might-expect coalition could be trouble for the Republican Party. It means they will have to champion policies that can appeal beyond old rural men. The red-meat culture fights are not going to appeal to all these voters and could make holding the coalition together a challenge.

What A Republican Wants
The charts below show what percentage of Republicans, Democrats and Independents think a given policy “should be a priority for Trump and Congress.” It also shows which party voters think handles those policies better.


Data: Pew, Pew, Gallup, PollingReport 

Republicans care most about terrorism and the economy. The next crop of policies — Immigration, Social Security, Medicare and the military — are about 10% down.

Immigration could give Republicans trouble. It’s a priority for their party’s voters (68%), meaning that it will be foregrounded in Republican primaries. Primary candidates will be pressured to align with the president and take a hard stance on the issue, which will scare off general election voters — who prefer the Democratic Party’s approach to immigration by 14%.

Social Security and Medicare are similarly problematic for Republicans. They are priority for a majority of the party (68% and 60% respectively). This makes sense as the party skews older. Republicans risk scaring off this core constituency if they continue to emphasize unpopular policies around Social Security and Medicare. The general public supports the Democratic approach by 9 and 19 point margins. Republicans scrambling to defend pre-existing conditions and cast Democrats as a threat to Medicare means that they may be pivoting away from their entitlement-cutting agenda due to its unpopularity.  

Republicans do have some popular policies. Voters approve of their handling of the economy, military and terrorism over that of Democrats. Electorally the party would likely be better off emphasizing these issues over their unpopular and divisive social policies. But candidates need to win primaries. Meaning they need to win over the Republican base and restraint is unlikely. Republican candidates will probably continue to sprint rightward in primaries and tiptoe back towards the center for the general.

PRESIDENTIAL COATTAILS: 2020

This is the second post in the series “Mercurial Nation”, which will look at the elements that make up the political climate (the ‘mood’ of the country) and how they will affect the 2020 House Race.

The first element, Presidential Coattails, is split into two parts. Part 1 looked into what coattails are, what causes them and why they are losing power. Part 2, below, focuses on the 2020 presidential race and what different candidate strategies and outcomes could mean for the House.


The 2020 presidential election will dominate politics for the next two years, coloring downballot races nationwide. Democrats should be worried.

Presidents usually win reelection19Only two presidents (Carter & Bush I) since World War II who have ran for re-election have lost. Both lost partly due to a recession. and the blue wave in 2018 shouldn’t be any comfort. Midterms don’t indicate much about the following presidential election. Other presidents with bumpy midterms — Reagan in 1982, Clinton in 1992, Obama in 2010 — won two years later. There’s a good chance Trump will be around through 2024.

Still, 20 months is a long time for a president and political environment as volatile as ours. Trump’s unpopularity, which already could cost him re-election, still has room to fall. Things outside his control — the economy, the Mueller report, the Democratic nominee — could determine the election.

All this to say…anything could happen before election day. For now, we’ll assume 2020 will feature a closely contested presidential race. If, however, one party wins the presidency in a landslide — or breaks into the mid-50 percentage range — it will probably carry the House too. So, if it’s November 2020 and Kamala Harris has a 10 point lead over Trump, you can stop reading.

How tight does the presidential race have to be for the House to be competitive? If House districts moved perfectly in line with the national environment,20Districts obviously don’t move in total synchrony, but their movement does track closely with the national environment21The following calculation gives the projected margin (+ for Democrat and – for Republican) of a district in a neutral national environment: 2018 Democratic House Candidate % – 2018 Republican House Candidate % – 8.6%(to adjust for the D+8.6 national environment) +(for Democrats) or – (for Republicans) new incumbency advantage (0% for holding a seat, 2.7 % for winning an open seat, 5.4% for beating an incumbent). Democrats would lose 17 House seats, holding their majority by just one.22Unless they win the election in NC-09 (the 2018 results were invalidated due to election fraud), scheduled for September or November 2019. If Democrats win, they will have a two seat advantage. The tipping point seat, FL-27, would go to Democrats by just 0.1%.

And while a 3% presidential margin in favor of either party would likely be enough for them to win House comfortably (In my calculations, both parties would take a 16 seat lead), to be safe, any margin less than 5% should be considered a competitive environment for the House.

Getting to 270
The Electoral College (EC) distorts presidential elections, giving one party a boost relative to their percentage of the national popular vote. That advantage, though, goes back and forth between Democrats and Republicans due to changing demographic coalitions. In 2000 and 2016 it benefited Republicans — both years their nominee lost the popular vote but won the presidency — and in 2004, 2008 and 2012 it favored Democrats. Read this FiveThirtyEight article if you’re interested how this is measured.

Because EC votes23Besides in Maine and Nebraska. are awarded all or nothing by states, candidates don’t bother to campaign in states whose fates are predetermined. California’s 55 votes will go to the Democrat; South Dakota’s three will go to the Republican. No amount of campaigning will change that. Of the 538 EC votes, Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball assume that between 308 and 31324The discrepancy comes from Cook rating New Mexico as “Safely Democratic” and Sabato rating it “Likely Democratic”. votes are baked in. The states that could go to either party, dubbed ‘swing states’, are the ones that matter.

The 2020 “Toss Up” EC Votes — according to either Sabato or Cook or both — will likely be Florida (29 EC Votes), Pennsylvania (20), Michigan (16), Arizona (11), Wisconsin (10), New Hampshire (4) and Nebraska’s 2nd District (1).25Shout out to Larry J. Sabato for responding on Twitter and letting me use his map

.

Sabato’s Crystal Ball Electoral College Projections. The major difference between Sabato and Cook: Cook puts MI, MN, and FL as “Toss Up” and NH as “Lean Democratic”.

The toss up states can be divided into two groups:

  1. Sun Belt States26States stretching across the bottom of the U.S. from Arizona to to South Carolina. that have increasingly diverse populations and big cities with lots of white, educated suburban voters. These states have been trending away from Republicans as their non-white and college educated populations grow and they become more socially liberal. Trump, with his racialized politics and combative politics, has accelerated the trend.
  2. Rust Belt States27Mostly in the Midwest and Great Lakes Region. that have a lot of white, uneducated, “working class” voters. These voters tend to be culturally conservative and more economically populist than the Republican establishment. They notoriously swung towards Trump in 2016 after voting for Obama in 2008 and 2018, helping to break Democrats’ “Blue Wall” of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan and give Trump his Electoral College victory.

Of this year’s “Toss Ups”, Florida and Arizona are Sun Belt States; Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin are Rust Belt States. New Hampshire and Nebraska-02 — both heavily white and well educated — have characteristics of both. 

If these are the competitive states, Democrats will likely have 228 EC votes locked down and Republicans will have 219. The magic number is 270 — Democrats need to win 42 and Republicans 51.28There are several scenarios that could give an EV vote total of *gasp* 269-269 (if Republican won the Rust Belt States and NH but lost lost NE-02). This scenario that would likely end in a Republican president.

In this scenario, the Republican can win by:

  1. Sweeping the Rust Belt Toss Ups (46 Electoral Votes ), NH (4) and NE-02 (1)
  2. Winning a patchwork of Rust Belt & Sun Belt states.

The Democrat can win by:

  1. Sweeping the Rust Belt Toss Ups (46).
  2. Winning the Sun Belt Toss Ups (40) and NH (4).
  3. Winning a patchwork of Rust Belt & Sun Belt states

How Presidential Strategies Could Tip the House
The tactics and voter appeals that each nominee uses will largely depend on how they plan to make it to 270. If the House is closely contested, the messages and strategies deployed by presidential nominees could be decisive for control of the chamber.

The charts below include the 22 House districts rated “Toss Ups” by either Cook or Sabato. The “Diversity and Education Index” takes into account the what percentage of the district is non-white and what portion of the white population has a college degree. Negative numbers indicate a higher proportion of uneducated whites; Positive numbers indicate a higher proportion of educated whites and non-whites.

Data: Daily Kos
Data: Daily Kos

The big takeaway is that the 2020 Toss Up districts include an almost perfectly even distribution of districts dominated by white, uneducated voters and districts dominated by non-whites and college educated whites. 

So, how could the presidential campaigns tip these districts? Lets start with Democrats.

Democratic Path 1: Sweeping the Rust Belt Toss Ups. If Democrats aim to sweep the Rust Belt and win over white uneducated voters, their best shot is to emphasize their populist agenda. This means focusing on the economy and revitalizing rural America, judiciously criticizing Republicans for their unpopular tax cuts, attempts to repeal the ACA and ‘swampiness’. It would also require laying off unpopular culture war issues, something Democrats seem reluctant to do. While this might be the Democrat’s best chance to win the presidency — Clinton only lost these states by about 1% in 2016 and they have historically Democratic roots — it could hurt them in diverse, educated House districts.

Democratic Path 2: Winning the Sun Belt Toss Ups and NH. To win Florida, Arizona and New Hampshire, the Democrat would need to drive up minority turnout and continue to pull educated whites away from Republicans. This would require more focus on divisive social issue — “The Wall”, Charlottesville, Trump’s “Family Separation Policy”. Like Path 1, this would mean sacrificing voters — this time in the white, uneducated House districts.

Democratic Path 3: Winning a patchwork of Rust Belt & Sun Belt states. This is probably the most challenging path for Democrats. But, if successful, it would help them win the most House seats. To win over voters in both the Sun Belt and Rust Belt, the Democratic nominee would need to appeal to white uneducated voters and non-white and college educated voters. A candidate who has a flexible image could thread this needle. Someone like Obama — who had a popular economic message among rural voters and was also a symbol of social progress to educated and non-white voters — could win over the three categories of voters. A Democrat who allows voters to see the candidate they want — a populist, a moderate, a progressive or a symbol of social change — would run up numbers across the board, helping Democrats in all of the toss-up districts. This path, however, risks failing in the same way that Clinton did in 2016 — falling just short enough among white, uneducated votes to lose the Rust Belt, but not picking up enough non-white and college-educated voters to win diversifying Sun Belt states like Arizona. It is a high risk tactic that could help Democrats run up their seat margin in the House.

Republican Path 1: Sweeping the Rust Belt Toss Ups, NH and NE-02. If Trump tries to sweep the Rust Belt and win New Hampshire and NE-02, he will try to appeal to the socially conservative, economically populist Obama-Trump voters. He will invoke ‘culture war’ issues and racialized politics that will boost his (and Republican House candidates’) popularity in white, uneducated districts, and hurt them with diverse and college educated voters elsewhere. 

Republican Path 2: Winning a patchwork of Rust Belt & Sun Belt states. If Trump wants to win a patchwork of Rust Belt & Sun Belt states he will take a more moderate tack. This would mean toning down his racialized rhetoric, dropping unpopular fights (like shutting down the government to get money for The Wall) and putting down Twitter while emphasizing the strong economy and making a deal or two with congressional Democrats. This would require Trump to transform into a candidate with a flexible image typified in Democratic Path 3. If he could successfully make this pivot — though nothing in his history suggests he will — towards a broad appeal, he would help pull House Republicans into office across the board.

Remember, these tactical variations will only matter if the presidency is decided by a close margin — less than about five percent. Otherwise, the winning presidential candidate’s party is sure to take the house. In a tight presidential election, both parties would do better in the House if their presidential nominee could win the election through a patchwork of Sun Belt and Rust Belt states rather than by dominating in one of the two regions.

This mixed state coalition, however, will probably not be the easiest path to victory. Presidential candidates will probably angle towards either 1) white, uneducated voters in the Rust Belt or 2) non-white and college educated voters in the Sun Belt. In doing so, they will win over additional voters in about half of the “Toss Up” House districts and sacrifice voters in the other half — helping and hurting their party’s House candidates in roughly equal numbers.