Tag Archives: 2020 Presidential Election

TRUMP’S STANDING IN THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE, SENATE, AND HOUSE BATTLEGROUNDS

Usually ESY is focused only on the House of Representative. This post will be a bit different in that it will cover the Electoral College, Senate, and House. 

Sign up for ESY below! We won’t bother you except to let you know about fresh, new content. We promise!


President Trump’s approval rating hovers in the low 40s, a bad number for any president seeking reelection. He’s doing worse than any president since Jimmy Carter has at this point in their presidency.  But Trump’s approval differs wildly depending on the demographic group. This post will take a look at the president’s approval among non-college educated whites, college educated whites, blacks, and Latinos. And we’ll go deeper, looking at regional variations within these groups, a crucial dynamic that is frequently ignored or overlooked. 

First, we’ll look at President Trump’s approval in key Electoral College states, then we’ll look at important Senate states, then the House battleground districts.

Trump’s Approval in Electoral College Swing States
The swing states can be separated into two broad categories of the Rust Belt and Sun Belt. The Rust Belt comprises much of the Midwest and Northern U.S. and the swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Ohio. I’m also including Maine and New Hampshire in the category due to their similar geographic and demographic characteristics.

The Sun Belt, sweeping from the southwest to southeast, includes the swing states of Arizona, Nevada, Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina. I’ll also stretch the Sun Belt definition and add in Colorado and Virginia.  

Data aggregated from Gallup’s 2018 polling helps sketch the president’s approval among different demographics in these swing states. Unfortunately, the granular data is not publicly available, but this article in the Atlantic did provide some of the polling numbers, which are in the chart below. Clearly there are some holes, but the data available together with piece’s additional commentary fill in much of the big picture gaps. Sources: Daily Kos, Morning Consult, Atlantic/Gallup

Additionally, if we fill in the data holes with numbers from Civiqs, we get a similar picture. The graph below has this supplemental data color coated in red. To avoid mixing data sources, we will use Gallup’s numbers from the the first chart in the following analysis. This graph is just meant to confirm that the big picture painted by Gallup’s data is on mostly on target.
Sources: Daily Kos, Morning Consult, Atlantic/Gallup, Civiqs
 

Trump’s overall approval is higher in the Sun Belt versus the Rust Belt — averaging 46% versus 43%. This is a good sign for Democrats who think that the way to an Electoral College victory is through Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

Looking at demographics, it’s not surprising that Trump does best with non-college whites, then college whites, then non-whites. What’s interesting is how much these groups differ from the Sun Belt to the Rust Belt. Trump’s approval in the Rust Belt among non-college whites is 11% higher (63% to 52%) than in the Sun Belt. This Demographic makes up 60% of the population in the Rust Belt and 40% in the Sun Belt, meaning that Trumps struggle in the Rust Belt is especially significant given how dominant these voters are in the region.

Trump’s approval among college-whites is 7% higher (44% to 37%) in the Sun Belt than the Rust Belt. And his approval among nonwhites is 4% lower. This coalition of college-educated whites and minorities has swung away from Trump and the Republicans, largely responsible for delivering Democrats the House in 2018. Given that the college-educated white and non-white coalition is more significant in the Sun Belt — where it makes up 58% of the population to the Rust Belt’s 40% — Democrats will need to win over and turn out these voters if they want to win any of Sun Belt states. The problem for Democrats, however, is that Trump does better among the coalition (7% better among college educated whites and 4% among nonwhites) in the Sun Belt than the Rust Belt.  

Trump’s Approval in Senate Swing States
The story is largely the same in the Senate races, many of which overlap with the Electoral College swing states.
Sources: Daily Kos, Morning Consult, Atlantic/Gallup

The big picture: Trump does worse in the Rust Belt among non-college whites and better in the Sun Belt with college-educated whites and minorities.

The big outlier among these states is Alabama. This is the only state that is competitive for Senate but not for the Electoral College. Here, incumbent Democrat Doug Jones won a 2017 special election due to a weak and scandal plagued opponent, Roy Moore. Moore is running again, but if he loses the Republican nomination, Jones faces a tough road in a state that voted for Trump by 28% and in which the president has a 60% approval rating and his highest net approval of any state.

Trump’s Approval in House Swing Districts
There’s no way to get Trump’s approval ratings in each of the 51 swing House districts, so instead we’ll look at the demographics and regional characteristics. First up, the 17 battlegrounds in the Rust Belt.Sources: Daily Kos, CityLab

The districts are heavily suburban (14 of the 17 are predominantly suburban according to CityLab’s Density Index), overwhelmingly white (89%), and largely non-college white (59%). These demographics line up almost perfectly with the Rust Belt states overall, which are 88% white and 60% non-college white, meaning that Trumps average approval in these House seats is probably around the 43% average of the Rust Belt states overall.

Next, the House battleground districts in the Sun Belt.
Sources: Daily Kos, CityLab

Again, these districts are also heavily suburban, with 11 of the 12 having predominant suburban characteristics. These districts, unlike Rust Belt battlegrounds, do not match as neatly with the Sun Belt’s overall demographics. The districts have a slightly lower white percentage relative to the Sun Belt overall (62% to 65%), but the big difference is in their percentage of white non-college voters, which is 32% versus the Sun Belt’s average of 42%. This lower percentage of Trump’s biggest supporters would probably drag his approval rating at least a few points down from the Sun Belt’s average of 46%.

Lastly, the 22 House battlegrounds outside of the Rust and Sun Belt.Sources: Daily Kos, CityLab

These districts, scattered across the U.S. are also heavily suburban (19 of 22), and more in line with national demographics than either the Sun or Rust Belt districts. They are 74% white and 47% non-college white, compared to the national averages of 69% and 47%. And, given that Trump’s national approval hovers around 41% to 43%, that’s likely where the average of these districts stands as well, although perhaps a point or two lower given the 5% difference in white voters.  

Trump’s approval rating will be one of the most important factors in these House races, as well as in the Senate and Electoral College. We often hear about Trump’s approval rating among different demographic groups, but that analysis often lacks important regional nuance. Regardless of their top-line demographic identifiers, voters differ heavily on their views of the president depending on where they live. 

HOW HOUSE ELECTIONS WILL EXPAND THE 2020 ELECTORAL COLLEGE MAP

Sign up for ESY below! We won’t bother you except to let you know about fresh, new content. We promise!


The results of the 2020 House and Senate races will largely determine the efficacy of the next president. Losing either chamber to the other party would hamstring a president’s agenda — allowing the opposition to obstruct legislation, effectively negotiate the budget, and in the case of the Senate, stall executive and judicial appointments. Given these stakes, the 2020 presidential campaigns will likely be run with an eye towards down ballot Senate and House races.

Because our political era is defined by partisanship (and straight ticket voting), what’s going on between Trump and [insert Democrat here] will probably determine who wins both the Senate and the House. The most important factor in these down ballot races will be the presidential election. In fact, no state split their Senate and presidential vote in 2016, emphasizing the importance of the top of the ticket.

Here at ESY, though, we focus on the House. So, while the Senate elections will arguably have a more clear-cut effect on presidential strategy (because measuring how a campaign targets a whole state is generally easier to see than how it targets clusters of districts), this post will focus on the House.  

According to our model, a landslide victory for either presidential candidate — say a margin of >5% in the popular vote — would all but certainly deliver their party the House. In this scenario, marginal differences in presidential strategy and which states are targeted will be unlikely to affect the topline result in the presidency or House — the party dominating the popular vote would win both. In a closer election, though, the states and voters that presidential candidates target could have down ballot affects that swing crucial House races.

The strategy to winning the presidency and House in a close election is not a straightforward one. The nuances of the electoral college and the distribution of swingy House seats will incentivize 2020 candidates to expand the presidential battleground in order to boost their party’s chances down ballot. Given that spending on the presidential general election is expected reach a record $1.7 billion, there will be plenty of campaign resources to go around. Whether a candidate like Trump would actually prioritize the Republican party over his individual electoral chances, were they at odds in any way, is unclear. Still, the fact remains that while a blinkered strategy focused on Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan might work for the Electoral College, it would hurt the party in districts crucial to both Democratic and Republican hopes of controlling the House.

There are two broad strategies that campaign can use to influence voters: resource targeting and message targeting. Campaigns can aim to influence voters with resources — primarily money and time — or with the message their campaign is sending. We’ll look at these individually and see how the campaigns could leverage them to help their friends downballot. But first, a quick overview of the 2020 Presidential battlegrounds so we can then look at how the House folds into it.

The 2020 Presidential Geographical Battleground
A quick refresher on the Electoral College in case you forgot: There are 538 electoral college votes, meaning that a candidate needs 270 to solidify a majority and the presidency. Electoral votes are distributed among the states based on each states number of members of Congress (Senators + Representatives).

According to Sabato’s Crystal Ball, both Democrats and Republicans have 248 Electoral votes in their “Safe”, “Likely”, or “Lean” categories. This leaves 42 votes in the “Toss up” category. You can see where each state falls in their map below.

I would put Florida and Michigan closer to “Toss Up” category, given that Trump won Michigan in 2016 and only won Florida by 1%, while Obama carried it in 2012 and 2008.

Regardless, given how many states are essentially off the table for either party, there are only really two parts of the country with enough flip-able states to swing the Electoral College. The first is the “Rust Belt” region in the Midwest and northern U.S.  The swingy states (Toss Up or Lean) in this category are Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and — stretching the definition of the Rust Belt — Minnesota. I’ll also include Maine, New Hampshire and Nebraska’s Second District in this broad category due to many similar demographics and characteristics of these states.

Trump’s 2016 win was possible because he flipped Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, all of which Obama carried in the previous election. These three will probably again be the most competitive states in the region, with Ohio and Iowa leaning Republican and Minnesota leaning Democratic. If 2020 repeated 2016 in the 47 states besides Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, these three would determine the winner. And because they have similar demographics and political environments, chances are that the candidate who wins one will win all three.

The other region that could determine the election is the “Sun Belt”, which stretches from the southeast to the southwest. The swingy states in this region are Nevada, Arizona, Texas, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and (again stretching the definition of “Sun Belt”), Colorado. I’ll also add in Virginia, given its demographics southern characteristics.

This region, though, seems to be less of a “Toss Up” than the Rust Belt. The only state in the region that the Crystal Ball rates as a “Toss Up” is Arizona, although one could argue to put Florida in that category too. Also, North Carolina and Georgia are probably a bit swingier than Texas while Nevada is likely more competitive than Colorado.  Like the Rust Belt, these states could also determine the outcome of the Electoral College. There are many ways to split up votes, but if Democrats won Florida and Arizona (while carrying all of the states they won in 2016), they would win the Electoral College (and could afford to lose MI, WI, and PA). Other options include flipping the more challenging states of Georgia, North Carolina, and to a greater degree, Texas. There are also various scenarios in which Republicans flip Democratic states and could lose the Rust Belt.

Overall, though, the Sun Belt states are probably a bit less swingy than the Rust Belt. If Democrats were able to flip Florida and Georgia, they would probably have already carried the midwestern swing states. Similarly, if Republicans won Colorado, they most likely already have MI/PA/WI in the bag.

The specifics of the electoral calculus is less important than understanding this big point: the Electoral College hangs on these two regions of the country. And while either of these regions could hold the decisive electoral votes, due to the slightly more partisan leans of the Sun Belt states, chances are that the Rust Belt will be the decisive region.

The 2020 Presidential Demographic Battleground
The key demographic in all our Rust Belt states are non-Hispanic whites. On average, this demographic makes up 88% of these states, compared to the 69% national average. These whites are, importantly, heavily working class. Sixty-one percent of population in these states is non-college whites, relative to the 45% national average. Clearly there are differences between states — Michigan has a significant (14%) black population, largely based in Detroit, while Maine has less than 1% black voters. Overall, though, the key demographic characteristic that ties these states together is the predominance of the white working class.

The Sun Belt, on the other hand, has a large and growing minority population. Only 66% of voters in these states are white, and this number would be even lower without our expansive definition of Sun Belt that includes Virginia (69% white) and Colorado (77% white), which pull the white tally upwards. The white, non-college educated percentage is also much smaller than that of the Rust belt, at only 42% of the population. Again, there are significant differences within the region — Georgia and North Carolina’s minority population are heavily black while Texas and Florida are more Hispanic. But a growing non-white, young, college educated population is true in each of these Sun Belt states. 

The 2020 House Geographic Battleground
The districts that make up the House battleground are not as easily categorized as Electoral College swing states. Due to the fractured nature of the House, there are individual flippable districts across much the country. Taken in the aggregate, though, the primary battleground of the House is clear: the suburbs. Of the 51 House districts rated as “Toss Ups” or “Leans”, 44 of them have significant or predominant suburban characteristics according to City Lab’s Congressional Density Index. Most of these districts (40) were carried by Trump in 2016, and 21 of those Trump seats were won by Democrats in 2018. Overall, 29 are held by Democrats and 22 by Republicans.

Geographically, the seats are disproportionately concentrated in the Rust and Sun Belt. There are 17 swing seats in our (generous) definition of Rust Belt states, 12 in the Sun Belt, and 22 spread out across the rest of the nation.

The 2020 House Demographic Battleground
Unsurprisingly, the demographics of battleground House districts largely reflect the overall demographics of their states and regions. The 17 swing seats in the Rust Belt have an average of 88% white voters and 59% uneducated white voters. The Sun Belt districts are 59% white and 32% non-college whites. These numbers match up with the overall demographics of the Sun Belt and Rust Belt regions, although the proportion of non-educated whites in the Sun Belt swing districts is exceptionally low. The remaining 22 swing districts outside of these key states are in line with national averages — 74% white, 47% non-educated white.

Presidential Strategy: Resource Targeting
As discussed above, both Democrats and Republicans best chance of winning the Electoral College most likely swings with Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. It would make sense for both presidential campaigns to pour their campaign time and resources into these three states, as they will likely determine the winner.

This strategy, however, is short sighted on two fronts. First, there is the slight chance that a Sun Belt state would flip before Michigan, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin. Second, each presidential candidate will want to boost their numbers in the Sun Belt in order to help their House teammates downballot.

The 12 swing districts in the Sun Belt will be tight and could determine control of the House, incentivizing both campaigns to invest in these states, even if their chances of flipping the states are slim. And even if the states are not likely to change hands, any presidential candidate’s improvement at the top of the ticket will help downballot, meaning that presidential campaigns could invest with the primary goal of trying to win House districts. And it is hard to imagine a campaign deciding not to invest in a state once it sees its opponent investing. If one campaign decides to fight for the Sun Belt states, we’ll probably see the other join as well.

And while this would seem unlikely in a race where candidates are strapped for cash, it’s important to remember that both candidates will have ample financial resources. This will allow the campaigns to compete in lower priority states like Texas, Georgia, and Virginia, with the dual purpose of trying to win longshot electoral college votes and helping House candidates downballot.

Presidential Strategy: Message Targeting
The other strategy, in addition to physical resource investment, campaigns will use to win over and turn out voters will be their message to voters. The tone and policies a campaign presents to voters could vary widely depending on exactly which voters campaigns are targeting.

As we discovered above, the demographics of the Rust Belt and Sun Belt are extremely different and voters in the regions will respond differently to different messages. I’m not going to prescribe messages that could work in the two regions (I’ll leave that to the campaigns), but I will describe some key demographic groups and trends that the campaigns will need to keep in mind.

  1. The Rust Belt is much whiter and less educated than the Sun Belt. We discussed this earlier, but it is a crucial dynamic who the campaigns will be targeting and the message used to target them. Is there a way for campaigns to appeal to both white working class that dominate the Midwest without turning off minorities and college educated whites in the Sun Belt?
  2. Trump’s approval with white, non-college voters is much worse in the Rust Belt, where it hovers around the low 50s, than in the Sun Belt, where it is the mid-60s. This is perhaps the most under-appreciated demographic dynamic that leaves an opening among what many consider to be Trump’s base. What message can the campaigns deliver that would win over these key voters who have soured on Trump?
  3. Minorities in the Rust Belt really hate Trump, while those in the Sun Belt are a bit more divided. This largely comes down to the president’s absolutely dismal approval (~15%) among black voters (who make up most of the minority voters in the Rust Belt and some southern states like Georgia and North Carolina) versus his marginally better approval (~25%) among Hispanic voters (who are more dominant in Florida, Texas, Arizona and Nevada). What message can Democrats use to turn out these Trump-opposed voters without firing up and helping Trump re-solidify his white non-college base (that he could be in trouble with in the Rust Belt states). And what could Republicans do to alleviate their anemic margins among non-white voters?
  4. Lastly, college-educated white voters dislike Trump everywhere, but more so in the Rust Belt where his approval is in the mid to high 30s than in the Sun Belt where it’s in the mid to high 40s. How could the parties win over these voters without jeopardizing their margins among minorities and non-college whites?

While Trump could double down on winning over non-college white voters as a strategy to lock down the Electoral College in the Rust Belt, this would pose a big problem for Republican House prospects. As discussed, a majority of House seats are in the suburbs. In the House districts located in the Rust Belt states, a Trump strategy targeting non-college whites could actually work, as they make up 59% of voters in those seats. However, this strategy could prove fatal in the Sun Belt, where the swing seats are only 32% non-college white voters. Similarly, the other 22 vulnerable districts across the nation are 47% non-college white. If Trump’s Electoral College strategy is to target his white working-class base, he will likely be surrendering many of these House seats that have majority coalitions of non-white and college educated voters.

The electoral incentives, then are for the presidential campaigns to find a message that will help them win over the crucial non-college educated white voters in the Rust Belt, but also boost their prospects in these suburban districts.  Perhaps the Democrats will employ an economic-focused campaign in the Midwest while focusing on social issues in the Sun Belt suburbs, as Obama did in 2012. Maybe Trump will tamp down on divisive immigration issues, focusing instead on economic populism, in order to help solidify his base without repelling suburban communities quite as strongly.

Wrapping Up
Regardless of the tactics and messages that the campaigns settle on, it is likely that their effect on the House elections downballot will weigh on their decision. While Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin will probably deliver the winning Electoral College votes, the House will be decided in districts across the nation, although heavily concentrated in the Sun and Rust Belt. This complicated picture of the House will incentivize presidential candidates to compete in states and for voters that, if the House were not up for grabs, they may have ignored.

Given the importance of Congress to a president’s ability to carry out his or her vision, the presidential campaigns would be ignoring their impact on downballot House races at their peril. From what we have seen thus far, though, Trump is not the most prudent political operative. So, while the House elections may incentivize expanding the electoral map, we will have to wait and see if Trump — often obstinate and short sighted —- and the eventual Democratic nominee will take these House incentives into account or if they will focus solely on winning the Electoral College.

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

Sign up for ESY below! We won’t bother you except to let you know about fresh, new content. We promise!


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.

Sign up for ESY below! We won’t bother you except to let you know about fresh, new content. We promise!


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. 

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 reelection1Only 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,2Districts obviously don’t move in total synchrony, but their movement does track closely with the national environment3The 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.4Unless 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 votes5Besides 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 3136The 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).7Shout 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 States8States 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 States9Mostly 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 51.10There 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.

THE DEMOCRATIC LITMUS TESTS

The Democratic Party’s presidential contenders are straining to prove their progressive credentials. Policies considered unworkable by Hillary Clinton just three years ago — Medicare for All, $15 Minimum Wage, Free Public College — are the emerging Democratic litmus tests. These policies, pioneered by Sanders in 2016, have been endorsed by nearly every Democrat in the race. In the coming months, the Democratic field will face new litmus tests that will strain even the most progressive candidates.

The Democratic Party’s leftward lurch is not surprising given the changing ideologies of Democratic voters. Over half of Democrats now consider themselves ‘liberal’ — double the percentage owning the label in 1994 and up 10% since 2010. But if the Democratic Party hopes to defeat Trump in 2020, they will need to win over independents and moderates. An unrestrained slide to the left11Queue the Cha Cha Slide will have electoral consequences.

The big questions are:

  1. What are the established and emerging Democratic litmus tests?
  2. How will these litmus tests affect Democratic 2020 prospects?

TABLE: WHICH CANDIDATES ARE PASSING WHICH TESTS?
The table below shows 10 progressive litmus tests and each one’s support among the top tier12Gillibrand was included despite her low poll numbers due to her national platform as a U.S. Senator. of declared Democratic candidates13Other big names including Joe Biden, Beto O’Rourke and Sherrod Brown could still jump in., Democratic party members and the American public. The Democratic fundamentals — Support for Same Sex Marriage, Pro-Choice, etc. — are not included.  Any Democrat who doesn’t support these would be running about ten to forty years too late. For a comprehensive look at the contemporary Democratic orthodoxy, take a look at the Post Script at the bottom of this post.

Green means a candidate supports a policy.14Believe All Women/Me Too and Refusing Corporate PAC Money are not policies, but I’ll use the word as a catch-all. Yellow means a candidate is waffling on a policy, Red means a candidate does not support a policy and White means a candidate has not made a clear public statement on an issue.

Click Footnote Four->15for a list of the 10 litmus tests and the acronyms used in the table, Footnote Five->16 for how candidate support was categorized, Footnote Six->17for details on the in-table links and Footnote Seven->18 for polling caveats.


Download Table & Links

WHAT ARE THE REAL LITMUS TESTS?
The policies in the chart can be broken down into those that are Broadly Popular Among Democrats [>70%], Popular Among Progressives and Some Moderates [>55%] and Only Popular Among the Progressive Base [<55%].

There is no good polling on the Green New Deal or Refusing Corporate PAC Donations. Because 77% of the public and 85% of Democrats think that “there should be limits on the amount of money individuals and organizations can spend on political campaigns”, Refusing Corporate PAC Money will be considered “Broadly Popular Among Democrats” and net favorable among the general public. Because the Green New Deal has unanimous support among the candidates, it will be considered Broadly Popular Among Democrats. It’s popularity among the general public will remain undetermined due to the lack of polling.

Broadly Popular Among Democrats
Every Democratic contender support an Assault Weapons Ban, a $15 Minimum Wage, Refusing Corporate PAC Money and The Green New Deal. This categorical unanimity — among even the least progressive candidates — signals that these are all new Democratic litmus tests.

Five of the six also support the other three policies — Medicare for All, Free Public College and Believe All Women/Me Too — that are Broadly Popular Among Democrats. Amy Klobuchar, who is implicitly running on her electability as a moderate, is the outlier. If Klobuchar capitulates on any of these or fails to break into the 20-30% range in polls, it is a signal that these are emerging Democratic litmus tests as well.

Popular Among Progressives and Some Moderates
Every candidate, including Klobuchar, supports Overturning Citizens United — indicating that it, too, is a box Democrats must check. Warren and Harris have explicitly endorsed Slavery Reparations, Sanders is waffling and Booker, Gillibrand and Klobuchar have remained quiet.

If the rest of the field (besides Klobuchar) comes out in favor of Reparations,19Or other policies that, like Reparations, are only popular among progressives and some moderates it means the progressive wing is successfully pulling candidates leftward — indicating that their influence is greater than anticipated.

Only Popular Among the Progressive Base
Abolish Ice is only popular among the progressive base. Gillibrand and Warren are the two lone candidates who have come out in support of AI. If Sanders’s, Harris’s and Booker’s refusal to endorse this policy20Or other policies that, like Abolish Ice, are only popular among the progressive base spells their doom, it would signal that the base has a lock on the party and only true-blue, outright progressives can win the nomination.

So…how do these possible litmus tests break down?

Established Litmus Tests

  • Assault Weapons Ban
  • $15 Minimum Wage
  • Overturn Citizens United
  • Green New Deal
  • Refusing Corporate PAC Money

Emerging Litmus Tests

  • Medicare for All
  • Free Public College
  • Believe All Women/Me Too 

Possible Future Litmus Tests  

  • Slavery Reparations
  • Abolish Ice

2020 PROSPECTS
Six of the nine21the Green New Deal is not included in this tally due to the lack of polling. policies are viewed favorably among the general public. The populist22Overturn Citizens Uunited and wealth distribution23Medicare for All, Free Public College, $15 Minimum Wage policies have the strongest approval. This support, however, fluctuates depending how the question is framed. Support for Medicare for All, for example, falls around 20 percent when people are told that it will require Americans to pay more in taxes.

“Culture war” issues like Believe All Women/Me Too, Slavery Reparations and Abolish Ice have the lowest levels of general support. The latter two, with public support in the mid-30s, could get Democrats into trouble in 2020. Democrats would be better off electorally running on populist and wealth-redistribution policies than culture war issues. If Democrats go the redistribution route — because support for these policies depends largely on how they are framed — their success will hinge on how well they present their argument to voters. Regardless, expect Republicans to continue portraying Democrats as extremists and highlighting their “calls for socialism” in 2020.  

There are more fringy ideas that could make their way into the Democratic mainstream. As some candidates start to fall behind in the polls, they may endorse increasingly ‘out there’ policies to win over progressives. By this time next year, we could have a field supporting a Universal Basic Income24One Democratic underdog, Andrew Yangalready does and Packing the Supreme Court.

It wouldn’t be unusual for one candidate to change the direction of an entire party. Just ask the man in the White House.


POST SCRIPT

I will be improving and expanding the list of litmus tests as the primaries continue. Here’s what I have so far:

  • Wealth Redistribution (M4A, Free Public College, $15 Minimum Wage)
  • Racial Justice (Slavery Reparations, Black Lives Matter, Abolish Ice, Abolish Private Prisons)
  • Gender Equality/LGBTQ+ Rights (Believe All Women/Me Too, Same Sex Marriage),
  • Elections & Campaign Finance/Election Reform (Overturn Citizens United, Refuse CPAC Donations, D.C./Puerto Rico Statehood)
  • Climate Change/Environment (Green New Deal)
  • Etcetera (Assault Weapons Ban, Oppose Trump’s Wall)   

If you have any suggestions for additional categories or tests, send them my way at s.k.moskowitz@gmail.com.

PRESIDENTIAL COATTAILS: What Are They?


This is the first 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, below, looks into what coattails are, what causes them and why they are losing power. Part 2 will focus on the 2020 presidential race and what different candidate strategies and outcomes could mean for the House.


Even a blog explicitly not about the presidency can’t avoid the ruckus at the top of the ticket. Because presidential votes are highly determinative of down-ballot votes, understanding presidential elections is a prerequisite to understanding House elections. The messy, complex relationship can be tidied up with the idea of presidential coattails — “that the winning presidential candidate can sweep into office fellow party members in down-ballot races.”

THE DIRECT MODEL
In the mundanely named “Direct Model of Coattail Effect”, a voter’s downballot decision process starts with their presidential vote.

Excluding local race dynamics, a House candidate’s baseline support in their district — measured by popular vote percentage — would match that of their party’s presidential candidate. A popular House candidate and favorable local dynamics will lift this percentage up; an unpopular House candidate and unfavorable local dynamics will drag it down.

House candidates that win, but with a smaller percentage of the district vote than their party’s presidential candidate — and who therefore benefited from the president’s higher level of support — are riding the president’s coattails.

The Direct Model is25In my opinion the clearest, most useful way to think about downballot candidate selection. The rest of the analysis rests on this model. 26So come at me if you think The Simultaneous Determination Model is more accurate.

To walk through an example of the candidate selection process, meet Sandra in the footnote->27Sandra lives in Moorhead, Minnesota (where they’re a bit overly excited about being the birthplace of the DQ “Dilly Bar”) and pays peripheral attention to the news. She is a strong supporter of the Republican presidential candidate because:

1) She’s a registered Republican.

2) She just got a pay raise.

3) She is pro-life.

So, Sandra goes and votes for the Republican presidential candidate. But what about those downballot races?

Sandra came to support the president and doesn’t know much about these other candidates. She decides to vote the Republican ticket all the way down to support her presidential pick and the Republican Party.

This is a presidential coattail vote — a downballot vote that comes from support for a presidential candidate.

In another world, Sandra still lives in Moorhead (and is just as proud of the ice-cream-on-a-stick heritage) but has seen ads saying that the Democratic House candidate supports the President’s economic agenda and is pro-life (Moorhead, Minnesota actually is in one of four districts represented by a pro-life Democrat) — both things that Sandra likes! Sandra also likes that the Democrat, Colin Peterson, used to be — and this is true— in a congressional bipartisan conservative rock/country/country rock band named “The Second Amendments”. 

In this world, Sandra splits her vote: Republican for President, Democrat for House. Thus (I’m allowed a pretentious word here and there) no presidential coattails.

THE POWER OF COATTAILS TODAY
How powerful are presidential coattails28From here on, referred to as just ‘coattails’. and are they getting stronger or weaker? Well, it’s complicated.

Coattails are measured by tallying the number of districts where the president’s vote total was greater than that of their party’s House candidate. By this measure, coattails are weak.

WHAT ARE COATTAILS MADE OF?
To understand why they appear to be weakening, we’ll look at the two pieces that determine coattail length: Presidential Popular Vote Percentage (PPVP) and Ticket Splitting Rate.

Presidential Popular Vote Percentage (PPVP)
The downward trend in PPVP is clear. Looking at the chart below, no presidential candidate has cracked 55% since Reagan in 1984.  It is also clear that the candidates who won in landslides — Eisenhower (1956), Johnson (1964), Nixon (1972) and Reagan (1984) — had the longest coattails.

So why are landslide elections and high PPVPs becoming less common?

Historically unpopular candidates… 

29Data from Gallup; Data Missing for 1988, 1996, 2000

and parties…

along with a stubbornly divided electorate with intense party loyalty.30There are plenty of analyses on the other factors that influence presidential elections. But what matters here is identifying the causes of the downward trend in PPVP. Everything else that is happening under the surface can stay there.

This environment limits a candidate’s ability to win over enough voters to reach into the mid-fifties, let alone garner enough votes for a landslide. And even recent elections with excited voters and high turnout— like Obama’s 2008 election — still feature a polarized electorate, and PPVPs around 50%.

Recent candidates, with their record unpopularity, have also boosted support for third parties. Third party votes have been on the uptick since 2004 and jumped in 2016. According to the 2016 exit polls, five percent of third party presidential voters31Voters who said they did not vote for Clinton or Trump or gave no answer. supported a Republican or Democrat House candidate. When seats are decided by one or two percent, the direction that these voters swing downballot can be decisive.

32Data from Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S.

Ticket Splitting
A voter who supports candidates from different political parties on the same ballot is called a ticket-splitter. Their ballot is dubbed a split-ticket.

A popular House candidate with favorable local dynamics may pull enough votes to win a race in a district that their party’s presidential candidate lost. Likewise, an unpopular candidate with unfavorable local dynamics may lose in a district that their party’s presidential candidate won. These split-ticket districts can be one-offs, but if a national party does an exceptionally good or bad job with candidate recruitment33*cough* Democrats in 2010 *cough* or fundraising, it could have an aggregate effect.

It might seem that weakened coattails would mean a rise in ticket splitting. That’s not the case; split-ticket voting is at a record low. Take a look at this Washington Post graphic. It shows that ticket splitting on a district level has plummeted, particularly since 2012. Here is another picture showing the same trend.34Since I know some of you lazy boobs didn’t click the link.

The dive in ticket splitting has continued even as states do away with Straight Ticket Voting — the option to check one box and vote for all candidates of a single party.35Only 8 states will have the option in 2020. Given the antipathy between Republicans and Democrats, they’ll surely take the time to check those boxes D or R top to bottom.

The party loyalty trickles down from presidential politics into Senate, House, Gubernatorial, and even state assembly races. When it comes to elections of all levels, people take their cue from national party. This might be due to the nationalization of media or because national parties are a good and easy stand-ins for voters’ values. It’s a rabbit hole that goes down deep enough for books to be written on the subject.    

BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
Reading material that dense might be throwing spaghetti on the wall. If you need a summary, click the footnote –>36Presidential coattails are a factor of 1) Presidential Popular Vote Percentage (PPVP) 2) The percentage of their voters who split tickets downballot.

PPVPs have steadily decreased in recent years — a result of unpopular parties, unpopular candidates and high party loyalty — lowering the number of districts in which presidential candidates run ahead of the House candidate, which is one way to measure coattails.

Ticket splitting has fallen in recent years due to high partisan loyalty and the nationalization of politics and media.

So…are presidential coattails getting stronger or weaker?

It depends how they are measured. While presidential votes have become more and more indicative of House votes37Measured by falling ticket-splitting rates., low PPVPs are rarely enough to pull House candidates over the finish line.

Remember, however, that these trends are not destiny — they could intensify, reverse or hold steady. We live in a volatile and Mercurial Nation. Voters happy with the economy could view incumbents charitably, keeping Trump and a Democratic House. Voters could go to the ballot with hopes of electing a split government as a check on the parties, a theory known as balancing. Or voters could be hungry for change and elect a Democratic President and Republican House.

Next week we’ll go deeper into how the 2020 presidential election could play out and what these scenarios would mean for the House.