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HOW STRAIGHT TICKET VOTING CAN TIP THE SCALES DOWNBALLOT

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The Importance of Ballot Design
Electoral analysis usually focuses on polls, fundraising, voter preference, and other horse race indicators. But what if the determining factor in a race is something that neither the candidates nor the voters have control over: ballot design? Florida, in particular, has had an unfortunate history of ballot flubs. In 2000, the state had an infamous ballot debacle in Palm Beach County. And again, in 2018, the state confused voters with a ballot design flaw that may have tipped the Senate election there.

Straight Ticket Voting
The point is that small differences in ballot design can have a big effect. One such ballot feature — straight ticket voting (STV) — has suffered a public relations crisis, resulting in its removal in most states. Straight ticket voting lets a voter choose every candidate that a party has nominated on the general election ballot with one ballot mark. It’s usually an option at the top of the ballot and allows a voter to skip over any other partisan election that has a candidate from their chosen party.  

Proponents claim that STV makes voting easier, quicker, and results in less roll off voters — voters who vote for the top of the ticket but not downballot races. Opponents argue that it results in candidates winning due solely to their party identification, discourages thoughtful consideration of candidates’, and disadvantages third party and independent candidates.

It’s not clear that STV systematically benefits one party over the other. Proponents and opponents lie on both sides of the partisan divide. But while there is no consistent partisan advantage, some effects of STV are clear in downballot races.

  1. It reduces undercount/roll off votes. Voters who otherwise might have only voted for the top of the ticket — due to the length of the ballot, a lack of candidate knowledge, or apathy — might choose the STV option instead.
  2. It helps candidates with party affiliations. Only downballot candidates who have a party affiliation can earn votes through the STV option. Independent voters lose out.
  3. Name recognition is less important. Voters who choose STV will not be looking at candidate names or histories, making these less influential.
  4. Voting is quicker and lines/wait times can be shorter. Filling in one bubble at the top of the form is much easier and faster than going through an entire, sometimes multi-page ballot. This shortens the time it takes to vote and reduces waiting times at polling locations.
  5. Voters overlook ballot initiatives and nonpartisan office elections. Some voters will choose the STV option and fail to vote for non-partisan ballot initiatives and elections. Some of these voters might have skipped these votes even without the STV option, but others might fail to see them or realize that their STV vote doesn’t count in these elections.

STV in the States
In 2020, only seven or eight states will offer STV. (Pennsylvania’s state legislature passed a bill that eliminates STV, but they’re still waiting for Governor Tom Wolf’s signature.) This is down from 18 in 2006 and 21 in 1994. The table below shows the eight states (including Pennsylvania, which could change) with STV ballot options and the competitive1Defined as a rating by Sabato’s Crystal Ball of Toss-up, Lean D or R, or Likely D or R downballot federal elections.

The next table shows the two states that had STV in 2016 but will not in 2020 and their competitive downballot federal elections.

STV has the biggest impacts on far downballot races like judges and state legislatures. Most voters will vote in their Senate and House races, meaning that STV will only impact these races if they are very, very close.  Given the number of competitive federal races in STV states (3 Senate + 15 House) and the number of tight races in Iowa and Texas (2 Senate + 12 House), who recently eliminated STV, it is likely that some of these will be extremely close races. Out of these 32 federal elections, some will probably have a close enough margin that the state’s decision to have or eliminate STV could have determined the winner.

Again, it’s not easy to always know which party benefits from STV or its elimination. In general, though, the party who runs stronger at the top of the ticket will probably earn more straight ticket votes. This isn’t an infallible rule, though, and shouldn’t be applied to any individual district or state without data or evidence. The big picture to keep in mind is that, in a very close race, a state’s decision to keep or eliminate STV may have tipped the scales.

The Cases of Texas and Iowa
This is particularly relevant in Texas, where there is a competitive senate race and eight House races. According to a study done at Austin Community College, in 2016, an astounding 64% of voters in the state’s 10 largest counties used the STV option. In 2018, in the state’s 48 biggest counties (which account for 86% of the total vote count) 67% of voters used STV. Those who did use STV were split almost perfectly between Republican and Democrats. According to the study, minorities and older votes will be most affected by the elimination of STV. They also predict that Democrats will be hurt in more urban areas while Republicans will be hurt in more rural areas. Again, it’s impossible to know how this will shake out statewide, but it is clear that the elimination of STV will hurt whichever party is dominant within a certain voting jurisdiction: Democrats in urban areas and Republicans in rural ones.

Iowa, like Texas, recently eliminated STV, although the change was already in place in the 2018 midterms. This is however, the first presidential election in which Iowa will not have STV. Like in Texas, downballot Republicans in rural areas will likely be hurt by the change while downballot Democrats in urban areas will also be hurt. In 2014 (the only year in which Iowa collected undervote data), Democrats cast about 18,000 more STV ballots than Republicans. So, perhaps this indicates that the change will adversely affect Democrats, but on net we can’t know for sure.

Iowa Watch

The Big Picture
It’s important to keep in mind that the only races in which STV or its elimination may have tipped the scales are ones that are extremely close. Races with very wide margins were almost certainly not decided by STV option alone. But, given the number of competitive House districts in such states, it is likely that 2020 could feature elections in which ballot design, specifically STV or its elimination, ended up making the difference.

A STRANGE BELLWETHER: PENNSYLVANIA’S HOUSE

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The five competitive 2020 House races in Pennsylvania read like an abridged version of the national House race. They include the suburban battlegrounds, the exurban battlegrounds, a Romney-Clinton districts, an Obama-Trump district, a Republican in a seat that Clinton carried and a Democrat in a seat Trump carried.

The results of these districts in 2020 will likely be a bellwether for which party wins control of the House. Unfortunately, we won’t know the results of these five districts until we know who won the House, but developments in these districts over the next year will give some insight into which party is favored to win the House and their path to doing so.

The map below shows the current partisan makeup of Pennsylvania’s Representatives.   
Map Created at 270towin

The next map shows the current ratings2As rated by Sabato’s Crystal Balls for 2020 . Brown (District 1) is a Toss Up, light blue (7, 8) and light red (10) are Leaning Democrat or Republican, darker red (16) is Likely Republican, and dark red and dark blue are Safely Republican or Democrat.
Map Created at 270towin

The last two maps, at the bottom of the post, are meant to give some context for the following analysis. They show Pennsylvania’s average income (as of 2014) and population shift (between 2000 and 2018) by county.

Pennsylvania 1st: The Suburban Toss Up and the Republican in Clinton Country
Pennsylvania’s First District is a classic 2018 House battleground: Wealthy suburbs outside a major urban center. Based outside of Philadelphia, the first district is one of only three districts in the entire country in which Hillary Clinton won in 2016 and a Republican House member won in 2018. Of those three, only two are running for re-election in 2020. One of the two is Pennsylvania’s Brian Fitzpatrick, a moderate Republican who opposed appealing the ACA, has been endorsed by labor unions like AFL-CIO and gun safety groups and advocates like Everytown for Gun Safety and Gabby Giffords.

Clinton carried the district by 2% in 2016 and in 2018, Fitzpatrick won by 2.5%. The incumbent could have a hard time holding the seat in a presidential year, where the presidential race will heavily influence downballot votes. The district is currently rated a Toss Up. If Democrats are able to win this seat, they will almost certainly be able to hold onto the House. If Republicans hold it, they could be on the way to taking back a good number of House seats. In other words, Pennsylvania’s first district represents the districts that are necessary, but not sufficient for Republicans to win back the House.  

Pennsylvania 8th: The Democrat in Trump Country
Pennsylvania’s Eighth District is territory where, in my opinion, Republicans should be bullish. While it has some more urban areas — Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, and Hazelton — none of these are massive urban centers with very dense cores or suburbs and there is plenty of exurban and rural terrain for Republicans to gain ground in. The district had a massive shift between 2012, when Obama won it by 11.9% to 2016, when Trump won it by 9.6% — a move of over 20%. The district seems ripe for Republicans to win over ancestrally Democratic voters in the Scranton and Wilkes-Barre area who like Trump and the new Republican Party.

If Republicans can peel off incumbent Democrat Matt Cartwright, who won with an impressive 9.3% margin in this Trumpy looking district, they’ll be on their way to tightening the House margin and could flip it. It would indicate their ability to win in many of the 31 districts that Trump won in 2016 but a Democrat won in 2018.

Pennsylvania 7th: The Exurban Lean Democratic, Trending Republican District
Republicans winning Pennsylvania 7th is where the tables would really start to turn against Democrats. The Seventh District is centered around the urban Lehigh Valley, but extends out to more exurban and rural territory. The district voted for both Obama and Clinton, although it has been trending more Republican every year. In 2008, Obama won it by 14.5%, in 2012 he won by 7% and in 2016, Clinton won by just 1.1%.

The Democratic incumbent, Susan Wild, won in early 2018 special election after the incumbent resigned due to a sexual harassment controversy. She then won re-election in the 2018 November election by an impressive 10% margin. Democrats in the Lehigh Valley benefited from the 2018 court mandated redistricting, which swapped out the eastern, rural, Republican leaning portion of their district for the more Democratic-friendly territory up north in Monroe County.

If Republicans are able to take Pennsylvania 7th, they are probably on their way to winning back the House. It would indicate that they have the strength the oust the new class of Democratic House members and win back seats that they lost by pretty large margins in 2018. It would also indicate success in districts that, while trending red for some time, had not fully embraced Trump in 2016. If Republicans are able to carry two of the first, eighth, and seventh districts, they are, in my book, favorites to win back the House.

Pennsylvania 10th: The Exurban Lean Republican District
On the other hand, if Democrats are able to flip the Republican-leaning Tenth District, they are probably on their way to expanding their 34-seat margin.

The district, while centered around the state capital Harrisburg, is mostly exurban and rural. For a state capital, Harrisburg is a surprisingly small city with a population of just around 50,000. The metropolitan region, though, including suburbs and exurbs is much larger at around 570,000. Unfortunately for Democrats, most of these communities outside the metropolitan core lean Republican. Democrats would need to somehow dominate in both turnout and margin in urban Harrisburg while also winning back more rural voters.

Democrat’s big advantage may be the incumbent Scott Perry, a hardline conservative, who underperforms in what should be a relatively easy Republican hold. While Trump expanded Romney’s 6.6% margin to 8.9% in 2016, Perry won by just 2.6% in 2018. While this might indicate a weak incumbent in Perry, it also shows that, even in an extremely friendly Democratic environment, Republicans still were able to hold onto the seat. And in 2020, with the presidential election influencing downballot races, House Democrats will have an even more difficult time peeling off the much-needed rural voters.

If Democrats are able to overcome the pretty substantial barriers in the Tenth District, they will have held the House and likely be expanding their majority.

Pennsylvania 16th: The Rural Likely Republican, Obama-Trump District
Finally, we have the Obama-Trump Sixteenth District. If Democrats win here, the watershed has broken and they’ll be dominating the House. The heavily rural district stretches along the top half of the state’s western border, not quite reaching the outskirts of Pittsburg. The only urban portion of the district is in the state’s northwestern corner, in Erie county. Outside of this, though, the district is almost all rural and red.

While Obama did win the district in 2008 by a slim 0.8%, he lost it four years later, indicating that the district has been moving rightward even before Trump came along. But Trump expanded Romney’s 4.8% win to a much larger 20%. The incumbent, Mike Kelly, won by 4.3% in the Democratic friendly 2018 midterms, symbolizing his staying power. If Democrats can somehow win back a seat that 1) has been trending red since 2008 2) swung heavily towards Trump 3) is heavily Rural and 4) has a Republican incumbent who held on in the “blue wave” of 2018, they’ll be on track to dominate the House and will probably have won the presidency and Senate too.

A Strange Bellwether For the Presidency and House
The traditional “bellwether” state for presidential elections used to be Ohio. But as demographic trends continue to change the Democratic and Republican coalitions, this is no longer true. Another state from the Midwest or Great Lakes regions, like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, will probably be the new “indicator” of the electoral college winner — at least for the 2020 election cycle.

Pennsylvania, though, gives insight into more than just the presidential race. The state, with its crosscutting urban, rural, midwestern, and northeastern characteristics gives a sort of synopsis of the national race for the House. The state’s first, seventh, eight, tenth, and sixteenth districts are the bellwethers for the House. They’ll be ones to watch leading up to the 2020 elections, telling us which types of districts are up for grabs and where the true 2020 House battleground will be.

Additional Maps


Source: Data Usa


Source: Twitter @XNeon

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. 

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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

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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: PROJECTIONS BASED ON THE PRESIDENTIAL POPULAR VOTE

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This is Part 3 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 and Part 2 here.

This post is going to complete the series forecasting who will control of the House in 2020 based on the national environment, which is best measured by the presidential popular vote. Democrats currently hold 235 seats, Republicans hold 199, and Justin Amash is the lonely independent in MI-03. This means that Democrats can afford to lose, at most, net 17 seats.  This graphic, from our previous post, shows where we left off and what we still need to finish. 

The next chart shows, according to our model, the order that Democratic held seats would flip to Republicans. The model’s calculation uses the 2018 midterm margin, the changes in incumbency status from 2018 to 2020, and an adjustment for the 7.3% Democratic environment of the 2018 midterms. The last column shows the projected margin for the district in a neutral national environment, with positive numbers indicating a Republican victor and negative numbers indicating a Democratic win. Finally, the districts highlighted in red are ones where Donald Trump won >51% of the vote, which will be important for our projections below.

Safely Democratic
Let’s start with what national environment Democrats need to “Safely” hold the house. As with “Safely Republican”, I am going to build in a lot of safeguards here, setting a high bar for the House to be considered safe. These include:

  • Building in a 10 seat Democratic cushion, meaning that, for this calculation, Democrats can only lose seven seats, putting the House at 228D to 206R.
  • Assuming that Democrats lose the eight districts that Trump won by >51%.3In the “Safely Republican” calculation we assumed that Republicans lost any seat that Clinton won by >50%, not >51% like we assume here. The bar is a bit higher here because 1) There are a lot more seats held by Democrats that Trump won and Democrats are very unlikely to lose all of them. 2) A lot of these seats are in suburban zones that are swinging heavily away from Republicans.

Taking these two precautions, we already have Democrats losing eight seats — one more than our Safe model will allow. This means that they will have to win back one seat. The presidential popular vote they need to be able to expect to win this seat will be the bar they need to clear to Safely control the House.

So which House seat currently occupied by Republicans will be easiest for Democrats to flip? According to our model, the easiest seat for Democrats to flip will be TX-23.

This seat spans a majority of Texas’s western border with Mexico and is 62% Hispanic, a key demographic for Democrats. The Republican incumbent, Will Hurd, has been a uniquely strong incumbent, but barely squeaked out a 0.4% win and is not running for reelection next year. According to our calculation4Start with Republicans’ 0.4% 2018 margin. Adjust in Republicans favor 7.3% for the Democratic leaning environment in the 2018 midterms. Give Democrats a 2.7% boost due to the Republicans losing their incumbency advantage., Republicans could expect to win this seat by 5% in a neutral environment, meaning that Democrats need a 5.1% favorable environment to win this seat and be considered “Safe” to keep control of the House.

Likely Democratic
Moving to the “Likely Democratic” category, we are going to ease up on the safeguards a bit. The precautions now include:

  • Building in a 5 seat Democratic cushion, meaning that, for this calculation, Democrats can only lose 12 seats, putting the House at 223D to 211R.
  • Assume Democrats lose the eight districts where Trump won > 51%.

With these guardrails in place, Democrats can still afford to lose four more seats. The easiest of which (according to our model) would be NM-02, UT-04, CA-39, CA-21. The next seat in line, GA-06, is the one Democrats would need to hold onto. It would be 0.9% R in a neutral environment, meaning Democrats need to have a 1% advantage to make control of the House “Likely Democratic”

Toss Up
For our “Toss-Up” category we are going to find the tipping point seat — the one that would tip control of the House away from Democrats. Given the current breakdown of the House with one independent, there are actually two tipping point seats — one that would tip the House to a 217 – 217 tie and one that would tip it to a 218 – 216 Republican majority. The 18th and 19th seats that Republicans flip are these two “tipping point” seats. The 18th most likely seat to flip is Florida 27th and the 19th most likely is MI-08. These two districts would lean 1.9% and 1.4% Democratic in a neutral national environment, making these the boundaries for the toss up category.

Wrapping Up
Now that we have all the data, we can fill in the rest of our chart.  

A neutral environment, meaning the presidential popular vote is 50/50, falls into the “Lean Democrat” category. This is mostly due to their incumbency advantage in many of the most competitive districts that could determine control of the House. Democrats also have an advantage in the 1-3% margin range. If the national environment is 1%-3.3% in Democrats favor, they are “Likely” to win the House, but if it is a similar Republican leaning environment, the House a Toss Up, Lean Republican and even Lean Democrat. If either party wins by around 5% or more, though, it looks like the House is theirs.

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the variables we will take into account:

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOT-SO-FRIENDLY-FIRE: REPUBLICAN HOUSE PRIMARIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOT-SO-FRIENDLY-FIRE: DEMOCRATIC HOUSE PRIMARIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moderate Mistakes

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

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

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

Progressive Problem Makers

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

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

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

Leadership Loons

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

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

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

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

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

Presidential Pursuers

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

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

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

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

Vulnerable Voters

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

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

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

THE 2018 MIDTERMS CONTINUE: NORTH CAROLINA’S 9TH

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Signs for Democrat Dan McCready:

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

Good Signs for Republican Dan Bishop:

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

The winner of this seat is not going to affect the current House power balance. Democrats hold 235 seats and Republicans effectively hold 1995There is a vacancy in NC-03 due to the death of Representative Walter Jones, but this is a heavily Republican district and expected to elect a Republican in the September special election. After this election the House balance will be either 236-199 or 235-200 — an insignificant difference. More importantly, the winner will have the incumbency advantage in 2020 and a good chance of holding onto the seat. Depending on how close the House race is next year, one extra seat could be meaningful.

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

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

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

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