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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
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.