As summer approaches, Joe Biden is in the best position of any challenger to an incumbent president since scientific polling began some 90 years ago. He hasn’t trailed in a single large-sample live interview poll during the past 17 months — something that’s never happened before — during which time he has maintained an average lead of between seven and eight points over Donald Trump. The stability we see in the presidential race is consistent with the inelasticity of Trump’s job performance ratings, which have never been in net positive territory, and which now put him in the company of the two incumbents denied re-election in the past four decades — Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992 — as the only presidents with net double-digit disapproval five months prior to an election.
There is another way Trump departs from two of his immediate predecessors who did see their way to re-election. Like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Trump’s party experienced a huge rejection at the polls during the midterm elections. Clinton and Obama listened and changed course. Trump did not. When the electorate sends you a message, it’s usually a good idea to do something about it so they don’t have to send you the message a second time. That’s why Bill Clinton began triangulating Republican issues after 1994 and why Obama governed with rhetoric and executive orders but not large initiatives following the Tea Party rebellion of 2010. Donald Trump has not changed and this has left open the possibility that we may be heading for something resembling the 2006 and 2008 cycles, where a midterm rejection of the incumbent party built to an even larger rejection two years later. We could see a blue wave building by this point in 2018. There is a lot of evidence that it is building again.
Trump is the constant that drives everything in our politics, a fixed object who will not, cannot and does not want to change his ways. He is the polarizer-in-chief, turbocharging the deep divisions we started to witness before his arrival. Events have transpired at a dizzying pace (do you remember that the impeachment trial happened this year?) but Trump’s behavior keeps public opinion locked in place. This has added an unusual level of stability to election forecasting, with ramifications for how House, Senate and statewide contests may turn out. In an age defined by negative partisanship, Trump sees to it that people will vote to defend their team from losing to the other side, and that means the results at the top of the ticket will reverberate all the way down the ballot.
I started writing this piece last week with the intention of providing a benchmark analysis of where the election stands with five months to go. Since then, we have seen demonstrations erupt across the country in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Donald Trump unleash tear gas and rubber bullets on peacefully assembled citizens in front of the White House, and pushback against Trump’s militarized response to the protests from generally conservative opinion circles. It is difficult to discern whether a moment is fleeting or an inflection point, but something certainly feels different about what we’re going through, both in terms of the broad, deep and sustained popular uprising and Trump’s unmistakably authoritarian reaction to it. We’re starting to see it reflected in opinion polls. Trump’s consistently rock-solid support from working class whites without a college education has eroded in the past week while Biden’s lead in several high-end national surveys reached double digits. Both of these trends could reverse if the passions of the moment subside, but if they instead were to harden — if something is permanently shifting across America this spring — then the Trump campaign will come apart.
We will know soon. Right now, there is ample evidence that a wave is forming in the political ocean, even if this moment turns out to be less of a tipping point than it appears to be. What follows is evidence from the presidential, Senate and House races that suggests 2020 will consolidate and advance the gains Democrats made in 2018 and bring to fruition the political realignment that has been developing for several years. I’m looking only at conditions as they exist today. We know conditions can change, but we shouldn’t overlook the fact that the hallmark of public opinion in the Trump era has been stubborn consistency. And we are now close enough to the election that today’s conditions are meaningful.
This is an unusually long piece. I won’t be offended if you skip to the last section for a quick summary of where things stand today and what they portend for November. For those who would like the data and analysis behind the conclusions, please read on.
Texas is a battleground. Michigan, not so much. That is all you need to know about the state of the presidential contest as spring approaches summer. Donald Trump would lose the election if it were held today. It wouldn’t be close.
Election forecasters are understandably uncomfortable about getting too far ahead of events, especially when predictions run counter to conventional wisdom and doubly so after so many of us missed Trump’s victory last time. My assessment that Hillary Clinton was leading the presidential race and likely to win was based on (a) polling evidence that she was ahead along with (b) a longstanding Electoral College advantage for Democrats on the coasts and in the Midwest, which led to (c) the assumption that if Clinton won the popular vote by at least several points then the Electoral College would follow. The national polling data turned out to be correct, but Clinton’s popular vote margin ended up at the bottom end of the expected range, just low enough to permit Trump to puncture the Democrat’s “blue wall” in the Upper Midwest and Pennsylvania by the thinnest of margins.
So why wouldn’t we expect the same thing to happen this year? Because Biden’s lead is much greater than Clinton’s was at the same point in the election cycle. So much greater, in fact, that it will need to slip appreciably to move into the range where Trump can pull off a repeat performance. At 152 days out, Clinton’s lead in the Real Clear Politics polling average was 3.8 points (only 1.7 points above her eventual popular vote margin of 2.1). Biden’s lead is 7.2 points. Put another way, Trump needs to shave five points off Biden’s average to recreate the conditions in place during his 2016 Electoral College upset.
The electoral math is impossible for Trump at a 7.2 point deficit. It means Biden wins Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona — and the election. He narrowly wins Wisconsin, Florida and North Carolina. He probably wins Georgia, Ohio and Iowa. He grabs an electoral vote in Nebraska. Texas is close. If the election were held today, Trump could count on just 125 electoral votes with only 78 more up for grabs.
There is no way for Trump to improve his position significantly by investing in a few states. He needs to improve his overall national standing and close the 7.2 point gap with Biden. But at the moment he is going in the wrong direction, losing support among white working class women, white Catholics and white evangelicals — groups essential to his 2016 victory. With the fundamentals of the 2020 election working against him, stopping this slide is a necessary but insufficient step toward getting back into the race. Eventually, he will have to convince some portion of voters outside his base that four more years of what we’re going through today is a better deal than the alternative. This will require noticeable improvement in each of the four crises we’re now experiencing — public health, economic, civil rights and leadership. It can’t be done with spin and wishful thinking.
So while it is possible to imagine Trump closing the gap by convincing unhappy Republicans to come home, he needs to do more than this to have a shot at winning. And — depending on how events unfold over the next few months — it is also possible to imagine things breaking the other way, with Biden pushing his lead closer to double digits. If the final results are within a couple of points in either direction of where we are today, we will see a wave that extends down ballot. With the presidential election setting the political stage, Democrats are in a commanding position to hold the House and a stronger position than mainstream news coverage would suggest to win control of the Senate.
In the absence of a wave, Democrats could face tremendous challenges holding the House, where their majority is a slender 18 seats. Their emphatic 2018 victory overcame a deeply gerrymandered map designed to guarantee a decade of Republican control and returned the Speaker’s gavel to Nancy Pelosi for the first time since the Tea Party revolution. This also left Democrats with a class of vulnerable freshmen, twenty of whom represent districts Donald Trump won. Sophomore year can be the most challenging one for new members, especially those who wouldn’t have won without the wave that carried them to victory. If they had to run again in a year when the tide was out, many would be unable to hold their seats. With conditions returning to normal, they would find they’re just not a good fit to their districts.
This isn’t happening in 2020. From the start of this cycle there have been no signs that the Democratic majority is in jeopardy, giving us our earliest indication that the wave conditions of 2018 remain in place. Public opinion polling confirms this. When you tally all the votes cast in every 2018 congressional election, Democrats outpolled Republicans by a margin of 8.6% on their way to picking up 41 seats. As of today, the 2020 congressional generic ballot — which attempts to predict that margin — favors Democrats by 8.4%. It’s as if nothing has changed since November 2018. This is why signs abound that the Democrat’s majority is safe. Apart from the surprising safety of the freshman class, we see it in retirements, recruitment, fundraising and the map of competitive seats.
The best indicator of the strength and direction of the political winds is what members themselves think about their prospects. The House minority has little power, and members of the minority are more likely to seek other work if they believe they’re going to remain in the minority after the next election. By the same logic, members of the majority are more likely to run for the hills if they believe their majority is threatened. In this cycle, three times as many Republicans have retired or are seeking other offices — 27 Republicans and nine Democrats. Twenty-four Republicans announced their departures before the start of the year. These members saw the way things were shaping up early on and decided to get out.
The same pattern is reflected in candidate recruitment. It should be easy for a party to recruit strong candidates to run against vulnerable freshmen, but recruitment efforts will be challenging if prevailing conditions are unfavorable. Republicans have struggled to land top recruits, especially in suburban districts where Democrats built their majority two years ago. They can trace their struggles back to a president who is poison to suburban voters (even before he suggested they ingest disinfectants), because — as we said before — political conditions in a presidential re-election year are set at the top. Had Trump made adjustments following the 2018 wave to reach out to the suburban voters who rejected his party, the Republican recruiting and retirement predicament might not have materialized.
It might also have dampened the intensity Democrats feel to oust Republicans aligned with Trump at every level of government. Enthusiasm from the Democratic base never abated after the midterms, and it has helped propel House Democrats to an outsized fundraising advantage as a party and in key individual races. While the majority party can be expected to raise more money than the minority because money flows to power, the size of the differential is noteworthy. After first quarter fundraising figures were reported, Politico described the Republican fundraising situation as “bleak” and noted that almost all of the thirty most vulnerable Democrats had a $2 million or more cash advantage over their challengers. On average, Democrats in competitive districts had nine times more cash on hand than their opponents. This advantage extends to open seats, where Democrats held a three-to-one advantage in late March, and to eleven Republican incumbents who raised less than their Democratic challengers.
These factors have combined to produce a congressional map tilted so heavily to incumbent Democrats that the race for House control may well be over. With two North Carolina seats Republicans are likely to lose through redistricting and Will Hurd’s open Texas seat, Democrats start the cycle with three almost certain pick-ups and only a handful of genuinely vulnerable seats, and are in a position to pad their majority if a second wave materializes.
Here’s a fun fact: The table below lists outcomes for the thirty-four 2016 Senate races and how each state with a Senate race voted for president. Abbreviations of states that voted for Trump appear in red; states that voted for Clinton appear in blue. Likewise, the names of Republicans who won Senate races appear in red, with Democratic victors in blue. Notice anything interesting?
That’s right – it’s a perfect correlation. Every state that Trump won sent a Republican to the Senate. Every Clinton state sent a Democrat. That’s really unusual. It’s so unusual that I would be surprised to see it repeated this year. But I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the correlation remains very high as people continue to vote with their team. This means states that are competitive at the presidential level are also likely to host competitive Senate races, and Senate races in states that lean blue in the Electoral College are likely to favor Democrats. Because a wide Biden lead means more red states will potentially turn blue, it should also mean an expanded Senate map. The best hope for Republicans to hold the Senate is to keep the presidential election close.
Democrats start out with a strong advantage this cycle, defending only 12 of the 35 seats in play. Almost all of these are noncompetitive. Gary Peters’ Michigan seat might have been vulnerable in a Republican year, but with the fundamentals favoring Democrats their only seat in genuine jeopardy is in Alabama, where Doug Jones has to charge uphill to replicate his special election victory of three years ago. Should Jones lose, Democrats would need to pick up four seats and the White House to control the Senate. With Joe Biden poised to win or come close to wining four states with unpopular Republican senators, the pull of negative partisanship should make this is a manageable task. The potential for greater gains exists if a wave develops, although ironically its reach may be blunted if negative partisanship saves unpopular Republican incumbents in deep red states.
Let’s take a look at the Senate battleground from the perspective of how the presidential race is shaping up:
The Democrat’s path to Senate control runs through Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina, where Republican incumbents are all trailing their challengers and polling at or near 40% — a dangerously low level this close to an election. If a known quantity isn’t near or above 50% they run the real risk that they will be unable to attract enough undecided voters to win. With Biden leading or within the margin of error in all four states, Democrats have the advantage. Colorado and Maine are safe Democratic states, Arizona is a purple state that has shown a consistent Democratic lean at the presidential level this year, and North Carolina is a toss-up likely to be decided by a point or two — close enough for Democrats to carry the Senate seat even if Biden falls short there.
With the electoral votes of Georgia, Iowa and Texas on the table in a wave election, Democrats would have additional opportunities to pad their numbers. All three states have Senate races (Georgia, with a special election, actually has two), although some of these states may require a larger wave than others for Democrats to prevail. Joni Ernst is quite unpopular in Iowa and her seat could be competitive if the presidential race is close there. The Texas presidential race almost certainly will be close, but John Cornyn has the potential to run ahead of Donald Trump, and Texas remains the least likely of the reach states for Biden to flip. At least one of the Georgia seats offers Democrats a genuine pickup opportunity in a wave election, although the special election is more complicated because it will likely go to a mid-winter run-off when Democrats won’t be able to count on Election Day turnout.
Then you have a group of contests in red states where Democrats would have to fight the pull of negative partisanship to win. Montana provides them with their best opportunity in this group, as popular Democratic governor Steve Bullock is in a tight race with incumbent Steve Daines despite the state’s strong Republican lean. If a wave pulls Biden to within a few points of Trump in Montana, Bullock could outperform Biden by just enough to win. Kansas has an open seat that Democrats have an outside shot of winning if Republicans nominate the incredibly unpopular former Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who cost his party the governorship when he lost to a Democrat in 2018, but this would be a quirky exception to the negative partisan rule because the likely Democratic candidate is a former Republican in a state Trump should win handily.
Democrats see a long shot opportunity in South Carolina, a red state Trump should win but not by a lot. In a normal year we wouldn’t be talking about this seat, but in a big wave the dynamic in South Carolina could resemble Montana. However, unlike the bland Steve Daines, incumbent Senator Lindsey Graham has become a lightening rod for controversy since becoming Trump’s most vocal Senate defender. Graham is hoping that by welding himself to Trump he will boost Republican enthusiasm, and the success of that strategy will be determined by Trump’s popularity in the state this fall as well as by how much Graham’s sycophantic loyalty to Trump mobilizes the rest of the electorate against him. Graham is facing the young, charismatic former state party chair Jamie Harrison, who has been convincing disaffected Republican donors to support him and is proving to be a robust challenger.
In Kentucky, Democrats would love to end Mitch McConnell’s career, and the majority leader is very unpopular at home. His opponent, retired marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath, turned heads when she bested McConnell in first quarter fundraising — a sign of just how much national Democrats want to win this race. But Kentucky is one of the reddest states in the country, and McGrath’s challenge is enormous. It’s true that Kentucky turned out an unpopular Republican governor two years ago, but negative partisanship is more likely to take over in a Senate race with national implications. McConnell could be pulled under by a wave, but it would have to resemble the picture at the top of this post.
Even if they don’t defeat him, Democrats are well positioned to make Mitch McConnell the minority leader next year. Given how Republican Senate candidates are performing in the states that would put Biden over the top, it is difficult to imagine that he does not have a Senate majority if he is elected president. All signs point to Democratic pick-ups in Colorado and Arizona, they have the wind at their backs in Maine, and the fundamentals give them an edge in North Carolina. But notwithstanding negative partisanship, one of the characteristics of a wave election is that most close contests tip the same way. Should that happen, Democrats will blow through these four seats on their way to a comfortable majority.
The Big Picture
The dynamics that led to a huge Democratic victory two years ago are still in place and point to an election cycle that looks more like 2018 than 2016. Even before the events of the past three months, Donald Trump and his party had done nothing to address what the electorate was telling them during the midterms. He has continued to govern exclusively for his base with total disregard for voters who for three-plus years have kept his disapproval ratings over fifty percent. Consequently, the apparent Democratic presidential nominee holds a lead almost double that of his immediate predecessor at this point in the contest. House Democrats are not facing a sophomore slump and are well positioned to hold or even expand their majority. Senate Democrats are likely to be swept into power with a presidential victory and should hold a comfortable majority if that victory is large — an outcome that today is well within the range of possibilities. This is the picture of a political wave developing out in the ocean, ready to crash ashore with enough energy to end the Trump presidency and shatter the Republican Party.
Can things change? Of course they can. At this time four years ago, Wikileaks and James Comey were not yet factors in the election. But will they change? In a year that has already produced enough uncertainty and upheaval for an entire decade, the striking thing about the political picture is its stability. The unwavering support of Donald Trump’s base, majorities that disapprove of Trump’s performance, and the stubborn consistency of Biden’s presidential lead have carried through the political season. I will revisit the dynamics addressed here several times before the voting starts this fall to see if they are holding up. But as things stand now, the conditions in place two years ago still apply. Republicans failed the midterms. If nothing substantive changes they are going to fail the finals.