Just under one year until the 2020 presidential election…how does it look for Democrats?

On November 3, 2020, one year from this past Sunday, the United States will hold its next presidential election; technically, the election will conclude that day, given early voting and vote-by-mail opportunities in many states. Once a month since April 2019, I have updated analyses of polling data on hypothetical match-ups between potential candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination and President Donald J. Trump; for this post, I assume he will be impeached by the United States House of Representatives but not removed by the Senate. I make this assumption not because of any particular insight into the outcome of the Senate trial, but simply because polling data for other potential 2020 Republican presidential nominees, such as Vice President Mike Pence or former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, is sparse.

With the presidential election now one year away, here is a deeper dive into these polling data.

I Voted sticker

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First, however, here are the final polling averages for the two gubernatorial elections to be held on Tuesday, November 5, 2019.  In Kentucky, incumbent Republican Governor Matt Bevin trails Democrat Andy Beshear by 6.1 percentage points (“points”), though this is based upon only five polls, and only two conducted in October, with an average pollster rating of B-/B and an average Democratic “bias” of roughly 0.8 points; pollster quality is a letter grade assigned by FiveThirtyEight.com, and bias is a pollster’s average tendency to err towards Democrats or Republicans[1]. Plus, this state leans 28.7 points more Republican than the nation, according to my 3W-RDM, meaning the “fundamentals” (-28.7 3W-RDM + 5.7 Democratic edge in the generic ballot question – 8.5 Republican incumbency edge) suggest Bevin should win by nearly 32 points. Beshear should still be considered a slight favorite, but it would not be remotely surprising if Bevin won; with an astonishing gap of 38 points between polling and fundamentals, anything from a Bevin landslide to a narrow Beshear victory is possible.

In Mississippi’s open gubernatorial race, meanwhile, Republican Tate Reeves leads Democrat Jim Hood by 2.7 points, based upon 11 polls with an average C pollster rating and Democratic bias of 1.2 points. The fundamentals suggest Reeves wins by about 13 points, which more closely matches the polls. Reeves will likely win by a margin in the mid-single digits.

The bottom line, however, is that Democrats should not be competitive in either of these races, yet are within single digits in both.

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We have national-level polling data for hypothetical match-ups between 16 of the 17 currently-declared candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination and President Donald J. Trump; only former United States House of Representatives member (“Representative”) Joe Sestak has not yet been tested. Table 1 summarizes these match-ups; it includes all polls released publicly since January 1, 2019.

Table 1: Weighted-average national-level polling data for hypothetical match-ups between 2020 Democratic presidential nominees and President Donald J. Trump

Democrat NSW-WAPA # Polls Pollsters

 

Wtd-Ave Margin
# Rating Bias
Biden 26.8 76 22 B 0.0 D+8.4
Warren 17.4 70 20 B/B+ 0.0 D+3.8
Sanders 16.0 67 19 B/B+ 0.0 D+5.4
Buttigieg 7.6 37 13 B/B+ R+0.1 D+0.2
Harris 6.9 56 18 B R+0.2 D+1.8
Booker 2.1 18 9 B-/C+ R+0.6 R+0.6
Yang 1.8 8 HarrisX C+ R+1.5 R+7.1
Klobuchar 1.7 10 3 B R+0.3 R+5.5
Gabbard 1.3 7 HarrisX C+ R+1.5 R+8.7
Steyer 1.2 3 HarrisX C+ R+1.5 R+5.0
Castro 0.6 9 2 C+ R+1.5 R+6.2
Delaney 0.4 7 HarrisX C+ R+1.5 R+7.4
Williamson 0.3 7 HarrisX C+ R+1.5 R+9.1
Bennet 0.3 3 HarrisX C+ R+1.5 R+7.3
Bullock 0.2 3 HarrisX C+ R+1.5 R+6.5
Messam 0.0 5 HarrisX C+ R+1.5 R+12.5
Weighted Average Democratic margin over Trump D+4.0

NSW-WAPA” is a 2020 Democratic nomination polling average that aggregates national- and state-level polling averages adjusted for pollster quality and time-to-election; early states are weighted more than later states, and all state polls more than national polls. Each candidate’s estimated margin versus Trump uses polling margins from which pollster “bias” has been subtracted before weighting by pollster quality and time-to-election[2]. Final estimated margins for each Democratic candidate are weighted by the value NSW-WAPA/.845[3] to produce an “overall” Democratic average margin over Trump; the denominator is the total of 17 individual NSW-WAPA values[4].

Each of the six leading candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination—former Vice President Joe Biden; United States Senator (“Senator”) from Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren; Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders; South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg; California Senator Kamala Harris; New Jersey Senator Cory Booker—have at least 18 polls testing a hypothetical election between them and Trump. And for the first five candidates, the average pollster rating is a respectable B or B/B+ for at least 13 distinct polling organizations; the average for Booker is only C+/B- due to a preponderance of polls from Republican-leaning HarrisX (rating=C+, bias=+1.5); I have written previously about problems with HarrisX polls.

Overall, based upon a rough likelihood of each candidate winning the nomination, Trump would lose to the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee nationally by 4.0 points; Removing Biden’s polls lowers the margin to 2.0 points, while removing Biden’s and Sander’s polls lowers the margin to 0.6 points. Nonetheless, each of the six leading candidates either beats Trump nationally (Biden, Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg, Harris) or loses by less than one point (Booker). Unfortunately, the final estimated margins for the remaining 10 candidates in the table, including entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard, businessman Tom Steyer and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, should be taken with a few pounds of salt due to the preponderance of HarrisX polls of these match-ups; for every candidate except Klobuchar and Castro they are the only publicly-available polls.

There are reasons besides these admittedly-very-early polls to argue the Democratic presidential nominee will win the national popular vote in 2020 by around 3-4 points—where Warren polls right now. In fact, Warren’s 3.8-point margin is very close to the 3.3-point-average Democratic margin in the last six presidential elections, which include three incumbents seeking reelection (Bill Clinton in 1996, George W. Bush in 2004, Barack Obama in 2012) and three open seats (2000, 2008, 2016); Obama beat Republican Mitt Romney in 2012 by 3.9 points. As usual, presidential election data from Dave Leip’s indispensable Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.

Also, relative support for a Democratic candidate versus Trump is directly related to how well that candidate currently fares in the presidential nomination process, itself a proxy for name recognition; the correlation between the final estimated margin and NSW-WAPA is 0.90, suggesting the better known a Democrat becomes, the better (s)he polls versus Trump; Democrats are that eager to defeat the president.

Finally, some very back-of-the-envelope math suggests the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee is likely to improve over 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton’s 2.1-point margin over Trump. For one thing, while Trump remains nearly as unpopular as he was on election day 2016 (38% favorable then, 41% job performance approval now[5]), he will likely not face a nearly-equally-unpopular Democratic nominee in 2020. Voters who chose Trump as, hypothetically, the lesser of two evils now know what he is like as a president; the Democratic nominee now represents the blank slate, for better or for worse. More to the point, however, it is difficult to envision more than a small handful of the 65,853,625 voters who chose Clinton in 2016 switching to Trump, whereas switching in the other direction strikes me as far more plausible. But even if the vote switches roughly cancel out, there are 8,261,498 third party 2016 votes to consider, an unusually-high 6.0% of the total national popular vote. Let us assume half of those voters switch to one of the two major party candidates in 2020, and that they split roughly 2-1 for the Democrat, based on the idea voters who wanted to vote against Trump in 2016 but could not stomach voting for Clinton voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson, Green Jill Stein or Independent Evan McMullin. Using the six-election average increase in the total national popular vote over the previous election of 4.9%, that works out to about 72 million Democratic votes (50.0%), 67.5 million Republican votes (46.9%) and 4.3 million third party votes (3.1%)—and a Democratic margin of 3.1 points.

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Of course, it is the Electoral College, not the national popular vote, that determines the winner of presidential elections. Using 3W-RDM, if the Democratic nominee won by 4,0 points, (s)he would be expected to win 308 electoral votes (EV), although the race in Florida would be very close, more than the 270 EV necessary to win the presidency. Given an average error of 5.3 points, however, the Democratic EV total could be anywhere from 222 to 347. If the Democratic nominee only won by 0.6 points, though, (s)he would either lose with 259 EV or win with 279 EV, pending a likely recount in Pennsylvania[6]; the range of Democratic EV in this scenario is 191 to 314.

However, it is not necessary to rely solely on “fundamentals” calculations (i.e., national average plus 3W-RDM), as we have at least one hypothetical match-up poll from 26 states, including every relatively competitive state except Georgia. Table 2 summarizes these data, with polling averages in boldface; Democratic “wins” are italicized. Each row containing polling data has two values: the final weighted-adjusted average and, in parentheses, the extrapolated national popular vote margin based upon 3W-RDM. For example, Biden is currently ahead by 10.3 points in Michigan (which Trump won in 2016 by 0.2 points), but because Michigan averages 2.2 points more Democratic than the nation, that implies Biden is winning the national popular vote by 10.3-2.2=8.1 points, very close to his 8.4-point national polling average.

Table 2: Weighted-average state-level polling data for hypothetical match-ups between leading 2020 Democratic presidential candidates and President Donald J. Trump

State EV 3W-RDM Biden Warren Sanders Buttigieg Harris
DC 3 82.0 D+90.4 D+85.8 D+87.4 D+82.2 D+83.5
Hawaii 4 34.3 D+42.7 D+38.1 D+39.7 D+34.5 D+36.1
Vermont 3 27.7 D+36.1 D+31.5 D+33.1 D+27.9 D+29.5
California 55 23.2 D+28.4

(D+5.2)

D+21.9

(D+1.3)

D+26.7

(D+3.4)

D+20.0

(R+3.2)

D+22.4

(R+0.8)

Maryland 10 22.6 D+31.0 D+26.4 D+28.0 D+22.8 D+24.4
Massachusetts 11 22.1 D+37.9

(D+15.8)

D+25.9

(D+3.8)

D+27.9

(D+5.8)

D+22.3 D+23.9
New York 29 21.6 D+30.0 D+25.4 D+27.0 D+21.8 D+23.4
Rhode Island 4 18.0 D+26.4 D+21.8 D+23,4 D+18.2 D+19.8
Illinois 20 14.7 D+23.1 D+18.5 D+20.1 D+14.9 D+16.5
Connecticut 7 12.8 D+19.0

(D+6.2)

D+14.0

(D+1.2)

D+16.0

(D+3.2)

D+12.0

(R+0.8)

D+13.0

(R+0.2)

Delaware 3 12.5 D+20.9 D+16.3 D+17.9 D+12.7 D+14.3
Washington 12 12.1 D+21.8

(D+9.7)

D+20.5

(D+8.3)

D+21.4

(D+9.3)

D+12.9

(D+0.8)

D+13.9

(D+1.8)

New Jersey 14 12.0 D+20.4 D+15.8 D+17.4 D+12.2 D+13.8
Oregon 7 8.7 D+17.1 D+11.5 D+14.1 D+8.9 D+10.5
New Mexico 5 6.5 D+14.9 D+10.3 D+11.9 D+6.7 D+8.3
Maine 4 5.9 D+8.7

(D+2.8)

D+7.7

(D+1.8)

D+8.3

(D+2.4)

D+6.6

(D+0.7)

D+5.0

(R+0.9)

Michigan 16 2.2 D+9.0

(D+6.8)

D+4.5

(D+2.3)

D+7.5

(D+5.3)

D+2.8

(D+0.6)

D+4.1

(D+1.9)

Colorado 9 2.2 D+9.2

(D+7.0)

D+6.9

(D+4.7)

D+9.9

(D+7.7)

D+9.9

(D+7.7)

D+2.9

(D+0.7)

Nevada 6 2.0 D+1.4

(R+0.6)

R+2.8

(R+5.0)

D+0.1

(R+1.9)

R+4.4

(R+6.4)

R+0.8

(R+2.8)

Minnesota 10 1.5 D+12.7
(D+11.2)
D+11.7
(D+10.2)
D+9.7

(D+8.6)

D+1.6 D+3.3
Virginia 13 1.5 D+10.5

(D+9.0)

D+7.0

(D+5.5)

D+4.2

(D+2.7)

D+1.7 D+11.0

(D+9.5)

Wisconsin 10 0.7 D+5.9

(D+5.2)

D+1.1

(D+0.4)

D+4.5

(D+3.8)

R+1.3

(R+2.0)

D+0.1

(R+0.6)

New Hampshire 4 0.1 D+10.2

(D+10.1)

D+0.6

(D+0.5)

D+6.7

(D+6.6)

D+2.3

(D+2.2)

D+6.4

(D+6.3)

Pennsylvania 20 -0.4 D+4.5

(D+4.9)

D+0.04

(D+0.3)

D+2.8

(D+3.2)

R+3.8

(R+3.4)

D+0.3

(D+0.7)

Florida 29 -3.4 D+2.3

(D+5.7)

R+0.2

(D+3.2)

R+0.2

(D+3.2)

R+1.0

(D+2.4)

R+2.9

(D+0.5)

Iowa 6 -4.7 R+0.4

(D+4.3)

R+3.9

(D+0.8)

R+0.9

(D+3.8)

R+3.5

(D+1.2)

R+6.8

(R+2.1)

Ohio 18 -5.8 D+4.9

(D+10.7)

D+1.4

(D+7.2)

D+1.8

(D+7.6)

R+1.8

(D+4.0)

R+1.8

(D+4.0)

North Carolina 15 -6.0 D+1.8

(D+7.8)

R+1.5

(D+5.5)

R+0.2

(D+5.8)

R+3.0

(D+3.0)

R+3.7

(D+2.3)

Georgia 16 -9.6 R+1.0 R+6.1 R+4.3 R+9.5 R+7.8
Arizona 11 -9.7 D+1.8

(D+11.5)

R+0.8

(D+9.1)

R+6.0

(D+3.7)

R+3.6

(D+6.1)

R+6.7

(D+3.0)

Texas 38 -15.3 D+0.4

(D+15.7)

R+3.3

(D+12.0)

R+0.7

(D+14.7)

R+5.3

(D+10.0)

R+5.2

(D+10.1)

South Carolina 9 -15.7 R+11.3

(D+4.4)

R+12.1

(D+3.6)

R+15.7

(D+0.0)

R+15.5 R+17.4

(R+1.7)

Missouri 10 -15.9 R+11.3

(D+4.6)

R+15.1

(D+0.8)

R+16.7

(R+0.8)

R+15.4 R+17.1

(R+1.2)

Indiana 11 -16.3 R+7.9 R+12.5 R+10.9 R+15.8 R+14.5
Mississippi 6 -18.5 R+10.1 R+14.7 R+13.1 R+18.0 R+16.7
Montana 3 -18.6 R+7.0

(D+11.6)

R+9.0

(D+9.6)

R+8.0

(D+10.6)

R+18.4 R+10.0

(D+8.6)

Alaska 3 -19.2 R+4.1

(D+15.1)

R+15.1

(D+4.1)

R+6.1

(D+13.1)

R+13.1

(D+6.1)

R+17.1

(D+2.1)

Louisiana 8 -22.2 R+13.8 R+18.4 R+16.8 R+22.0 R+20.4
Kansas 6 -23.4 R+15.0 R+19.6 R+18.0 R+23.2 R+21.6
Nebraska 5 -25.8 R+17.4 R+22.0 R+20.4 R+25.6 R+24.0
South Dakota 3 -25.8 R+17.4 R+22.0 R+20.4 R+25.6 R+24.0
Tennessee 11 -25.8 R+17.4 R+22.0 R+20.4 R+25.6 R+24.0
Arkansas 6 -28.2 R+19.8 R+24.4 R+22.8 R+28.0 R+26.4
Alabama 9 -28.4 R+20.0 R+24.7 R+23.0 R+28.2 R+26.6
Kentucky 8 -28.7 R+15.5

(D+13.2)

R+32.6

(R+3.9)

R+22.6

(D+6.1)

R+32.6

(R+3.9)

R+26.9
North Dakota 3 -29.4 R+21.0

(D+8.4)

R+25.6 R+24.0 R+29.3 R+27.5
Utah 6 -33.1 R+1.3

(D+31.8)

R+3.3

(D+29.8)

D+5.7

(D+38.8)

R+20.3

(D+12.8)

R+15.3

(D+17.8)

Idaho 4 -34.2 R+25.8 R+30.4 R+28.8 R+34.0 R+32.4
West Virginia 5 -35.5 R+27.1 R+31.7 R+30.1 R+35.3 R+33.5
Oklahoma 7 -38.1 R+29.7 R+34.3 R+32.7 R+37.9 R+36.3
Wyoming 3 -45.7 R+37.3 R+41.7 R+40.3 R+45.5 R+43.9
TOTAL EV 390 271/291 297 243 273

There is a lot to unpack in this table, so here are some highlights:

  1. Biden would resoundingly beat Trump, but other top Democrats could easily defeat Trump as well.

Based upon polling averages and fundamentals calculations, Biden would most likely win 390 EV, even more than Bill Clinton’s 379 EV in 1996 and Obama’s 365 EV in 2008. However, if we allow states where the table margin has an absolute value less than 3.0 points to be “won” be either major party candiates, he could finish with as few as 292 EV—still 22 more than needed—or as high as 412 EV, a number on par with George H. W. Bush’s 426 EV in 1988; the senior Bush was the last president to top 400 EV.

However, I would not put too much stock in the single set of match-up polls from Utah (R+33.1), which imply Democrats winning the national popular vote by anywhere from 13 to 39 points, despite the pollster, Y2 Analytics having a B rating and a slight Democratic skew of 0.3 points; the polls, which also have Booker winning Utah by 12 points, were conducted on just 144 registered voters between July 31, and August 6, 2019. It is nearly impossible to envision ANY Democrat winning Utah’s six EV.

Meanwhile, Warren, Sanders and Harris would be slightly favored based on these polling averages and fundamentals calculations, with Warren literally winning Pennsylvania by something like 3,000 votes. Warren’s range is 239-352 EV, Sanders’s range is 242-379 EV, and Harris’ range is 243-326 EV. Buttigieg, finally, would be a slight underdog, with a range of 200-300.

Taking a much wider view, however, incumbent presidents should not be trailing at all at this point, and especially not to five or possibly six Democrats. In many ways, this race feels like late 1979, when a wide range of Republicans were eager to challenge an unpopular Jimmy Carter—whose own election had been something of a fluke in 1976, based on revulsion with the Watergate scandal. With all that, however, Carter won a narrow victory over a weakened incumbent Gerald Ford, at a time when Republicans had won four of the six previous presidential elections. At this point, the polls were close—though Republican Ronald Reagan, often seen as “too extreme” to beat an incumbent, ultimately won a 9.7-point landslide and the Electoral College 489-49.

  1. Democrats are doing better on Republican turf than Republicans are on Democratic turf.

Extrapolating from individual-state polling averages, the “typical” Democratic presidential nominee would win the national popular vote by either 5.6 (median) or 6.6 points (mean), both substantially higher than the average 4.0-point margin of actual national polls. Given extreme outliers like Utah, the median is likely the more valid measure. Remove Biden’s data, and the extrapolated national margins are 3.8 (median) and 4.9 (mean); remove Biden’s and Sander’s data yields margins of 2.5 and 4.0 points.

Why do state polls paint a rosier picture for Democrats? Consider Ohio, North Carolina, Arizona Texas, Montana, Alaska, Kentucky and, yes, Utah. Trump won each of these states in 2016 by at least 3.5 points, and they have a mean 3W-RDM of R+17.0. And yet, in these states the extrapolated national popular vote margin for each Democratic candidate mostly exceeds her/his calculated average national margin. In fact, the correlation between 3W-RDM and “excess extrapolated Democratic national popular vote margin” is -0.46, implying that the more Republican the state, the more Democratic state polling “overperforms” national polling. This should be extremely encouraging for Democrats.

The flip side, however, is a number of states where Democrats are underperforming, most notably in Nevada, whose six EV look dicey right now, despite it being a D+2.0 state. For all that, every other core Democratic state looks good for Democrats

Democratic support also looks wobbly in the vital swing states of Pennsylvania (R+0.4) and Wisconsin (D+0.7). Still, in Pennsylvania, Warren is no worse than tied, while Buttigieg is “only” 3.8 points behind, and in Wisconsin, Harris is no worse than tied, while Buttigieg is only 1.3 points behind. Plus, Michigan (D+2.2)—the third state, along with Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, that delivered the Electoral College to Trump in 2016 by less than 77,000 total votes—and New Hampshire (D+0.1) look solid for Democrats right now, with Florida (R+3.4) very much in play.

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The values discussed here, of course, should be taken with multiple grains of salt. It is impossible to know, for example, how the rapidly-unfolding impeachment process or changes in the economy will affect voters’ decision-making. An unforeseen crisis, domestic or foreign, could fundamentally change perceptions of Trump’s job performance—for better or for worse—as could something like a bipartisan massive infrastructure bill. Undecided and truly “independent” votes could break heavily for either party’s nominee—or they could split right down the middle.

Nonetheless, I would much rather be the Democratic presidential nominee than Trump right now.

Until next time…

[1] All calculations made prior to FiveThirtyEight publishing updated pollster ratings on November 5, 2019.

[2] Final nomination and presidential election values, nationally or at state-level, are the average of two  weighted-adjusted averages: irrespective of pollster and adjusted for pollster.

[3] Sum of NSW-WAPA across 17 candidates

[4] Overall Democratic margin does not substantially change if NSW-WAPA is calculated only using polls released since the first Democratic presidential candidate debates held on June 26-27 2019.

[5] I realize these metrics assess slightly different concepts, but job performance is a) a slightly better predictor of vote choice and b) cannot be measured prior to being in office.

[6] And possibly New Hampshire

3 thoughts on “Just under one year until the 2020 presidential election…how does it look for Democrats?

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