A wicked early look at 2020 Senate and gubernatorial races

In recent posts, I began to take a wicked early look at the 2020 U.S. elections. First, I assessed the field of Democrats seeking to challenge Republican President Donald Trump in 2020. Then I turned to the 2020 presidential election itself, pondering how Democrats would potentially fare against Trump.

Now I turn my attention to

  1. The 34 elections for United States Senate (“Senate”) to be held in 2020.
  2. The three gubernatorial elections to be held 2019 (Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi) and the 11 gubernatorial elections to be held in 2020.

My goal is primarily to provide the view from 30,000 feet: what the “fundamentals” in each race reveal about the overall partisan landscape—and what the likelihood is Democrats will have the Senate majority in January 2021 (and cut into the Republican advantage in governor’s mansions) As such, I only briefly discuss actual or potential candidates in these races, other than incumbents seeking reelection.

“Fundamentals” are simply the sum of three values:

  1. The state’s partisan lean, measured by my 3W-RDM (weighted[1] three-election average of the difference between a state’s Democratic [minus Republican] margin in a presidential election and the Democratic [minus Republican] margin in the total national vote in that election).
  2. The estimated effect of incumbency (incumbent office-holders tend to receive a higher percentage of the vote than an open-seat candidate of the same party).
  3. The national partisan lean, as measure by the “generic ballot” question (variations on “If the election for were held today, would you vote for the Democratic candidate, the Republican candidate, or some other candidate?”)

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Just bear with me as I explain how I estimated the effect of incumbency for Senate and gubernatorial elections. As usual, unless otherwise noted, election data come from Dave Liep’s indispensable Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.

Senate. I first calculated an “expected margin of victory”[2] for each Democratic Senate nominee in the 35 Senate elections in 2018[3], the 34 Senate elections in 2016[4] and the 35 Senate elections in 2014[5]: a state’s 3W-RDM plus the national Democratic margin (minus Republican percentage of all votes cast) in that year’s elections. Using three elections years guarantees a minimum of two Senate elections from each state. The margins for the three previous Senate election years are:

2014 = D-5.8%

2016 = D+0.9%

2018 = D+9.9%

Next, I subtracted each actual margin (Democratic minus Republican) from the “expected” margin. I then calculated three averages of these differences within each election year:

  1. Races with Democratic incumbents
  2. Races with Republican incumbents
  3. Open-seat races (where expected margin is for party currently holding the office)

Within each election year, then, the effect of incumbency for Democrats is simply the first average minus the third average[6], while the Republican advantage is the second average minus the third average[7]. And the estimated effect of incumbency for each party is the weighted average (2018=3, 2016=2, 2014=1) of the election-year averages.

For Democratic Senate incumbents, the effect is +4.4 percentage points (“points”), and for Republican Senate incumbents the effect is +2.6 points. Somewhat arbitrarily, I divide these values by 1.5 for incumbents who have won a special election, but not yet served a full six-year term and by 2.0 for incumbents who were appointed to the seat and have yet to face the voters.

Governor. Complicating these calculations is that five states hold their gubernatorial elections in odd-numbered years; thus, in November 2019, Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi will elect a governor, as will New Jersey and Virginia in November 2021.

As a result, I analyzed data from two-year cycles: 38 gubernatorial elections in each of 2017-18[8] and 2013-14[9], and 15 gubernatorial elections in each of 2015-16[10] and 2011-12[11]; going back to 2011 guarantees at least two gubernatorial elections from each state (with New Hampshire and Vermont, which hold gubernatorial elections every two years, included four times[12]). The calculations were otherwise the same, except for calculating a four-cycle weighted average (4,3,2,1)[13]: for Democratic gubernatorial incumbents, the effect is +5.7 points, and for Republican gubernatorial incumbents the effect is +8.5 points.

That the effect of incumbency is stronger for governors than for Senators reflects how partisan Senate elections have become.

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Let us now turn to the elections themselves. I base the “national lean” of D+6.0 on generic ballot polls listed on FiveThirtyEight.com, which have varied between D+2 and D+9—and mostly between D+5 and D+7—over the last few weeks. While this value is broadly in line with the last four Senate election years (weighted average=D+4.3 points; unweighted average from last two presidential election years= D+6.5), it is much higher than the last four gubernatorial election cycles (weighted average=D-0.6 points; unweighted average from last two presidential election years= D-3.2).

2020 Senate elections. Republicans currently hold 53 Senate seats, with 47 held by Democrats (including Independent Senators Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who caucus with Democrats), meaning that to win back the majority in 2020, Democrats need either to win a net four seats, or win a net three seats and win the presidential election (Democratic Vice President would break 50-50 tie).

Table 1. 2020 Senate election overview

Name State Run

2020

3W-RDM INC Nat

Lean

Total Last margin First elected
DEMOCRATS
Edward Markey MA Yes 22.1 4.4 6.0 32.5 23.9% 2013
Jack Reed RI Yes 18.0 4.4 6.0 28.4 41.3% 1996
Richard Durbin IL Yes 14.7 4.4 6.0 25.1 14.6% 1996
Chris Coons DE Yes 12.5 4.4 6.0 22.9 13.6% 2010
Cory Booker NJ Yes 12.0 4.4 6.0 22.4 13.5% 2012
Jeff Merkley OR Yes 8.7 4.4 6.0 19.1 18.9% 2008
Tom Udall NM No 6.5 0.0 6.0 12.5 N/A
Gary Peters MI Yes 2.2 4.4 6.0 12.6 13.3% 2014
Mark Warner VA Yes 1.5 4.4 6.0 11.9 0.8% 2008
Tina Smith MN Yes 1.5 2.9 6.0 10.4 10.6% 2018
Jeanne Shaheen NH Yes 0.1 4.2 6.0 10.3 3.3% 2008
Doug Jones AL Yes -28.4 2.2 6.0 -20.2 1.7% 2017
 
REPUBLICANS
Susan Collins ME Yes 5.9 -2.4 6.0 9.5 37.0% 1996
Cory Gardner CO Yes 2.2 -2.4 6.0 5.8 1.9% 2014
Joni Ernst IA Yes -4.7 -2.4 6.0 -1.1 8.3% 2014
Thom Tillis NC Yes -6.0 -2.4 6.0 -2.4 1.6% 2014
David Perdue GA Yes -9.6 -2.4 6.0 -6.0 7.7% 2014
Martha McSally AZ Yes -9.7 -1.2 6.0 -4.9 Apptd 2019
John Cornyn TX Yes -15.3 -2.4 6.0 -11.7 27.2% 2002
Lindsey Graham SC Yes -15.7 -2.4 6.0 -12.1 15.5% 2002
Cindy Hyde-Smith MS Yes -18.5 -1.6 6.0 -14.1 7.3% 2018
Steve Daines MT Yes -18.6 -2.4 6.0 -15.0 17.7% 2014
Dan Sullivan AK Yes -19.2 -2.4 6.0 -15.6 2.1% 2014
Bill Cassidy LA Yes -22.2 -2.4 6.0 -18.6 11.9% 2014
Pat Roberts KS No -23.4 0.0 6.0 -17.4 N/A
Lamar Alexander TN No -25.8 0.0 6.0 -19.8 N/A
Ben Sasse NE Yes -25.8 -2.4 6.0 -22.2 32.8% 2014
Mike Rounds SD Yes -25.8 -2.4 6.0 -22.2 20.9% 2014
Tom Cotton AR Yes -28.2 -2.4 6.0 -24.6 17.1% 2014
Mitch McConnell KY Yes -28.7 -2.4 6.0 -25.1 15.5% 1984
James Risch ID Yes -34.2 -2.4 6.0 -30.6 30.7% 2008
Shelley Moore Capito WV Yes -35.5 -2.4 6.0 -31.9 27.7% 2014
James Inhofe OK Yes -38.1 -2.4 6.0 -34.5 39.5% 1994
Mike Enzi WY No -45.7 0 6.0 -39.7 N/A

At first glance, Democrats appear to have a significant advantage in the 2020 Senate elections (Table 1): of 34 Senate elections scheduled for November 2020, fully two-thirds (22) are currently Republican-held. And of those 22 seats, fully 73% (16) are potentially more vulnerable because they include…

Moreover, only one currently-Democratic seat appears particularly vulnerable as of now: Jones’ seat in deep-red Alabama (D-28.4); a reasonable estimate is that Jones would lose to a generic Republican by around 20 points. Even with the full effect of incumbency (+4.2), a repeat of Democrats’ strong overall performance in 2018 (D+9.9) and a pro-Democratic error of 5.4 points in 3W-RDM (the average miss over time), Jones would still be down about nine points to a generic Republican. Yes, Jones overcame similar odds in December 2017, but that was against a severely compromised Republican opponent.

And while first-term Democratic Senators Gary Peters of Michigan and Tina Smith of Minnesota (who won by double-digits in November 2018 after being appointed to replace Democrat Al Franken in December 2017) could be vulnerable—along with Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Mark Warner of Virginia, who narrowly won reelection in 2014—if Democrats only break even in 2020, as of now, they appear quite likely to prevail. They would join six safe Democratic incumbents (Ed Markey, Jack Reed, Richard Durbin, Chris Coons, Cory Booker[14] and Jeff Merkley) and a likely-safe open seat in New Mexico (with Democratic United States House of Representatives member [“Representative”] Ben Ray Luján a strong candidate to win the seat).

Ben Ray Lujan

2020 New Mexico Democratic Senate candidate Ben Ray Luján,

However, Democrats should not be banking on New York Senator Chuck Schumer switching from Minority to Majority Leader in January 2021 just yet. While as many as 16 Republican-held seats are arguably vulnerable, only two are in states that even lean Democratic: Maine (D+5.9) and Colorado (D+2.2). And while Gardner is clearly vulnerable (he underperformed by about four points in 2014, when he beat incumbent Democrat Mark Udall), even a slight improvement by Republicans in the total national Senate vote puts that seat at toss-up status, at best. And Collins has been winning statewide in Maine since 1996, including winning her fourth term by an eye-popping 37.0 points!

Plus, the next four most vulnerable Republican incumbents (all finishing their first term)—Ernst, Tillis, Perdue and McSally—represent states averaging 7.5 points more Republican than the nation as a whole; this is why even in a very good Democratic year the fundamentals have these races “toss-up” at best. Moreover, while it is true that Ernst, Tillis and Perdue won in 2014 by an average of just 5.9 points (with McSally losing by 2.3 points in 2018)—a hair over the overall Senate Republican that year—all four now have the modest added advantage of running as incumbents in lean-Republican states. And where Democrats have a strong candidate to run against McSally—former astronaut Mark Kelly, husband of former Representative Gabby Giffords (D-AZ)—other strong candidates such as former Iowa Governor (and Secretary of Agriculture) Tom Vilsack and former Georgia House Speaker Stacey Abrams have ruled out running for the Senate in 2020.

Mark Kelly

Left to right: former Representative Gabby Giffords and 2020 Democratic Senate candidate Mark Kelly

Abrams and Vilsack are not the only high-profile Democrats choosing not to challenge vulnerable incumbent Republican Senators. Former National Security Advisor Susan Rice will not challenge Collins, while former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper is running for president in 2020 instead.

Beyond those six races, Democratic chances to flip seats only get slimmer. Former South Carolina Democratic Party chair Jaime Harrison is formally exploring a bid against Senator Lindsey Graham. And while former Representative Beto O’Rourke (D-TX; running for president) and Representative Joaquin Castro (D-TX) passed on a run, Air Force veteran Mary Jennings “MJ” Hegar, who came within 3 points of defeating incumbent Representative John Carter (D-TX) in 2018, plans to run against Senator John Cornyn. Even with Democrats winning nationally by six points, however, the fundamentals suggest both Harrison and Hegar begin their races down around 12 points.

Jaime Harrison

2020 South Carolina Senate Democratic candidate Jaime Harrison

MJ Hegar

2020 Texas Senate Democratic candidate MJ Hegar

Mississippi, meanwhile, will see a rematch between Espy and Hyde-Smith as she seeks a first full term. But while he came within about seven points of unseating her in 2018, this will be a tough Senate race for Democrats to win, as the fundamentals have him down by 15.1 points—similar to the Democratic position against first-term Senators Daines in Montana (where outgoing Democratic Governor Steve Bullock is apparently running for president instead) and Sullivan (who only defeated Democratic incumbent Mark Begich by 2.1 points in 2014) in Alaska.

Mike Espy.jpg

2020 Mississippi Democratic Senate candidate Mike Espy

That leaves 11 Republican-held Senate seats which average 30.3 points more Republican than the nation. Even with three open seats it is very difficult to see how Democrats flip any of them. One intriguing exception, however, could be in Kentucky, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (quite unpopular at home) is seeking a seventh term; if Air Force veteran Amy McGrath (who, like Hegar, came within three points of defeating an incumbent Republican Representative in 2018—in this case Andy Barr) were to run, she may be able to overcome the fundamentals showing a generic Democrat down 25.1 points to McConnell.

The bottom line?

While there are several plausible paths for Democrats to win back a Senate majority in 2020…

  1. Win presidency; Jones win in Alabama; win Maine and Colorado and one of Iowa, North Carolina, Georgia, Arizona
  2. Win presidency; Jones lose in Alabama; win Maine and Colorado and two of Iowa, North Carolina, Georgia, Arizona
  3. Lose presidency; Jones win in Alabama; win Maine and Colorado and two of Iowa, North Carolina, Georgia, Arizona
  4. Lose presidency; Jones lose in Alabama; win Maine and Colorado and three of Iowa, North Carolina, Georgia, Arizona
  5. Any of 1-4 above but substituting wins in even more Republican states such as Texas, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alaska and Kentucky.

…a great deal would have to go just right for Democrats in each scenario. In fact, it is easy to foresee anything from Democrats net losing a handful of seats (Alabama and some combination of Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Virginia) to winning a clear majority (holding Alabama, sweeping the six most vulnerable states and maybe even picking off South Carolina and/or Texas and/or Mississippi and/or Kentucky) is possible.

The silver lining for Democrats, though, is that forcing Republicans to invest money, time and resources in states like Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas makes it that much harder for them to beat Democratic incumbents in Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Virginia.

2019-20 Gubernatorial elections. Republicans currently occupy governor’s mansions in 27 states, with Democrats occupying the remaining 23.

Three gubernatorial elections will be held in 2019, all in southern states averaging 23.1 points more Republican than the nation (Table 2). The lone Democrat is John Bel Edwards of Louisiana, and while the fundamentals have him down to a generic Republican by 10.5 points, he is generally popular with voters in his state and thus more likely than not to win reelection. By contrast, the only Republican governor to seek reelection this year—Matt Bevin of Kentucky—is the least popular governor in the country; still, the fundamentals have him beating a generic Democrat by a whopping 31.2 points. As for the open seat in Mississippi, the fundamentals have a generic Republican defeating a generic Democrat by 12.5 points.

This means that the likeliest outcome is no net change in partisan control of governor’s mansions in 2019—though that could mean the parties switch control in Louisiana and Kentucky!

Table 2. 2019-20 Gubernatorial election overview

Name State Run

2019/ 2020

3W-RDM INC Nat

Lean

Total Last margin First elected
2019 DEMOCRATS
John Bel Edwards LA Yes -22.2 5.7 6.0 -10.5 12.2% 2015
2019 REPUBLICANS
Phil Bryant MS No -18.5 0.0 6.0 -12.5 N/A
Matt Bevin KY Yes -28.7 -8.5 6.0 -31.2 8.7% 2015
2020 DEMOCRATS
John Carney DE Yes 12.5 5.7 6.0 24.2 19.2% 2016
Jay Inslee WA No 12.1 0.0 6.0 18.1 N/A
Roy Cooper NC Yes -6.0 5.7 6.0 5.7 0.2% 2016
Steve Bullock MT No -18.6 0.0 6.0 -12.6 N/A
 
2020 REPUBLICANS
Phil Scott VT Yes 27.7 -8.5 6.0 25.2 14.9% 2016
Chris Sununu NH Yes 0.1 -8.5 6.0 -2.4 7.0% 2016
Eric Holcomb IN Yes -16.3 -8.5 6.0 -18.8 6.0% 2016
Mike Parson MO Yes -15.9 -4.3 6.0 -14.2 Succ 2018
James Justice WV Yes -35.5 -8.5 6.0 -38.0 6.8% 2016
Doug Burgum ND Yes -29.4 -8.5 6.0 -31.9 57.1% 2016
Gary Herbert UT No -33.1 0.0 6.0 -27.1 N/A

Looking ahead to 2020, two states currently governed by Democrats, Delaware and Washington, are all-but-certain to remain in Democratic hands, with Governor John Carney poised to reprise his nearly-20-point win in 2016 and a Democrat (state Attorney General Bob Ferguson?) heavily favored to succeed Governor Jay Inslee (running for president instead).

Equally certain to remain in Republican hands are West Virginia and North Dakota (where James Justice—who switched parties after winning as a Democrat in 2016—and Doug Burgum will seek reelection), as well as Utah, where Governor Gary Herbert is term-limited from seeking reelection.  The fundamentals in these states have Republicans ahead by 32.3 points over a generic Democrat.

That leaves six races which could be competitive—although Governors Eric Holcomb of Indiana and Mike Parson (who became governor in June 2018, following the resignation of Eric Greitens, just elected in 2016) of Missouri—are ahead in the fundamentals by 14-19 points.

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper barely defeated Republican incumbent Pat McCrory in 2016, and while the fundamentals have him beating a generic Republican by 5.7 points, this race would be a pure toss-up in a neutral partisan environment. Montana is another story, though, with Bullock retiring after two terms (and 16 consecutive years of Democratic governors); the fundamentals suggest a generic Republican would win back the governor’s mansion in Helena by 12.6 points (and that is with Democrats winning by six points nationally).

That only leaves two New England Republican governors who just won reelection last year, but who the fundamentals see as highly vulnerable: Phil Scott, who won by nearly 15 points in deep-blue Vermont (D+27.7), and Chris Sununu, who “only” won by 7.0 points in swing-state New Hampshire. If they did not lose in 2018, though, it is unlikely (though not impossible) they will lose in 2020.

The bottom line?

As of May 2019, the 14 gubernatorial elections in 2019 and 2020 will most likely result in a net gain of 1 (with Republicans winning the open governor’s seat in Montana) governor’s mansion, expanding their overall lead to 28-22—but races this year in Kentucky and Louisiana, and next year in Indiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Vermont could yet surprise.

Until next time…

[1] The most recent election is weighted “3,” the 2nd-most recent election is weighted “2” and the 3rd-most recent election is weighted “1.”

[2] That is, relative to the Republican candidate. I excluded data from special elections such as the December 2017 Senate election in Alabama.

[3] For the California Senate election, I used the total votes for Democratic, Republican and all-other-party candidates in the June 5, 2018 “jungle primary.” For the Mississippi special Senate election, I used the results from the runoff election on November 27, 2018. For the Maine and Vermont Senate races, I counted as “Democratic” votes those cast for Independent Senators Angus King and Bernie Sanders, respectively, since each man caucuses with the Democrats (and there was no Democratic Senate nominee in Vermont); in Maine, I counted the Democratic votes as “other.” Notably, counting votes for King and Sanders as “other” (and Democratic votes in Maine as “Democratic”) only changes the national Democratic margin from +9.9 percentage points to +9.4.

[4] For the California Senate election, I used the total votes for Democratic, Republican and all-other-party candidates in the June 7, 2016 “jungle primary.” For the Louisiana Senate election, I used the results from the runoff election on December 10, 2016.

[5] I excluded the Alabama Senate race in which Republican incumbent Jeff Sessions ran unopposed.

[6] These values were +0.9% in 2018, +6.5% in 2016 and +10.6% in 2014.

[7] These values were +2.6% in 2018, +3.6% in 2016 and -0.7% in 2014.

[8] I counted the 2018 Alaska gubernatorial election as a Democratic open seat after Independent Governor Bill Walker suspended his reelection campaign on October 19, 2018, throwing his support to Democratic nominee Mark Begich.

[9] I counted Walker as a Democrat in 2014 Alaska gubernatorial election (though counting him as “Other” would have made little material difference). I counted the Rhode Island gubernatorial election as a Democratic open seat although outgoing Governor Lincoln Chafee was an Independent (who briefly sought the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination).

[10] For the 2015 Louisiana gubernatorial election, I used data from the runoff election held November 21, 2015.

[11] Because incumbent Republican governor Bobby Jindal easily cleared the 50% threshold on election day 2011, for the 2011 Louisiana gubernatorial election, I used the sum of all votes cast for the candidate of each political party (Republican, Democrat, Other) that day.

[12] West Virginia is counted three times because it also held a special gubernatorial election in 2011.

[13] Democratic incumbency “advantage” was +2.0% in 2017-18, +6.3% in 2015-16, +5.7% in 2013-14 and +18.9% in 2011-12; the corresponding Republican values were +17.3%, -3.4%, +10.3% and +5.1%.

[14] Or whoever replaces him, should he become the next president or vice president of the United States.

May 2020 update: Democratic presidential nomination and general election polling

It has become a tradition that for my birthday my wife and daughters present me with a new Maine (usually lighthouse-themed) wall calendar from Down East.

May 2019 calendar.JPG

Last year was no exception; here is the May 2019 entry on my “Maine Lighthouses” calendar.

I use this photograph to introduce what I anticipate to be a monthly updating of two recent posts:

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I begin with the 2020 Democratic nomination polling, assessed by my NSW-WAPA (national-and-state-weighted weighted-adjusted polling average). “WAPA” is a within-nation or -state polling average for any candidate listed in any poll released since January 1, 2019, weighted by pollster quality and number of days to a given primary or caucuses. The NSW weights are, in rank order, Iowa Caucuses and New Hampshire Primary (weight=5), Nevada Caucuses and South Carolina Primary (4), a time-weighted average of all post-South Carolina nominating contests (2) and national (1).

Since the initial post, there have been

  • 16 new national polls (including 4 Morning Consult tracking polls)
  • 2 Iowa Caucuses polls
  • 3 New Hampshire Primary polls
  • 0 Nevada Caucuses polls
  • 1 South Carolina Primary poll
  • 2 Texas Primary polls
  • 1 poll each for the California, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin Primaries

… for a total of 27 new polls (and 86 in 2019).

Three of the 16 “new” national polls were conducted wholly (ABC News/Washington Post, January 21-24, 2019; CNN/SSRS, March 14-17, 2019) or partially (USC Dornsife/LA Times, March 15-April 15, 2019) before March 31, 2019. I also fixed a few formula errors in my Excel workbook, so comparisons of polling averages between the previous post and this post should be taken with a modicum of salt.

One other change is that an additional 10 candidates were included in at least one national or state-level poll,[1] including former Alaska United States Senator (“Senator”) Mike Gravel, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives (“Representative”) Nancy Pelosi, actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and President Donald Trump, bringing the overall total to 53!

As for candidacy declarations, former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe announced on April 17, 2019 that he would NOT seek the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. But four other candidates declared their candidacy since the previous post: California Representative Eric Swalwell, Massachusetts Representative Seth Moulton, former Vice President Joe Biden and Colorado Senator Michael Bennet (with Montana Governor Steve Bullock hinting at a declaration later in May 2019).

And that still leaves former Georgia House Speaker Stacey Abrams, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gravel as possible candidates, for a total of 25.

As of May 2, 2019, here is the relative position of those 25 Democrats.

Table 1: National-and-state-weighted WAPA* for selected 2020 Democratic presidential nomination possibilities

Candidate National IA NH NV SC Post-SC NSW-WAPA
Biden 27.7 25.8 21.3 26.0 34.5 26.7 26.6 (-1.9)
Sanders 18.6 18.0 22.1 23.0 15.3 21.2 19.8 (-1.0)
Harris 8.2 8.3 7.6 9.0 10.6 9.5 8.8 (-1.3)
Warren 6.5 7.8 7.3 10.0 6.3 8.4 7.8 (-0.4)
O’Rourke 6.6 5.3 4.1 10.0 7.3 9.1 6.7 (+0.5)
Buttigieg 4.3 6.3 8.7 5.0 3.1 6.2 5.9 (+3.5)
Booker 3.2 4.1 3.4 2.0 8.2 2.7 4.1 (-0.1)
Klobuchar 1.7 3.6 2.6 2.0 1.0 2.2 2.3 (-0.4)
Yang 0.72 0.40 0.80 3.0 0.68 1.0 1.1 (+0.3)
Gabbard 0.65 0.41 0.79 2.0 0.74 0.56 0.89 (0.0)
Gillibrand 0.65 0.51 0.90 1.0 1.4 0.54 0.88 (-0.2)
Castro 0.91 0.98 0.07 1.0 0.68 1.5 0.76 (+0.2)
Abrams 0.21 0.00 0.00 0.00 3.1 0.17 0.62 (+0.6)
Delaney 0.33 0.90 0.45 0.00 0.00 0.17 0.35 (+0.1)
Hickenlooper 0.68 0.32 0.13 0.00 0.68 0.37 0.30 (+0.1)
Swalwell 0.17 0.28 0.29 0.00 0.23 0.17 0.20 (+0.1)
Ryan 0.18 0.19 0.58 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.19 (+0.2)
Inslee 0.46 0.42 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.24 0.15 (-0.0)
Messam 0.00 0.00 0.29 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.07 (+0.1)
Bullock 0.20 0.13 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.04 (0.0)
Bennet 0.03 0.13 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.03 (0.0)
Gravel 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.11 0.01 (0.0)
de Blasio 0.18 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.01 (0.0)
Williamson 0.11 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.01 (0.0)
Moulton 0.03 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.03 0.00 (0.0)
DK/Other 17.8 16.3 18.8 6.0 6.2 9.1 12.4 (+0.7)

The data in Table 1 suggest the following as of May 2, 2019:

  1. The top five candidates remain the same (and in the same order): Biden (26.6%), Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (19.8%), California Senator Kamala Harris (8.8%), Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren (7.8%), former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke (6.7%).
  2. That said, more than half (53.6%) of potential Democratic primary/caucus voters prefer someone other than Biden or Sanders.
  3. The gap between Harris and Warren for 3rd place has narrowed from 1.9 percentage points (“points”) to 1.0 points.
  4. Surging from 8th to 6th place was South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg, whose NSW-WAPA jumped from 2.4% to 5.9%—a remarkable 3.5-point jump.
  5. Buttigieg’s surge seems mostly to have come at the expense of Biden (-1.9), Sanders (-1.0) and Harris (-1.3). It also knocked New Jersey Senator Cory Booker (4.1%) and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar (2.3%) down one spot to 7th and 8th, respectively.
  6. Biden’s relative decline masks the fact he has seen a mini-bump in the national polls (weighted much lower than state polls) since his April 25, 2019 declaration of candidacy—and that he had been dropping somewhat before that.
  7. The mini-surge for O’Rourke (+0.5) comes entirely from two April 2019 polls of the 2020 Texas presidential primary[2]; O’Rourke averages 23.5% in the two polls, just ahead of Biden (21.5%), Sanders (18.0%) and Buttigieg (11.5%).
  8. The only other candidate to make an appreciable move was entrepreneur Andrew Yang (1.1%), from 11th to 9th, knocking New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (0.88%) from 11th to 9th. To be fair, however, they are separated by less than ¼ of a point.
  9. Rounding out the top 10 is Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard (0.89%), meaning five of the top 11 choices are women—all current members of the U.S. House or Senate.
  10. Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Juan Cástro (0.76%) saw his NSW-WAPA increase slightly, but he is still stuck in 12th place overall, just ahead of…
  11. …Abrams, who at 0.62%, is the highest-ranked non-declared candidate.
  12. The remaining 12 declared/potential candidates—Maryland Representative John Delaney; former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper: Swalwell; Ohio Representative Tim Ryan; Washington Governor Jay Inslee; Miramar, FL Mayor Wayne Messam; Bullock; Bennet; Gravel; de Blasio; author Marianne Williamson and Moulton—continue to languish well below 0.5%.
  13. Even with a choice of 25 declared and potential candidates, 1 in 8 respondents still could not state a preference (11.9%) or preferred some other candidate (0.5%).

With all that, the fundamental pecking order remains the same for the 2020 Democrats (unlikely to change before the first Democratic presidential candidate debates on June 26-27, 2019[3]):  Biden and Sanders are the clear leaders, splitting just under half of the overall vote between them (46.4%), followed by Harris, Warren, O’Rourke and Buttigieg (29.2% total). Just behind these six are Booker and Klobuchar (6.2% total). Add Yang’s 1.1%, and 5 of every 6 Democrats polled prefer a total of nine candidates. While one of those nine men and women will probably (but not definitively) be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, the race is very much in flux with more than 15 months until Democrats convene in Milwaukee, WI on July 13, 2020.

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Little has changed since my first wicked early look at how various potential Democratic nominees fared against President Trump in hypothetical one-on-one matchups, both nationally and in a total of 12 states (AZ, IA, MA, MI, MN, NV, NH, NC, PA, SC, TX, WI; mean 3W-RDM[4]= D-1.9).

Weighting each Democrat’s WAPA (vs. Trump) by her/his NSW-WAPA shows Democrats ahead of Trump nationally by 2.8 points, down slightly from 3.1 points. Remove Biden’s 7.4-point margin against Trump, and the Democratic advantage drops to 1.1 points; Sanders, Harris, Warren, O’Rourke and Booker are each ahead of Trump by between 0.4 and 3.6 points, while Gillibrand trails by just 1.2 points and Buttigieg by just 3.4 points. All other tested 2020 Democratic presidential nominees trail by between 6.3 (Klobuchar) and 15.5 points (Messam).

A strict apples-to-apples comparison in national standings is complicated, though, by a significant change I made to my Excel workbook. I adjust general election polling margins by pollster bias (or what FiveThirtyEight.com calls “mean-reverted bias”): how much, on average, a pollster over- or underestimates Democratic election margins. The pollster HarrisX dominates national presidential “trial heat” polling (while not releasing a single state-level poll), including every publicly-released matchup between Trump and Delaney, Gabbard, Gravel, Hickenlooper, Inslee, Messam, Moulton, Ryan, Swalwell, Williamson and Yang. FiveThirtyEight has not yet estimated HarrisX’s pollster bias. However, Harris Interactive has a pro-Republican bias of 1.5 points, and in a recent article, Nate Silver notes that HarrisX conducted a poll for Scott Rasmussen. Rasmussen Reports/Pulse Opinion Research also has a 1.5-point Republican bias. Therefore, I decided to add 1.5 points to every Democratic margin reported by HarrisX. This boosted the weighted-adjusted average of Democrats against Trump by 0.4 points.

Finally, the only significant state-level change is that Democrats overall are beating Trump in Wisconsin by 7.4 points, up from 6.1 points, on the strength of a set of Zogby Interactive/JZ Analytics polls (Biden, Sanders, Harris, Warren, O’Rourke, Buttigieg) conducted April 15-18, 2019.

And the good news for Democrats remains that, collectively, the state-level polls imply a national margin of 6.0 points over Trump, twice what the national polls suggest.

Until next time…

[1] And that excludes New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan, included in an alternate version of a New Hampshire Primary poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire, April 10-18, 2019.

[2] Change Research, 4/18-4/20/2019; Emerson College, 4/25-4/28/2019

[3] They will be held over two nights to accommodate 20 (of at least 21) candidates, with no more than 10 appearing each night. Criteria for obtaining one of the 20 available debate slots may be found here.

[4] My measure of how much more or less Democratic a state votes relative to the nation, using a weighted average of a state’s presidential voting compared to the national popular vote in the three previous presidential elections.

A wicked early look at the 2020 U.S. presidential election

With the 2018 midterm elections behind us, and the field of Democrats seeking to challenge Republican President Donald Trump in 2020 taking shape, let us turn to the 2020 presidential elections, scheduled to take place (technically, to conclude) on November 3, 2020.

Previously, I addressed the wicked early relative standings of the 44 Democrats listed in at least one public pollreleased since January 1, 2019 by:

  1. Calculating each candidate’s polling average (WAPA[1]; weighted by time to election and pollster rating), both nationally and within any state with available 2019 polling.
  2. Calculating a single average (NSW-WAPA[2]) for each candidate by weighting their WAPA in early primary/caucus states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina) more than in later states, in turn weighted more than national polls.

I similarly approach the 2020 presidential election: mixing “fundamentals” with public polls released since January 1, 2019 asking voters to choose between a named Democratic candidate and Trump.”[3] “Fundamentals” are simply expected margins between the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees in a state (the Electoral College [EC] elects the president of the United States) based upon my 3W-RDM measure (weighted average arithmetic difference between state and national Democratic margins in the last three presidential elections[4]). This measure is not perfect: it has “missed” (in either direction) by an average of 5.4 percentage points (“points”) over the last six presidential elections, with 67 misses (22%) higher than 5.4%.

Nonetheless, “fundamentals” (3W-RDM plus hypothesized 2020 Democratic national popular vote margin) provide a useful baseline against which to assess wicked early polling data. This allows me to avoid such “macro-level” indicators as the state of the economy or Trump’s approval ratings advocated by political scientists in (solid) volumes like this:

Forecasting Rosenstone.JPG

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Let me begin with the metaphorical (literal?[5]) elephant in the room: incumbent presidents who seek reelection win about two-thirds of the time, according to Yale political science professor David R. Mayhew[6].

All else being equal, then, Democrats have an uphill battle to defeat Trump in 2020. However, all is not equal, as both “fundamentals” and polling suggest. To calculate the “fundamentals” for each state (and District of Columbia [DC]), one needs

  1. That state’s 3W-RDM and
  2. The Democratic margin in the national popular vote.

While #2 is difficult to estimate more than 18 months in advance, there may be historic guidance.

Just bear with me while I review 60 years of presidential election results. As usual, election data come Dave Liep’s indispensable Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.

Over the last 10 presidential elections (1980-2016), the Democratic presidential nominee has lost the national popular vote by an average of 1.0 point. However, because Democrats have fared better in presidential elections since 1992, perhaps more weight should be given to more recent elections. One way to do this is to weigh the 1980 margin “1,” the 1984 margin “2” and so forth through a weight of “10” for 2016; this yields a Democratic edge of 1.7 points. This is broadly similar to taking the mean of the 10- , 5- and 3-election averages (D+1.9). Even better for Democrats is a weighted average of the the last five presidential elections (D+2.9), not surprising given that Democrats have won the national popular vote in four of those elections (while only winning the EC twice).

Based on recent electoral history, then, a Democratic national popular vote margin of between 1.5 and 3.0 points is certainly plausible; the 2.1 points by which Democrat Hillary Clinton beat Trump in 2016—an election with no incumbent seeking reelection, which Mayhew found were 50-50—falls squarely in this range.

But incumbency does need to be taken into account. In the last 10 presidential elections in which an incumbent president election sought reelection (including 1964 and 1976, when elevated Vice Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford, respectively, first sought election in their own right), that incumbent won by an average of 7.7 points. Once you exclude the landslide reelections of Dwight Eisenhower (1956, 15.4 points), Johnson (22.6 points) and Richard Nixon (1972, 23.2 points), however, the average drops to just 2.2 points. And that latter figure drops to a loss of 0.5 points if you exclude Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection landslide (18.2 points).

An even better way to assess the effect of incumbency, though, is to compare initial and reelection margins. Starting with Eisenhower in 1956, there have been eight such election pairs:

Table 1. Presidential margins, initial and reelection, 1952-2012

President Initial Election Reelection Change
Year % Margin Year % Margin R – I
Dwight Eisenhower 1952 10.9% 1956 15.4% 4.6%
Richard Nixon 1968 0.7% 1972 23.2% 22.5%
Jimmy Carter 1976 2.1% 1980 -9.7% -11.8%
Ronald Reagan 1980 9.7% 1984 18.2% 8.5%
George H. W. Bush 1988 7.7% 1992 -5.6% -13.3%
Bill Clinton 1992 5.6% 1996 8.5% 2.9%
George W. Bush 2000 -0.5% 2004 2.5% 3.0%
Barack Obama 2008 7.3% 2012 3.9% -3.4%
Average, all   5.4%   7.0% 1.6%
Average, GOP only   5.7%   10.7% 5.0%

Since 1956 (Table 1), elected presidents won reelection by an average 1.6 points more than they won initially; this would put Trump at just 0.5 points down in 2020. However, when you examine only the five Republican presidents who sought reelection over this time span (Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Bush 41, Bush 43), the margin increase jumps to 5.0 points; this would put Trump 2.9 points ahead in 2020. That said, the last three elected presidents to seek reelection actually saw an average drop of 0.8 points in their margins; the decline is similar (-0.6 points) for the last three Republican presidents to seek reelection (Reagan, Bush 41, Bush 43).

In other words, a longer analytic time frame implies Trump would win the 2020 national popular vote by 1.0 to 7.7 points, while a shorter analytic time frame implies a Democratic win of 1.7 to 2.9 points—a range of R+7.7 to D+2.9.

Well, that was not very helpful, was it?

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Actually, this range provides a baseline against which to assess 2020 presidential election polls asking respondents to choose between a named Democrat and Trump.

Table 2: “Fundamentals”-based 2020 state-level Democratic margins 

State/DC 3W-RDM EV D-7.7 D-2.9 D-1.0 D+0.0 D+1.7 D+2.9
131 +12.0-+82.0 175 +≥4.3 +≥9.1 +≥11.0 +≥12.0 +≥13.7 +≥14.9
OR +8.7 7 +1.0 +5.8 +7.7 +8.7 +10.4 +11.6
NM +6.5 5 -1.2 +3.6 +5.5 +6.5 +8.2 +9.4
ME +5.9 4 -1.8 +2.0 +4.9 +5.9 +7.6 +8.8
MI +2.2 16 -5.5 -0.7 +1.2 +2.2 +3.9 +5.1
CO +2.2 9 -5.5 -0.7 +1.2 +2.2 +3.9 +5.1
NV +2.0 6 -5.7 -0.9 +1.0 +2.0 +3.7 +4.9
MN +1.5 10 -6.2 -1.4 +0.5 +1.5 +3.2 +4.4
VA +1.5 13 -6.2 -1.4 +0.5 +1.5 +3.2 +4.4
WI +0.7 10 -7.0 -2.2 -0.3 +0.7 +2.4 +3.6
NH +0.1 4 -7.6 -2.8 -1.1 +0.1 +1.8 +3.0
PA -0.4 20 -8.1 -3.3 -1.4 -0.4 +1.3 +2.5
FL -3.4 29 -11.1 -6.3 -4.4 -3.4 -1.7 -0.5
IA -4.7 6 -12.4 -7.6 -5.7 -4.7 -3.0 -1.8
OH -5.8 18 -13.5 -8.7 -6.8 -5.8 -4.1 -2.9
NC -6.0 15 -13.7 -8.9 -7.0 -6.0 -4.3 -3.1
GA -9.6 16 -17.3 -12.5 -10.6 -9.6 -7.9 -6.7
AZ -9.7 11 -17.4 -12.6 -10.7 -9.7 -8.0 -6.8
212 -15.3-

-45.7

164 -≥23.0 -≥18.2 -≥16.3 -≥15.3 -≥13.6 -≥14.8
TOTAL DEM EV   182 191 245 259 279 279

1 DC, HI, VT, CA, MD, MA, NY, RI, IL, CT, DE, WA, NJ

2 TX, SC, MO, IN, MS, MT, AK, LA, KS, NE, SD, TN, AR, AL, KY, ND, UT, ID, WV, OK, WY

Table 2 shows how EV would hypothetically be distributed across states under scenarios ranging from Trump winning the national popular vote by 7.7 points to the Democratic nominee winning it by 2.2 points. Boldfaced results are expected Democratic wins, with italicized results reflecting uncertainty based on the average 3W-RD miss of +/-5.4 points.

What jumps out are the eight states comprising 78 EV with 3W-RDM between D+2.2 and D-0.4 (MI, CO, NV, MN, VA, WI, NH, PA). This range includes the states that effectively cost Clinton the presidency in 2016: MI, WI, PA. All but Pennsylvania lean slightly toward the Democrats, but even a relatively narrow 2.3-point Trump win in the national popular vote (well within the historic range) could easily put all 78 EV in the Republican column, giving Trump a solid 347-191 EC win. However, because there is a 3.0-point jump from Pennsylvania (truly “The Keystone State”) to Florida in 3W-RDM, a similar 2.2-point national popular vote win for the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee would be expected to yield only a narrow 279-259 EC win. In fact, the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee winning Florida (and the EC 308-230) would seem to require winning the national popular vote by at least 3.5 points. That same nominee winning 347 EV would similarly require winning the national popular vote by at least 6.0 points, adding Ohio, Iowa and North Carolina to her/his column.

In other words, there is clear asymmetry in the distribution of EV that works to the Republicans’ advantage: they can win solid EC victories with smaller national popular vote margins.

Of course, this analysis is purely hypothetical, even before re-emphasizing every state-level Democratic margin in Table 2 is the center of a 10.8-point range of possible outcomes (with roughly 80% certainty). Thus, a Trump win by 2.9 points nationally could result in anything from 259 to 356 EV for Trump, while that same margin for the Democratic nominee could yield anything from 191 to 347 EV.

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This broad uncertainty about the outcome in 2020, with perhaps a slight historical edge to Trump (though nothing like being a 2-1 favorite, per Mayhew), is why we now turn to 2020 presidential polling.

Since January 1, 2019, pollsters have tested national match-ups between Trump and 16 announced (or soon-to-announce) candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination:

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden (15 times)
  • California Senator Kamala Harris (14)
  • Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (14)
  • Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren (13)
  • Former Texas U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke (10)
  • New Jersey Senator Cory Booker (7)
  • South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg (4)
  • New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (4)
  • Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar (3)
  • Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro (2)
  • Maryland U.S. Representative John Delaney (2)
  • Hawaii U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard (2)
  • Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (2)
  • Washington Governor Jay Inslee (2)
  • Author Marianne Williamson (2) and
  • Entrepreneur Andrew Yang (2)

Five other national polls matched Trump against former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, New York U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), none of whom are running for president in 2020; Representative Ocasio-Cortez, who was born in 1989, would actually be too young to serve as president on January 20, 2021.

Not surprisingly, the number of polls conducted with each candidate closely matches her/his current standing for the Democratic nomination, based on NSW-WAPA; Table 3 below shows these values as of April 20, 2019. To calculate how each candidate currently fares against Trump in the 2020 national popular vote, I used the procedure detailed here. Essentially, I weighted “unbiased” polling margins[7] by date-to-election and pollster rating two ways: 1) treating all polls (even from the same pollster) as statistically independent and 2) treating polls from the same pollster as a single “average.” WAPA is the average value from the two methods.

Table 3: Current WAPA margins for hypothetical 2020 matchups between Donald Trump and selected Democratic presidential nominees

Democratic nominee Nomination polls1 Margin vs. Trump
Joe Biden 27.9% 7.9%
Bernie Sanders 19.9% 3.7%
Kamala Harris 9.8% 1.3%
Elizabeth Warren 8.3% 0.5%
Beto O’Rourke 6.8% 1.6%
Cory Booker 4.3% 1.0%
Pete Buttigieg 4.3% -5.1%
Amy Klobuchar 2.6% -5.2%
Kirsten Gillibrand 1.0% -0.2%
Andrew Yang 0.9% -7.5%
Tulsi Gabbard 0.8% -9.6%
Julián Castro 0.8% -7.5%
John Hickenlooper 0.3% -9.7%
John Delaney 0.3% -9.1%
Jay Inslee 0.2% -11.6%
Marianne Williamson 0.0% -10.1%
Other2 11.9% 4.2%
Margin weighted by nomination polls 3.1%
Margin weighted by nomination polls (w/o Biden) 1.3%

 1 Not listed are Ohio U.S. Representative Tim Ryan (0.1%), California U.S. Representative      Eric Swalwell (0.1%) and Miramar, Florida Mayor Wayne Messam (0.01%)

 2 The weighted average of the five non-candidate matchups

As of April 2019, Biden—with near-universal name recognition—fares best against Trump in 2020, beating him by nearly eight points, which translates to around 347 EV (and perhaps more if he wins Georgia’s and Arizona’s 27 combined EV as well). More surprising, though, is Sanders’ solid performance against Trump—beating him by 3.7 points in the national popular vote (and likely winning Florida for 308 EV).

Moreover, both Biden’s and Sanders’ prospective margins are well outside the historic range computed above. The next tier of candidates—Harris, Warren, O’Rourke, Booker and Buttigieg—essentially tie with Trump, averaging a -0.1% loss in the national popular vote; Gillibrand also would essentially tie Trump (-0.2%). Of this group, Harris, O’Rourke and Booker fare best, beating Trump in the national popular vote by between 1.0-1.6 points and eking out an EC win, more likely than not. The other candidate with at least three public head-to-head matchups, Klobuchar, for now fares as poorly as fellow Midwesterner Buttigieg, losing the national popular by just over five points.

I would not read too much into polls showing Yang, Gabbard, Castro, Hickenlooper, Delaney, Inslee and Williamson losing the 2020 national popular vote to Trump by between 7.5 and 11.6 points. Both sets of polls were conducted by HarrisX, a firm rated “C+” by FiveThirtyEight.com and for whom no “skew” has yet been calculated. They may be affiliated with Harris Interactive, another C+-rated pollster with a significant pro-Republican (mathematical) bias of 1.5 points.

Nonetheless, it is noteworthy (and likely reflecting the strong Democratic desire to defeat Trump in 2020) that the better a candidate is doing in the nomination polls (i.e., NSW-WAPA), the better that candidate currently fares against Trump; the correlation between the two values is 0.84.

But most interesting of all is that a possible proxy for “generic Democrat” (weighted-adjusted average of the five candidates not running for president) would theoretically beat Trump in 2020 by just over four points (putting Florida, Iowa, Ohio and North Carolina in play).

To get a sense of how a typical Democrat nominee would fare against Trump in 2020, I calculated a weighted average of the 17 margins listed in Table 3 using each candidate’s NSW-WAPA (a rough proxy for “likelihood of winning the nomination”). By this measure, the typical 2020 Democratic presidential nominee would beat Trump nationally by 3.1 points, just outside the upper end of the range based upon recent electoral history. However, if you remove Biden’s projected 7.9-point win, the margin drops to 1.3 points…roughly how Harris, Warren, O’Rourke and Booker would theoretically fare against Trump. They would still be slightly favored to win, though arguably 164 EV from 14 states (NM to NC in Table 2) would be in play.

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But what about the states?

Since January 1, 2019, head-to-head 2020 matchups between a named Democrat and Trump have been conducted in 12 states (AZ, IA, MA, MI, MN, NV, NH, NC, PA, SC, TX, WI; mean 3W-RDM = D-1.9). Table 4 shows how specific Democrats (as well as “typical Democratic nominee”) currently fare against Trump (minimum 2 matchup polls in state), sorted from most- to least-Democratic by 3W-RDM.

State Bid San Har War O’Ro Boo Oth Overall Implied NPV
MA1 1 1 1 D+32.6 D+10.5
MI2 5.8 4.5 3.5 3.0 1 1 D+3.6 D+1.4
NV3 1 1 1 1 1 D-1.0 D-3.0
MN4 1 D+15.5 D+14.0
WI5 10.7 5.3 1 1 2.6 D+6.1 D+5.4
NH6 1 10.6 1 5.2 1 D+8.1 D+8.2
PA7 9.3 6.4 1 1 -0.6 D+5.9 D+6.3
IA8 4.8 1.1 -6.8 -3.4 1 1 1 D-1.4 D+3.3
NC9 -3.0 -10.3 -9.8 1 1 -7.3 D-5.6 D+0.4
AZ10 1 1 1 1 D-6.2 D+3.5
TX11 -1.9 1 -7.9 1 -1.9 1 D-3.3 D+12.0
SC12 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 D-7.7 D+8.0

1 Emerson College, 4/4-4/7/2019, 761 registered voters

2 O’Rourke: Firehouse Strategies/Optimus, 3/19-3/21/2019, 540 likely voters; Klobuchar: Emerson College, 3/7-3/10/2019, 743 registered voters

3 Emerson College, 3/28-3/30/2019, 719 registered voters; Oth=Buttigieg

 4 DFM Research, 2/26-3/3/2019, 719 registered voters; Oth=Klobuchar

 5 Emerson College, 3/15-3/17/2019, 775 registered voters; Oth=Klobuchar

  6 Emerson College, 2/21-2/22/2019, 910 registered voters

  7 Emerson College, 3/28-3/30/2019, 719 registered voters

 8 Emerson College, 1/30-2/2/2019, 831 registered voters; Other=Gillibrand; mean of  Brown, Pelosi

  9 PPP, 1/4-1/7/2019, 750 registered voters

  10 OH Predictive Insights, 2/12-2/13/2019, 600 likely voters

  11 Quinnipiac University, 2/20-2/25/2019, 1,222 registered voters; Other=Castro

  12 Emerson College, 2/28-3/2/2019, 755 registered voters; Other=Klobuchar

Most public 2019 state-level polls have been conducted by Emerson College (B+, D+0.1), who occasionally test “trial heats” when they conduct Democratic (and, less frequently, Republican) nomination polls in a state. While Emerson is a high-quality pollster, it would help to see other high-quality pollsters test these matchups. Also bear in mind that these are primarily polls of “registered voters,” not voters deemed likely to vote; the latter polls often tilt slightly Republican. And, of course, the 2020 U.S. presidential election is still more than 18 months away.

Nonetheless, Table 4 reveals some interesting things. One, it is clear pollsters believe that Biden, Sanders, Harris and Warren (≥14 head-to-head matchups)—in that order—are the likeliest 2020 Democratic presidential nominees, followed by O’Rourke (10 matchups); this perfectly matches the top five using NSW-WAPA. Pollsters asked about Booker, Gillibrand and Klobuchar earlier in the year, but have ceased doing so, reflecting their stagnation in the race.

As they do nationally, both Biden and Sanders perform very well in the states—especially in the key swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin, New Hampshire (one poll has Biden up 10 points), Pennsylvania and, most importantly, Iowa. Removing Biden from the analysis, in fact, lowers hypothetical margins a mean 2.2 points across these states, albeit without changing the state “winner.” Harris, Warren and O’Rourke do not perform as well, but neither do they fare poorly.

Overall, Democrats (using the same weighting method as national polls) are collectively ahead by solid margins in Michigan (3.6), Wisconsin (6.1) and Pennsylvania (5.9)—the states that cost Clinton an EC victory in 2016; strong 2018 Democratic performances in these three states may not have been a fluke. They are winning New Hampshire (D+0.1) by 8.1 points. And they are holding their own in Iowa, a state trending sharply Republican—from D+2.0 after 2012 to D-4.7 after 2016; being behind only 1.4 points could be a terrific sign for Democrats in 2020.

The most striking positives for Democrats in Table 1, however, are being down “only” 3.3 points in Texas and 7.7 points in South Carolina (albeit in a single set of late February polls). First, these averages imply an 8-12-point lead in the national popular vote, which has not happened since Clinton won reelection in 1996 by 8.5 points. Moreover, this could confirm the southeast and southwest are trending Democratic…although the averages from Arizona (D-6.2) and North Carolina (D-5.6) suggest otherwise.

Being collectively 5.6 points down in North Carolina, in fact, is not ideal for Democrats, as it implies essentially a tied race nationally. The worst news for Democrats in Table 4, though, is a set of polls conducted by Emerson College in Nevada in late March. Nevada has been trending steadily more Democratic[8], so to be collectively down roughly one point there is worrisome, because it implies a national environment where Trump wins by 3.0 points. Across the other 11 states, on average, the Democratic nominee would beat Trump by 6.6 points!

Still, the overall message from Table 4 is that a hypothetical Democratic nominee

  • is faring well precisely where (s)he needs to (MI, WI, NH, PA—even IA) and
  • leads the 2020 national popular vote by 5.8 points–roughly the margin by which Democrats now lead in the “generic ballot” (e., some variant of “If the election for U.S. House were held today, would you vote for the Democratic or Republican candidate?”)[9].

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I cannot emphasize enough the following caveats to this analysis:

  1. The 2020 presidential election is more than 18 months away.
  2. National polls only reveal so much.
  3. State-level polling is limited and mostly conducted by a single (respectable) pollster.
  4. Most polls are of registered voters, not likely voters, introducing some pro-Democratic (mathematical) bias
  5. Hypothetical matchups reflect name recognition as much as considered choice.
  6. I have not controlled for a possible Independent run by Schultz.

That said, signs are good for Democrats right now. The best-known Democratic candidates (and current adjusted polling leaders)—Biden and Sanders—are beating Trump both nationally and in the key states. The next tier of candidates—Harris, Warren and O’Rourke—while less well-known, are also faring relatively well, beating Trump by just over one point on average. As they get better known, that margin could increase (just as the Biden and Sanders margins could shrink).

And while a wider historical frame shows Trump as much as a 2-1 favorite (winning the national popular vote by as much as 7.7 points), recent history favors the Democrats to win the national popular vote by between 1.5 and 2.9 points—though even then their nominee would not be guaranteed an Electoral College victory.

Moreover, current polling suggests Democrats are ahead of even those positive numbers. Using national polls only, a typical Democratic nominee is ahead by 3.3 points in the national popular vote, while state-level polls imply a lead nearly double that: 5.8 points! Removing Biden from the analysis drops these values to 1.8 and 3.6 points, respectively, precisely in line with recent electoral history.

All in all, then, I would rather be the eventual Democratic presidential nominee than Trump in 2020.

In April 2019, anyway.

Until next time…

[1] Weighted-adjusted polling average

[2] National-and-state-weighted WAPA

[3] For now, I ignore a March 8-10, 2019 poll by Change Research which substituted Vice President Mike Pence for Trump. I also ignore (for now) five national polls (and Emerson College polls from Iowa, Michigan, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Wisconsin) that also include former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who may run for president as an Independent.

[4] Democratic percentage of total vote minus Republican percentage of total vote. Weights for most recent 3W-RDM are 2008=1, 2012=2, 2016=3

[5] This drives our eldest daughter—a Democrat like her parents—crazy because she LOVES elephants.

[6] Mayhew, David R. 2008. “Incumbency Advantage in U.S. Presidential Elections: The Historical Record.” Political Science Quarterly 123:2.

[7] Using the FiveThirtyEight.com “Mean-Reverted Bias” listed in their Pollster Ratings.

[8] Starting with the three presidential elections from 1984-1992, Nevada’s 3W-RDM are D-8.5, D-6.9, D-5.0, D-2.5, D+2.0, D+3.2, D+2.0

[9] The margin has varied between D+2 and D+9—and mostly between D+5 and D+7—over the last few weeks, according to polls listed on FiveThirtyEight.com.

A wicked early look at the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination

On March 11, 2019, the Democratic Party announced that its 2020 national convention will be held at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, WI. This is a reasonable choice, given that Wisconsin—which 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton lost by 0.8 percentage points—is one of the true swing states in presidential elections.

It also means the formal selection of the 2020 Democratic presidential and vice-presidential nominees will not take place for another 15 months (July 13-16, 2020). Nonetheless, nearly two dozen Democrats have either declared their intention to run for president in 2020—or are strongly leaning toward doing so.

Put another way, just since January 1, 2019, there have been…

  • 37 national polls (17 by Morning Consult alone)
  • 6 Iowa Caucuses polls
  • 5 New Hampshire Primary polls
  • 1 Nevada Caucuses poll
  • 3 South Carolina Primary polls
  • 1 poll each from the primaries in Alabama, California, Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Oregon

conducted of the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, for a total of 59 different polls in three months.

The 37 national polls themselves queried voters about 39 potential nominees; when you include candidates only included in state polls (Massachusetts Representative[1] Joseph P. Kennedy III and billionaire Tom Steyer in New Hampshire; Miramar, FL Mayor Wayne Messam in Alabama and Nevada), the number increases to 42. And not one of these 59 polls listed Ohio Representative Tim Ryan, who declared his presidential candidacy on April 4, 2019—bringing the total to 43.

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The point is, despite the Iowa Caucuses—the first contest to choose delegates to the 2020 Democratic National Convention—being nearly 10 months away (tentative date February 3, 2020)—it is not too early to begin to examine public polls assessing voters’ 2020 Democratic presidential nominee preference.

Thus, just as I did with public polls for governor and United States Senate (“Senate”) in 2018, I am collecting and aggregating 2020 Democratic nomination polls released publicly since January 1, 2019. The difference from 2018, though, is that rather than “project” who the 2020 Democratic nominee will be, I am simply taking snapshots of the relative ordering of candidates for that nomination.

Given that convention delegate selection occurs at the state level, I calculated a version of my “weighted-adjusted polling average” (WAPA) for each candidate, both nationally and within each state contest for which I have polling. I then calculated a single WAPA across all of these levels, which I explain below.

I calculated each candidate’s national/state-level WAPA this way:

First, I weighted the raw percentages for each candidate by

  1. The FiveThirtyEight.com pollster rating, converting their letter ratings to a numeric value (A+ = 4.3, A = 4.0, etc.). Thus, each weekly Morning Consult (B-) tracking poll is weighted 2.7/4.3 = 0.628.
  2. A ratio of two values: a) the number of days a poll’s midpoint[2] is since January 1, 2019 and b) the number of days between December 31, 2018 and the contest being assessed (state contest or July 13, 2020, the first day of the 2020 Democratic National Convention). Thus, the University of New Hampshire poll of 240 likely 2020 New Hampshire Primary voters conducted February 18-26, 2019 had a midpoint of February 22, 2019, which is 54 days before the primary. There are 407 days between December 31, 2018 and February 11, 2020, the likely date of the 2020 New Hampshire presidential primary. Dividing 54/407 gives this poll a weight of 0.133.

In essence, recent, higher quality polls count more in WAPA than older, lower quality polls. I also considered weighting each candidate poll percentage by the number of respondents. However, given that the 12 national Morning Consult tracking polls average 13,173 respondents, while the other 25 national polls average 558 respondents, that would give way too much weight to the former.

Second, to account for pollsters releasing multiple polls of the same contest (e.g., the 37 national polls noted earlier were conducted by just 14 unique pollsters[3]), I averaged two versions of the candidate polling average detailed in the first step:

  1. Treating each poll as a statistically-independent event.
  2. Calculating aggregate averages for each pollster then aggregating those.

To complete these steps, I needed to make two decisions regarding each poll.

  1. I assigned a value of 0% to any candidate not listed in a poll who was included in at least one other poll. I realize this may introduce some slight mathematical bias[4], but as FiveThirtyEight.com’s Nathaniel Rakich wrote, “The good news is that, in most polls, the candidates who are rotated in or out are polling poorly, so it doesn’t make a huge difference whether they’re included or excluded.”
  2. If a pollster released two versions of a poll on the same day—with and without one candidate (usually former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. or Hillary Clinton)—I used the more inclusive poll. While this could potentially introduce significant mathematical bias, this is (hopefully) mitigated by the infrequency of the practice; the bias will also drop considerably over time as the field of 2020 Democratic presidential nomination candidates becomes more set.

Having calculated 12 different candidate WAPA, the final step was to combine them into a single “national-and-state-weighted WAPA” (NSW-WAPA).

It is well-established that candidate performance in Iowa affects candidate performance in New Hampshire, in turn affecting candidate performance in every contest that follows; I still think this is the definitive work on the subject:

Bartels Presidential Primaries.JPG

Therefore, I weigh the earliest primaries and caucuses—Iowa, New Hampshire (February 11[5]), Nevada (February 22) and South Carolina (February 29)—higher than subsequent contests, which in turn I weigh higher than national polls:

  • Iowa, New Hampshire = 5
  • Nevada, South Carolina = 4
  • The weighted-adjusted average of subsequent state contests = 2
  • National polls = 1

The weighting formula to combine 12 WAPA into a single NSW-WAPA is thus:

(IA*5 + NH*5 + NV*4 + SC*4 + OtherStateAverage*2 +National)/21

Yes, the results from Iowa and New Hampshire will change the subsequent national and state polling, but in ways that are currently unknowable. This formula represents a compromise between underweighting the early contests on one hand and overcomplicating the formula on the other hand.

Also, I chose to use an average of the WAPA from the post-South-Carolina contests because, as of this writing, I only have a single poll from each of seven such contests. I may revisit this decision as more polls are conducted of 2020 Democratic presidential nomination preferences in these states.

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As of March 31, 2019, here is the relative position of 2020 Democratic presidential nomination candidates, regardless of announcement status.

Table 1: Weighted-adjusted polling averages for selected 2020 Democratic presidential nomination possibilities

Candidate Running? National Iowa NH NSW-WAPA
Biden ??? 29.9 26.6 24.5 28.5
Sanders Yes 20.6 18.5 23.5 20.8
Harris Yes 9.9 9.0 11.9 10.1
Warren Yes 6.5 8.4 8.4 8.2
O’Rourke Yes 7.2 5.1 5.0 6.2
Booker Yes 4.0 4.5 3.8 4.2
Klobuchar Yes 2.0 3.4 4.4 2.7
Buttigieg Yes 1.1 4.2 0.6 2.4
Gillibrand Yes 0.8 0.3 1.4 1.1
Gabbard Yes 0.5 0.4 0.3 0.9
Yang Yes 0.5 0.1 0.0 0.8
Castro Yes 1.0 0.9 0.2 0.6
Bloomberg No 1.3 0.0 1.5 0.4
Brown No 0.6 0.5 0.7 0.3
Delaney Yes 0.4 0.7 0.3 0.3
Hickenlooper Yes 0.7 0.3 0.0 0.2
Inslee Yes 0.4 0.6 0.0 0.2
H. Clinton No 1.6 0.0 0.0 0.09
Swalwell ??? 0.0 0.1 0.0 0.09
Bullock ??? 0.2 0.2 0.0 0.06
Bennet ??? 0.0 0.2 0.0 0.05
M. Obama No 0.7 0.0 0.0 0.03
J. Kennedy III No 0.0 0.0 0.1 0.03
McAuliffe ??? 0.1 0.0 0.0 0.02
Holder No 0.2 0.0 0.0 0.02
Kerry No 0.3 0.0 0.0 0.02
de Blasio ??? 0.1 0.0 0.0 0.01
Moulton ??? 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.007
Winfrey No 0.1 0.0 0.0 0.005
Abrams ??? 0.1 0.0 0.0 0.004
Williamson Yes 0.1 0.0 0.0 0.004
Steyer No 0.0 0.0 0.01 0.003
Cuomo No 0.02 0.0 0.0 0.001
Messam Yes 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
Ojeda No 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
Ryan Yes 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
7 Others No 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
DK/Other 9.1 16.0 13.3 11.7

There is a glorious absurdity to listing candidates averaging well under 1.0 percentage points, but 32 candidates garnered at least 1% support in one or more of the 59 polls assessed. However, given that one Democratic National Committee criterion for participating in the first 2020 Democratic presidential debate (hosted by NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo June 26-27, 2019[6]) is to register at 1% in at least three designated national polls released after January 1, 2019, even that low level of support matters.

The data in Table 1 suggest the following as of March 31, 2019:

  1. The leading candidate, Biden (28.5%), has not yet formally announced whether he will run for president in 2020.
  2. On average, more than half (50.7%) of poll respondents choose someone other than Biden or Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (20.8%) to be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee.
  3. Competing for 3rd place is California Senator Kamala Harris (10.1%) and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren (8.2%).
  4. The three candidates whose support in national polls is understated relative to Iowa and New Hampshire polls are Warren, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar (2.7%) and, especially, South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg (2.4%; 4.2% WAPA in Iowa). Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard (0.9%) is also buoyed by WAPA of 2.0% in Nevada and 1.4% in South Carolina.
  5. Despite ranking #5 overall, however, former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke (6.2%) currently does not poll as well in the early states as he does nationally.
  6. Rounding out the top 10 are New Jersey Senator Cory Booker (4.2%) and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (1.1%).
  7. Half of the current top 10 choices for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination are women—including four Senators!
  8. Just outside the top 10 are entrepreneur Andrew Yang (0.8%) and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro (0.6%).
  9. Other than Hillary Clinton (0.09%), the top-listed candidates who have declared they are NOT running for president in 2020 are former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (0.4%) and Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown (0.3%).
  10. Both Bloomberg and Brown continue, on average, to poll just ahead of three other announced candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination: Maryland Representative John Delaney (0.3%), Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (0.2%) and Washington Governor Jay Inslee (0.2%)
  11. Seven potential 2020 Democratic presidential nomination candidates—California Representative Eric Swalwell (who may announce on April 8), Montana Governor Steve Bullock, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Massachusetts Representative Seth Moulton, former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams—all have NSW-WAPA less than 1.0%.
  12. As for the remaining declared 2020 Democratic presidential nomination candidates: author Marianne Williamson (0.004%) is languishing at 15th among declared candidates (and #30 overall), while Messam registered 0% in both polls listing him; Ryan has yet to be included in a poll.
  13. One candidate, former West Virginia State Senator Richard Ojeda (0.0%), withdrew his candidacy on January 25, 2019.
  14. The other potential candidates (all of whom have announced they are not running for president in 2020) to register at least 1% in any of the 59 polls assessed here are former First Lady Michelle Obama (0.03%), Kennedy (0.03%), former Attorney General Eric Holder (0.02%), former Secretary of State John Kerry (0.02%), businesswoman Oprah Winfrey (0.005%), Steyer (0.003%) and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (0.001%).
  15. The other seven names to be included in at least one national poll (all registering 0% support) are attorney Michael Avenatti, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, California Governor Gavin Newson, former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
  16. Despite being asked about 42 different candidates, roughly 1 in 8 respondents did not state a preference or wanted an unlisted candidate.

In sum, there is currently a clear pecking order among potential 2020 Democratic presidential nominees: Biden and Sanders are the leaders, splitting just under half of the overall vote between them, followed by Harris, Warren, O’Rourke and Booker (29% total). Just behind these six candidates are Klobuchar and Buttigieg (5% total), meaning just eight candidates currently have 83% of the vote between them.

The only other candidate to top 1.0% is Gillibrand, though Gabbard—who rounds out the top 10—rounds up to 1.0%, as do Yang and Castro. However, with 16 declared candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination appearing in at least one poll (plus the just-announced Ryan) and another eight people contemplating running as well, the race is very much in flux with more than 15 months until Democrats convene in Milwaukee on July 13, 2020.

Until next time…

[1] That is, member of the United States House of Representatives.

[2] If the midpoint falls between days, I use the later day.

[3] I treated Morning Consult tracking polls and the Morning Consult/Politico polls as coming from distinct pollsters.

[4] The arithmetic difference between an estimate and the “true” (unmeasured) value.

[5] Post-Iowa primary/caucuses dates obtained here.

[6] It will be held over two nights to accommodate up to 20 candidates, with no more than 10 appearing each night.

An (Electoral) College education

Imagine it is late on the evening of Tuesday, November 2, 2004.

Actually, it is closer to 5 am EST on the morning of Wednesday, November 3, 2004.

Since 7 pm EST the previous night, CNN has been presenting the results of the 2004 presidential election between incumbent President George W. Bush, a Republican, and his Democratic challenger, United States Senator (“Senator”) John Kerry of Massachusetts.

At this point, Bush leads in the national popular vote by about 3.6 million votes (51% to 48%); by “national popular vote,” I mean every vote cast for president (and vice-presidential running mate) in the 50 states and the District of Columbia (DC). However, under Article I, Section I of the United States Constitution (“Constitution”)—with clarification in Amendment XII—this is not the vote that determines who is elected president of the United States.

Instead, a group of electors chosen by each individual state and DC (Amendment XIII, ratified March 29, 1961) “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct” (Article I, Section I) meet and cast separate for president and for vice president. The number of electors in each state is equal to the number of members that state currently has in the United States House of Representatives (“House”) plus two (the number of Senators every state has); DC is assigned three electors. With 435 House members, 100 Senators and 3 DC electors, there are 538 electoral votes (EV) up for grabs. In order to win the presidency, a party’s nominee must win a majority of the EV (currently 270); if no candidate wins 270 EV, the election goes to the House, with each House delegation (i.e., every House member from the same state) having a single vote to cast for the top three EV recipients (the Senate similarly would choose the vice president from the top two EV finishers on a simple majority vote of all Senators).

Thus, when I cast my vote in suburban Philadelphia for Senator Kerry and his vice-presidential running mate, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, I was actually casting my vote for a slate of 21 electors I had never heard of, all of whom had pledged to cast THEIR votes for the Kerry-Edwards ticket if it won the most votes in Pennsylvania (which it did, 50.9 to 48.4%)[1].

Returning to our 2004 election scenario: as of 5 am on the morning after the election, Bush has 254 EV and Kerry has 252 EV, meaning neither has yet achieved a majority. Only the winners of Ohio (20 EV), Iowa (7) and New Mexico (5) remain to be projected. Since Iowa and New Mexico have only 12 EV combined, whoever wins Ohio will win the election.

By this point, though, there were at most a few hundred thousand votes remaining to be counted in these three states, meaning it was mathematically impossible for Kerry to win the national popular vote—and yet it was still not clear who would win the presidency.

Suddenly, at around 5:15 am, anchor Wolf Blitzer interrupts commentator Jeff Greenfield in what for him is an agitated state.

The Associated Press, who have been feeding us raw vote totals since 7 pm yesterday, has just announced that it has found an error in the tabulation of votes in Cleveland. Rather than trailing by about 143,000 votes, Kerry is actually leading the president by about 107,000 votes. And with that, CNN can now project that when all of the votes are counted Massachusetts Senator John Kerry will win the state of Ohio—and its 20 electoral votes—making him the next president of the United States.”

Winning Ohio would have given Kerry 272 EV, two more than necessary (assuming no more than two “faithless electors”[2]) to win the presidency. For the record, Kerry actually lost OH by 118,601 votes, IA by 10,069 votes and NM by 5,088 votes (vote totals from Dave Leip’s indispensable Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections). But let us assume under this scenario that Kerry wins OH by 81,399 votes (an even 200,000 vote flip), while still losing IA and NM narrowly.

In this alternate reality, Kerry would have won the United States presidency—while still losing the national popular vote by 2.8 million votes! In fact, had Kerry also won NM and IA narrowly, he would have won 284 EV (to Bush’s 254)—while still losing the national popular vote by something like 2.75 million votes!

Broadly speaking, this is what actually happened in the 2016 presidential election. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote by 2.87 million votes, largely on the strength of a 3.67 million vote win in California. However, Republican nominee Donald J. Trump won narrow victories in Michigan (10,704 votes), Wisconsin (22,748) and Pennsylvania (44,292), and their combined 46 EV gave him 306 EV and the presidency. Put another way, the 2016 presidential election was not decided by a national popular vote margin of nearly 3 million votes, but a combined margin in three states of 77,774 votes.

This was actually the fourth time since 1856—the first presidential election to feature Democratic and Republican party nominees—that the candidate who won the Electoral College lost the national popular vote; the Republican nominee won all four elections.

In fact, it had just happened in 2000. That year, Republican nominee George W. Bush beat Democratic nominee Al Gore in the Electoral College 271 to 266 (with one faithless elector), while losing the national popular vote by 547,398 votes. Under the “Kerry wins in 2004” scenario, this would mean that in back-to-back presidential elections, the winner of the Electoral College lost the national popular vote—with Democrats and Republicans switching places with regard to which party benefited from the divergence.

Presumably, this one-two punch would have led to bipartisan efforts to abolish the Electoral College, either by amending the Constitution (which requires winning at least 2/3 of the members of the both the House and Senate, followed by winning a majority in 3/4 of state legislatures) or by something like an agreement among states whose combined EV total is at least 270 to award their EV to whomever wins the national popular vote.

Actually, this exact idea—the National Popular Vote bill—was launched in 2006. As of this writing, the legislatures of 12 states and DC (whose EV total 181) have passed the bill (and had it signed by the governor), and it is expected to be signed into law in Delaware and New Mexico shortly, bringing the total to 189.

But…how did we get to this point in the first place?

Why do we even have an Electoral College?

**********

Just bear with me while I discuss what are now known as The Federalist Papers. Following the signing of the Constitution in September 1787, Alexander Hamilton realized how difficult it would be to convince each of 13 independent (and markedly different) colonies to ratify it, thus forming a “united” states; of particular concern was Governor George Clinton of “the growing State of New York.” [3] Hamilton thus began to write and publish a series of essays (under the pseudonym Publius) strongly defending decisions made by the Constitution’s framers; he was soon joined by James Madison and John Jay. In all, the three men—separately and together—wrote 85 essays. Federalist 68 (Hamilton) is specifically devoted to presidential electors, while Federalist 39 (Madison) grounds the idea of presidential electors in both the “republican” and “federal” nature of the proposed new government.

Federalist Papers.JPG

By “republican,” Madison means leaders are a) chosen directly or indirectly by the people and b) serve a limited time and/or under good behavior. In fact, Madison notes that most chief magistrates are already chosen through indirect means. As for “federalism”: rather than colonies merging into a single entity, there would be “a Confederacy of sovereign states.”[4] This was the great compromise: “the great and aggregate interests being referred to the national, the local and particular to the State legislatures.”[5]

Moreover, in Federalist 10, Madison explains how a republican government can limit the deleterious effects of “factions,” which he describes as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”[6] While this certainly sounds like our current tribalistic partisan polarization—elevating loyalty to a political party over loyalty to the nation—Madison was really talking about factions emerging, then quickly disbanding, around a single issue or demagogic leader. He did not anticipate the emergence of two evenly-matched, organized, national political parties with broadly coherent policy agendas to which voters identify over multiple elections. Instead, Madison argued hopefully that an “extensive republic”[7] (sufficient representatives from a variety of localities) would diffuse the effects of any single faction.

Hamilton simply applied the logic of both “federal” and “republican” governance to the election of a president in Federalist 68, which I recommend reading in its entirety. He avoids saying the broader voting public cannot be entrusted to elect its presidents directly (until Amendment XVII was ratified in April 1913, United States Senators were selected by state legislatures), instead observing it was…

“…desirable that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to so complicated an investigation.”[8]

Moreover, having electors deliberate within their native state will create a “detached and divided situation [that] will expose them much less to heats and ferments, which might be communicated from them to the people.”

**********

That was the theory, at any rate: electors, chosen at the state level, would be free to choose whomever they thought would make the best president unfettered by factional loyalties; for a fractious collection of once-independent colonies, the logic is sound. And it worked in the first two presidential elections (1789 and 1792, during which electors had two votes, ostensibly one for president and one for vice president): George Washington finished first (making him president) with 69 and 132 EV, respectively, and John Adams finished second (making him vice president) with 77 and 34 EV, respectively. Even then, however, a nascent form of political parties was emerging, with Federalists like Washington and Adams, opposing anti-Federalists, like Governor Clinton.

By 1796, the anti-Federalists had become the Democratic-Republicans, and something akin to presidential tickets were emerging. Adams ran for president as a Federalist, with former South Carolina Governor Thomas Pinckney as his “running mate,” while Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr ran as the Democratic-Republican “ticket.” However, each man ran separately—which is how Adams received the most EV (71), making him president, while Jefferson finished a close second (68 EV), making him vice president. This was the first Electoral College: the election of a president and vice president from different “factions.”

When Adams ran for reelection four years later, the Jefferson-Burr ticket again opposed him. Unfortunately, Jefferson and Burr each received 73 EV because every Democratic-Republican elector split their votes between their party’s designated choices for president and vice president; the House ultimately selected Jefferson as president and Burr as vice president. This second glitch led to Amendment XII (ratified June 1804), establishing separate Electoral votes for president and vice president.

Much to the chagrin of Madison (who died in 1836), though, the modern strong two-party system was emerging, particularly under the leadership of Martin Van Buren, Vice President under Andrew Jackson (1829-37) then President (1837-1841). And the leaders of the two parties realized the best way to maximize the EV they received in a state was to legislate a “winner-take-all” system: whomever won the most votes in a state won all of that state’s EV—the system we have today. Virginia was the first state to adopt such a law,[9] in 1800; by 1832, only Maryland still split its EV. And as of 1880, every state had passed a “winner-take-all” law.

I cannot emphasize how important this history is to understanding the modern Electoral College. Remember, for Hamilton and Madison, the fundamental purpose of electors was to deliberate on the vital question of who they wanted to be the nation’s chief executive independent of factional alliance. The winner-take-all legislation—pushed by the very factions Madison sought to restrain—was not only antithetical to this purpose, it made a complete mockery of it.

**********

The first time the national popular and Electoral College votes diverged was in 1876.[10] Democratic nominee Samuel J. Tilden won the national popular vote over Republican Rutherford B. Hayes by 252,696 votes (3.0 percentage points [“points”]), but fell one EV shy of the required 185; Hayes had 164 EV. Nineteen EV were in dispute because both men declared victory in Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina. Ultimately, Hayes was awarded all 19 disputed EV, as well as one problematic EV in Oregon,[11] making him the dubious winner.

After two excruciatingly close elections[12] which could easily have resulted in a divergence, it actually happened in 1888. Republican Benjamin Harrison lost the national popular vote to incumbent Democrat Grover Cleveland by 94,530 votes, but prevailed in the Electoral College, 233-168. However, despite four divergences/close calls in a row, any momentum toward ending the Electoral College system stalled once Cleveland decisively beat Harrison in an 1892 rematch, 277 to 145 EV, despite a national popular vote margin of “only” 3.0 points[13].

And then came 13 presidential elections (through 1944) in which the average national popular vote margin was 14.1 points and the average Electoral College margin was 266.5 EV. The only relatively close elections during this period were 1896 (Republican William McKinley beat Democrat William Jennings Bryan by 4.3 points, 95 EV) and 1916 (incumbent Democrat Woodrow Wilson held off Republican Charles Hughes by 3.2 points, 23 EV). In fact, had Hughes flipped just 1,887 votes in California, HE would have won despite losing the national popular vote by more than 570,000 votes.

Starting in 1948, though, “near misses” became more common. That year, incumbent Democrat Harry Truman was challenged by Republican Thomas E. Dewey, Progressive Henry Wallace and States Rights Strom Thurmond.  As I wrote hereDewey had fallen just 77 EV short of the 266 he needed to win. Had he won about 18,000 more votes in California (47.6-47.1%), 34,000 in Illinois (50.1-49.2%) and 8,000 (49.5-49.2%) in Ohio, he […] would have won the 1948 presidential election…” Under this scenario, Dewey would still have lost the national popular vote by a remarkable 4.5 points (2.1 million votes).

Republican Dwight Eisenhower then defeated Democrat Adlai Stevenson by 10.8 points (353 EV) in 1952 and 15.4 points (384 EV) in 1956. But in 1960, Democrat John F. Kennedy defeated Republican Richard Nixon 303-219 EV, despite winning that national popular vote by only 0.17 points (112,827 votes). It is easy to imagine a scenario in which Nixon wins at least 113,000 additional votes across states he won, such as California, Florida, Ohio and Virginia, giving him a narrow national popular vote victory but a loss in the Electoral College—the first time a Democrat would have benefitted from such a divergence.

Four years later, incumbent Democrat Lyndon Johnson trounced Republican Barry Goldwater (22.5 points, 434 EV). But in 1968, Nixon beat Democrat Hubert Humphrey (and Wallace) by a solid 110 EV, despite winning the national popular vote by “only” 511,944 votes (0.7 points). While that is a substantial margin to overcome, had Humphrey won half the votes American Independent George Wallace won in Michigan (331,968), New York (358,864) and Pennsylvania (378.582), he would have won a bare national popular vote victory of 22,763 votes (but not the White House).

Nixon then handily defeated Democrat George McGovern in 1972 (23.2 points, 503 EV). Four years later, Democrat James E. Carter beat Republican Gerald R. Ford 297-240 EV while winning the national popular vote by 2.1 points (1,683,247 votes).  However, Ford only lost Ohio’s 25 EV by 11,116 votes and Mississippi’s 7 EV by 14,463 votes; a simple shift of just 12,760 votes in these two states would have given Ford 272 EV (and the White House) despite losing the national popular vote by well over 1.6 million votes.

After four near-misses in eight presidential elections, however, the next five (1980-96) were not especially close, with average winning margins of 10.0 points and 337.8 EV[14]. Still, that brings us to the five most recent presidential elections, three of which ended in divergence (2000, 2016) or came very close (2004). Even in 2012, had Republican Willard “Mitt” Romney flipped 214,761 votes across Florida, New Hampshire, Ohio and Virginia, he would have won 270 EV—and the White House—despite losing the national popular vote by more than 4.5 million votes (3.9 points).

To summarize, in the 38 presidential elections following the end of the Civil War, there have been…

  • 4 elections (1876, 1888, 2000, 2016) in which the candidate who won the Electoral College lost the national popular vote
  • 2 elections (1880, 1884) where a small shift in votes across a few states could have produced divergence in either direction
  • 2 elections (1916, 2004) where flipping fewer than 60,000 votes in only one state would have produced divergence
  • 1 election (1976) where flipping 12,790 votes in just two states would have produced divergence
  • 2 elections in which flipping a total of ~60,000 votes in three states (1948) or ~215,000 votes in four states (2012) would have produced an extremely narrow Electoral College victory AND a national popular vote loss averaging 3.4 million votes
  • 2 elections in which a candidate would have had to win an additional 130,000 votes across four states (1960) or win back half the votes of a third-party candidate in three states (530,000+ votes) to produce divergence.

Thus, one in three presidential elections over 150 years (1868-2016) either featured divergence or could have done so with varying degrees of plausibility. The Republican presidential nominee won all four “divergence” elections and would have won between four and six (depending on 1880, 1884) of the other nine “plausible divergence scenario” elections, for a total of 8-10 Republican victories (vs. 3-5 Democratic victories). And eight of those 13 elections came in two different five-election “blocks” of (mostly) close presidential elections: 1876-1892 and 2000-2016.

Those two blocks highlight a basic truth about the Electoral College: so long as the national popular vote margin is wide enough (≥5.0 points), there will be no divergence, making the Electoral College a quaint anachronism. But the closer the national popular vote margin (particularly <3.0 points), the higher the likelihood of divergence. And just because it does not always happen in this latter circumstance is purely a matter of chance.

It is worth keeping in mind that Hamilton and Madison had absolutely no conception of a national popular vote, because they did not intend for the general voting public to vote directly for a president (or vice president), any more than they could envision the modern two-party system reducing the choices to a few viable candidates. That very system, though, has reduced the electors to mere human rubber stamps, archaically ratifying what we already knew on Election Day (or a few days later). Their independence—and their role in the delicate compromise between “sovereign” states and the national government—was gone by 1836, if not earlier.

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Which leads to one final question: are there any good reasons to continue using the Electoral College to elect the president and vice president of the United States?

Arguments for keeping the Electoral College fall into two broad categories:

  1. Upholding tradition
  2. It prevents smaller states/rural areas from being ignored by presidential candidates seeking to maximize national vote totals.

The first category has two primary components:

  • It is very difficult to amend the Constitution
  • We continue to be a federalist republic, so giving states an independent role in selecting the president is necessary.

Taking each component in turn:

Amending the Constitution is indeed extremely difficult; it has only happened on 18 separate occasions (counting the 10-amendment Bill of Rights as one occasion) in 230 years. However, all that means is that amending the Constitution requires time, bipartisan effort and focus.

And there are 27 amendments (Amendment XXI even repealed Amendment XVIII)—including those arising from a steady increase over time in direct democracy such as expanded suffrage (blacks, women, 18-20-year-olds) and altered electoral processes (direct election of Senators). Similarly, since the 1968 McGovern-Fraser Commission, the process by which presidential nominees are selected has become far more democratic (if not completely so) through the establishment of state-level primaries and caucuses which use voter preferences to select Democratic and Republican nomination convention delegates.

That individual states select convention delegates using their own rules, broadly analogous to the Electoral College (even if Democrats allot delegates proportionally, not winner-take-all), demonstrates an ongoing robust federalism. Moreover, even if the Electoral College were repealed (or legislatively overruled), there would still be a solid division of labor between the national government and state (and local) governments.

The single most frivolous argument in this category, though, was made recently by Michael Steel, former spokesman for Republican former House Speaker John Boehner[15]: using the national popular vote to elect a president would be like using attendance to determine the outcome of a baseball game.

Ummm, what now?

First, how would one divide attendance to determine a winner? Second, the winner of a baseball game actually IS the team that scored the most runs—not the team that scored the most runs in the most innings, a better analogy between a baseball game and the Electoral College.

In the same conversation, however, Steel all-but-admitted Republicans want to keep the Electoral College because it has allowed them to win the White House three times in the last five elections despite only winning the national popular vote once. And that brings us to the second set of arguments: that presidential candidates would spend all their time in the biggest population centers rather than trying to win votes across the entire nation.

Forget that presidents (and vice presidents) were never meant to campaign anywhere; they were supposed to wait for the decision of independent state-level electors. Or the fact that Hamilton and Madison said nothing about protecting small states or rural areas; if anything, they were trying to convince the largest state—New York—to ratify the Constitution.

No, the fundamental flaw in this argument is that, since the advent of winner-take-all laws 200+ years ago, candidates for president and vice president have limited their campaigning to a few “swing states.”

Let me demonstrate using 3W_RDM, which measures how much or less Democratic a state’s presidential voting is relative to the nation. Table 1 lists the 12 states most in play in 2020, using the median Democratic margin in the national popular vote in the last five elections (2.1 points)[16] and an average 3W-RDM “miss” of 5.4[17].

Table 1: States most likely in play in the 2020 presidential election

State EV 3W-RDM Projected Margin in 2020
Michigan 16 D+2.2 D+4.3 (R+1.1 to D+9.7)
Colorado 9 D+2.2 D+4.3 (R+1.1 to D+9.7)
Nevada 6 D+2.0 D+4.1 (R+1.3 to D+9.5)
Minnesota 10 D+1.5 D+3.6 (R+1.8 to D+9.0)
Virginia 13 D+1.5 D+3.6 (R+1.8 to D+9.0)
Wisconsin 10 D+0.7 D+2.8 (R+2.6 to D+8.2)
New Hampshire 4 D+0.1 D+2.2 (R+3.2 to D+7.6)
Pennsylvania 20 R+0.4 D+1.7 (R+3.7 to D+7.1)
Florida 29 R+3.4 R+1.3 (R+6.7 to D+4.1)
Iowa 6 R+4.7 R+2.6 (R+8.0 to D+2.8)
Ohio 18 R+5.8 R+3.7 (R+9.1 to D+1.7)
North Carolina 15 R+6.0 R+3.6 (R+9.3 to D+1.5)
TOTAL 156 R+0.8

One can quibble with the mix of states[18]—perhaps the 27 EV in Georgia (R+9.6) and Arizona (R+9.7) are more in play for Democrats than the 24 EV in Iowa and Ohio. But the point is that in 2020 presidential candidates will focus on, at most, 14 states—a far cry from the “nationwide campaign” hyped by Electoral College advocates.

Their argument about small states fares little better. Using EV as a proxy for population, 22 states (including DC) can be considered “small” (<7 EV; median=8), of which seven are “likely Democratic,” 12 are “likely Republican,” and only three (Nevada, New Hampshire, Iowa) are potentially in play in 2020[19]; In other words, under the current Electoral College system that supposedly protects smaller states—at most three of the 22 smallest states will see ANY campaigning.

Then there is the argument only major metropolitan areas—usually limited to California (55 EV) and New York (29 EV), though not Texas (38 EV)—would see any presidential campaigning at all, completely ignoring rural areas.

First, this is precisely how campaigns are generally currently conducted within many states: Democrats rely on massive turnout in urban areas, Republicans rely on massive turnout in rural areas, with each hoping suburban areas break their way. Why is this acceptable? Why not apply Electoral College logic by assigning every county (or other sub-state area) a number of votes based upon its representation in its legislature, so that to be elected governor, for example, you would need to win a majority of these sub-state level votes?

Other than its patent absurdity, I suspect the answer is that statewide elections invalidate the “rural areas would get the shaft” argument. Theoretically, that same formula could apply at the national level:  Republicans would campaign in rural areas in every state, Democrats would campaign in urban areas in every state, and both would battle over suburban votes in every state[20]. Even more radically, Republicans could compete aggressively for urban voters, with Democrats countering by competing aggressively for rural voters. This would thoroughly upend the current geographic and policy alignments of the two parties in unforeseeable but interesting ways.

Here is the simple reality: Hamilton and Madison argued for the Electoral College in The Federalist Papers because they a) feared voters could easily be manipulated by factional loyalties and b) were luring 13 sovereign colonies into a single “united states.” But the emergence of strong political parties (national factions), the continued existence of robust federalism, the ongoing expansion of direct democracy and winner-take-all laws that run counter to the deliberative intentions of electors moot their arguments. The Electoral College simply has not served its original stated purpose since at least 1796, and it is time to repeal it to allow the only two elected officials who represent the entire nation to be elected by national popular vote.

Until next time…

[1] I was living in the suburb of King of Prussia at the time. Every morning, as I drove to the commuter rail station in Radnor, I would count the lawn signs for Bush-[Vice President Dick) Cheney and Kerry-Edwards. On average, the count was something like 24 for Kerry-Edwards, 12 for Bush-Cheney—and a smattering for Shreiner Tree Care!

[2] In the 2016 presidential election, there were a record seven such electors—five Democrats and two Republicans.

[3] According to the “Message to Mankind” written just inside the front cover of my paperback copy of Rossiter, Clinton, editor. 1961. The Federalist Papers. New York, NY: NAL PENGUIN INC.

[4] Ibid., pg. 243. Italics in the original text.

[5] Ibid., pg. 83.

[6] Ibid., pg. 79.

[7] Ibid., pg. 82.

[8] Ibid., pg. 412

[9] Technically, three states had winner-take-all laws in 1789, but each repealed them by 1800.

[10] I exclude the presidential election of 1824 because, technically Andrew Jackson won both the national popular vote AND the most EV, but because he fell 32 EV shy of the required majority (131 EV), the House decided the election in favor of the runner-up in both areas, John Quincy Adams. Moreover, both Adams and Jackson were Democratic-Republicans (the Federalist Party had faded away).

[11] An elector was invalid because he was an elected official.

[12] 1880 (9,070 votes, 59 EV) and 1884 (58.579, 37 EV)

[13] There were also bigger election system fish to fry, such as the direct election of Senators (Amendment XVII, 1913) and women’s suffrage (Amendment XIX, August 1920).

[14] The presidential election of 1988 was closer than it appears at first glance. Yes, Republican George H. W. Bush beat Democrat Michael Dukakis by 7.8 points and 315 EV. But Bush won a number of states by narrower margins than that. While this is a stretch, had Dukakis flipped a total of 615,920 votes across 12 states (CA, CO, CT, IL, MD, MI, MO, MT, NM, PA, SD, VT), he would have won the Electoral College 270-268 (assuming no faithless electors) despite losing the national popular vote by more than 5.8 million votes. Similarly, four years later, Democrat Bill Clinton defeated President Bush by 5.6 points and 202 EV. Had Bush flipped just over 300,000 votes in 10 states (CO, GA, KY, LA, NJ, OH, TN, WI and any two of MT, NV, NH), he would have won 271 or 272 EV, despite losing the national popular vote by nearly 5.2 million votes.

[15] Steel makes the argument at 39:15 here.  Actually, the entire conversation between host Chris Matthews, Steel and Reed Hundt is worth watching; Steel starts off on solid ground, then slowly deteriorates.

[16] The average of 2.3 points is slightly skewed by Obama’s 2008 margin of 7.3 points.

[17] Democrats are strong favorites in 16 states (including DC) totaling 191 EV, and Republicans are strong favorites in 23 states totaling 191 EV.

[18] Including Maine (D+5.9) and Nebraska (R+25.8), who give two EV to the statewide winner, and one EV to the winner of each Congressional district.

[19] These are also the first three primary/caucus states, undercutting arguments about their “unrepresentativeness.”

[20] This also answers a hypothetical question I like to pose: if we had had been using the national popular vote to elect presidents and vice presidents since 1789, would anyone have proposed a system as convoluted and, frankly, anti-democratic as the Electoral College as a “solution” to whatever problems may have arisen? I sincerely doubt it.

Organizing by themes I: American politics

This site benefits/suffers/both from consisting of posts about a wide range of topics, all linked under the amorphous heading “data-driven storytelling.”

In an attempt to impose some coherent structure, I am organizing related posts both chronologically and thematically.

Given that I have multiple degrees in political science, with an emphasis on American politics, it is not surprising that I have written a few dozen posts in that field…and that is where I begin.

I Voted sticker

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I started by writing about the 2016 elections, many based on my own state-partisanship metric (which I validate here).

The absurdity of the Democratic “blue wall” in the Electoral College

Hillary Clinton’s performance in five key states (IA, MI, OH, PA, WI)

Why Democrats should look to the south (east and west)

How having (or not) a college degree impacted voting

An alternative argument about gerrymandering

An early foray into what I call “Clinton derangement”

The only statistic from 2016 that really matters

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Here are a few posts about presidential polling (before FiveThirtyEight jumped on the bandwagon)…

Be careful interpreting President Trump’s approval polls

…and the 2017 special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District (GA-6)

Ossoff and the future of the Democratic Party

Using GA-6 polls to discuss statistical significance testing (spoiler: I am not a fan)

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And then I started looking ahead to 2018…first to control of the United States House of Representatives (“House”). Note that posts are often cross-generic…

An alternative argument about gerrymandering

The impact of voting to repeal (and not replace) Obamacare (May 2017)

I debut my simple forecast model (June 2017)

Making more points about polls and probability

A March 2018 update

A followup March 2018 update (after which I stopped writing about the 2018 House elections)

…then the United States Senate

The view from May 2017

What it meant that the Senate voted NOT to repeal Obamacare in July 2017

The view from December 2017

…and, finally, races for governor in 2017 AND 2018.

The view from June 2017

A tangentially-related post may be found here.

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After Labor Day 2018, I developed models (based on “fundamentals” and polls) to “forecast” the Senate elections…

September 4

September 13

October 23

…and those for governor (the October 23 post addressed both sets of races)

September 16

These culminated in…

My Election Day cheat sheet

And my own assessment of how I did (spoiler: not half bad)

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Beginning in April 2019, I turned my attention to the 2020 elections.

First came a wicked early look at the relative standings of the dozens of women and men actually or potentially seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination:

April 2019

Then came a wicked early look at the 2020 presidential election itself.

April 2019

And, of course, a wicked early look at races for Senate (2020) and governor (2019-20).

With the first of regular updates to both the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination and the 2020 presidential election in May 2019

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Finally, there are other politics posts that defy easy categorization.

I indulged in some speculative alternative history about the presidential elections of 1948 and 2000.

I delineated issue differences between Democrats and Republicans.

I got a bit personal here and here, concluding with the fact that, despite overlapping in the same residential college at Yale for two years, I did NOT know Associate Justice Brett Kavanagh at all.

I argued for the abolition of the Electoral College.

Until next time…

Rest in peace, George Herbert Walker Bush

Late on the night of January 20, 1989, I walked out of Dan’s Cafe—a dive bar in the Adams Morgan section of Washington, DC[1]—after imbibing a few or five or six bottles of Rolling Rock. Clutching my long black overcoat around me, I started to cross 18th street (likely to get a bite to eat, as my apartment on 16th, just south of Columbia, was a few blocks to the east). The headphones of my Walkman covered my ears; I think I was listening to Depeche Mode.

I did not see the car until it was practically upon me. Helpful witnesses later said it was black—or maybe blue or perhaps green. Whatever color it was, it knocked me to the ground without stopping; perhaps because I had no time to stiffen in panic, I only separated my right shoulder.

Earlier that day, I had watched the sitting Vice President sworn in as the 41st president of the United States. In his acceptance speech the previous August, the then-Vice-President had called for a “kinder and gentler nation.”

So naturally, as I lay on the street unable to move, convinced cars would start knocking me between lanes like a human pinball, my first thought was, “So much for kinder and gentler.”

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George Herbert Walker Bush, who died Friday night at the age of 94, exemplified a vanishing strain of self-effacing, self-sacrificing American patriotism: son of a United States Senator, heroic Navy pilot in World War II, Yale baseball team captain (light-hitting, solid defensive left-handed first baseman), successful Texas oilman, two-term member of the United States House of Representatives (“House”) before losing the 1970 United States Senate election in Texas to Lloyd Bentsen (who would resurface as an opponent 18 years later), Ambassador to the United Nations, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, envoy to China, and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (where, unbeknownst to his family, my late father-in-law worked). Bush then served as Vice President of the United States from January 20, 1981 to January 20, 1989—at which point he ascended to the Presidency, the first sitting Vice President to do so since Martin Van Buren in 1837. He was also father to two sons who served a combined 22 years as Florida governor, Texas governor and president. With few exceptions, he tackled these activities with grace, dignity and the desire to serve his country to the best of his considerable abilities.

Because it is one of my primary passions, I write a great deal about American politics on this site, mostly through a data-analytic lens. Inevitably, I referred to President Bush 41 in a number of posts. To honor the memory of this American hero—with whom I rarely agreed, but whom I came greatly to respect—I will tell his story through those posts.

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The first inkling I had that someone named George Bush existed came when I was in 8th grade:

In March 1980, a woman named Barbara Bush, whose husband George I vaguely knew was running for the Republican presidential nomination, addressed the student body at Bala Cynwyd Middle School (see Philadelphia Inquirer story below). I remember little of what she said (other than being impressed this engaging woman was speaking to us at all), though I understood she was trying to get us to convince our parents to vote for her husband. That appearance may have helped, because on April 22, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director George Herbert Walker Bush beat former California governor Ronald Reagan in the Pennsylvania Republican presidential primary, 50 to 43%. Despite that victory, Bush lost the nomination to Reagan, becoming the latter’s vice-presidential running mate.

The_Philadelphia_Inquirer_Sat__Apr_19__1980_

Bush fit my home state’s Republican Party well in 1980:

Back home, Pennsylvania was narrowly electing a series of liberal-to-moderate Republicans who, again, I admired without always agreeing with them: Senator John Heinz in 1976 (even as [Jimmy] Carter won Pennsylvania by 2.7 percentage points), Governor Richard Thornburgh in 1978, and Senator Arlen Specter in 1980. Heinz easily won reelection twice before dying in a plane crash in 1991 at the age of 52. Like most Pennsylvanians, I was deeply saddened by the loss of this good man. […]  In 1986, I voted for pro-choice Republican Bill Scranton for governor.

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I followed the 1988 presidential election in three places. First, I watched the primaries and caucuses in the living room of the off-campus apartment I shared with two other Yale seniors in New Haven, CT. I touched briefly on Bush’s nomination here:

Since 1980, Republicans have tended to nominate the runner-up from the previous contested nomination (Ronald Reagan 1980, G.H.W. Bush 1988, Bob Dole 1996, [John] McCain 2008, Mitt Romney 2012), implying McCain would have been the prohibitive front-runner had he run in 2004 [in an alternate history in which Vice President Al Gore wins the 2000 presidential election].

Next, I watched the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in my mother’s condominium in the Philadelphia suburb of Penn Valley, where I was spending the summer; driving home along Hagys Ford Road one day that August, I heard on the radio that Bush had selected Indiana Senator Dan Quayle to be his running mate.

Finally, I watched the fall election in that Adams Morgan apartment. At an event at the Brookings Institute, where I worked, a few days before the election, I was one of only two people in the audience to raise a hand to the question, “Who here thinks [Massachusetts Governor Michael] Dukakis will win the election?”

Had I listened to my future self, I would have better seen what was coming:

From 1968 through 1988 it was the Republicans who had an even-more-impregnable “red wall,” with 22 states voting for the Republican presidential nominee in six consecutive presidential elections and 13 other states doing so in five of them. The Republicans won the White House in five of these six elections, averaging 417 EV [electoral votes].

Despite not wanting Bush to win, however, I was pleasantly surprised just one day later:

The 1988 presidential campaign was so banal that the Washington Post did not endorse either Bush or Michael Dukakis. Bush’s campaign sank to some particularly ugly depths (Willie Horton, flag-burning, demonizing liberals). The afternoon after Bush won, however, I watched President-elect Bush introduced James Baker as his nominee for Secretary of State. My surprised reaction was “wow, the governing Bush looks like an entirely different cat.” Other Bush Administration picks like Jack Kemp (HUD), Dick Darman (OMB), Thornburgh (Justice), Liddy Dole (Labor), and Brent Scowcroft (National Security Advisor) signaled to me a mature, less-ideological approach to governing.

I watched Bush introduce Baker on a television set just outside my Brookings office, and I followed the Cabinet selections in the New York Times and Washington Post, which I would read each morning over my coffee and bowl of Nut’n’Honey cereal. As for the morning I read excitedly about Kemp’s nomination…well, a gentleman does not kiss and tell.

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I have written about the results of the 1988 presidential election in multiple contexts. First, there was the simple—and unusual—fact that Bush’s win marked a third consecutive Republican presidential victory.

Still, it is important to keep in mind that the 2016 U.S. presidential election took place after eight years with one party (Democrats) occupying the White House and no incumbent running. Voters often look to change White House control in these elections: prior to 2016, of the six such elections starting with 1960, the party not occupying the White House had won five of them (1960, 1968, 1976, 2000, 2008). The exception was 1988, when Republican nominee George H. W. Bush beat Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis by 7.7 percentage points and 315 EV.

Second, I wrote this passage in the context of validating my measure (3W-RDM) of how Democratic or Republican state is, relative to the nation:

And had Mondale lost by “only” 7.7 percentage points—as Democrat Michael Dukakis would to Republican George H. W. Bush in 1988—he would also have theoretically won the combined 53 EV of New York (36), Wisconsin (11) and West Virginia (6), boosting his total to 126 EV (better, but still 144 EV shy of the 270 needed to win the White House).

1988 Presidential map

Still, that is close to the 112 EV Dukakis won in 1988. As the purple-inked states on this beautiful hand-drawn map show, Dukakis lost seven states (Illinois, Pennsylvania, Maryland, California, Vermont, Missouri, New Mexico) totaling 125 EV by smaller margins (2.1-5.0 percentage points; mean=3.3) than he did nationally. Had Dukakis lost the election by just 2.7 points, he would theoretically have won 237 EV, only 33 shy of the necessary 270.

What I did not know then, however, was that Bush’s 1988 victory would mark the beginning of the end of a singular American political era:

Four years earlier, however, G. H. W. Bush had won 53.4% of the popular vote against Democrat Michael Dukakis (45.6%), winning 40 states and 426 EV; Bush beat Dukakis 53.9 to 46.1% in the two-party vote. Bush’s near-landslide victory (in the Electoral College, anyway) meant that Republicans would control the White House for a third consecutive four-year term.

In the six presidential elections from 1968 through 1988 (Table 1), Republicans won the presidency five times, four times by landslides (1972, 1980, 1984) or near-landslides (1988). The one Democratic victor was Jimmy Carter in 1976, in the wake of Republican President Richard Nixon’s Watergate-related resignation in August 1974, Nixon’s pardon by his successor (Gerald Ford) and various Ford gaffes. Still, Carter only managed to beat Ford by 2.1 percentage points (50.1 to 48.0%) and 57 EV (297-240); Ford actually won more states: 27 to 23 (plus DC). In fact, had Ford flipped 5,559 votes in Ohio (25 EV) and 7,232 votes in Mississippi (7 EV)—just 12,791 votes out of 81,540,780 cast, he would have won 272 EV and held on to the presidency.

Overall in those six presidential elections, the Democratic candidates averaged 42.9% of the popular vote (45.1% of the two-party vote), victories in nine states (plus DC) and 113.0 EV. The White House essentially “belonged” to the Republicans during this period.

During the same time period, however, Democrats controlled the House and held a majority of governorships. They controlled the Senate for 18 of 24 years, excepting only 1981-87. Following the 13 even-numbered elections from 1968 through 1992, Democrats averaged majorities of all votes cast for Senate, House and governor, for an average of 54.5 Senate seats, 262.1 House seats and 31.0 governor’s mansions.

In other words, from 1968 through 1992, while Republicans held a near lock on the White House, Democrats controlled Congress (both Houses for 20 years) and a majority of governor’s mansions. One interpretation is that voters preferred Republicans in the White House to conduct foreign policy (i.e., fight the Cold War) and preferred Democrats to manage domestic affairs (i.e., protect entitlements).

As for the single Bush (41) Administration, I wrote little beyond this:

Clearly, history is not always predictive. The president’s party lost an average of 13.8 House seats in the four qualifying midterm elections from 1962-1982, yet President George H.W. Bush’s Republicans only lost 8 House seats in 1990, while President Bush was still receiving plaudits for the first Gulf War and the end of the Cold War. [emphasis added]

I also obliquely referenced the event that continues to define that Administration more than any other.

In a subsequent post, I will examine the defining events of 1998 through 1994 in more detail, moving from then-Vice-President G. H. W. Bush’s acceptance speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention through the wildly successful (for Republicans) 1994 midterm elections.

In his August 1988 acceptance speech, Bush presented a scenario in which the Democratic-majority Congress would keep asking him to raise taxes, and he would refuse each time, finally insisting, “Read my lips: no new taxes!” However, facing a ballooning budget deficit, Bush was forced to relent (a decision that likely cost him reelection, even as it paved the way for the budget surpluses of the late 1990s); on November 5, 1990, he signed the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990. This compromise budget bill included a modest tax increase on the incomes of the wealthiest Americans, leading conservative commentator Pat Buchanan to challenge Bush in the 1992 New Hampshire Primary.

Incidentally, the events I was going to examine in that never-written post are thoroughly examined in this engaging new book by the indefatigable Steve Kornacki.

IMG_3982

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History shows that President Bush might have a tough time winning reelection even if he had not broken his “no new taxes” pledge”:

The 1856 US presidential election was the first in which a Democratic nominee (James Buchanan) faced a Republican nominee (John C. Fremont); Buchanan won. Since then there have been nine elections (1880, 1884, 1908, 1912, 1932, 1944, 1948, 1952, 1992) in which the party controlling the White House sought a fourth, fifth or sixth consecutive term; that party won only four (44%) of those elections.

And, in fact:

On Tuesday, November 3, 1992, [Arkansas Governor Bill] Clinton captured 43.0% of the popular vote cast for president, 5.6 percentage points more than G. H. W. Bush (37.4%) and 24.0 percentage points more than Independent H. Ross Perot (19.0%). Considering only votes cast for the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates (“two-party vote”), Clinton beat Bush 53.5 to 46.5%.

Clinton also won 32 states, plus the District of Columbia (DC), for a total of 370 electoral votes (EV); Bush received only 168 EV.

In other words, in just four years, Democrats had increased their share of the two-party popular vote by 7.4 percentage points, flipped 22 states from Democratic to Republican, and increased their EV total from 112 to 370.

That is an astonishing turnaround.

        […]     

Republicans blamed Bill Clinton for breaking their iron grip on the White House, and they have been punishing him (and his wife) for it ever since.

Just like that, a new American political era emerged:

With the elections of 1992 and 1994, the Democratic and Republican Parties switched governing roles. The Democratic Party went from being primarily a Congressional and state-house party to primarily a national (i.e., White House) party, while the Republican Party went in the opposite direction.

In the seven presidential elections from 1992 through 2016, Democrats won the presidential popular vote six of seven times (despite only winning the Electoral College—and thus the White House—four times), the exception being 2004, when Republican George W. Bush won reelection by 2.4 percentage points (50.7 to 48.3%) over Democrat John Kerry, capturing 286 EV to Kerry’s 251. […] Overall in those seven presidential elections, the Democratic candidates averaged 48.7% of the popular vote (52.0% of the two-party vote), victories in 23.7 states (plus DC) and 313.4 EV.

Meanwhile, since January 1995, Democrats have only controlled the House and held a majority of governorships for four years (2007-11), while controlling the Senate for only nine-plus years (May 2001[5]-January 2003, 2007-15). Following the 12 even-numbered elections from 1994 through 2016, while Democrats managed rough parity in Senate votes, they lost the overall vote for House and governor, earning an average 48.3 Senate seats, 208.7 House seats and 20.7 governor’s mansions.

This switch was accompanied by a drastic makeover of the Republican Party.

I plan to argue in a later post that something began to go haywire with the Republican Party right around Bush’s failed reelection campaign in 1992 and the subsequent Republican takeover of the House and Senate in 1994. I now feel that the party—with a few possible exceptions like Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker—has become completely unhinged.

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That President George Herbert Walker Bush really was a different kind of cat is best illustrated by the fact he pointedly invited President Donald J. Trump to his funeral, despite no love being lost between the two Republican presidents. Bush simply believed this is how things are supposed to be done.

And finally:

What so fascinates me about the 1948 presidential election is that while Harry Truman is my favorite president, the more I learn about Tom Dewey, particularly his prosecutorial efforts in the mid-1930s, the more intrigued I am. Love Truman though I do, I think Dewey would have been a solid president, not dissimilar to Eisenhower or the underrated first George Bush. 

Just as Truman’s presidency has been dramatically positively reassessed in the 66 years since he left office (to the point where he was recently ranked 6th-best), I firmly believe that of Bush 41 will also be.

Rest in peace, Mr. President. Your mission is complete.

Until next time…

[1] It was the sort of place where the men’s room, which locked from the outside, had a sign on its door reading “Please do not use drugs in the bathroom.”