A Wicked Early Look At U.S. Senate Races in 2022

In two recent posts, I…

I conclude this “wicked early” look at the 2021-22 elections with an examination of Democrats’ prospects in the 34 United States Senate (“Senate”) elections currently scheduled for November 8, 2022 – when they will defend their slender majority: a 50-50 tie broken by Vice President Kamala Harris.[1] As with the 2021-22 gubernatorial elections, this is a view from 30,000 feet: what the “fundamentals” say about how likely it is Democrats continue to control the Senate in January 2023.

“Fundamentals” are the sum of…

  • State partisan lean (using my 3W-RDM)
  • Estimated incumbency advantage (see below)
  • National partisan lean, measured by the “generic ballot” question: some variation of “If the election for were held today, would you vote for the Democratic candidate, the Republican candidate, or some other candidate?”

To estimate incumbency advantage in Senate elections, I first calculated an “expected margin of victory” for the Democratic nominee in the 35 such elections held in 2020, the 35 held in 2018 and the 34 held in 2016. “Expected margin of victory” is state 3W-RDM plus the difference between the Democratic percentage and Republican percentage of all Senate votes cast in each election cycle:

2020 = D-1.9 percentage points (“points”)

2018 = D+9.9 points

2016 = D+0.9 points

For 2020 elections, I…

  • Used results from the Georgia Senate runoff elections
  • Used number of votes cast for all Republican candidates, for all Democratic candidates and for all third-party candidates in the Louisiana Senate “jungle primary”[2] held on Election Day
  • Treated Libertarian nominee Ricky Dale Harrington, Jr. as “Other” in the Arkansas Senate race, despite no Democratic nominee

For 2018 elections, I…

For 2016 elections, I…

After subtracting actual margin from “expected” margin, I calculated three averages of these differences within each election year:

  1. Races with Democratic incumbents
  2. Races with Republican incumbents
  3. Open-seat races

Within each biennial election cycle, then, incumbency advantage for Democratic Senate candidates is the first average minus the third average (D+17.0 in 2020, D+0.9 in 2018, D+6.5 in 2016), while Republican Senate incumbency advantage is the second average minus the third average (R+4.4, R+2.6, R+3.6). It is not clear why Republican Senate incumbents have a more stable – and lower overall – estimated advantage than their Democratic counterparts.

The estimated effect of incumbency for each party heading into 2022 is this calculation using all 104 elections: +5.5 points for Democrats and +3.3 points for Republicans. If an incumbent has served less than a full four-year term – for example, Democrats Mark Kelly and Raphael Warnock won special elections in 2020 while Democrat Alex Padilla was appointed to the Senate seat vacated by Harris, and will face reelection in 2022 – I multiply incumbency advantage by approximate percentage of term served.

**********

Turning to the elections themselves, I mimic the 2021-22 gubernatorial elections post by exploring three different scenarios:

  • Democrats win national House vote by 3.5 points, as current polls suggest
  • Democrats and Republicans split national House vote, assuming a sharp break by undecideds toward the out party
  • Republicans win national House vote by 3.5 points, in line with recent elections

Election data – unless otherwise specified – come from Dave Leip’s invaluable website.

2022 Senate elections – 14 Democratic incumbents/open seats:

NameStateRun 20223W-RDMINCNat LeanTotalLast marginFirst elected/apptd
Brian SchatzHIYes29.05.53.538.051.3%2012
     034.5  
     -3.531.0  
Patrick LeahyVTYes28.95.53.537.928.2%1974
     034.4  
     -3.530.9  
Chris Van HollenMDYes26.25.53.535.225.2%2016
     031.7  
     -3.528.2  
Alex PadillaCAYes24.91.83.530.22021
     0.026.7  
     -3.523.2  
Chuck SchumerNYYes20.25.53.529.243.4%1998
     0.025.7  
     -3.522.2  
Richard BlumenthalCTYes13.95.53.522.928.6%2010
     0.018.4  
     -3.515.9  
Patty MurrayWAYes13.75.53.522.718.0%1992
     0.019.2  
     -3.515.7  
Tammy DuckworthILYes13.35.53.522.315.1%2016
     0.018.8  
     -3.515.3  
Ron WydenORYes10.15.53.519.123.3%1996
     0.015.6  
     -3.512.1  
Michael BennetCOYes5.75.53.514.75.7%2009
     0.011.2  
     -3.57.7  
Maggie HassanNHYes1.25.53.510.20.1%2016
     0.06.7  
     -3.53.2  
Catherine Cortez-MastoNVYes-0.55.53.58.52.4%2016
     0.05.0  
     -3.51.5  
Mark KellyAZYes-6.11.83.5-0.82.4%2020
     0.0-4.3  
     -3.5-7.8  
Raphael WarnockGAYes-6.51.83.5-1.22.1%2020
     0.0-4.7  
     -3.5-8.2  

After losing nine Senate seats in 2014, Democrats are only defending 14 seats in 2022, and they are on very favorable turf to do so. Not only did Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden Jr. win all of these states in 2020, their average partisan lean is D+12.4 – D+15.6 if you exclude trending-Democratic-but-still-Republican-leaning Arizona and Georgia. Moreover, not a single Democratic incumbent is retiring, reflecting confidence they will retain their majority.

Ten of these 14 incumbents – Senate President pro tempore Pat Leahy of Vermont, aiming for a ninth Senate term at the age of 82, and those in Hawaii, Maryland, California, New York, Connecticut, Washington, Illinois, Oregon and Colorado – are heavy favorites to win reelection; even if Republicans have a monster night in 2022 – winning the national House vote by an astonishing 7.0 points – and even Michael Bennet of Colorado would still be a 7-3 favorite.

That leaves four remotely vulnerable seats. Going in reverse order of retention likelihood, we find two swing-state incumbent Democrats seeking a second term: Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Catherine Cortez-Masto of Nevada. Even in a relatively pro-Republican environment, both would be moderately favored – likely winning by low single digits. The wild card in New Hampshire is popular Republican Governor Chris Sununu, who, despite being a safe bet to win reelection in 2022, is being heavily recruited to run against Hassan, herself a former governor. Hassan won by just 1,017 votes in 2016, defeating first-term Republican Kelly Ayotte. Sununu’s entry would make this race a pure toss-up – an epic battle of political heavyweights. In Nevada, meanwhile, former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who lost the 2018 gubernatorial election by just 4.1 points in a strong Democratic year, is reportedly gearing up to run. Laxalt, like Sununu, is the son of a former governor, making him a potentially formidable opponent.

History and “fundamentals,” finally, suggest Kelly and Warnock are moderate underdogs for reelection, especially if we only credit them with one-third the estimated incumbency advantage. Even in the unlikely event Democrats re-run their 2020 turnout, and their opponents are weakened – either distracted by the ongoing Arizona 2020 ballot “audit” or lacking election experience, like former National Football League and University of Georgia Herschel Walker – both men are toss-ups at best. That all said, the worst-case scenario is that they only have a 1-in-6 chance of winning – equivalent to a single number coming up on a fair die roll.

Bottom line: Democrats will lose between zero and four Senate seats, with one-to-three likeliest.

2022 Senate elections – 20 Republican incumbents/open seats:

NameStateRun 20223W-RDMINCNat LeanTotalLast marginFirst elected/apptd
Pat ToomeyPANo-2.30.03.51.2N/A
     0-2.3  
     -3.5-5.8  
Ron JohnsonWI???-2.4-3.33.5-2.23.4%2010
     0-5.7  
     -3.5-9.2  
Marco RubioFLYes-5.5-3.33.5-5.37.7%2010
     0-8.8  
     -3.5-12.3  
Richard BurrNCNo-5.80.03.5-2.3N/A
     0.0-5.8  
     -3.5-9.3  
Rob PortmanOHNo-9.80.03.5-6.3N/A
     0.0-9.8  
     -3.5-13.3  
Chuck GrassleyIA???-9.8-3.33.5-9.624.4%1980
     0.0-13.1  
     -3.5-16.6  
Lisa MurkowskiAKYes-15.8-3.33.5-15.632.7%2002
     0.0-19.1  
     -3.5-22.6  
Tim ScottSCYes-15.9-3.33.5-15.723.6%2013
     0.0-19.2  
     -3.5-22.7  
Roy BluntMONo-19.00.03.5-15.52.8%2010
     0.0-19.0  
     -3.5-22.5  
Todd YoungINYes-19.6-3.33.5-19.49.7%2016
     0.0-22.9  
     -3.5-26.4  
Jerry MoranKSYes-21.3-3.33.5-21.129.9%2010
     0.0-24.6  
     -3.5-28.1  
John KennedyLAYes-22.3-3.33.5-22.121.3%2016
     0.0-25.6  
     -3.5-29.1  
Mike LeeUTYes-27.6-3.33.5-27.441.1%2010
     0.0-30.9  
     -3.5-34.4  
Richard ShelbyALNo-29.20.03.5-25.7N/A
     0.0-29.2  
     -3.5-32.7  
John ThuneSDYes-29.6-3.33.5-29.443.7%2004
     0.0-32.9  
     -3.5-36.4  
Rand PaulKYNo-30.3-3.33.5-30.114.6%2010
     0.0-33.6  
     -3.5-37.1  
John BoozmanARYes-30.3-3.33.5-30.123.6%2010
     0.0-33.6  
     -3.5-37.1  
Mike CrapoIDYes-34.8-3.33.5-34.638.4%1998
     0.0-38.1  
     -3.5-41.6  
John HoevenNDYes-35.4-3.33.5-35.261.5%2010
     0.0-38.7  
     -3.5-42.2  
James LankfordOKYes-37.8-3.33.5-37.643.2%2014
     0.0-41.1  
     -3.5-44.6  

Like Democrats, Republicans are defending Senate seats on extremely favorable turf: the average partisan lean of these 20 states is R+20.2, but take away the swing/lean Republican states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Florida, and it jumps to R+24.3. Which makes all the more puzzling why six Republican Senators have already announced plans not to seek reelection in 2022 – and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and seven-termer Chuck Grassley of Iowa have not yet announced either way. It is a truism that an early wave of retirements by elected officials of one party presages an electoral walloping for that party – but in this case that is the Republicans, who only need to net one seat in what should be a good year for Republicans to win back the Senate.

For all that, though, I anticipate easy Republican wins in Oklahoma, North Dakota, Idaho, Arkansas, Kentucky, South Dakota, Utah, Louisiana, Kansas, Indiana and South Carolina. And as much drama as former president Donald J. Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell may cause in the Republican Senate primary in Alabama – where Democrat-turned-Republican Richard Shelby is retiring after six terms – the Republican nominee is still heavily favored to win. And we should probably add R+9.8 Iowa to this list, especially if Grassley runs for reelection.

Which brings us to two wild-card races: Lisa Murkowski’s reelection bid in Alaska and the open seat left by Roy Blunt’s retirement in Missouri. Murkowski – seeking her fourth full term in office – would normally be a shoo-in to win reelection in R+15.8 Alaska. However, Alaska will use a “jungle primary” for the first time in 2022 – and Murkowski, who has drawn the ire of Trump and his allies for her relatively moderate voting record, will face a stiff challenge from Republican Kelly Tshibaka, a former commissioner of the state Department of Administration. If Murkowski finishes in the top two, she would likely prevail in the runoff. But if the runoff is between, say, Tshibaka and Independent 2020 Senate nominee Al Gross – anything is possible.

In Missouri, meanwhile, the spanner in the works is former governor Eric Greitens, who resigned amid criminal clouds in June 2018 – then announced his Senate candidacy on March 22, 2021. Blunt only won reelection by 2.8 points in 2016 – a relatively neutral year – so despite Missouri being R+19.0, Greitens as the GOP nominee could make this race a toss-up. Possibly. Maybe.

On balance, however, Republicans are still more likely than not to win all 15 of these seats. And the “fundamentals” suggest they should also be favored to retain the seat being vacated by Rob Portman in R+9.8 Ohio, although the announcement by Ohio House Member Tim Ryan that he is running for the Democratic nomination decreases that probability to perhaps “only” 2-1.

Tim Ryan may be the only Democrat who could win an open Senate seat in Ohio in 2022.

Similar hope accrues to the recent announcement by Florida House Member Val Demings that she will seek the Democratic Senate nomination against two-term Republican Marco Rubio. Florida has drifted from being a true swing state to one 5.5 points more Republican than the nation as a whole, and Rubio will have the advantages of incumbency and (probably) a pro-Republican environment. Nonetheless, Demings has an expanding national profile after reportedly being on Biden’s vice-presidential short list and serving as a House Manager in Trump’s first impeachment trial. Thus, like Ryan in Ohio, a Demings nomination likely reduces the odds to “only” 2-1 against.

Could Val Demings defeat two-term Republican Marco Rubio in Florida in 2022?

This brings us, finally, to the three most winnable elections for Democrats according to the fundamentals: North Carolina, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Despite being 5.8 points more Republican than the nation as a whole, North Carolina – where three-term Senator Richard Burr is retiring – poses a strong pickup opportunity for Democrats (even in a bad year for them overall) because of what will likely be a messy and chaotic nomination process. While this could happen on the Democratic side, where former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley is an early front-runner, I argue fear of losing the Senate makes them more likely to unite early around Beasley or some other candidate.

If Johnson seeks a third term in 2022, the combination of incumbency, Wisconsin’s Republican drift and a likely pro-Republican environment makes him something like a 3-1 favorite. But if he does not run, this race is much closer – though still far from a likely Democratic pickup. One problem is a lack of star power on the Democratic side – and no clear signal from Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes whether he will run for the Senate or seek reelection. Even then, this race would begin as a toss-up.

And, just as in 2020, control of the Senate may come down to Pennsylvania, where Pat Toomey is retiring after two terms – and two very narrow victories (2.0 points in 2010, 1.4 points in 2016). Effectively a toss-up, this is the Democrats’ best chance to pick up a state – especially if Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman wins the nomination, though state representative Malcolm Kenyatta – a young, openly-gay, black progressive – could drive base Democratic turnout.

Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman could join fellow Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey in the Senate in January 2023.

As could State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta

Bottom line: There is no obvious Republican loss, only good-to-solid opportunities in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Wisconsin; less-good opportunities in Florida and Ohio and hard-to-decipher long shots in Alaska and Missouri. These races effectively come down to a battle between historic trends – which suggest Republicans should win all of these races – vs. Republican division/Democratic unity – giving Democrats a realistic shot at winning from one to five seats. This suggests a practical pick-up range for Democrats of zero-to-three seats.

Overall outlook. The fundamentals – a Republican-leaning map (median 2022 Senate election = R+6.5 state), a rough balance in incumbency and what should be a pro-Republican environment – say Democrats have an uphill battle to retain the Senate in 2022. Democrats have two seats more likely than not to flip – Arizona, Georgia – and two other vulnerable seats – Nevada and New Hampshire, while the best Democratic pickups opportunities – Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio – still lean Republican. That said, Democrats have no open seats, while Republicans have at least six, which historically signals Democratic strength. And Democratic candidate recruitment has strongly outclassed that of Republicans – who would apparently rather fight proxy Trump-McConnell battles than nominate strong candidates.

In short, anything from Democrats losing a net four seats to Democrats gaining six seats is broadly plausible…though a range of a net loss of three to a net gain of three is as narrow as I am willing to go at this point. Make of it what you will that the midpoint of this range is status quo—and continued Democratic control of the Senate.

Until next time…please be safe and healthy – and if you not already done so, please get vaccinated against COVID-19!


[1] Two Independents – Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont – caucus with Democrats.

[2] All candidates run in same election regardless of party; if no candidate tops 50%, top two finishers advance to runoff

A Wicked Early Look At Governor’s Races in 2021 and 2022

In a recent post, I assessed it was fairly likely Republicans regain control of the United States House of Representatives (“House”) in 2022. In this post, I turn my attention to the two gubernatorial elections to be held in 2021 (New Jersey, Virginia) and the 36 gubernatorial elections to be held in 2022. My goal is to provide the view from 30,000 feet: what the “fundamentals” in each race reveal about the overall partisan landscape—and how likely it is Democrats cut into the current 27-23 Republican gubernatorial advantage.

“Fundamentals” are the sum of three values:

  1. State partisan lean, measured using my three-year-weighted relative Democratic margin (“3W-RDM”), or 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. For updated 3W-RDM following the 2020 presidential election, see here.
  2. Estimated incumbency advantage (incumbent office-holders tend to receive a higher percentage of the vote than an open-seat candidate of the same party).
  3. National partisan lean, measured 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?”)

**********

To estimate incumbency advantage in gubernatorial elections, I first calculated an “expected margin of victory” for the Democratic nominee in the 14 gubernatorial elections in 2019 (3[2]) and 2020 (11) and the 38 gubernatorial elections in 2017 (2) and 2018 (36); New Hampshire and Vermont elect governors every two years. I had previously estimated the effect of gubernatorial incumbency using two full cycles, but I decided to keep these calculations in line with those for Senate incumbency (last three cycles: 2016, 2018, 2020) as possible.

“Expected margin of victory” is state 3W-RDM plus the difference between the Democratic percentage and Republican percentage of all gubernatorial votes cast in each two-year period:

2019-20 = D-7.0 percentage points (“points”)

2017-18 = D+3.5 points

After subtracting actual margin from “expected” margin, I calculated three averages of these differences within each election year:

  1. Races with Democratic incumbents
  2. Races with Republican incumbents
  3. Open-seat races

Within each two-year election cycle, then, the effect of incumbency for Democratic candidates for governor is the first average minus the third average (D+23.3 in 2019-20, D+2.0 in 2017-18), while the Republican advantage is the second average minus the third average (R+10.9, R+17.3). And the estimated effect of incumbency for each party is this calculation using all 52 elections: +10.4 points for Democrats and +13.9 points for Republicans. If an incumbent has served less than a full four-year term –  as Rhode Island’s Democratic Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee has since Democratic Governor Gina Raimondo was sworn in as Secretary of Commerce – I multiply incumbency advantage by the percentage of term served, using an approximation of 50% for McKee.

The effect of incumbency for gubernatorial elections remains very strong: heading into the 2019-20 cycle it was D+5.7 and R+8.5 (albeit based on 104 elections over eight years).

**********

We now turn to the elections themselves…and immediately face the problem of estimating partisan lean as of November 2022. In 2022 House elections post, I estimated that the current partisan lean is Dem+3.5, though with an average of 14.3% of the electorate undecided or leaning toward third-party candidates. If the vote for third-party candidates is 1.5%, and true undecideds split 2-1 Republican, partisan lean is GOP+0.7. Even that latter number may be wishful thinking for Democrats – Democrats (in governor’s races, anyway) led 3.5 points in 2018, the last time a newly-elected president – in this case Republican Donald J. Trump – faced a first midterm election.

To account for this uncertainty, we explore three different scenarios in 2019-20:

  • Democrats win national House vote by 3.5 points, as current polls suggest
  • Democrats and Republicans split national House vote, after a sharp break by undecideds toward the out party
  • Republicans win national House vote by 3.5 points, in line with recent elections

Election data – unless otherwise specified – come from Dave Leip’s invaluable website.

2021 gubernatorial elections (November 2):

NameStateRun 20213W-RDMINCNat LeanTotalLast marginFirst elected
Phil MurphyNJYes12.010.43.525.914.2%2017
     022.4  
     -3.518.9  
Ralph NorthamVANo3.903.57.4N/AN/A
     03.9  
     -3.50.4  

In New Jersey, Democratic Governor Phil Murphy seeks reelection against Republican Jack Ciattarelli. New Jersey’s strong Democratic lean and incumbency advantage suggest Murphy will cruise to reelection irrespective of the national political environment. Two publicly-available polls of this election, conducted in May 2021 by B/C level pollsters, show Murphy ahead by an average 50-31%, which aligns with a pro-Republican environment.

In Virginia, Democratic Governor Ralph Northam is limited to one term, so former Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe will face Republican Glenn Youngkin. Virginia has been trending sharply Democratic, but without the advantages of “direct” incumbency (I am not sure how to assess “formers”), McAuliffe is only modestly favored to win back the job he left in 2018. So long as the environment is pro-Democrat or neutral, McAuliffe should prevail by 3-8 points…but if it shifts pro-Republican, this race becomes a pure toss-up. Two publicly-available polls of this election, conducted in June 2021 by B/C level pollsters, show McAuliffe ahead by an average 47-44%, which aligns with a neutral environment.

California Governor Gavin Newson will also face a recall election sometime in 2021. It is actually two elections. The first is a “yes” or “no” on Newsom. If “yes” prevails, Newsom remains governor. If “no” prevails, Newsom is booted and voters then choose from a slate of candidates excluding Newsom. Based solely on the recent improvement in California’s finances, I expect Newsom to survive the first vote relatively easily.

Bottom line: While Virginia could be close, Democrats are unlikely to lose any governor’s mansions in 2021.

2022 gubernatorial elections – 16 Democratic incumbents/open seats (November 8):

NameStateRun 20223W-RDMINCNat LeanTotalLast marginFirst elected
David IgeHINo29.00.03.532.5N/A
     029.0  
     -3.525.5  
Gavin NewsomCA???24.910.43.538.823.9%2018
     035.3  
     -3.531.8  
Andrew CuomoNY???20.210.43.534.123.4%2010
     031.6  
     -3.527.1  
Dan McKeeRIYes16.65.23.525.32021
     0.021.8  
     -3.518.3  
Ned LamontCTYes13.910.43.527.83.2%2018
     0.024.3  
     -3.520.8  
J.B. PritzkerILYes13.310.43.526.215.7%2018
     0.023.7  
     -3.519.2  
Kate BrownORYes10.10.03.513.6N/A
     0.010.1  
     -3.56.6  
Michelle Lujan GrishamNMYes6.310.43.520.214.4%2018
     0.016.7  
     -3.513.2  
Jared PolisCOYes5.710.43.519.610.6%2018
     0.016.1  
     -3.512.6  
Janet MillsMEYes4.510.43.518.47.7%2018
     0.014.9  
     -3.511.4  
Tim WalzMNYes1.810.43.515.711.4%2018
     0.012.2  
     -3.58.7  
Steve SisolakNVYes-0.510.43.513.44.1%2018
     0.09.9  
     -3.56.4  
Gretchen WhitmerMIYes-0.710.43.513.29.6%2018
     0.09.7  
     -3.56.2  
Tom WolfPANo-2.30.03.51.2N/A
     0.0-2.3  
     -3.5-5.8  
Tony EversWIYes-2.410.43.511.51.1%2018
     0.08.0  
     -3.54.5  
Laura KellyKSYes-21.310.43.5-7.45.1%2018
     0.0-10.9  
     -3.5-14.4  

With the exception of Kansas, these are either strong Democratic states, Democratic-leaning states or swing states, minimizing obvious losses; the average partisan lean is D+7.4, D+9.4 without Kansas. And even if Newsom loses the recall vote, Democrats are still favored to regain that governor’s mansion, along with those in Hawaii, New York, Connecticut and Illinois. One fly in the ointment in New York is whether embattled Governor Andrew Cuomo seeks a fourth term, though I expect the Democratic nominee to prevail easily if he does not.

Democratic incumbents are also favored in New Mexico, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada and Michigan – as is the Democratic nominee in the seat being vacated by Oregon Governor Kate Brown. However, it is unlikely Mills, Sisolak and Whitmer will win by more than even their relatively modest margins in 2018. Regardless of the margins, though, Democrats are favored to retain 13 of the 16 governor’s mansion they will defend in 2022.

That leaves – in reverse order of retention likelihood – Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Kansas. Tony Evers benefitted from a strong pro-Democratic environment and unpopular incumbent Scott Walker seeking a third term in 2018, yet still only won by 1.1 points in Republican-drifting Wisconsin. Incumbency makes him a narrow favorite to win again; the 4.5 points suggested by a pro-Republican environment feels about right. Tom Wolf is term-limited after defeating a Republican incumbent in 2014 by nearly 10 points, then winning reelection four years later by nearly 17 points. Pennsylvania, like Wisconsin, is drifting Republican, and it has a history – albeit broken by Wolf – of  flipping its governor’s mansion between the two parties every eight years. Thus, the fundamentals suggest Republicans are modest favorites to win it back in 2022 – unless Democratic front-runner Josh Shapiro, currently state Attorney General, secures the nomination against a divided and little-known Republican field. Finally, Laura Kelly – who won an open gubernatorial election in Kansas in 2018 against a very unpopular opponent in Kris Kobach, succeeding even more unpopular Republican governor Sam Brownback – is a solid underdog based on the fundamentals.

Pennsylvania Attorney General is likely Democrats’ best chance to retain the commonwealth’s governor’s mansion.

Bottom line: Democrats will likely lose one, and possibly two or three, of the 16 governor’s mansions they will defend in 2022.

2022 gubernatorial elections – 20 Republican incumbents/open seats (November 8):

NameStateRun 20223W-RDMINCNat LeanTotalLast marginFirst elected
Phil ScottVT???28.9-13.93.515.041.1%2016
     011.5  
     -3.58.0  
Larry HoganMDNo26.20.03.529.7N/A
     026.2  
     -3.522.7  
Charlie BakerMA???26.1-13.93.515.733.5%2014
     012.2  
     -3.58.7  
Chris SununuNH???1.2-13.93.5-9.231.8%2016
     0.0-12.7  
     -3.5-16.2  
Ron DeSantisFLYes-5.5-13.93.5-15.90.4%2018
     0.0-19.4  
     -3.5-22.9  
Doug DuceyAZNo-6.10.03.5-2.6N/A
     0.0-6.1  
     -3.5-9.6  
Brian KempGAYes-6.4-13.93.5-16.81.4%2018
     0.0-20.3  
     -3.5-23.8  
Kim ReynoldsIAYes-9.8-13.93.5-20.28.7%2017
     0.0-23.7  
     -3.5-27.2  
Mike DeWineOHYes-9.8-13.93.5-20.23.7%2018
     0.0-23.7  
     -3.5-27.2  
Greg AbbottTXYes-12.0-13.93.5-22.413.0%2014
     0.0-25.9  
     -3.5-29.4  
Mike DunleavyAKYes-15.8-13.93.5-26.27.0%2018
     0.0-29.7  
     -3.5-33.2  
Henry McMasterSCYes-15.9-13.93.5-26.38.0%2017
     0.0-29.8  
     -3.5-33.3  
Pete RickettsNENo-25.10.03.5-21.6N/A
     0.0-25.1  
     -3.5-28.6  
Bill LeeTNYes-27.2-13.93.5-37.621.0%2018
     0.0-41.1  
     -3.5-44.6  
Kay IveyALYes-29.2-13.93.5-39.619.1%2017
     0.0-43.1  
     -3.5-46.6  
Kristi NoemSDYes-29.6-13.93.5-40.03.4%2018
     0.0-43.5  
     -3.5-47.0  
Asa HutchinsonARNo-30.30.03.5-26.8N/A
     0.0-30.3  
     -3.5-33.8  
Brad LittleIDYes-34.8-13.93.5-45.221.6%2018
     0.0-48.7  
     -3.5-52.2  
Kevin StittOKYes-37.8-13.93.5-48.212.1%2018
     0.0-51.7  
     -3.5-55.2  
Mark GordonWYYes-47.5-13.93.5-57.939.6%2018
     0.0-61.4  
     -3.5-64.9  

Like Democrats, Republicans are defending governor’s mansion on very favorable turf -with four glaring exceptions in New England and Maryland; the average partisan lean of these 20 states is R+13.0, but take away the four swing/strong Democratic states, and it jumps to R+21.4.

And while many of the margins in the table above seem ludicrous – I suspect incumbency advantage dissipates when your party dominates – Republican governors are heavy favorites to win reelection in Tennessee, Alabama, South Dakota, Idaho and Wyoming, while holding onto open governor’s mansions in Nebraska and Arkansas. Henry McMaster in South Carolina, Mike Dunleavy in Alaska and Kim Reynolds in Iowa should also win reelection, perhaps hitting low double-digits in what could be a good Republican year.

Assuming Greg Abbott seeks a third term as governor of Texas, he should win reelection – if he can survive primary challenges from his right. It is unlikely the collapse of Texas’ power grid earlier this year will impact voting. The same is true of Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, who only defeated Democrat Richard Cordray by 3.7 points in 2018, in a state nearly 10 points more Republican than the nation as a whole.

Similarly, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams by just 1.4 points in 2018, albeit in a very Democratic year. IF she runs again, as she has strongly hinted, and if Kemp himself survives a primary challenge, this is a sleeper pickup opportunity for Democrats.

Will former Georgia House minority leader Stacey Abrams run for governor again in 2022?

Another sleeper pickup opportunity is Arizona, where Governor Doug Ducey is term-limited. Like Georgia, Arizona both voted for Democrat Joseph R. Biden, Jr. in 2020 and in the space of two elections went from two Republican United States Senators (“Senators”) to Democratic ones. Just as Ohio, Iowa and Florida are becoming more Republican, Arizona and Georgia are becoming more Democratic – or, rather, less Republican. A Democratic nominee like state Secretary of State Katie Hobbs would still be at best a slight underdog, as would be Abrams.

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs could be the Democratic nominee for governor in Arizona in 2022.

Speaking of Florida, Ron DeSantis – who only won the open governor’s mansion in 2018 by 0.4 points – is clearly using a solid reelection in 2022 to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. And, despite coming very close in recent elections, a Democrat has not been elected governor of Florida since 1994. As a Republican running for reelection in a state 5.5 points more Republican than the nation as whole in what could be a good Republican year, DeSantis should win easily. And yet…those recent narrow margins – especially the 1.1-point margin in the strong Republican year of 2014 give me pause, and suggest this should be in the sleeper column with Arizona and Georgia.

That leaves Maryland and the three New England states, where moderate or center-right Republicans continue to win gubernatorial elections. Maryland, where Larry Hogan is term-limited, is by far the strongest opportunity for Democrats to win back a governor’s mansion in 2022: even in a strong Republican year, a generic Democratic nominee is still heavily favored. As for the three New England states, the only question is whether Charlie Baker in Massachusetts, Chris Sununu in New Hampshire and/or Phil Scott in Vermont seek reelection. Sununu is being heavily recruited to run against Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan; if he runs, the gubernatorial election becomes a pure toss-up. Moreover, if Baker and/or Scott – whose average margin of victory in their previous elections was 37.3 points – do not seek reelection, the Democratic nominee would be heavily favored to win. If either does run, though, he would be the favorite – though Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey could make things very interesting for Baker.

Will state Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat, be the next governor of Massachusetts?

Bottom line: On paper, Republicans are very likely to lose one governor’s mansion (Maryland), could easily lose another one-to-three (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont) under the right circumstances, and could see another three become more competitive (Arizona, Florida, Georgia). Outside of Maryland, Republican success hinges upon whether incumbents seek reelection in New England, how right-wing primary challenges fare and just how Republican 2022 proves to be – if it is at all.

Overall outlook. The bad news for Democrats is that unless they maintain high levels of voting enthusiasm, Republicans could do very well in 2022 – though not in 2021. The good news for Democrats is that they have more overall opportunities. Based solely on the fundamentals, they have at most three vulnerable seats – they are a heavy underdog in Kansas, a slight underdog in Pennsylvania, and only a slight favorite in Wisconsin – while Republicans could have anywhere from one to seven (though keep an eye on Texas). Realistically, however, Democrats are likely to lose one or two of their governor’s mansions while netting one-to-three, putting them somewhere between a net loss of one and a net gain of two. All things considered, though, what amounts to a draw could be considered a win for Democrats in 2022.

Until next time…please be safe and healthy – and if you not already done so, please get vaccinated against COVID-19!


[1] Most recent election weighted “3,” 2nd-most recent “2,” 3rd-most recent “1”

[2] For the 2019 Louisiana gubernatorial election, I used data from the runoff election held November 16, 2019.

How Likely Is Republican Control of the U.S. House In 2022?

On March 31, 2021, nearly five months after Election Day 2020, Democrat Rita Hart finally conceded to Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District (“CD”), dropping her challenge to her six-vote loss. This was a net win for the Republicans, as United States House of Representatives (“House”) Member Dave Loebsack, a Democrat, had not sought reelection to an 8th term.

Overall, Democrats lost a net of 13 House seats relative to Election Day 2018, going from a 235-200 majority to a 222-213 majority. This double-digit seat loss occurred despite Democrats winning a 3.1-percentage-point (“point”) majority in all votes cast for U.S. House – 50.8 to 47.7%; notably, this was a 5.5-point decline from 2018

Returning to 2020, though, political observers were shocked at the number of House seats Democrats lost, especially because they won the presidency and netted three United States seats, giving them a 50-50 tie broken by Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris. Anyone following this website since at least June 2017, however, should not have been at all surprised.

Figure 1, using data from the 26 House elections from 1970 (vs. 1968) to 2020 (vs. 2018), shows that change in national House vote percentage accounts for an astonishing (for social science) 83% of the variance in House seat gain/loss. Reassuringly, the ordinary least squares (“OLS”) regression fitted to the data crosses the y-axis very close to the origin: a 0-point change in vote percentage essentially equates to no change in seats, which makes intuitive sense.

Figure 1: Change in % Democratic of Total House Vote vs. Net Change in Democratic House Seats, 1970-2020

Removing the 2018-20 data point from the OLS regression, suggests a drop in the Democratic share of the total House vote of 5.5 points yields an estimated loss of…

Dem Seat Change = 3.21 * (-5.5) – 1.19 = -18.8

Based on election data from the previous 50 years, Democrats should have lost 19 seats I 2020, with a 95% confidence interval (“CI”) of 18-20 seats. Yes, Democratic leaders expected to pick up seats, but history presents a compelling counter-narrative: Democrats were extremely lucky to maintain their House majority, however slender.

**********

But what about 2022, the first midterm election of the Administration of Democrat Joseph R. Biden, Jr., when Republicans only need to net five seats to regain the majority? Figure 2 shows how poorly the first House elections after a new president is elected go for that president’s party – and getting worse over time. Granted, there have only been nine such elections starting with the 1962 midterms of Democratic President John F. Kennedy. Still, excepting the first post-9/11 midterm election – when Republicans under President George W. Bush in 2022 gained eight House seats – the party controlling the White House has lost an average of 53 House seats in the last 30 years. The overall average since 1962 is a net loss of 24 House seats…which would give Republicans a 237-198 edge going into 2023; the median is only -15, which would give Republicans a 228-207 edge.

Figure 2: 1st Midterm Seat Loss by Newly-Elected White House Party, 1962-2018

Based on the OLS regression equation in Figure 2, meanwhile, Democrats would be expected to lose 47 seats in 2022, dropping them to a 175-260 minority. However, because there are only nine data points, there is a great deal of “wobble” in this estimate – the 95% CI is a nonsensical -4,002 to +3,909.

In other words, all we really know from these nine 1st-term midterm elections is that anything between a loss of 61 seats and a gain of eight seats is historically plausible, with something in the 15-25 loss range most plausible.

Maybe.

**********

This brings us full circle back to my model…and the question of what the margin in the total House vote will be in 2022. A little algebra reveals that to maintain a slender 218-217 House majority going into 2023, Democrats need to win the total House vote by at least 2.1 points – and likely at least 3.1 points (no net change) to account for a +/-1 seat 95% CI.

For comparison, political scientist Alan Abramowitz just published a model of net Democratic House seat gain. The two independent variables are 1) national House vote total (as opposed to change from previous election) and 2) number of House seats currently occupied by the president’s party. Those two variables account for 83% of the variance, as much as my single independent variable does. That said, Abramowitz’s model uses data from 1946-2018, giving him an additional 11 data points: 37 vs. 26. According to this model, Democrats would need to win the national House vote by about 6 points to maintain control, which equates to an increase of about 2.9 points from 2020.

Neither model is wrong, per sé. We are both trying to model a relatively infrequent occurrence while zeroing in a very precise outcome – the difference of a few seats – leading to the magnification of what really are small differences in outcomes. A 3-point lead and a 6-point lead are relatively close, and we agree Democrats have an uphill battle to retain the House, even without taking into account changes in CD lines due to reapportionment following the 2020 Census.

Technically, Abramowitz models Democratic lead on the “generic ballot question,” a variation of the poll question “If the election in your CD were held today, would you vote for the Democrat, the Republican, or some other party – or not vote at all.”

I recently compiled the results of the 20 generic ballot polls released publicly in 2021 then used the following steps to calculate a weighted-adjusted polling average (“WAPA”):

  1. Adjust raw margin – Democratic % minus Republican % – for “pollster bias,” as calculated for 538.com Pollster Ratings. Essentially, this is how much the pollster missed the final margin, on average, in recent polls of the same race.
  2. Average adjusted margins by how far the poll was conducted from Election Day 2022 – using midpoint of poll field dates – and 538.com pollster quality.
    • Time weight: (677 – days to Election Day)/677
    • Pollster weight: Numeric value of letter grade (A+ = 4.3, A = 4.0, etc.) divided by 4.3.

For example, the most recent generic ballot poll was conducted by Quinnipiac University from May 18 to May 24, 2021; it shows Democrats leading 50-41%. Quinnipiac has a historic Democratic skew of 0.5 points, meaning that 9.0-point lead is effectively an 8.5-point lead. The field midpoint was May 21, 2021, or 536 days until November 8, 2022, giving the poll a time weight of (677-536)/677 = 0.208. Their A- rating equates to a 3.7/4.3 = 0.860 pollster weight. Overall, this adjusted Democratic lead of 8.5 points has a weight of 0.208 * 0.860 = 0.179 – which, while not especially high, is highest among the 20 polls.

The raw average of these 20 polls is Dem+4.1, though mean Democratic bias of 0.5 points means this average is effectively Dem+3.6. Two polls without a 538.com pollster rating/bias were clearly conducted on behalf of Republicans, one in early April by PEM Management Corporation and one in late February by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. I traditionally used 1.5 as the bias for such polls, but I chose to match the most Democratic leaning poll in the 20: 3.5 for RMG Research. I also somewhat arbitrarily assigned these polls a letter grade of C; overall average was B-.

The initial WAPA I calculated was Dem+3.9, though it treated the multiple polls from RMG Research (2), McLaughlin & Associates (3) and Echelon Insights (4) as statistically-independent, even though polls conducted by the same firm are likely related. I thus calculated a second WAPA, which was the pollster-quality-weighted average of the bias-adjusted, time-weighted WAPA for each pollster. Basically, it is WAPA adjusted for pollster. This value was Dem+3.1

Averaging these WAPAs yields my best estimate of the November 2022 generic ballot as of June 2021: Dem+3.5. This is astonishing because it means support for Democratic House candidates increased 0.4 points since November – when, historically, support for the “out party” should be increasing.

If, in fact, Democrats win the national House vote by 3.5 points in November 2022, I estimate they would gain 0.3 seats, albeit with a 95% CI of -4.1 to +4.8 – which means they would have approximately a 94% chance of retaining the House. The Abramowitz model, however, estimates a 9-seat loss in this scenario – losing the House in the process.

It is not at all clear, of course, how well a 3.5-point lead in June 2021 translates to actual voting in November 2022. My poli-sci-sense suggests this lead – fairly robust since January, mind you – will slowly fade over the next year-plus due to a traditional complacency on the part of infrequent voters, in this case Democrats who may reason that as long as Biden is president, they do not need to vote in 2022, and a renewed enthusiasm on the part of out-party voters. This differential in voting enthusiasm, I suspect, is what leads to lopsided out-party victories in midterm elections.

Another reason for extreme caution is that this Dem+3.5 margin equates to Democrats 44.6%, Republicans 41.1%, Other/Undecided 14.3%. If Other earns the same 1.5% it did in 2020, that leaves fully 12.8% of voters up for grabs. It is not unreasonable – given voting enthusiasm differences – they split 2-1 for Republicans: roughly 8.5-4.3. This would actually give Republicans a national House vote lead of 49.6-48.9% on Election Day, a Democratic vote decrease of 3.8 points and a loss of 13 House seats (+/-2), very close to the recent median of -15.

Of course, if those undecided voters split evenly, Democrats are back to +3.5; a break toward Democrats seems extremely unlikely. So, let’s split the difference: a Democratic national House vote lead of 1.4 points, which equates to a loss of 6.3 seats, albeit with a 3.1 to 9.5 95% CI, giving Democrats something like a 15-20% chance of retaining their majority. This is as close to a “forecast” as I am willing to come in June 2021.

The bottom line is this: Republicans are favored to win back the House in 2022, though whether extremely narrowly or lopsidedly is far from clear. Historic trends in 1st midterm elections – of which there are only nine since 1960 – suggest Democrats could lose anywhere from 15 to 47 seats. Models with more data points – though still only 26-37 – suggest the shift is likely to be much smaller, anywhere from Democrats essentially holding serve – even netting a seat – to a Republican seat gain in the low double-digits.

Basically, keep an eye on the generic ballot numbers – if they stay close to Democrats ahead 3-4 points, they could be on the verge of defying decades of recent political history. If it drops closer to even, or Republicans pull slightly ahead – it will be a long night for House Democrats on Election Day 2022.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy – and if you have not already been vaccinated against COVID-19, please do so!

Walter Mondale, Perry Mason and George Floyd

This is how I conclude the opening section of Chapter 1 of Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own (publication TBD):

I also learned that by 1920, Pennsylvania was the 2nd most common American state for the last name “Berger” (14%), behind only New York (23%),[i] which meant I had plenty of company for every lame “ham-Berger” joke I endured as a child. That said, one appeal of Perry Mason reruns for me was that Mason’s primary opponent, played by film noir stalwart William Talman, was District Attorney Hamilton Burger…get it?

Perry Mason, which aired from 1957 to 1966, makes multiple appearances in my book, both as a marker on my film noir “personal journey” and as a fondly-remembered part of my childhood:

My final memory of Robindale is a nasty upper respiratory ailment which kept me home multiple days in January 1979. I mostly watched my small black-and-white television in bed, at least when I was not making myself read the paperbacks—primarily In Search of… volumes—collected in a shoebox. I also listened to WIFI-92, hoping to hear one of my favorite songs at the time: Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?,” Nicolette Larson’s “Lotta Love” and The Bee Gees’ “Tragedy.” Mostly, though, I was waiting until 11:30—on weeknights—to watch Perry Mason on Channel 48, after which the station ended its broadcast day.[ii]

For some reason, my wife Nell and I did not watch the HBO Perry Mason prequel series, which debuted on June 21, 2020, when it originally aired. This past Saturday night, though, having just finished re-watching Sherlock with our younger daughter—who absolutely loved it—we queued up the first episode. We were immediately hooked—though we quickly decided its content was too mature even for our Riverdale– and Stranger-Things-obsessed daughter.

Nell and I were watching on the night of Monday, April 19, 2021 when I let out a squeal of delight when a character—a Yale-educated lawyer and aspiring district attorney—said his name was, you guessed it, “Hamilton Burger.”

A short while earlier, however, I was on the verge of tears.

Nell was scanning her iPhone, when she suddenly said, “Oh, Walter Mondale died. He was 93.”

**********

Late in 1982, I visited my best friend at his house in the Philadelphia suburb of Wynnewood. I do not know why I walked through his parents’ bedroom—to use a bathroom, maybe?—but on top of a dresser in that room was a recent copy of Time magazine, or perhaps Newsweek. I was drawn to a story featured on the cover about the emerging race for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination, then shaping up to be a battle between two liberal icons: Massachusetts United States Senator (“Senator”) Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy and former Vice President Walter “Fritz” Mondale, as well as Ohio Senator John Glenn, who possibly had the right stuff. Arguably, Kennedy had severely damaged Mondale’s chances to be reelected vice president four years earlier by unsuccessfully running against President Jimmy Carter for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination.

While I had followed the 1980 presidential campaign to some extent—jumping briefly on the bandwagon of Democratic California Governor Jerry Brown—I had not yet begun to focus on 1984. However, something about that article galvanized me toward Mondale. Perhaps I had never warmed to the idea of Ted Kennedy as president, making Mondale the obvious choice for a passionate young liberal. Perhaps it was that Mondale had recently been vice president, so it was his “turn.” Perhaps it was a vague memory of Mondale’s son Ted visiting Bala Cynwyd Middle School on April 18, 1980, during that year’s Pennsylvania presidential primary, to campaign for the Carter-Mondale ticket.[iii] As I note here, Barbara Bush, wife of the former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, had spoken to my fellow 8th graders and me the previous month.

Perhaps…I have no idea why.

At any rate, Kennedy announced in early December that he would not seek the nomination, after all. It is possible that this was the article I saw in Wynnewood that day.

At the time, our cable package had a kind of ticker-tape news channel. I began to watch—well, read—it regularly, waiting for the next Democrat to announce his candidacy. Joining Glenn and Mondale were former Florida Governor Reuben Askew, California Senator Alan Cranston, South Carolina Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson, Jr., and former South Dakota Senator George McGovern—the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee. Oh, and when I toured Yale University in late August 1983, there were signs advertising an address by a young Senator from Colorado named Gary Hart, who had worked on McGovern’s campaign. As intriguing as some of these candidates were, though, I never wavered in my support for Mondale. In fact, in my role as co-News-Editor of the Harriton High School Free Forum, I wrote the “meet the candidates” article on Mondale (and on Glenn, actually.)

I also schlepped this around senior year…

…and taped this to the cover of a school notebook, cementing me as “the Mondale guy” at the centrist-Republican-leaning Harriton.

It is not necessary to review the nomination battle beyond this: while Mondale dominated the February 20 Iowa caucuses, it was Hart—not Glenn—who finished a strong second. Nine days later, I raced home from Harriton to watch CNN’s coverage of that day’s New Hampshire primary—and the same video clip featuring ice sculptures of the candidates—only to be stunned by Hart’s 39%-29% victory over Mondale, with Glenn well back at 12% and Jackson at 6%. After two contests, it was essentially a three-person race between Mondale, Hart and Jackson—who won or tied in contests in Louisiana, Mississippi and Washington, DC.

It was a seesaw campaign, though it is possible this moment in a March 11 debate ultimately gave Mondale the nomination. For context, the original “Where’s the Beef?” ad follows.

As the April 10 Pennsylvania presidential primary approached, the Philadelphia area was dotted with Mondale and Hart lawn signs, with quite a few Jackson signs in the city itself. Mondale won solidly 45.1% to 33.3%, with Jackson earning 16.0%. About two months later, on June 5, Mondale effectively clinched the nomination by winning primaries in New Jersey and West Virginia.

By this point, I had taken a white pull-down window shade, scrawled MONDALE in large block letters on it using—something or other—and suspended it from one of the brick walls on our small patio. Naturally, I followed the chaotic selection process to be Mondale’s vice-presidential running mate, thrilling at the diversity of the choices, but concerned by the very public “audition” process. I was very excited when he chose New York member of the United States House of Representatives (“House”) Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman chosen for a major-party ticket.

If memory serves, I actually put on a coat and tie to watch the Democratic National Convention, which ran from July 16-19, 1984, in the Moscone Center in San Francisco, CA. I remembered Democrat Mario Cuomo being elected governor of New York two years earlier but, like most of the nation, I was not prepared for how electrifying his keynote address on the opening night of the convention was.

While writing this essay, I re-watched Cuomo’s speech.

Do yourself a favor, watch it yourself.

It is that good…and that prescient.

I also re-watched Mondale’s acceptance speech, which—after a slow start—was much better than I remembered. The only thing I had previously recalled from it was Mondale’s discussion of the need to raise taxes in order to bring down the massive federal budget deficits President Ronald Reagan’s fiscal policies had created.

“Mr. Reagan will raise taxes. So will I.

“He won’t tell you. I just did.”

This statement was an enormous political risk because of the “tax and spend” Democrat stereotype. And it only endeared him to me more.

Otherwise, Mondale appears resolute, experienced and clear-eyed, frequently flashing a surprisingly warm smile for a man unfairly criticized for lacking charisma.

The primary purpose of the convention was to unify a Democratic Party badly split by the months-long battle between Mondale, Hart and Jackson, one about to face a unified and well-organized Republican Party in November. It is striking that Cuomo never mentions Mondale or Ferraro by name—or any Democrat other than New Mexico House Member Mo Udall, who had spoken earlier that evening, and five former presidents, including Carter who watches in approval with his wife Roslyn—only obliquely mentioning them only at the end of his speech.

Did it work?

**********

The raison d’etre of the character first introduced by Erle Stanley Gardner in The Case of the Velvet Claws in 1933 was to defend persons whose guilt appeared obvious to the state but who were genuinely innocent: “the friendless and unjustly accused.” It is no accident Gardner founded The Court of Last Resort in 1940 to do in reality what Mason did in the fictional courtroom.

The HBO series provides an “origin story” for Mason, as well as for his indefatigable private secretary Della Street, private investigator Paul Drake (brilliantly reimagined as an African-American Los Angeles police officer) and Burger. It takes some time for all four to appear in the same scene as tenuous allies, but the wait is worth it.

What I always loved about Perry Mason, besides the actual whodunit and the brilliant courtroom scenes, was that as much as Mason and Burger are rivals, in the end both want not just to win, but to make sure the correct killer is identified. As irritated as he clearly is by Mason’s tactics, Burger is quick to realize when he has been beaten and the actual guilty party identified, who is then usually taken away by Lieutenant Tragg.

They both seek true justice, not merely fleeting victory. They are respectful opponents, not bitter enemies.

**********

The selection of Ferraro gave the Mondale campaign a much-needed jolt, but soon Ferraro was facing a barrage of questions about the finances of her husband John Zaccaro. In August, she held a marathon press conference which temporarily stemmed the tide of negative press.

A few weeks later, I began my freshman year at Yale University, where I became active in the College Democrats and other political organizations. It was through the latter I saw Ferraro speak in New Haven on September 8,[iv] despite what I later wrote on this card.

On September 30, I turned 18, meaning I was eligible to vote for the first time in the November 6 election. One week later, I watched—likely with my then-girlfriend on a common room television set—as Reagan stumbled badly in his first debate with Mondale. He appeared old, tired and very confused—and, once again, Mondale rallied in the polls. However, while Ferraro also did well against Vice President George H. W. Bush in their October 11 debate, Reagan rallied in the second and final presidential debate on October 21. In fact, the only line anyone remembers from either debate is a confident Reagan saying “I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth, and inexperience.”

Mondale laughs right along with the audience, even though he seems to know how devastating that moment is.

**********

Mondale was born in Ceylon, MN on January 5, 1928. An activist in Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and protégé of Hubert H. Humphrey, Mondale was elected state Attorney General in 1960. When Humphrey was sworn in as Vice President in January 1965, Mondale was appointed to fill his seat, serving until he himself became Vice President in January 1977.

On May 25, 2020, an unarmed African-American man named George Floyd died in Minneapolis, MN while a white police officer named Derek Chauvin kept his knee on his neck for nearly 10 minutes. This death—captured on video—inspired a summer of protests and calls for fundamental changes to our system of justice and policing. One day after Mondale—who had long since returned to his beloved Minnesota—died in Minneapolis, a jury in that city found Chauvin guilty on all three counts in the death of Floyd: manslaughter, third-degree murder and second-degree murder. It is highly unusual, to put it mildly, for a white police officer to be held accountable for the death of a civilian of color; this was a historic verdict.

In fact, just as I teared up when I heard the news of Mondale’s death, I felt a rush of emotion—relief mixed with jubilation—when I watched the verdict live on MSNBC. It is fitting it was announced while the nation mourned Mondale, a profoundly decent public servant who forcefully advocated for racial, gender and economic justice his entire career. It is also fitting Nell and I watched the final three of the eight Perry Mason episodes that same night, watching Mason complete the journey from bedraggled and cynical private investigator to indomitable fighter for justice.

**********

After casting my first-ever vote—and still one of my proudest—for the Mondale-Ferraro ticket on Tuesday, November 6, I had dinner with my then-girlfriend at a new restaurant called Audubon’s, a few blocks east of the main campus; the strike which closed down all of Yale’s dining halls for most of my first semester there was still in effect. We figured we would have plenty of time to settle into watch the returns by 8:30 pm or so, optimistic about Mondale’s chances to the very end.

But beginning around 7 pm, we watched in stunned disbelief on the television set in Audubon’s—or perhaps in windows as we hustled back to campus—as state after state after state was quickly called for Reagan. Before long the only question left was whether Mondale-Ferraro would win ANY state besides the District of Columbia. Minnesota did, finally, vote for its native son, but only by 3,761 votes. Nationally, Reagan-Bush beat Mondale-Ferraro 58.8-40.6%, winning 525 of 538 electoral votes. It was a humiliating and historic defeat.

Nell has since claimed responsibility for what happened on November 6—something about dumping beer cans she was drinking while under age in the trash bins behind Mondale’s house in Georgetown—but much larger forces were at play. Reagan had won election in 1980 by soundly defeating Carter, who himself had beaten Gerald Ford for reelection four years later. Ford only became president because he was vice president—having been appointed when Spiro Agnew resigned in October 1973—when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in August 1974. Nixon had himself beaten a Democratic Party badly divided in 1968 over President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Vietnam War policy and civil rights legislation. Johnson, finally, ascended to the presidency after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963.

That is five presidents in 20 years, after there had been only three presidents in the preceding 28 years. Voters, I think, desperately wanted continuity and stability in 1984, and with the economy seeming to recover strongly, they overwhelmingly awarded Reagan a second term.

Mondale returned to Minnesota until President William J. Clinton named him Ambassador to Japan in 1993. Nine years later, on October 25, 2002, Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash, just 11 days before he was to face election to a third term. Mondale, now 74 years old, was hastily named to run in his stead, losing to Republican Norm Coleman by 2.2 percentage points—a bittersweet end to a long and distinguished career.

As always, though, Mondale graciously shrugged off the loss and went back to private life. Six years later, Republican presidential nominee John McCain selected Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate, the first woman so named since Ferraro 24 years earlier. Eight years later, the Democratic presidential nominee was Hillary Clinton, the first woman so selected by a major party. Not of these three women became vice president or president, however.

It was only in November 2020 that a woman finally broke through: California Senator Kamala D. Harris, a Democrat, was elected Vice President to serve with President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. Mondale, happily, lived long enough to see her victory…and it is very apt that Vice President Harris was one of the last people Mondale called before his death.

Rest in peace, Mr. Mondale. You served your nation with honor, compassion and dignity, and you will always be one of my biggest heroes.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…


[i] https://www.ancestry.com/name-origin?surname=berger

[ii] e.g., “TV Today,” PI, January 16, 1979, pg. 17-D

[iii] Cusick, Frederick, “They can’t vote but can question,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), April 19, 1980, pg. 2-B

[iv] Lender, John, “Ferraro Raps Reagan in Stop at Festival,” Hartford Courant (Hartford, CT), September 9, 1984, pg. A1

The Not-So-Changing Geography of U.S. Elections

On November 3, 2020, Democrats Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were elected president and vice president, respectively, of the United States. According to data from Dave Leip’s essential Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, the Biden-Harris ticket won 51.3% of the nearly 158.6 million votes cast. Turnout shattered the previous record of 137.1 million votes cast in 2016: 15.6% more votes were cast for president in 2020 than in 2016. The incumbent Republican president and vice president, Donald Trump and Mike Pence, won 46.8% of the vote, with the remaining 2.0% going mostly to the Libertarian and Green tickets

While the 4.5 percentage point (“point”) margin for Biden-Harris over Trump-Pence—7.1 million votes—was solid, it is the Electoral College which determines the winner of presidential elections. Despite objections to the counting of the votes from individual states and an armed insurrection aimed to stop the Congressional certification of Electoral Votes (“EV”), the Biden-Harris ticket was awarded 306 EV—36 more than necessary—to 232 for Trump-Pence.

In many ways, the 2020 presidential election was a near-perfect encapsulation of recent presidential elections. Between 1992, when Democrats Bill Clinton and Al Gore were elected president and vice president, ending 40 years of Republican White House dominance, and 2016, the Democratic presidential ticket averaged a 3.6-point winning margin and 313.7 EV, very close to 4.5 points and 306 EV.

Biden-Harris improved on the 2016 Democratic margin in the national popular vote by 2.4 points, winning 16.4 million more votes than the ticket of Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine; Trump-Pence won 11.3 million more votes, while third party candidates won 5.2 million fewer votes. Moreover, across the 50 states and the District of Columbia (“DC”), the Democratic ticket improved by an average of 3.1 points! In the EC, as Table 1 shows, Biden-Harris carried five states Clinton-Kaine lost in 2016: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin; no states flipped the other direction.

Table 1: States with Presidential Election Margins <5.0 Points in 2016 and/or 2020

StateEV2016 Margin (Dem-Rep)2020 Margin (Dem-Rep)2020-2016
  %#%#%#
Florida29-1.2-112,911-3.4-371,686-2.2-258,775
North Carolina15-3.7-173,315-1.3-74,483+2.4+98,832
Arizona11-3.5-91,2340.3+10,457+3.8+101,691
Georgia16-5.1-211,1410.2+11,779+5.3+222,920
Wisconsin10-0.8-22,7480.6+20,682+1.4+43,430
Pennsylvania20-0.7-44,2841.2+82,166+1.9+127,450
Nevada62.4+27,2022.4+33,596-0.03+6,394
Michigan16-0.2-10,7042.8+154,181+3.0+164,885
Minnesota101.5+44,5937.1+233,012+5.6+188,419
New Hampshire40.4+2,7367.4+59,277+7.0+56,541
Maine43.0+22,1429.1+74,335+6.1+52,193
Colorado94.9+136,38613.5+439,745+8.6+303,359

Clinton-Kaine won Virginia by 5.3 points in 2016; four years later Biden-Harris won the state by 10.1 points, a 4.8-point jump. The shift in Texas was similar, from a 9.0-point loss to “only” a 5.6-point loss, a 3.4-point improvement. In fact, Biden-Harris did better than Clinton-Kaine in every close state except Florida, losing by 258,775 votes more than in 2016. Overall, the only other states where the Democratic margin was at least 0.1 points worse in 2020 were Arkansas (-0.7), California (-0.8), Utah (-2.4) and Hawaii (-2.7). By contrast, Biden-Harris improved by at least 6.0 points (roughly double the state average) in the close states of Maine (6.1), New Hampshire (7.0) and Colorado (8.6), as well as Massachusetts (6.3), Connecticut (6.4), Maryland (6.8), Biden’s home state of Delaware (7.7) and Vermont (9.0).

Had Clinton-Kaine flipped just 77,736 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in 2016, Democrats would have retained the White House, 278-260. By the same token, had Trump-Pence flipped just 65,009 votes in Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, and the 2nd Congressional District of Nebraska (“NE-2”), they would have been reelected, 270-268—while still losing the national popular vote by 4.5 points. Wisconsin, which shifted only 1.4 points—43,430 votes—toward the Democrats, was a key pivot state in both elections, with Pennsylvania right behind.

**********

To better understand the relative partisan leans of each state, I developed 3W-RDM, a weighted average of how much more or less Democratic than the nation as a whole a state voted in the three most recent presidential elections. Basically, it is what I estimate the state-level margin between the Democratic and Republican nominees would be if they tied in the national popular vote. Note, however, that 3W-RDM (plus national popular vote) has missed the actual state-level result by an average of 5.3 points in recent elections. Figure 1 and Table 2 show current 3W-RDM for every state, based upon data from the 2012, 2016 and 2020 elections. Table 2 also lists 3W-RDM based upon data from 1984-92 and 2008-16.

Figure 1: Current State Partisan Lean, Based Upon 2012-20 Presidential Voting

Table 2: Current and Historic State Partisan Lean (3W-RDM), Sorted Most- to Least-Democratic

State2020 EV1984-922008-162012-20Ave. Change 1992-2020
DC375.382.082.71.0
Hawaii49.834.329.02.7
Vermont36.627.728.93.2
Maryland108.022.626.22.6
Massachusetts1114.222.126.11.7
California555.623.224.92.7
New York2910.821.620.21.3
Rhode Island415.118.016.60.2
Connecticut70.712.813.91.9
Washington126.912.113.71.0
Illinois207.114.713.30.9
Delaware3-0.512.512.81.9
New Jersey14-4.012.012.02.3
Oregon77.38.710.10.4
New Mexico52.06.56.30.6
Colorado9-2.42.25.71.2
Maine4-0.55.94.50.7
Virginia13-10.41.53.92.0
Minnesota1011.01.51.8-1.3
New Hampshire4-11.60.11.21.8
Nevada6-8.52.0-0.51.1
Michigan160.72.2-0.7-0.2
Pennsylvania205.3-0.4-2.3-1.1
Wisconsin104.70.7-2.4-1.0
Florida29-10.7-3.4-5.50.7
North Carolina15-7.0-6.0-5.80.2
Arizona11-10.9-9.7-6.10.7
Georgia16-7.0-9.6-6.50.1
Iowa68.0-4.7-9.8-2.6
Ohio18-3.0-5.8-9.8-1.0
Texas38-7.7-15.3-12.0-0.6
Alaska3-15.7-19.2-15.80.0
South Carolina9-13.9-15.7-15.9-0.3
Missouri103.2-15.9-19.0-3.2
Indiana11-10.9-16.3-19.6-1.2
Mississippi6-12.6-18.5-19.7-1.0
Montana3-1.6-18.6-20.8-2.7
Kansas6-9.8-23.4-21.3-1.6
Louisiana8-2.0-22.2-22.3-2.9
Nebraska5-19.7-25.8-25.1-0.8
Tennessee11-3.0-25.8-27.2-3.5
Utah6-26.2-33.1-27.6-0.2
Alabama9-10.7-28.4-29.2-2.6
South Dakota3-5.5-25.8-29.6-3.4
Arkansas63.3-28.2-30.3-4.8
Kentucky8-2.9-28.7-30.3-3.9
Idaho4-20.3-34.2-34.8-2.1
North Dakota3-12.7-29.4-35.4-3.2
Oklahoma7-13.4-38.1-37.8-3.5
West Virginia59.2-35.5-41.4-7.2
Wyoming3-14.5-45.7-47.5-4.7
AVERAGE -1.3-4.6-5.1-0.5

The core Democratic areas are primarily where they have been for 30 years: New England (average 3W-RDM: D+15.2), the Pacific Coast minus Alaska (D+12.4), the mid-Atlantic minus Pennsylvania (D+22). These 15 states and DC contain a total of 183 EV. Add the Midwestern states of Illinois (20 EV) and Minnesota (10), and the southwestern states of New Mexico (5) and Colorado (9), and the total rises to 226 or 227, depending upon Maine’s 2nd Congressional District (“ME-2”). This is the current Democratic presidential baseline, 44 EV from 270.

The core Republican areas are also primarily where they have been for 30 years: Mountain West plus Alaska minus Colorado (R+29.2); the six states running south from North Dakota to Texas (R+26.9); the five states in the western half of the Deep South (R+25.8); the border states of Missouri, Kentucky and West Virginia (R+30.3); and the Midwestern states of Iowa, Indiana and Ohio (R+13.1). Add the southern Atlantic states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, plus Arizona, and the total is 258 or 259 EV, depending upon NE-2. Each of these 27 states is at least 5.5 points more Republican than the nation, making it the current GOP presidential baseline, just 12 EV from 270.

Two states totaling 22 EV would be balanced on a knife’s edge: Michigan and Nevada. In 2016, they split, with Republicans winning the former and Democrats winning the latter. Biden-Harris won both in 2020.

That leaves two states totaling 30 EV—Pennsylvania (R+2.3) and Wisconsin (R+2.4); they lean more Republican than the “core” Democratic states of Minnesota and New Hampshire. Add them to the “core” Republican 258 EV, and Republicans enter a presidential race tied in the national vote—or even a point behind—with a minimum of 288 EV, 18 more than necessary. Michigan, Nevada, NE-2 and ME-2 would get them to 312.

I made this same point here, when I used a simple ordinary least squares (“OLS”) regression model of EV and national popular vote margin to show that in a dead-even national election, Republicans would—on average—be favored to win the EC 283-251, with four EV going to third-party tickets. Adding data from 2020 does not materially alter this estimate, which is essentially Republicans winning their 258 EV plus Pennsylvania and Wisconsin: 288 EV. Democrats then win their core states plus Michigan, Nevada, ME-2 and NE-2: 250 EV.

Here are the updated OLS regressions:

Democrats:               Electoral Votes = 1232.9*Popular Vote Margin + 250.98

Republicans:            Electoral Votes = 1229.2*Popular Vote Margin + 283.04

Simple algebra shows Democrats need to win nationally by 1.5 points to be on track to win 270 EV, while Republicans could lose nationally by 1.1 points and be on track to win. Put another way, Republicans could theoretically lose the national popular vote by 2.3 points and still win 288 EV, given the imbalance in the Electoral College.

Paradoxically, however, Democrats have won the EC in five of the last eight presidential elections, because they win the national popular vote by large enough margins. The 3.5-point average margin in those eight elections translates to an estimated 294 EV, on average: winning their core 226, plus Michigan, Nevada, ME-2, NE-2, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania (280 EV total) plus one of North Carolina, Arizona or Georgia. As we saw, the Biden-Harris ticket won all but ME-2 while adding Arizona and Georgia, losing North Carolina by just 1.3 points.

This imbalance has been getting worse over time. In the mid-1990s, after the Republican ticket won by landslides in 1984 and 1988 and Clinton-Gore won by a slightly smaller landslide in 1992, the average state was only 1.3 points more Republican than the nation, far lower than the roughly 5.0 points of recent elections. In a dead-even national election—essentially what happened in 2000—Democrats would have had a slightly higher base, ~230 EV from 18 states plus DC at least D+2.0, with the ~30 EV of Michigan, Connecticut, Maine and Delaware within 1.0 points either way. Democrats would start closer to 250 than 230 votes in this scenario, though there would still be ~275 EV from 27 states at least R+2.0; throw in Montana (R+1.6) and the total increases to 278. Still, Democrats were far closer to parity in the EC in the mid-1990s than they are now.

What changed?

Figure 2: Average Change in State Lean Since 1984-92

As Figure 2 clearly shows, the strength of state-level partisanship sharply increased over time: Democratic states become somewhat more Democratic, while Republican states became dramatically more Republican. Not only did the average state shift 3-4 points more Republican, relative to the nation, but the variance widened. After the 1984-92, the standard deviation—a measure of how narrowly or widely values are spread around the mean—increased from 14.4 to 23.4 after the 2012-20 elections. Moreover, consider states at least 3.5 points more partisan than the nation. In the mid-1990s, those states averaged D+12.8 and R+12.0; today, those values are D+19.5 (213 EV) and R+22.4 (259 EV).

The biggest pro-Democratic shifts, based upon the average three-election-cycle change in 3W-RDM since 1984-92, occurred in Vermont (average: D+3.2), the Pacific states of California and Hawaii (each D+2.7), and the mid-Atlantic states of Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia and Delaware and New York (mean: D+2.0). Colorado, Nevada, and the remaining New England states except Maine also shifted noticeably more Democratic. At Colorado, Nevada and Virginia even switched from core Republican states to core Democratic/swing.

But these shifts are miniscule compared to two blocks of Republican states. The first block I call the “upper interior Northwest”: Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas. These five states became an average 3.2 points more Republican every cycle since the mid-1990s. The second block I loosely call “Border,” though I could also call them “White, Culturally Conservative”: Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and, most extremely, West Virginia. These six states became an average 5.3 points more Republican every cycle since the mid-1990s. West Virginia, in fact, is almost in a category by itself. Following the 1992 presidential election, when Clinton-Gore won it by 13.0 points, it has become an astonishing 7.2 points more Republican each cycle since then; Trump-Pence won it in 2020 by 38.9 points, a 51.9-point pro-Republican shift!

In fact, seven states—Arkansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wyoming—shifted further Republican over 28 years than any state shifted Democratic over those years. West Virginia is also joined by Arkansas, Iowa, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin as states that shifted from core Democratic to core Republican/pivot states.

As for why states shifted strongly Democratic or Republican, I wrote here about the growing partisan divide between white voters with (Democratic) or without (Republican) a college degree. Other explanations include self-sorting by geography (Democrats to the coasts, Republicans to “flyover” country) and information (Democrats from traditional media, CNN and MSNBC; Republicans from right-wing media and Fox News).

**********

Thus far, I have only looked at presidential elections. Table 3 lists the percentages of United States Senators (“Senators”), Governors and Members of the United States House of Representatives (“House Members”) who are Democrats in the core Democratic, swing/pivot (Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin) and core Republican states. Data on the partisan split of each House delegation, based upon the results of the 2020 elections, may be found here.

Table 3: Democratic Percentage of Senators, Governors and House Members in Three Groups of States

GroupSenatorsGovernorsHouse Members
Core Democratic (n=19)97.4%*78.9%76.9%
Swing/Pivot (n=4)75.0%100.0%50.0%
Core Republican (n=27)13.0%14.8%27.8%
* Includes two Independents, Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who caucus with Democrats.

While not a perfect overlay, these percentages tell a simple story: states that lean Democratic at the presidential level strongly tend to elect Democrats to statewide office, while states that lean Republican at the presidential level strongly tend to elect Republicans to statewide office. Thus, only five of 57 (8.8%) Democratic-state Senators and Governors are Republicans: the indomitable Senator Susan Collins of Maine, and the governors of Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. By the same token, only 11 of 81 (13.6%) Republican-state Senators and Governors are Democrats: all four Senators from Arizona and Georgia; one Senator each from Montana, Ohio and West Virginia (political-gravity-defying Joe Manchin); and the governors of Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and North Carolina. In other words, only 16 of 138 (11.6%) Senators and Governors from these 46 states are from the “opposition” party. Curiously, in the four swing/pivot states, every governor and Senator except Senators Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin—the pivot states—are Democrats. The House percentages are a bit murkier, reflecting Republican pockets in “Democratic” states and Democratic pockets in “Republican” states, but it is still the case that roughly ¾ of the House delegations from these 46 states “match” their state’s partisan lean; swing/pivot states are split literally down the middle: 22 Democrats and 22 Republicans.

Pick your cliché. “All politics is local.” Clearly, not any more, as elections become increasingly nationalized. “I vote the person, not the party.” Apparently no longer true, given how closely voting for president/vice president, Senate, governor and House track. “Vote the bums out.” Well, voters seem to prefer bums from their party to anyone from the other party. As I noted with gerrymandering, these trends, if they continue, may be far more damaging for our two-party democracy than for either political party.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

2020 Elections Post-Mortem

On November 3, 2020, the United States ended a weeks-long electoral process. At stake was the presidency, control of the United States Senate (“Senate”) and House of Representatives (“House”), 11 governor’s mansions, and thousands of state and local offices. That day, I published “cheat sheets” to guide election viewers through state-level presidential returns, 35 Senate elections and the gubernatorial elections.

[Ed. note: This post, my 200th, is the longest I have written to date. It is fitting that a blog which found its data-driven footing in the wake of the 2016 elections would have its 200th entry address the aftermath of the 2020 elections, beyond mere repetition of the number “20.”]

As I write this on midnight EST on November 17, 2020, precisely two weeks after the elections concluded, these are the top-line results:

  • Only one governor’s mansion changed partisan hands: Republican Greg Gianforte won back the statehouse in Montana for the first time in 16 years. As of January 2021, Republicans will hold 27 governor’s mansions, and Democrats will hold 23.
  • Democrats basically held serve in state legislative races. For more details, please see here.

On balance, the 2020 elections affirmed the status quo: a nation roughly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, though it remains possible the former could control, however narrowly, the White House, Senate and House for the first time since 2010.

Presidential election

Biden-Harris are closing on 79.0 million votes (50.9%), shattering the previous record of 69.5 million votes won by Democrat Barack Obama and Biden in 2008. Trump-Pence have just under 73.3 million votes (47.3%), ranking them second in history. Biden has now appeared on three of the four presidential tickets to receive the most votes, with Obama-Biden earning 65.9 million votes in 2012, edging out Clinton-Kaine in 2016 by about 65,000 votes. Third party candidates are receiving more than 2.8 million votes (1.8%), significantly lower than the 8.3 million votes (6.0%) such candidates received in 2016. Approximately 155.1 million votes have already been counted, with an estimated 4.1 million votes—mostly in California and New York—left to be counted. This ~159.2 million vote projection, or about 2/3 of all Americans eligible to vote, also shatters the previous record of 137.1 million votes set in 2016.

Biden-Harris’ 3.6 percentage point (“point”) margin is a 1.5-point increase from 2016, and 0.3-point decrease from 2012, making it the third consecutive presidential election in which the Democratic ticket won the national popular vote by between two and four points; adding 22 million voters did not fundamentally alter the partisan electoral divide. Based on my Electoral College model, a Biden-Harris win of 3.6 points equates to 296 EV, nearly the 306 EV they received; for a Republican ticket, this equates to 327 EV.

How did Biden-Harris win the Electoral College?

Table 1: 2020 and 2016 Presidential Election Results by State, Ranked from Highest to Lowest Biden-Harris Margin

StateEVWinnerClinton-Kaine MarginBiden-Harris MarginDelta
DC3Biden86.886.6-0.2
Vermont3Biden26.435.49.0
Massachusetts11Biden27.233.05.8
Maryland10Biden30.032.52.5
California55Biden26.429.63.2
Hawaii4Biden32.229.5-2.7
Rhode Island4Biden15.520.85.2
Connecticut7Biden13.620.16.7
Washington12Biden15.719.33.6
Delaware3Biden11.319.07.7
Illinois20Biden14.016.62.6
Oregon7Biden11.016.25.2
New Jersey14Biden16.915.5-1.4
New York29Biden22.513.7-8.8
Colorado9Biden4.913.58.6
New Mexico5Biden8.210.82.6
Virginia13Biden3.010.16.9
Maine4Biden (3)5.38.73.4
New Hampshire4Biden0.47.47.0
Minnesota10Biden1.57.15.6
Michigan16Biden-0.22.62.8
Nevada6Biden2.42.40.0
Pennsylvania20Biden-0.71.01.7
Wisconsin10Biden-0.80.61.4
Georgia16Biden-5.10.35.4
Arizona11Biden-3.50.33.8
North Carolina15Trump-3.7-1.42.3
Florida29Trump-1.2-3.4-2.2
Texas38Trump-9.0-5.73.3
Ohio18Trump-8.1-8.2-0.1
Iowa6Trump-9.4-8.21.2
Alaska3Trump-14.3-10.13.3
South Carolina9Trump-20.4-11.78.7
Kansas6Trump-18.5-15.13.4
Missouri10Trump-19.0-15.63.4
Indiana11Trump-20.2-16.14.1
Montana3Trump-14.7-16.4-1.7
Mississippi6Trump-25.1-17.87.3
Louisiana8Trump-19.6-18.61.0
Nebraska5Trump (4)-17.8-19.2-1.4
Utah6Trump-17.9-20.2-2.3
Tennessee11Trump-31.8-23.38.5
Alabama9Trump-26.0-25.60.4
Kentucky8Trump-27.7-26.01.7
South Dakota3Trump-29.8-26.23.6
Arkansas6Trump-29.8-27.62.2
Idaho4Trump-26.9-30.8-3.9
Oklahoma7Trump-36.4-33.13.3
North Dakota3Trump-35.7-33.42.4
West Virginia5Trump-41.7-39.02.7
Wyoming3Trump-46.3-43.42.9
Average  Trump+3.6Trump+0.8D+2.8

As Table 1 reveals, Biden-Harris won 25 states and the District of Columbia (“DC”) by an average of 17.4 points, while Trump-Pence won 25 states by an average of 19.8 points; medians are 14.6—reflecting the 86.8-point margin in DC—and 18.6, respectively. Biden-Harris won seven states and DC totaling 97 EV by 20 or more points, while Trump-Pence won 11 states totaling 65 EV by that margin.

Biden-Harris won 19 states, DC and the 2nd Congressional district in Nebraska by at least 6.0 points, for a total of 228 EV. Add Nevada (6) and Michigan (16), which the Democratic ticket won by ~2.5 points, below their national margin, and the total increases to 250 EV.

At around 10:30 am EST on Saturday, November 7, the major news networks declared Biden-Harris the projected winner in Pennsylvania—and its 20 EV put Biden-Harris over the total of 270 needed to win the presidency. It also makes Pennsylvania—the state in which I was born—the “tipping point” state, as it puts Biden-Harris over 270 EV when states are ranked from most to least Democratic. But the margin stands at just 1.0 points, or just 68,903 votes; Biden-Harris also won Wisconsin (0.6 points), Arizona and Georgia (0.3 points each) by similarly small margins. The Democratic ticket has a total winning margin of 104,025 votes in these four states.

In the 25 states, plus DC, won by the Democratic ticket, the average increase in margin from 2016 was 3.4 points, while in states won by the Republican ticket the average increase was 2.1 points; overall, the average margin shift was 2.8 points. In the five states which switched from Republican to Democratic, the average increase was 3.0 points, led by a 3.8-point increase in Arizona and a 5.4-point increase in Georgia. While Biden-Harris lost North Carolina by 1.4 points and Texas by 5.7 points, they improved the margin by 2.3 and 3.3 points, respectively.

However, while Biden-Harris improved on the 2016 margins by an average 3.7 points in these four southeastern/southwestern states—states I suggested were fertile ground for Democrats—they basically held serve in Iowa (D+1.2) and Ohio (no change), while falling further behind in Florida (D-2.2); I will not speculate what role undelivered ballots in Miami-Dade County played in the latter state. This should not be surprising, as these were perhaps the most disappointing states for Democrats during the otherwise “blue wave” 2018 midterm elections.

In 2016, Trump-Pence won 306 EV by winning six states Obama-Biden won in 2012: the aforementioned Florida, Iowa and Ohio, plus Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The latter were decided by a combined 77,736 votes; Clinton-Kaine also lost Georgia by 211,141 votes and Arizona by 91,234 votes. In 2020, as Table 2 shows, Biden-Harris won the former three states—more than enough to give them an Electoral College victory—by a combined 233,945 votes: a shift of 311,681 votes, or just 0.2% of all votes cast. But the Democratic ticket also increased their margin in Arizona by 101,691 votes and in Georgia by a remarkable 226,296 votes.

Table 2: Changes in Margin from 2016 to 2020 in Five Key States

State2016 Dem Margin2020 Dem MarginIncrease, 2016-20
Michigan-10,704+144,532+155,236
Pennsylvania-44,284+68,903+113,187
Wisconsin-22,748+20,510+43,258
Arizona-91,234+10,457+101,691
Georgia-212,141+14,155+226,296
TOTAL-381,111+258,557+639,668

Overall, across these five states, the margin swung toward the Democratic ticket by about 640,000 votes, which is still less than 1% of all votes cast. But we can get even more granular than that. Early in 2017, I observed that in the three states that swung the 2016 election to Trump-Pence, the Clinton-Kaine ticket did about as well in the Democratic core counties—the urban centers of Detroit, Milwaukee/Madison and Philadelphia/Pittsburgh—as Obama-Biden had in 2012. What changed was a massive increase in Republican turnout in the other, more rural counties of those states. I ultimately concluded this resulted from a split between white voters with a college degree (more Democratic suburban/urban) and without a college degree (more Republican rural).

Table 3: Changes in Margin from 2016 to 2020 in Pennsylvania Counties

County2016 D Margin2020 D MarginIncrease, 2016-20
Phila Suburbs   
Bucks+2,699+17,415+14,716
Chester+25,568+53,598+28,030
Delaware+66,735+87,066+20,331
Montgomery+93,351+133,343+39,992
TOTAL+188,353+291,422+103,069
    
Major Urban   
Philadelphia+475,277+457,649-17,628
Allegheny+108,137+146,706+38,569
TOTAL+583,414+604,355+20,941
    
All Other Counties-816,051-826,874-10,283
TOTAL-44,284+68,903+113,187

Table 3 shows just how this split played out in 2020, using Pennsylvania as an example. Compared to 2016, the margins for the Democratic ticket increased only at 21,000 votes in the heavily urban Democratic counties of Allegheny (Pittsburgh) and Philadelphia. And the 61 counties outside these two counties, excepting the four-county ring around Philadelphia, also held serve for the Republican ticket; Erie and Northampton Counties switched, barely, from Trump-Pence to Biden-Harris. In fact, the two parties may have reach voted saturation in these two areas. But those four suburban Philadelphia counties, swung even further toward the Democratic ticket, from a margin of 188,353 votes to nearly 291,422 votes, for a total increase of 103,069 votes, nearly the entire swing from 2016 to 2020.

What about the polling?

With most of the vote counted, Biden-Harris lead Trump-Pence nationally by 3.6 points, which is 4.6 points lower than my final weighted-adjusted polling average (“WAPA”) of 8.2 points.

For my final post tracking national and state polling of the 2020 presidential election, I estimated the probability Biden-Harris would win a given state. In 24 states/DC totaling 279 EV, the probability was at least 94.7%; Biden-Harris won all of them. In 20 states totaling 126 EV, the probability was 1.3% or less; Trump-Pence won all them. The remaining seven states were:

  • Florida (80.1%), which Biden-Harris lost
  • Arizona (77.5%), which Biden-Harris won
  • North Carolina (69.0%), which Biden-Harris lost
  • Georgia (56.4%), which Biden-Harris won
  • Ohio (39.1%), Iowa (37.0%) and Texas (28.4%), each of which Trump-Pence won

Florida and North Carolina were the only “misses,” though it should be noted Trump-Pence still had a non-trivial 19.9% and 31.0% chance, respectively, to win those states. Further, my final back-of-the-envelope EV estimate was 348.5 for Biden-Harris—subtracting the 44 combined EV of Florida and North Carolina essentially gets you to 306. The latter value is also very close to the 297.5 EV I estimated Biden-Harris would receive if all polls overestimated Democratic strength by 3.0 points.

Along those lines, my 2020 election cheat sheets included a projected Democratic-minus-Republican margin (“JBWM”), which adjusts final WAPA for undecided votes, along with recent polling errors in selected states. Compared to the final FiveThirtyEight.com margins/polling averages (“538”), JBWM margins were about 1.2 points more Republican.

Even so, as Table 4 shows, the JBWM margins were, on average, 3.4 points more Democratic than the final margins, and the 538 margins were 4.6 points more Democratic. When the direction of the difference is ignored, meanwhile, the differences between the two method vanish: an average absolute difference of 4.5 from JBWM margins compared to 4.8 for 538.

However, this overall difference masks a stark partisan difference: the mean JBWM difference was only 1.1 points more Democratic in states/DC won by Biden-Harris, while it was 5.9 points more Democratic in states won by Trump-Pence. The correlation between the Biden-Harris margin and the JBWM difference is 0.73, meaning the more Republican the state, the better Trump-Pence did relative to the final polling. In short, pollsters continue to undercount “Trump Republicans” in the most Republican states.

Table 4: 2020 Presidential Election Results by State, Ranked by Difference from JBWM Democratic-Republican Margin “Projection”

StateEVWinnerJBWM ProjectionBiden-Harris MarginDelta
West Virginia5Trump-20.4-39.0-18.6
New York29Biden28.313.7-14.6
Wyoming3Trump-32.1-43.4-11.3
South Dakota3Trump-15.6-26.2-10.6
North Dakota3Trump-23.2-33.3-10.1
Montana3Trump-7.1-16.4-9.3
Kentucky8Trump-17.2-26.0-8.8
Oklahoma7Trump-24.9-33.1-8.2
Texas38Trump1.6-5.7-7.3
Utah6Trump-12.9-20.2-7.3
Alabama9Trump-18.6-25.6-7.0
Indiana11Trump-9.6-16.1-6.5
Tennessee11Trump-16.9-23.3-6.4
Nevada6Biden8.62.4-6.2
Missouri10Trump-9.6-15.6-6.0
Kansas6Trump-10.2-15.1-4.9
Idaho4Trump-26.0-30.8-4.8
New Jersey14Biden19.515.5-4.0
Maine4Biden (3)12.58.7-3.8
Mississippi6Trump-14.1-17.8-3.7
Florida29Trump0.2-3.4-3.6
Alaska3Trump-6.7-10.1-3.4
Iowa6Trump-5.0-8.2-3.2
Connecticut7Biden23.020.1-2.9
Louisiana8Trump-15.8-18.6-2.8
South Carolina9Trump-8.9-11.7-2.8
Wisconsin10Biden3.20.6-2.6
Arizona11Biden2.90.3-2.6
Washington12Biden21.719.3-2.4
Hawaii4Biden31.629.5-2.1
Ohio18Trump-6.2-8.2-2.0
Michigan16Biden4.42.6-1.8
New Hampshire4Biden8.97.4-1.5
Nebraska5Biden (4)-17.8-19.2-1.4
Massachusetts11Biden34.333.0-1.3
Oregon7Biden17.516.2-1.3
New Mexico5Biden12.010.8-1.2
Pennsylvania20Biden2.21.0-1.2
Delaware3Biden20.219.0-1.2
Virginia13Biden11.210.1-1.1
Minnesota10Biden7.97.1-0.8
Georgia16Biden0.60.3-0.3
North Carolina15Trump-1.1-1.4-0.3
Illinois20Biden16.216.60.4
California55Biden29.129.60.5
Arkansas6Trump-29.1-27.61.5
Maryland10Biden30.231.91.7
Rhode Island4Biden19.020.71.7
Colorado9Biden11.413.52.1
Vermont3Biden28.835.46.6
DC3Biden74.986.611.7
Average  Biden+2.6Trump+0.8D-3.4

To again get more granular, Table 5 lists the pollsters who assessed the national popular vote at least five times since January 1, 2019, sorted by distance from the actual national margin of 3.6%. Margins are weighted for time, but not adjusted for partisan “bias.”

Table 5: Top 2020 Presidential Election Pollsters, Final WAPA National Margin

Pollster538 RatingFinal MarginDelta
OpiniumC+14.1-10.5
NORC (AllAdults only)C+11.3-7.7
CNN/SSRSB/C11.1-7.5
QriouslyC+10.5-6.9
USC DornsifeB/C10.4-6.8
Quinnipiac UniversityB+10.4-6.8
NBC News/Wall Street JournalA-10.1-6.5
Global Strategy Group/GBAO (Navigator Res)C+9.9-6.3
Data for ProgressB-9.8-6.2
Redfield & Wilton StrategiesC+9.6-6.0
ABC News/Washington PostA+9.2-5.6
Marist CollegeA+9.1-5.5
Echelon InsightsC+8.8-5.2
SurveyUSAA8.8-5.2
IpsosB-8.5-4.9
LégerC+8.4-4.8
Change ResearchC-8.3-4.7
Fox NewsA-8.3-4.7
YouGovB8.2-4.6
Research Co.B-7.8-4.2
PureSpectrumC+7.6-4.0
Morning ConsultB/C7.6-4.0
Monmouth UniversityA+7.4-3.8
Firehouse Strategies/OptimusB/C7.4-3.8
RMG ResearchB/C7.1-3.5
Harris XC6.5-2.9
Suffolk UniversityA6.2-2.6
IBD/TIPPA/B5.5-1.9
Emerson CollegeA-3.8-0.2
Zogby*C+3.60.0
Rasmussen Reports/Pulse Opinion ResearchC+3.20.4
CiviqsB/C3.10.5
AverageB/B-8.2-4.5

           * John Zogby Strategies/EMI Solutions, Zogby Analytics, Zogby Interactive/JV Analytics

These 32 pollsters accounted for 556 (80.6%) of the 690 polls conducted. On average, they estimated Biden-Harris would win the national popular vote by 8.2 points, identical to my final WAPA; the average miss was 4.5 points in favor of Biden-Harris. There was only minimal difference by pollster quality: the 11 pollsters with a rating of B or better missed by an average of 4.2 points, while the 21 pollsters with a rating of B- or lower missed by an average of 4.7 points. That said, three of the four pollsters who came closest to the final national margin—Zogby, Rasmussen and Civiqs—had ratings of B/C or C+; the fourth was Emerson College, rated A-. At the other end of the spectrum are seven pollsters who anticipated a double-digit national popular vote win for Biden-Harris: low-rated Opinium, NORC (who polled adults, not registered/likely voters), CNN/SSRS, Qriously and USC Dornsife; and high-rated Quinnipiac University and NBC News/Wall Street Journal.

Overall, though, the polling captured the broad contours of the 2020 presidential election—if not the precise margins—fairly well, with JBWM and actual Democratic margins correlated a near-perfect 0.99; the order of states from most to least Democratic was accurately predicted. It forecast a solid, if not spectacular win by Biden-Harris in the national popular vote, a restoration of the upper Midwestern “blue wall,” and continued Democratic gains in southeastern/southwestern states such as Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas, even as Florida, Iowa and Ohio become more Republican.

One final note: it is exceedingly difficult to beat an elected incumbent president. Since 1952, it had happened only twice (1980, 1992) in eight chances prior to 2020[1]; Biden-Harris beat those 1:3 odds convincingly.

Senate elections

Democrats entered 2020 needing to flip a net four seats—or three seats plus the White House—to regain the majority for the first time since 2014. As Vice-President-elect, Kamala Harris breaks a 50-50 tie.

Table 6: 2020 Senate Election Results by State, Ranked from Highest to Lowest Democratic Margin, Compared to Pre-Election “Fundamentals”

StateWinnerFundamentalsFinal Dem MarginDelta
Rhode IslandReed24.433.08.6
MassachusettsMarkey28.532.94.4
DelawareCoons18.921.52.6
OregonMerkley15.117.62.5
IllinoisDurbin21.116.9-4.2
New JerseyBooker18.415.8-2.6
New HampshireShaheen6.515.79.2
VirginiaWarner7.912.04.1
ColoradoHickenlooper1.89.37.5
New MexicoLujan8.56.1-2.4
MinnesotaSmith5.75.2-0.5
ArizonaKelly-8.32.410.7
MichiganPeters8.61.5-7.1
Georgia Special???-8.0-1.07.0
Georgia???-10.0-1.78.3
North CarolinaTillis-6.4-1.74.7
IowaErnst-5.1-6.6-1.5
MaineCollis5.5-8.9-14.4
TexasCornyn-15.7-9.85.9
MontanaDaines-19.0-10.09.0
South CarolinaGraham-16.1-10.35.8
MississippiHyde-Smith-18.1-11.26.9
KansasMarshall-21.4-11.99.5
AlaskaSullivan-19.6-12.96.7
KentuckyMcConnell-29.1-19.59.6
AlabamaTuberville-24.2-20.63.6
LouisianaCassidy-22.6-25.9-3.3
TennesseeHagerty-23.8-27.1-3.3
IdahoRisch-34.6-29.35.3
OklahomaInhofe-38.5-30.28.3
South DakotaRounds-26.2-31.5-5.3
ArkansasCotton-28.6-33.3-4.7
NebraskaSasse-26.2-41.3-15.1
West VirginiaCapito-35.9-43.3-7.4
WyomingLummis-43.7-46.1-2.4
AverageD+1 to 3GOP+8.9GOP+7.0D+1.9

Table 1 summarizes these elections; for the Georgia special election and Louisiana, margins are for all Democrats and all Republicans. Democrats John Hickenlooper and Mark Kelly defeated Republican incumbents in Colorado (Cory Gardner) and Arizona (Martha McSally), respectively, while Republican Tommy Tuberville defeated Democratic incumbent Doug Jones in Alabama. This leaves Democrats two seats shy of 50-50, pending the January 5 runoff elections in Georgia. Incumbent Republican David Perdue edged Ossoff on November 3 by 1.7 points, but fell 0.3 points short of the 50.0% needed to win outright. In the special election necessitated by the retirement of Republican Johnny Isaakson in December 2019, Warnock (32.9%) led incumbent Republican Kelly Loeffler (25.9%) by 7.0 points in the all-candidate “jungle primary;” overall, Republican candidates earned 49.4% of the vote and Democratic candidates earned 48.4%, with 2.2% split between a handful of third-party candidates.

When I took a “wicked early” look at these elections, I assessed the Democrat’s chance in each election using their “fundamentals,” or the sum of the state’s partisan lean (calculated using my 3W-RDM), the Democratic margin on the generic ballot and incumbency advantage.[2] For Table 6, the generic ballot is the difference in the percentages of the total vote for all Democratic House candidates and for all Republican House candidates; Democrats are ahead by 2.0 points.

On average, Democrats overperformed “expected” margins by 1.9 points. In the 13 elections won by Democrats, the overperformance was 2.5 points, while in the 20 elections won by Republicans, the overperformance was just 0.9 points; Democrats overperformed in the two Georgia Senate races by 7.0 and 8.3 points, confirming how rapidly it is moving toward swing-state status. The biggest Democratic overperformance—fully 10.7 points—was in Arizona, which in 2021 will have two Democratic Senators (both of whom beat McSally) for the first time since 1953. Other Senate elections in which the Democratic candidate overperformed by at least 9.0 points were New Hampshire, and three states where Democrats fell short in their attempt to win back a Republican-held seat: Montana, Kansas and Kentucky.

On the flip side, setting aside a 15.1-point underperfomance in Nebraska, the biggest Republican overperformance was in Maine, where incumbent Susan Collins, first elected in 1996, “should” have lost by 5.5 points. Instead, she won by 8.9 points; this is a 28-point decline from 2014, when Collins won by 37 points. Pending the results of the Georgia runoff elections, Maine is the only state in 2020 to have a Democratic presidential victory and a Republican Senate victory, with a gap of 17.6 points. It will be interesting to see whether Collins adjusts her voting in the next Senate. Other large Democratic underperformances, finally, took place in Michigan, where first-term Democratic Senator Gary Peters beat Republican John James by only 1.5 points and in West Virginia, which grows more Republican every year.

On the whole, though, expected and actual margins aligned nearly perfectly, with a 0.94 correlation.

What about the polling?

As with the presidential election, the final polling averages/projected margins were far less accurate, as Table 7 shows; I did not calculate a projected final margin for the Louisiana Senate election.

Table 7: 2020 Senate Election Results by State, Ranked by Difference from JBWM Democratic-Republican Margin “Projection”

StateWinnerJBWM ProjectionDemocratic MarginDelta
West VirginiaCapito-20.6-43.3-22.7
WyomingLummis-30.2-46.1-15.9
MaineCollins3.3-8.9-12.2
South DakotaRounds-19.9-31.5-11.6
NebraskaSasse-30.8-41.3-10.5
KentuckyMcConnell-9.7-19.5-9.8
OklahomaInhofe-20.5-30.2-9.7
AlaskaSullivan-3.7-12.9-9.2
AlabamaTuberville-11.5-20.6-9.1
New JerseyBooker24.615.8-8.8
MontanaDaines-1.3-10.0-8.7
DelawareCoons29.621.5-8.1
TexasCornyn-2.3-9.8-7.5
IllinoisDurbin23.716.9-6.8
KansasMarshall-5.4-11.9-6.5
South CarolinaGraham-4.7-10.3-5.6
TennesseeHagerty-21.9-27.1-5.2
MississippiHyde-Smith-6.4-11.2-4.8
ArizonaKelly6.62.4-4.2
New MexicoLujan10.06.1-3.9
Georgia???1.7-1.7-3.4
MichiganPeters4.71.5-3.2
IdahoRisch-26.1-29.3-3.2
MinnesotaSmith8.45.2-3.2
VirginiaWarner15.112.0-3.1
IowaErnst-3.6-6.6-3.0
North CarolinaTillis1.1-1.7-2.8
OregonMerkley20.017.6-2.4
ArkansasCotton-33.0-33.3-0.3
ColoradoHickenlooper9.39.30.0
MassachusettsMarkey31.432.91.5
New HampshireShaheen14.415.71.3
Georgia Special???-3.9-1.02.9
Rhode IslandReed29.633.03.4
AverageDem+1 to 3GOP+0.6GOP+6.4D-5.8

The polling may have been within historic parameters for the presidential election, but it was far worse in the Senate elections, with the JBWM margins overestimating Democratic margins by an average of 5.8 points, almost exactly the 6.0 points by which 538 margins erred on average; ignoring direction, the average misses are 6.3 and 7.0 points, respectively. That said, the correlation between the actual and projected Democratic margins was 0.97, meaning the polling correctly forecast the order of Senate elections from most to least Democratic.

These overall averages again mask substantial partisan differences. In the 13 states where the Democratic nominee won, the average miss was a historically-reasonable -2.9 points, but in the 19 states (excluding Louisiana) where the Republican nominee won, the average miss was an astounding -8.3 points. Put another way, in the 15 states Trump-Pence won by at least 10 points which also held a Senate election, the average Senate miss was -8.9 points, while it was -3.3 points in all other states. Somewhat reassuringly, in the five states whose presidential margin was within five points also holding a Senate election (Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina), the miss was only -2.2 points. Overall, the correlation between the Biden-Harris margin and the JBWM margin error was 0.57, confirming the idea pollsters systematically undercounted Republican support in the most Republican states.

My back-of-the-envelope estimate was a net gain of five Democratic seats in the Senate, with at least a 77% chance Democrats would regain control; these values dropped to 30% and either two or three seats with the assumption all polls systematically overestimated Democratic strength by three points. Democrats will ultimately net between one and three seats, corresponding more with the latter assumption. I estimate the probability Democrats win both Georgia Senate runoff elections—and thus the Senate—is between 25 and 50%, depending on the degree of ticket-splitting.

From a purely mathematical perspective, the largest Democratic underperformances occurred in the Senate elections in West Virginia, Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska: four extremely Republican states. But from a strategic perspective, the most disappointing elections were in Maine (-12.2) and North Carolina (-2.8), where incumbent Republican Thom Tillis narrowly held off a challenge from Democrat Cal Cunningham, who may have been hurt by a sexting scandal; given the narrowness of his victory (1.7 points) and the increasingly swing status of North Carolina, Tillis’ voting patterns also merit watching. These were the two states besides Arizona (98.1%) and Colorado (99.5%) in which I estimated the Democratic nominee had at least an 85% chance to defeat a Republican incumbent; I also thought Democrat Theresa Greenfield was roughly even money to defeat incumbent Republican Joni Ernst, despite projecting a final margin of 3.6 points for Ernst; the latter won by 6.6 points.

There were four additional Senate elections—in Alaska, Kansas (open seat), Montana and South Carolina—where I estimated the probability of a Democratic flip was between 11.7 and 26.4%. In a sign of how good these elections were for Republicans, their nominees won all four elections by an average of 11.3 points, a mean 7.5 points more Republican than projected. In fairness, these states tilted an average 19.2 points more Republican than the nation as a whole coming into the 2020 elections. A similar story can be told in Texas, which tilted 15.3 points more Republican, but where Democrat M.J. Hegar “only” lost by 9.8 points to incumbent Republican John Cornyn, beating expectations by 0.6 points.

Put simply, assuming a loss in Alabama, Democratic hopes of winning back control of the Senate relied on flipping two Senate seats in Democratic states, then winning at least two more seats in states ranging from somewhat Republican—Iowa, North Carolina, Arizona, Georgia—to extremely Republican—Alaska, Kansas, Montana, South Carolina and Texas—all while Trump sought reelection. To date, Democrats have only flipped seats in Colorado (D+2.2) and Arizona (D-9.7) while winning back the Vice-Presidency, losing tough elections in Iowa, Maine and North Carolina, while never really being in contention anywhere else. Senate control now rests on Democrats winning two Senate runoff elections in a nominally Republican state (D-9.6), but one where Biden-Harris won, improving on Clinton-Kaine’s by 5.4 points.

Gubernatorial elections

Unlike those for the White House and Senate, there was very little drama in these elections. Two Democratic incumbents—John Carney of Delaware and Jay Inslee of Washington—were expected to win easily; they won by margins of 20.9 and 13.6 points, respectively. Six Republican incumbents—Eric Holcomb of Indiana, Mike Parson of Missouri, Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, Doug Burgum of North Dakota, Phil Scott of Vermont and Jim Justice of West Virginia—as well as Republican Spencer Cox of Utah were expected to win easily, though I projected Parson to win by “only” 8.0 points (he won by 16.6 points). They won their elections by an average margin of 31.6 points!

The only possible drama was in Montana, where Republican Gianforte and Democrat Mike Cooney vied to win the governor’s mansion being vacated by Democrat Bullock, and North Carolina, where Democratic Governor Roy Cooper—who won extremely narrowly in 2016—faced Republican Dan Forest. Gianforte defeated Cooney by 12.4 points, easily exceeding a projected 4.5 points, while Cooper won by 4.5 points, not the projected 10.4 points. Still, my global projection was correct: a net gain of one governor’s mansion by the Republicans, giving them a 27-23 majority; this an overall net gain of seven governor’s mansions by the Democrats since 2016.

In these elections, Republicans strongly overperformed fundamentals (7.1 points) and JBWM projections (7.6 points). However, expected values were strongly skewed by Scott’s 41.1-point victory in extremely-Democratic Vermont (D+27.7) and Sununu’s 31.8-point victory in swing New Hampshire (D+0.1); exclude those two margins and DEMOCRATS overperformed expectations by 1.0 points—with Democrat Ben Salango exceeding what were admittedly very low expectations by 8.5 points. Meanwhile, in the four states with governor’s races won by Biden-Harris, Democratic gubernatorial nominees finished an average 8.9 points lower than projected, while in the seven states won by Trump-Pence, they finished an average 6.8 points worse than expected. Once again, the extreme disparity in presidential/Senate and gubernatorial voting in New Hampshire and Vermont—two of three states in solidly-Democratic New England, along with Massachusetts (Charlie Baker), to have very popular Republican governors. In fact, gubernatorial elections are among the only ones in which ticket-splitting is still relatively common: Biden-Harris won six states with a Republican governor,[3] while Trump-Pence won five states with a Democratic governor.[4]

House elections

A wide range of forecasters expected Democrats to net between five and 10 House seats[5]. I was highly dubious of this, to be honest, given the likelihood the margin for Democrats in the total national House vote would decline from the 8.6-point margin they earned in 2018; it would also be higher than the 1.1 points by which they lost in 2016, when they still managed to net six seats. However, because I was not closely tracking House races, I said nothing about my doubts.

According to the Cook House vote tracker, Democrats had earned more than 75.1 million House votes (50.1%), Republicans had earned just under 72.1 million votes (48.0%), with the nearly 2.2 million votes (1.8%) going to third-party candidates. A total of 150.0 million votes have been counted, 5.1 million less than those cast in the presidential election. The 2.0-point margin by which Democrats are winning the House vote—just under 3.1 million votes—is also lower than the 3.6 points, and 5.6 million votes by which Biden-Harris currently lead Trump-Pence. It is also much lower than the 9.7-million Democratic vote margin in 2018, albeit with 36.3 million more votes cast in 2020, reinforcing the conclusion a few million Republican-leaning voters “balanced” a vote for Biden-Harris with Republican votes elsewhere…or simply chose not to vote in down-ballot elections.

In the races that have already called, Republicans have gained 11 seats held by Democrats (two each in California and Florida, one each in Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah), while Democrats have gained three seats held by Republicans (two in North Carolina, one in Georgia). This gives Democrats 221 seats, three more than needed for the majority, and Republicans 208 seats. Of the six seats yet to be called, Democrats currently hold four, with freshman Democrat Tom Malinowski leading by ~5,000 votes in New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District (“CD”). Giving that seat to the Democrats—and giving Republicans their open seat in New York’s 2nd CD—increases the totals to 222 Democrats and 209 Republicans.

That leaves four seats truly in doubt:

  • California’s 21st CD, where incumbent Democrat T.J. Cox trails Republican David Valadao, in a 2018 rematch, by 2,065 votes.
  • California’s 25th CD, where Democrat Christy Smith is within 104 votes of unseating Republican Mike Garcia, who won a special election in May 2020 after first-term Democrat Katie Hill resigned.
  • Iowa’s 2nd CD, where Democrat Dave Loebsack did not seek reelection; Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks leads Democrat Rita Hart by only 47 votes!
  • New York’s 22nd CD, where Republican Claudia Tenney’s lead over incumbent Democrat Anthony Brindisi continues to shrink as New York votes are slowly counted.

Democrats will thus lose a net 8-12 seats compared to the 234-201 margin they had after the 2018 elections. This is a bad result for the Democrats, right?

Well, no…it suggests that polling-based expectations were flawed, because the fundamentals always pointed toward a net loss of House seats for the Democrats. Moreover, the comparison should be to 2016, because that is the last election in which Trump appeared on the ballot.

Following the 2016 elections, Republicans had a 241-194 House majority. Democrats were convinced, wrongly I thought, that gerrymandering by Republican legislators and governors would keep them in the minority for the foreseeable future. Looking ahead to the 2018 midterm elections, knowing Democrats needed to net 24 seats to regain the majority, I looked at all House elections from 1968 to 2016, and I noticed that what “predicted” net change in seats from one election to the next was not the national margin in a given election, but the change in that margin from the previous election. Figure 1 helps to illustrate this.

Figure 1:

In 2018, Democrats net a surprisingly-high 41 House seats, 17 more than they needed, most by narrow margins. It is then reasonable to expect that even a small decline in the Democratic share of the total national House vote would allow Republicans to “claw back” some of these seats Democrats currently lead the total national House vote by 2.0 points, fully 6.6-point decrease f 2018. Entering this value into the OLS regression shown in Figure 1 yields an estimated Democratic loss of 22.4 seats.

In other words, while Democrats expected to gain seats—based on what we now know was polling that underestimated Republican margins by 3-7 points—they should actually have been bracing themselves for a possible loss of the House itself. Instead, they “only” lost between eight and 12 seats, meaning they did far better than history would have suggested. Moreover, Democrats have net between 29 and 33 seats since 2016, earning control of the House in back-to-back elections for the first time since 2006-2008, something that seemed nearly impossible early in 2017.

Summary

Both Democrats and Republicans can find 2020 election results to celebrate.

Democrats won back the White House after just four years (beating 1:3 odds to defeat an incumbent), rebuilding their upper-Midwestern blue wall while expanding into the southeast and southwest; no Democratic presidential nominee has won both Arizona and Georgia since 1948. They also maintained control of the House of Representatives and made gains in the Senate; with two more wins in Georgia in January 2021, they regain control of the Senate as well. Democrats have not controlled both the White House and House since 2010.

Republicans, even as they lost the White House, gained as many as 12 seats in the House and staved off losing control of the Senate until January 2021 at the earliest. They net one governor’s mansion, giving them a 27-23 majority, and held their own in state legislative elections. Once again, Trump’s name on the ballot encouraged many more exurban and rural voters to vote than expected, ironically helping all Republicans but himself and his running mate.

Fans of bipartisan “balance” can also celebrate 11 states seeing different parties win their state’s electoral votes and serving as governor. Moreover, a record-smashing 155.1 million—and counting—Americans cast a ballot for president, which equates to two in three of all adults eligible to vote.

Finally, the polls erred substantially in favor of Republicans, with a miss of around 3.5 points compared to my final projections and 4.7 points relative to those from 538. Republicans fared even better in Senate and gubernatorial elections, beating final projections by around six points in the former and nearly eight points in the latter. These values mask a partisan split, with polls far more accurate for Democratic candidates than Republican ones. In the end, though, polls were far less accurate—in this Trump-led cycle at least—than simply considering a state’s recent partisan lean, the national partisan environment and incumbency. These fundamentals remain extremely predictive, at least relatively.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…


[1] 1956, 1972, 1980, 1984, 1992, 1996, 2004, 2012

[2] Democratic full-term incumbents=4.4, Democratic partial-term incumbents=2.2, non-incumbent=0, Republican partial-term incumbents=–0.4, -0.6, -1.6; Republican full-term incumbents=-2.4

[3] Arizona, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont

[4] Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina

[5] The Cook Political Report hedged a bit, labeling 229 seats at least Lean Democrat, 179 seats at least Lean Republican, and 27 seats Toss-up. Of the Toss-ups, nine are held by Democrats, 17 by Republicans, and one by Justin Amash of Michigan, who switched from Republican to Independent in July 2019.