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Happy New Year and Welcome to the 2020 Election Cycle in Earnest


The 2020 presidential and congressional elections are just 11 months away.

Happy New Year! With 2020 having now arrived, we are in the midst, in earnest, of the presidential and congressional elections. The Iowa Caucus, set for Monday, Feb. 3, is now 32 days away. While there will be some policies enacted in Washington in 2020, because the year will be overwhelmingly dominated by politicking and primaries, we begin our updates in the new year examining where the race for the White House, and Congress, stands.


With a robust – but thinning – list of Democrats running for president, the races for control of the House and Senate this November have received precious few headlines over the last several months. So let’s start there—with the caveat that no one actually knows yet how the U.S. House’s December impeachment votes, and the upcoming Senate trial, will impact congressional races just yet.


Just before the holidays, Cook Political Report—one of Washington’s standard-bearers for election tracking and predictions—said the Senate is “in play,” meaning Republicans could lose their 53-47 hold on the majority. Cook did declare that the vote on whether to convict President Donald Trump on the House’s articles of impeachment will matter, and in fact could determine the fate of four vulnerable incumbent senators, one Democrat and three Republicans. They are:


  • Alabama Democrat Doug Jones, for whom a vote to acquit the president would likely significantly help his electoral odds in a state where 62 percent of the electorate voted for President Trump in 2016.

  • Republicans Martha McSally (Ariz.), Corey Gardner (Colo.) and Susan Collins (Maine), for whom a vote to remove the president from office could result in “very credible primary opposition, something that would hurt their re-election efforts.” In contrast “a vote to acquit Trump doesn’t help them appeal to the kind of college-educated suburban voters they need to win” in a general election, should they survive their Republican primary opponent challengers.


According to Cook, at least five seats currently held by Republicans, including the four listed above and the one occupied by Thom Tillis of North Carolina, could shift to the Democrats on Election Day.


If President Trump is reelected and Vice President Mike Pence remains the Senate’s tie-breaking vote (the sitting vice president casts votes in the Senate when there is a tie), Democrats need to win four of those five races, and not lose any of the 12 seats they have up for grabs, to win the majority. They only need to pick up three if a Democrat beats Donald Trump. (According to Cook, only one of those 12 seats currently held by Democrats—Jones’ seat in Alabama—is truly in play, at least at the moment.)


Turning to the House, while most commentators believe it will be difficult for Republicans to oust Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) from her post as speaker, the Democrats’ takeover of the House following the 2018 elections comes at something of a cost, politically, for the party. There are thirty Democrats running for reelection to the House this November who represent districts that President Trump won in the 2016 election. There are only five Republicans running for reelection in districts that Hillary Clinton won.


Republicans need to win a net of 18 additional seats to take back the House. While that might not seem like much – 18 out of 435 seems, on the surface, to be quite manageable – the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call offers this caveat: history is against Republicans since “the party hasn’t gained at least 20 seats in a presidential year in nearly three decades.”

It is therefore quite likely, at least as the politics currently appear, that control of the two chambers of Congress will look in January 2021 exactly as it does today.


Turning to the White House, for those who have been counting, 15 Democrats are still vying for the party’s presidential nomination, with thirteen candidates having dropped out of the race.


For those who have not been counting—and have missed the six previous Democratic debates, don’t worry. There is still plenty of time to evaluate the candidates. In fact, there is another debate scheduled for Jan. 14, and there could be three more in February. To qualify to appear in the Jan. 14 televised discussion, a candidate needs to have secured 225,000 unique donors and must have earned five percent support in four Democratic National Committee (DNC)-approved national polls or seven percent in two DNC-approved early state polls. Only five of the 15—former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), and Mayor Pete Buttigieg (Ind.)—have reached those thresholds.


Of those five, Biden, who indicated this week that he would consider, generally, asking a Republican to be his running mate (but said he couldn’t think of one specifically when asked), is leading virtually every national poll against his fellow Democratic candidates. (As an aside, Biden’s pledge to look across parties lines for a running mate does not defy history. Sen. John McCain reportedly wanted former senator, and former Democratic vice presidential nominee, Joe Lieberman for his running mate in 2008.) Not only does Biden lead, he continues to lead big. The RealClearPolitics average of the national surveys – the poll of polls – has him leading the Democratic field ahead by nearly ten percentage points.


That’s not to say that, if the polling is correct, a Trump-Biden race in November would be a cakewalk for the Democrats. Throughout American political history, there have been five presidential races where the winner of the popular vote lost the Electoral College: Andrew Jackson’s 1824 loss to John Quincy Adams; Samuel Tilden’s 1876 loss to Rutherford B. Hayes; Grover Cleveland’s 1888 loss to Benjamin Harrison; Al Gore’s 2000 loss to George W. Bush; and, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss to Donald Trump. National polls therefore don’t mean all that much. The outcome of presidential elections in the United States is the result of the views of voters in each individual state.


Which brings us back to the Feb. 3 Iowa Caucus. As this blog post pointed out four months ago, Sen. Warren was in the lead in the Hawkeye State. But, as that blog post also pointed out, based on history, September caucus polls numbers are not exactly reliable.

Indeed, the polls can be a fickle mistress and the lead in Iowa has shifted. According to recent surveys tracked by RealClearPolitics, it is Buttigieg, Biden, and Sanders who are now first, second, and third in the hearts of Hawkeyes. Warren is now in fourth in most recent Iowa polls.


Warren also is fourth in most New Hampshire polls. Sanders and Buttigieg are favored in that primary, which is set for Feb. 11.


The race moves west and south after New Hampshire. The Nevada Caucus will be held on Feb. 22 and voters will go to the polls in South Carolina on Feb. 29. Biden holds a nine-point average advantage in Nevada and a near-19 point advantage in South Carolina. Biden also leads in the early voting states of California and Texas, which will both hold primaries on March 3.


Looking nationally, and state by state, then, it does appear at this point like the race is Joe Biden’s to lose. According to several gambling websites, Biden also is the candidate to beat. (Interestingly, however, Biden is not winning in the Democrats’ money race. Fundraising totals for the fourth quarter are not out yet, but Biden trailed Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg in fundraising through the third quarter of 2019. Pay attention to the fourth quarter figures when they come out later this month. If Biden does not improve, political commentators could start to raise questions about his ability to go all the way, and to raise money during a general election race against a well-financed Donald Trump.)


Finally, what do early polls say about November’s general election? At this point, the race is far too close to call. In a December CNN poll, President Trump lost when matched up against Biden, Warren, and Sanders, and was ahead of Buttigieg only by a point. A survey conducted by Emerson revealed almost identical results, except Buttigieg and the sitting commander in chief were tied.


Forbes estimated in September that more than $6 billion will likely be spent by the political parties, by SuperPAC’s, by candidates themselves, and by special interest groups between now and November 3 to try to influence the outcome of the elections. If that figure is accurate, it will represent the most money spent in a U.S. election cycle…since 2016. So happy new year, enjoy the barrage of political advertisements to which you will be subject for the next 11 months, and welcome to the 2020 election cycle.

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