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Looking Down Ballot


While much of the coverage of the November 2020 elections has focused on the top of the ticket -- the race for the White House -- control of both chambers of Congress and statehouses across the country is also at stake.

Last week, we discussed the state of the campaign for the White House, but President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will not be the only two candidates with their names on the ballot this November. Every single member of the U.S. House of Representatives is up for reelection, along with one-third of the Senate, several governors, and thousands of state legislators.

At this moment—and, in 2020, who knows what could happen in the five months until we cast our ballots—it appears that Democrats are poised to hold their own, or even make gains at each of these levels.

In the U.S. House, a party needs 218 seats to maintain majority status. In the lower chamber of Congress, where a majority vote decides nearly everything, both parties desperately focus their efforts every other November on surpassing 218 members. Democrats currently hold 233 seats, which means Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her caucus control the agenda. According to the election forecasting website 270ToWin, the consensus forecast of analysts predicts Democrats will lose about 10 seats. That sounds bad, but even if this shift were to happen, Speaker Pelosi will still be in charge, albeit with a slimmer margin with which to work.

And that prediction might be a worst-case scenario. The majority of the turnover is expected from Republicans taking over seats in districts where the current member of Congress is a Democrat representing voters who favored President Donald Trump in the 2016 election. If President Trump’s favorability ratings continue to erode (as we discussed last week they are), these districts would be more likely to stay in the Democratic column.

In addition to polling in individual House races, analysts look the “generic ballot” question to determine which party is favored at the congressional level.

This question is simple, asking only which party a voter wants to win in November. The election data website FiveThirtyEight is tracking every single survey where this question has been asked. In polls taken since the beginning of this month, Democrats’ advantage over the GOP ranges from four points to 13 points. Republicans have not been ahead on a single generic ballot poll at any point this year. And, in more bad news for the Republicans, the party has been within one point of topping the Democrats in only three of the dozens of surveys taken.

But it’s not all bad news for the GOP. While current polling favors Democrats, history indicates that Republicans will pick up at least a few House seats. In the nine instances since 1932 where an incumbent president has been at the top of the ballot, only twice—with President Bill Clinton’s reelection in 1996 and President Dwight Eisenhower’s in 1956—did the party that held the White House lose House seats. (This tally includes the three times that President Franklin Roosevelt stood for reelection.)

The historical improvements were slight, however. For example: Democrats gained only eight House seats during President Barack Obama’s reelection year (2012). Republicans gained only three when President George W. Bush was reelected in 2004. Neither tally would come close to allowing the GOP to retake House control today.

In the other chamber of Congress, the U.S. Senate, Democrats’ prospects for securing a majority appear, based on polling, to be rising.

Though the party currently is in the minority, Democrats have a distinct advantage in the upper chamber, where only one-third of the seats in the chamber are up for grabs every two years. Only 12 seats currently held by Democrats will be on the ballot in November—about half as many as the 23 Republican-held seats that will be decided.

What’s more, only two seats held by Democrats are what Cook Political Report analysts call “vulnerable”—meaning they have a chance to be taken over by the opposing party. That number compares to nine vulnerable seats for Republicans. Democrats, of course, need to pick up only three seats to turn Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) into the next Senate Majority Leader. If the party can hold its two vulnerable seats and convert on one-third of the GOP’s vulnerable seats, the Democrats will hold a majority in the Senate beginning in January.

Even Republican campaign operatives admit keeping hold of the upper chamber of Congress will be difficult for the GOP. Tim Cameron, former chief digital strategist at the National Republican Senatorial Committee – the Senate campaign arm of the Republican Party – told Vox, “There’s no denying that the Senate is very much in play, and I think a lot of Republicans are in denial about taking that for granted at this point.”

Though the election is less than five months away, Senate polling is still somewhat scarce. But pay attention as we get closer to November 3, especially in the last month of the election cycle. According to FiveThirtyEight, Senate polling within 21 days of the election is remarkably accurate. (Unlike, say, polling three weeks out from the 2016 presidential election.)

Polling might be a good guide, but history is not. Presidents George W. Bush (2004) and Barack Obama both (2012) each gained seats in the Senate during their respective reelection year. But Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton all were down two Senate seats after the ballots were counted in 1972, 1994, and 1996, respectively. President Dwight Eisenhower was down a single seat during his reelection year while President Franklin Roosevelt lost senators in two out of his three reelections.

And for those real politicos, there’s even more exciting action down ballot. In addition to these federal races, there are thousands of important campaigns happening at the state level. Not only will these lawmakers make important decisions about COVID-19 economic recovery programs (and what to do if there is a virus resurgence in the winter), data access and privacy, and policing reforms, the new class of state legislators will decide how to draw future congressional maps since 2020 is a census year. Once the decennial population count has been completed, representation in Congress is reapportioned based on population shifts. In most states, legislators decide how to draw the maps that will make up their states’ congressional districts for the next ten years.

Forty-four states have at least a portion of their state lawmakers on the ballot. In all, control of 86 chambers is up from grabs. (There are 99 state legislative chambers in the United States in total. Most states have two chambers – a senate and an assembly, but Nebraska has only one.) According to Ballotpedia, Republicans currently control 61 chambers while Democrats hold 37. In the Alaska House, the two parties have a power-sharing agreement since the division between the parties is so narrow.

About one-quarter (21) of the chambers on the ballot are considered battleground races by Ballotpedia. Democrats hold 11 of these chambers and Republicans hold nine. That final chamber is the Alaska House.

The lawmakers in these chambers will wield a lot of power in the coming years.

According to CNN, seven states—Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, and Texas—each could gain at least one U.S. House seat as a result of the 2020 U.S. Census count. Ballotpedia lists battleground chambers for three of those seven states: Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina. If that control flips in those chambers, redistricting could look much different than it would under the current landscape.

President Trump is likely to be an important factor in what happens in these races, and in how they shift over the next five months. According to Associated Press reporter David A. Lieb, “National surveys of voters from 2006-2018 have shown that presidential approval carries nearly three times as much impact in determining voters’ choices for state legislative candidates as their approval of the legislature itself.”

Last week this column reported that President Trump’s approval rating was at 42 percent in early June. Today, according to Gallup, it is at 39 percent.

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