What Tuesday tells us about the 2020 election

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It’s hard to identify the precise moment at which President Trump’s reelection campaign began. Was it in February, when he named his campaign manager? Was it in January 2017 — the day of his inauguration, in fact — when he filed the requisite paperwork? Was it the first day of 2017, when his campaign first spent money on the 2018 election cycle? Or was it Dec. 1, 2016, less than a month after his election, when he held his first post-election rally?

Trump has been talking about his reelection since before his inauguration, making reference to serving for eight years during a news conference in New York during the transition period. He is reportedly ready to turn his attention to that contest more fully, now that the 2018 midterms are behind us.

By at least one metric, though, those 2018 midterms should give him pause about the prospect of serving two full terms.

A colleague raised an interesting question: What does the House vote Tuesday night — the only contest in which nearly every American was asked to weigh in — tell us about the 2020 election? If we pit the votes for Democratic candidates in those races against the votes for the Republicans, where do we land?

The short answer is this: Democrats received about 4.4 million more votes than Republicans on Tuesday, according to the most recent tallies from the Associated Press. That’s while votes are still being counted, including in the Democrat-heavy state of California.

Unlike in 2016, though, those votes were also distributed in a way that helps the Democrats. That vote margin translates to a 290-to-248 electoral vote edge for the Democrat.

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That margin comes thanks to Democrats flipping four states that voted for Trump in 2016: Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

Those might not be the four states you’d expect, given that Trump’s 2016 victory was a result of close votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, not Iowa. He won Iowa by more than 9 points (more than his margin in Texas) and North Carolina by 4 points. The House results in those states Tuesday, though, showed Democrats winning by 4 points in Iowa and 2 in North Carolina.

Both Iowa and North Carolina saw consistent shifts to the Democratic candidate in House races Tuesday, though — in Iowa by wide margins. (Shown below as larger blue boxes.)

But the data powering our assessment of 2020 is not all that great. Notice that we said the House contests involved votes from nearly every American. In several states, candidates were reelected without opponents. That includes Florida, where the vote total for the GOP was narrow enough that uncontested Democratic reelections could have made the difference.

(There are also places where multiple candidates from the same party faced off, boosting the vote totals for those parties. But those were in California, Louisiana and Washington, where the results weren’t really in question, so we skipped them.)

To offset the uncontested races, we created an adjusted version of the data. To estimate the missing vote totals, we assigned each race a number of Democratic and Republican votes equivalent to the average across the state from contested races in which the same party ended up in control. So in Florida, a Democrat elected without an opponent was assigned vote tallies equivalent to the average of what was seen in other Florida House districts that elected Democrats.

The result? Not much different. Florida moved a bit to the Democrats, but the Republican candidate (presumably Trump) would still win. Wisconsin moves from a 5-point Republican advantage to a 0.4-point one — less than the margin Trump saw in 2016. North Carolina moved to the Republicans, but, again, didn’t flip.

There are innumerable caveats here, drifting down on us like snowflakes. House races involve hundreds of different candidates and hundreds of different policy priorities. Presidential races tend to operate on a much more narrow scale. What’s more, the electorate for a midterm election, particularly this midterm election, may not look much like what we will see in 2020.

And, that year, Trump himself will be on the ballot, which might have an effect similar to what we saw between 2010 and 2012: a surge in the latter year among supporters of the president who were less inspired to vote in 2010. Then, of course, there’s the other candidate, whoever he or she is. That person might spur his or her own surge in turnout.

They’d better. After all, Trump has a one- to two-year head start on campaigning.



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