The narrative of the 2020 election is that Joe Biden did pretty well … but down-ballot Democrats, not so much. And while this is true if you look simply at the results — Republicans defended most of their vulnerable Senate seats and gained several seats in the House — there wasn’t actually as much split-ticket voting as you might think.
For decades now, how a person votes for president has become a better and better predictor of how she votes in other races. As we wrote after the 2018 midterms, the correlation between a state or district’s base partisanship and how it voted for Senate or House that year was extremely strong. And the same looks like it was true in 2020 as well.
Why did down-ballot Democrats have such a mediocre showing?
The chart below shows the difference between Biden’s vote share and the Democratic Senate candidate’s vote share in the 33 states that held Senate elections contested by both major parties in 2020. And as you can see, people largely voted the same way for both president and Senate. In all but three states, the Democratic Senate candidate’s vote share was within 5 percentage points of Biden’s. (Similarly, Republican Senate candidates’ vote shares were within 5 points of President Trump’s in all but three states.)
The Democratic Senate candidate who most outperformed Biden was Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, who received 66.6 percent of the vote — 7.2 points better than Biden. But this won’t surprise anyone familiar with Rhode Island politics. An Army veteran and political moderate, Reed has always enjoyed significant crossover support, winning each of his last three elections with more than 70 percent of the vote. However, it is perhaps a sign of these highly polarized times that Reed’s 2020 vote share was the lowest since he was first elected in 1996. (And it might have been even lower if his GOP opponent hadn’t been disavowed by the Rhode Island Republican Party after it learned of his 2019 arrest on charges of domestic assault.)
On the other end of the spectrum, the Democratic Senate candidate who most underperformed Biden was Chris Janicek in Nebraska, who garnered just 26.2 percent of the vote even as Biden received 39.3 percent. The fact that Janicek underperformed Biden isn’t that surprising, though, as he was also a seriously flawed candidate. The Nebraska Democratic Party asked Janicek to drop out after he made sexual comments about one of his campaign staffers in a group text message and ultimately endorsed a write-in candidate instead of him. However, Republican Sen. Ben Sasse was also a strong incumbent (he outperformed Trump by more than any Senate Republican in the country — 8.9 percentage points). Sasse’s occasional willingness to speak out against Trump may have helped him appeal to Trump-skeptical Republicans in the state.
The last state with a significant amount of split-ticket voting was Maine. Democrat Sara Gideon did 10.6 points worse than Biden, while Republican Sen. Susan Collins did 7.1 points better than Trump. Because Maine is a fairly competitive state, that was enough for Collins to win the state even though Trump lost it. That gives Maine a unique distinction: It is the only state so far1 that didn’t vote for the same party for president and Senate, something that used to be fairly common. But this year, Collins was the only candidate whose bipartisan bona fides (she voted against Trump more often than any other Republican senator, most recently her vote against now-Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett) were strong enough to pull the trick.
All other Senate races hewed quite close to presidential results — and because this year’s Senate races took place largely on Republican turf, that was a big blow to Democrats’ efforts to flip the chamber. Before Election Day, Democrats were hopeful that strong candidates like Steve Bullock, Jaime Harrison and Barbara Bollier could swim against the partisan tide and pull out wins in Montana, South Carolina and Kansas, respectively. But for all the money they raised, for all of their theoretical crossover appeal, Bullock ran just 4.6 points ahead of Biden, Harrison just 0.8 points ahead and Bollier just 0.3 points ahead. As a result, none came particularly close to winning their very red states.
To make matters worse for Democrats, their candidates also underperformed Biden in states where running slightly ahead of him might have been enough to flip a Senate seat or two. Maine is certainly an obvious example, but this category also includes states like Texas, where Democratic Senate candidate M.J. Hegar ran 2.6 points behind the president-elect (perhaps because her opponent, Sen. John Cornyn, was more temperamentally palatable to suburban swing voters than Trump was), and North Carolina, where Democrat Cal Cunningham ran 1.6 points behind (perhaps due to his sexting scandal). And despite Biden winning Georgia with 49.5 percent of the vote, Democrat Jon Ossoff got just 47.9 percent in the regular Senate election, and Democrats in the special election combined for just 48.4 percent — problems Ossoff and Raphael Warnock will need to solve in next month’s runoffs.
There was even some Democratic dropoff in Senate races Democrats won, like Colorado and Michigan. Democrat John Hickenlooper did 1.9 points worse than Biden in the former, and Sen. Gary Peters did 0.7 points worse than Biden in the latter. These underperformances may also have been due to the strength of the Republican candidates. Like Cornyn, Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado may simply have benefited from being a Republican not named Trump in a once-red state that has zoomed leftward over the last few years. And in Michigan, John James was probably the GOP’s strongest recruit of the cycle; in a year where Democrats were consistently winning the fundraising battle, he raised more money than Peters in four consecutive quarters.
Again, though, these differences are quite small; only a tiny fraction of Biden voters cast a vote for anyone but Democrats in the Senate. And, it turns out, the same is true in the House. Even though Democrats lost seats in the lower chamber, there were very few people who voted for opposite parties for president and House.
Our second chart shows the difference between Biden’s vote share and the Democratic share of the House popular vote in the 44 states where more than 85 percent of House seats were contested by both major parties. Again, the lack of split-ticket voting is apparent from the way the dots bunch around the center line. Indeed, the Democratic share of the House popular vote was within 5 percentage points of Biden’s vote share in every state. And even though House Democrats did underperform Biden overall (so far, they have received 50.6 percent of the national House popular vote to Biden’s 51.1 percent), that 0.5-point difference is nothing to write home about.
Of course, aggregating the House vote at the state or national level could be obscuring some individual districts where a significant amount of split-ticket voting took place. Ideally, we’d compare the results of each House race to the presidential result in that congressional district, but that data is still being calculated. (Contrary to popular belief, those numbers aren’t usually available from official sources; they have to be calculated by outside analysts after the fact.) But based on the numbers we do have (thanks to some fast work by Daily Kos Elections and Bloomberg’s Greg Giroux), so far it looks like split-ticket voting was minimal in most districts as well.
In seeking to explain why Biden racked up a gaudy electoral-vote total but Democrats performed poorly in the Senate and House, there have been all sorts of theories — one common one being that voters, anticipating a Biden win, preemptively voted Republican for Congress to give Biden some checks and balances. But as we have seen, there just isn’t much evidence for that. The vast majority of voters voted the same way for president and Congress, and while there were undoubtedly some people who split their tickets between Biden and congressional Republicans, there were also some who split their tickets between Trump and congressional Democrats.
A better take is that Democrats “performed poorly” in the Senate and House simply compared with pre-election expectations. But they still won more House seats than Republicans did, and arguably, the main reason they didn’t do better in the Senate is because of the chamber’s Republican bias. In reality, Democrats performed about the same in all three races, but the structures through which those results were filtered — the Electoral College, the Senate seats that happened to be up and a House map biased toward Republicans — produced different results.