Sure, Stacey Abrams lost her 2018 campaign for governor of Georgia, but she may still have a bright future in the Democratic Party. Abrams delivered a well-received response to the State of the Union, and Democratic senators are reportedly urging her to run for U.S. Senate in Georgia in 2020 — last week, a former Georgia Democratic Party chair told The New York Times he thought it was a “50-50 call” whether Abrams would try for that office. She is also entertaining another gubernatorial run in 2022, and in an interview with BuzzFeed, Abrams appeared to leave the door open to running for president too, saying, “I’m thinking about everything.”
Abrams says she’s “certainly” going to run again. So which office should she choose? I dove into the data to see which path gives her the best chance of winning.
Although Abrams has yet to be included in any 2020 polls in our database, if she did enter the presidential race, she could inspire plenty of excitement around her campaign. Abrams is a progressive, 45-year-old, African-American woman who served as the Democratic leader in the Georgia House of Representatives for six years. That background means she could appeal to both the party’s left and establishment wings, not to mention those voters who believe the party should move on from nominating older white men.
But if she were to embark on a presidential campaign, Abrams would likely face several challenges. The “lanes” she’d be running in are quite crowded with candidates who are already busy building donor networks and relationships with activists in early-primary states. For example, in a national campaign, Abrams could not necessarily bank on carrying African-Americans, who have been her base in Georgia, since voters may have a dozen candidates to choose from, including at least two other black candidates, one of whom is a woman. And despite her fame, Abrams has never won an election for any office higher than state representative; it would be unprecedented for a career politician1 to earn the party nomination with so little experience.
Abrams’s most challenging obstacle may not even be specific to her. In such a crowded primary field, even a front-runner is more likely to lose than to win. For example, oddsmakers give Kamala Harris around a 1-in-3 shot at being the nominee. Let’s be generous and give Abrams a 1-in-5 shot at the Democratic nomination. What would be her odds of becoming president? Well, on the one hand, President Trump is quite unpopular; on the other, he’s an incumbent president amid a good economy, conditions that almost always lead to re-election. That makes it hard to handicap the 2020 general election, but overall, I’d estimate that Trump and the Democratic nominee have about an equal probability of winning: 1 in 2. Multiply 1 in 2 by 1 in 5, and Abrams has a 1-in-10 chance of becoming president.
Those aren’t very good odds — and it’s probably the upper bound for her, which means if just holding office is what’s important, she’s better off running for something else. That said, it’s a 1-in-10 shot for the presidency, so maybe the higher reward is worth the higher risk for Abrams (and that’s without considering that running even a doomed presidential campaign may better set her up to be chosen as someone’s running mate). But if she’s looking for an election where her odds are more favorable, she might want to consider another run for statewide office in Georgia.
Senator vs. governor
The biggest benefit of running in Georgia for Abrams is that she’s unlikely to face serious primary opposition (her indecision over whether to enter the U.S. Senate race has so far kept other potential candidates on the sidelines), so she would probably only have to worry about winning the general election. Even though Georgia remains a Republican-leaning state, her odds in a statewide race are probably better than 1 in 10. In 2018, for example, FiveThirtyEight gave her a 1-in-3 chance of winning the 2018 gubernatorial election, and she ultimately lost by a very narrow margin. But which office would be easier to capture — senator or governor?
There are lots of variables Abrams is probably weighing as she tries to answer that question, including the relative strength of her potential opponents and the effect of two vs. four years of demographic change — white people account for a smaller percentage of the population each year in Georgia, which will likely help Democratic candidates there over time. However, I see these as relatively minor factors2 compared with the effect of the national political environment. If that’s the case, the answer to which office Abrams should run for depends on the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
If a Democrat wins the White House in 2020, Georgia could very well be a battleground state. Over the past 10 years, voting patterns in the state have been moving closer and closer to the national average: In the 2008 presidential election, Georgia was 12.5 points redder than the nation as a whole; in 2012, it was 11.8 points redder; in 2016, it was 7.3 points redder. With a particularly strong national performance, the Democratic nominee has an outside shot at carrying the Peach State in 2020. That would bode well for Abrams if she is also on the ballot as Democrats’ U.S. Senate candidate. Georgia is the second-most inelastic state in the union, which means it has few swing voters of the type who might vote for both Trump and Abrams. Abrams would get less of a boost if the Democratic presidential candidate wins nationwide but still loses Georgia (a distinct possibility), but if a Democrat wins the White House, Abrams would likely still fare better in a 2020 Senate race than in a 2022 gubernatorial election. Midterm elections are almost always bad for the president’s party, and a Republican-leaning state in a Republican-leaning year has almost no chance of going blue. So in the universe where a Democrat is elected president, senator is clearly Abrams’s best bet.
On the other hand, if Trump wins re-election in 2020, he will almost certainly carry Georgia, whose 16 electoral votes are a crucial part of the Republican path to 270.3 And if Trump carries Georgia, it’s difficult to see Abrams winning a Senate election at the same time, again because of Georgia’s inelasticity. But if Trump wins a second term, it’s actually good news for an “Abrams for governor” campaign, since it would likely make 2022 a Democratic-leaning year. Just like she did in the blue-wave year of 2018, Abrams would have a decent shot at the governorship. So in the universe where Trump is re-elected, governor is clearly Abrams’s best bet.
Abrams must now answer a question for herself: Does she think Trump will win re-election in 2020? That will help her determine whether the race for senator or governor is more winnable.
But there’s another factor at play that I’ve neglected to mention: how Abrams wants to spend the next several years of her life. According to The New York Times, Abrams has “long had her heart set on being governor.” And because Abrams is the kind of person who, like many ambitious politicians, maps out her life plan years in advance, she may not want to deviate from that plan, even though it didn’t work out in 2018. There is always the possibility that she could switch gears and start up a presidential campaign, but she has been open about the fact that she was not planning to run for that until 2028, so it seems unlikely that losing the governorship in 2018 would move that timetable up. We shouldn’t have to wait too much longer to know what Abrams’s next move will be: She says she’ll make a decision by the end of March.
From ABC News: