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Will 2020 Be Another Blue Wave Election Year?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): The 2018 midterm elections were what we called “a blue wave.” Democrats picked up 40 seats in the House, making it the third-largest gain by any party in 40 years. However, as we cautioned then, this did not mean anything for what the electoral environment might look like in 2020. Two years is a lifetime in politics.

But now we’re roughly six months away from Election Day, and it looks as if the electoral environment might once again favor Democrats. Take the Democrats’ lead over Republicans in our congressional generic ballot tracker. It’s about 8 percentage points, which is just 1 point less than their lead on Election Day 2018. It’s not just the race for Congress either. Former Vice President Joe Biden also has about a 6-point lead over Trump nationally, and that lead is even larger in some states.

However, the national environment can change — and probably will. We found, for instance, in the last six months of an election cycle, a 4-point spread, on average, between the largest and smallest generic ballot margins. That might not sound like a lot, but in our era of ultra-competitive elections, things are often decided at the margins.

So today, let’s talk about the case for — and the case against — a blue wave in 2020.

First, big picture: What evidence do we have that the overall environment is good for Democrats? Evidence that it’s good for Republicans?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): Yeah, I’m really torn on this. The evidence in favor of a blue wave starts with the polls, IMO.

First, as you mentioned, Democrats have a solid — almost 2018-level! — lead in our generic congressional ballot tracker.

I know Geoffrey has found that that’s subject to change over the course of the cycle, but it has been really steady.

Plus the Biden polls you mentioned.

Plus some truly bonkers Senate polls!

There is certainly time for things to change, but I think you can’t be feeling good about these numbers if you’re a Republican.

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): Right, while the generic ballot does handily favor Democrats now, it could change. (Historically, the margin has narrowed, and as we’ve said, I found that it moved 4 points, on average, between six months out and Election Day.)

Of course, there’s no guarantee it’ll move as much this time, but as I noted in an article on the 2020 House map, there are a bunch of seats Democrats are defending that Trump carried in 2016, so even a 1- to 2-point move in the generic ballot might make it tougher for Democrats to hold on to some of these more competitive seats they won in 2018.

Democrats are defending many districts Trump won

Incumbents seeking reelection in seats won by the other party’s presidential candidate in 2016, by 2016 presidential result and median race rating

District Inc. party Incumbent seeking reelection 2016 pres. margin Race Rating
NJ-11 D Mikie Sherrill R+0.9 Safe D
NJ-05 D Josh Gottheimer R+1.1 Safe D
WI-03 D Ron Kind R+4.5 Safe D
IL-17 D Cheri Bustos R+0.7 Likely D
AZ-01 D Tom O’Halleran R+1.1 Likely D
MN-02 D Angie Craig R+1.2 Likely D
NY-18 D Sean Patrick Maloney R+1.9 Likely D
PA-17 D Conor Lamb R+2.6 Likely D
MI-11 D Haley Stevens R+4.4 Likely D
NV-03 D Susie Lee R+1 Lean D
NH-01 D Chris Pappas R+1.6 Lean D
VA-02 D Elaine Luria R+3.4 Lean D
IL-14 D Lauren Underwood R+3.9 Lean D
MI-08 D Elissa Slotkin R+6.7 Lean D
UT-04 D Ben McAdams R+6.7 Lean D
NY-19 D Antonio Delgado R+6.8 Lean D
PA-08 D Matt Cartwright R+9.6 Lean D
GA-06 D Lucy McBath R+1.5 Toss-up
IA-01 D Abby Finkenauer R+3.5 Toss-up
IA-03 D Cindy Axne R+3.5 Toss-up
NJ-03 D Andy Kim R+6.2 Toss-up
VA-07 D Abigail Spanberger R+6.5 Toss-up
NY-11 D Max Rose R+9.8 Toss-up
NM-02 D Xochitl Torres Small R+10.2 Toss-up
ME-02 D Jared Golden R+10.3 Toss-up
SC-01 D Joe Cunningham R+13.1 Toss-up
OK-05 D Kendra Horn R+13.4 Toss-up
NY-22 D Anthony Brindisi R+15.5 Toss-up
MN-07 D Collin Peterson R+30.8 Toss-up
CA-25 R Mike Garcia D+6.7 Toss-up
NY-24 R John Katko D+3.6 Lean R
PA-01 R Brian Fitzpatrick D+2 Lean R

Rating is the race’s median rating among the Cook Political Report, Inside Elections and Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

Sources: The Cook Political Report, Inside Elections, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, Daily Kos Elections, House of Representatives

nrakich: But even if the environment changes, I’m not sure it will be in Republicans’ favor. In addition to the polling evidence, there’s a good theoretical argument for a blue wave, which is that we’ve entered an economic crisis and the incumbent president (and his party) does not do well when the economy is struggling.

The unemployment rate is currently 14.7 percent, and I think most experts expect it to get even worse.

geoffrey.skelley: And the president’s approval rating for his handling of the coronavirus crisis is now about the same as his overall approval (43.5 percent approve of his coronavirus response, and 43.7 percent approve of his overall job performance). The fact that these figures now align arguably isn’t great for him or Republicans.

sarah: That’s a good point, but I also don’t know how big a deal that is considering just how stable Trump’s overall approval rating has been. Will his handling of the coronavirus really cause supporters to abandon him when so many other things haven’t? I don’t know. 🤷‍♀️

One other thing I’m not entirely sure how to reconcile is Democrats’ performance in special elections. You’ve found, Nathaniel, that if one party is performing consistently better than expected, that can foreshadow a strong election cycle for that party.

Yet Democrats haven’t done that well in 2019-2020 special elections, right?

In particular, I’m thinking of their two most recent losses — the California 25th and the Wisconsin 7th — but also ones that predate those two elections haven’t boded all that well for Democrats. Is this a possible silver lining for Republicans when it comes to the national environment?

nrakich: Right — to me, this is the big argument against a blue wave. Remember how Democrats overperformed their partisan baseline so consistently in 2017-18 special elections? Well, I’m working on updating that analysis for 2019-20, and I’ll give you a sneak peek: On average so far this cycle, there has been no overperformance for either party.

That tells me that, while the national mood does seem very pro-Democratic, when it comes to turning out to vote, voters of both parties are equally motivated.

sarah: What does that mean if neither party has an advantage?

nrakich: It would point to a neutral political environment.

geoffrey.skelley: And if the electoral environment is more neutral, that might point to a close presidential race that could go either way. You’d probably still be looking at a Democratic hold in the House — but with some GOP gains — and a likely GOP hold in the Senate as well.

nrakich: Right, and I think that’s the prior we went into the election cycle with, considering we are in a historic era of polarization and close presidential elections.

Still probably not a bad assumption.

sarah: And I guess one unknown that is hard to quantify is how the coronavirus pandemic — especially if there is a resurgence in the fall — could upend the election. Not many states have moved to prepare for an all-mail election, so the repercussions could be wide-ranging, in addition to being unpredictable.

nrakich: Yeah, exactly. The coronavirus is a known unknown in more ways than one.

We’re of the position that vote-by-mail doesn’t benefit any one party. But what if different states, or different parts of swing states, are affected differently?

geoffrey.skelley: Luckily, most of the key battleground states do offer some type of mail voting, but obviously access and ease vary from state to state, and no matter what, states will need to be ready for a surge in mail balloting.

sarah: Exactly. And FiveThirtyEight contributor Lee Drutman cautioned in that piece Nathaniel linked to that we should be careful not to apply too much of how voting by mail has worked previously to 2020, as the states that moved to universal voting did so gradually, over several election cycles. In other words, there’s no precedent for what we might see in 2020, and as Lee wrote, “The obvious implication is that efforts to expand absentee voting in a pandemic might work differently. And maybe there will be partisan differences in who chooses to vote by mail, as we saw in Wisconsin’s primary.”

nrakich: Switching gears a bit, I’m curious what you guys made of this article from CNN?

To sum it up, it found that Trump supporters were more enthusiastic to vote in November than Biden supporters. That’s significant because the party with the enthusiasm advantage has won every presidential election since 1988.

geoffrey.skelley: Enthusiasm certainly matters to some extent. But if one side has a pretty appreciable lead, I’m not sure it matters that much at the end of the day.

nrakich: Yeah, on the other hand, I do wonder about a scenario where the coronavirus is still a factor in November, states haven’t moved to vote by mail and Democrats are more scared to go to polling places than Republicans are.

sarah: Ah, about that supposed lack of enthusiasm for Biden…

People were skeptical in April when we chatted about an ABC/Washington Post poll that found lukewarm enthusiasm for Biden and solid numbers for Trump, but I still think this idea that voters aren’t that excited about Biden has the power to shape the narrative in more ways than we give it credit for. It’s hard, for instance, for me to see Biden driving record-level turnout like Democrats saw in 2008.

That said, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of negative partisanship, or voting for a candidate because you dislike the other party so much. That played a big role in 2016 and could again in 2020.

nrakich: Yes, that’s a good point, Sarah.

Democrats don’t have to be enthusiastic about Biden if they’re enthusiastic about beating Trump.

sarah: Exactly.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, negative partisanship has probably never been higher than today, so it’s a factor in our elections now more than ever. Though a piece from Matt Grossman for FiveThirtyEight points out that anger at Trump — which connects to negative partisanship — might not be enough by itself for Democrats to win in November, because while it may mobilize white voters, it doesn’t motivate nonwhite voters as much. And Democrats will need solid turnout among African Americans and probably Latinos, too — think Arizona — if they are to win the presidency.

sarah: Turnout, particularly with all the unknowns surrounding the coronavirus, could play a really big role here in November, too. But I’m not entirely sure which party would benefit.

You could see maybe more Republicans turning out — virus, be damned — given some of the partisan splits we’re starting to see emerge on the coronavirus. Or maybe it’s a redux of what happened in Wisconsin if the effort to push for more mail ballots is driven largely by one party.

Are there clues we can be looking toward now to help us understand the turnout factor come November?

nrakich: I’m not sure we can know, Sarah, especially because of the coronavirus.

I just think the best tool we have is to look at the polls.

geoffrey.skelley: I haven’t seen recent polls asking about attention level and the election, but that could be something to look for, too.

nrakich: Yeah, I bet that’s decreased since the pandemic took over the news.

geoffrey.skelley: Good point — it might actually be a misleading indicator at this juncture.

nrakich: One interesting thing that may or may not be important is that, according to the RealClearPolitics average, both Biden’s and Trump’s vote share in polls went down as the pandemic started.

Perhaps that suggests they’re feeling more uncertainty about the election?

geoffrey.skelley: That’s possible. It could also just be something about the pollsters included in the average in that particular time period. 🤷‍♂️

sarah: OK, we’ve talked about how the generic ballot currently gives Democrats about an 8-point lead over Republicans, which bodes well for them holding their majority in the House, but what about the Senate? What can we say there about each party’s relative advantages there?

geoffrey.skelley: Unlike the House, the Senate isn’t a national election — only 33 seats are up regularly, along with two special elections in Arizona and Georgia this year. However, of those seats, Republicans control 23 of them, so Democrats have a fair amount of targets. The problem for Democrats is that Alabama is going to be tough to hold, so they need at least four seats plus the vice presidency to gain control. So I would still peg Republicans as favorites to hold it despite the environment.

Another way to put it (editor-in-chief Nate Silver might approve) is that earlier in the cycle, I would’ve said Democrats needed an inside straight to get control of the Senate. But now they’re on a flush draw — more options and slightly better odds — though they still need help.

nrakich: Interesting… I think the Senate has to be considered a toss-up at this point. Republicans pretty much always have the advantage in Senate races because of the chamber’s rural bias. But Democrats seem to be doing well enough in the individual races this year that a 50-50 chamber seems like the modal outcome.

According to the polls, Democrats are clearly ahead in Colorado and Arizona. North Carolina and Maine seem like toss-ups at worst for Democrats, and they might even be a little bit ahead. Even if they lose Alabama, that’s 50-50 already.

Plus Democrats have several dark-horse opportunities, like Montana and Georgia.

geoffrey.skelley: I would rank Montana and Iowa ahead of Georgia at this point, in terms of Democratic chances.

The runoff factor in Georgia is a potential headache for Democrats.

sarah: And remember how Indiana, Missouri and Florida went for Democrats in 2018 despite a very favorable national environment (they lost all three). I know we’re saying that Senate elections aren’t national elections — and they aren’t — but Democrats taking back the Senate could still be very challenging.

geoffrey.skelley: Right, the baseline partisanship of the states with Senate contests is still slightly better for the GOP than for the Democrats. And that could make the difference in 2020, because remember that every Senate race followed the state’s presidential result in 2016. True, Colorado and Maine, which currently have two GOP senators up for reelection, lean slightly Democratic, but states like Georgia, Iowa and Montana lean toward the GOP. That’s true of Arizona and North Carolina, too, to a lesser extent.

nrakich: Sure, but Democrats could easily win the Senate even if every state once again votes the same way for president and Senate. It’s quite possible that Biden will carry Maine, Colorado, Arizona and North Carolina. If you take the polls right now literally, he’s probably ahead in all of those states.

It just goes back to the question of, “Will there be a blue wave in 2020?”

Biden winning those four states would require a mild blue wave.

Although not necessarily a 2018-level one — D+6 should do it.

geoffrey.skelley: For what it’s worth, another thing to remember is that waves tend to happen in midterms, not so much in presidential cycles, which usually are more evenly matched. The 2008 cycle is an outlier there. Just look at House results — the big shifts usually happen in midterms.

It’s also worth remembering that the blue wave conversation may be more obvious in the Senate because of the nature of the map there. Because Democrats control the House and most of the competitive seats, I don’t think you’ll see a big gain for Democrats even if the environment is pretty favorable for them. There just isn’t much low-hanging fruit left for them to pick off, plus they have to defend some tough seats in GOP-leaning places.

nrakich: That is fair. But the circumstances just seem very parallel to 2008. A tanking economy, an unpopular Republican president…

geoffrey.skelley: To some extent, yes. Granted, Trump is seeking reelection, and even though he’s unpopular, he isn’t nearly as unpopular as George W. Bush was in May 2008.

sarah: Bold prediction, Nathaniel! But OK, on that note, what are the biggest unknowns we should be watching as we get closer to Election Day to understand whether another blue wave is in the cards?

nrakich: This is a boring answer, but I’ll just be watching the polls. Special election results notwithstanding, I still think they’re our best indicator.

But the polls in, like, October. I will fully grant that the polls right now could be misleading us.

geoffrey.skelley: The polls right now are reasonably meaningful, but because presidential elections are just close by their nature these days, even a marginal shift could alter the outcome — and there would be down-ballot ramifications for such a shift. So yeah, let’s see where things are in the fall.

nrakich: Right. As I recently wrote, a normal polling error for a presidential general election is 4 points. So that 6-point Biden lead could actually be a 2-point Biden lead, which would make Republicans solid favorites in the Senate and would probably make the presidential race a toss-up given Trump’s likely Electoral College advantage.

Of course, it could also be a 10-point Biden lead.


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Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.