For a party that just resoundingly won a presidential election everyone said was the most important of our lifetimes, Democrats sure are a gloomy bunch, sniping at each other about why they lost seats in the House and failed to win outright control of the Senate as they hoped.
Make no mistake: The way they fell short — particularly in the Senate — is a big problem for the party, with potentially dire implications for President-elect Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. But I want to focus for the moment on the House, because a lot of the discussion about what Democrats did wrong seems to misunderstand why this election turned out the way it did.
In particular, we have to understand these three facts:
- In these polarized times, ticket-splitting is rare, and House votes closely match presidential votes.
- This election featured extremely high turnout among both Democratic and Republican voters.
- The 2020 election followed a midterm in which Democrats made huge gains, including in Republican districts.
No. 3 is particularly important. When you have a wave election like Democrats did in 2018, almost by definition it means you took a bunch of seats in districts that ordinarily go to the other party. In 2020, Democrats had to defend 30 seats in districts that Donald Trump won in 2016, both by narrow and large margins.
So how do parties usually do when they’re in that situation? They usually lose some of the gains they made two years before — or at the very least, fail to add to them:
- In 1974, Democrats picked up 49 House seats, then added only one more in 1976 despite the fact that their candidate, Jimmy Carter, won the presidency.
- In 1994, Republicans picked up 54 seats, then when Bill Clinton was reelected in 1996, they lost three.
- In 2010, Republicans gained 63 seats, then when Barack Obama was reelected in 2012, they lost eight.
- In 2014, Republicans gained 13 seats (in addition to winning the Senate), but lost six seats in 2016, despite the fact that their candidate, Trump, won the presidency.
In none of these cases was the midterm wave followed by the kind of significant pickups Democrats were hoping for this year. It just isn’t something that happens.
There is one exception. In 2006, Democrats gained 31 seats, then added 21 more in 2008. But 2020 was not 2008 and was never going to be.
That’s because 2008 featured a brilliant campaign run by one of the most talented politicians in American history, an economic crisis that hit during the election, an unpopular war and a widely reviled departing GOP president. The result was a disparity in the degree to which Democrats and Republicans turned out and a significant number of Republicans crossing over to vote for the Democrat.
But Trump changes everything. One way he did so this year was by producing Republican turnout nearly as large as the turnout of people who came to vote him out of office.
That’s the context in which those 30 Democratic seats played out. Most featured members who won in 2018 and struggled to hang on when faced with a high-turnout election.
So let’s look at who the Democratic incumbents are who either have lost or look headed for defeat:
- Joe Cunningham (S.C.), 1st Congressional District, is losing by one point; Trump won his district by 13 points in 2016.
- Abby Finkenauer (Iowa), 1st district, lost by three points; Trump won her district by four points in 2016.
- Collin Peterson (Minn.), 7th district, is losing by 13 points; Trump won his district by 31 points in 2016.
- Xochitl Torres Small (N.M.), 2nd district, is losing by eight points; Trump won her district by 10 points in 2016.
- Kendra Horn (Okla.), 5th district, lost by four points; Trump won her district by 13 points in 2016.
- Max Rose (N.Y.), 11th district, is losing by about 15 points; Trump won his district by 10 points in 2016.
- Anthony Brindisi (N.Y.), 22nd district, is losing by 11 points; Trump won his district by 16 points in 2016.
- Harley Rouda (Calif.), 48th district, lost 51-to-49; Hillary Clinton won his district by two points in 2016.
- Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (Fla.), 26th district, lost by three points; Clinton won her district by 16 points.
- Donna Shalala (Fla.), 27th district, lost by three points; Clinton won her district by 20 points.
The two Florida losses are unique; while final results are coming in, it appears that those districts swung dramatically in Trump’s direction this year, which is a story in itself. But if you set those aside, you see that most of the rest of the losses are coming in districts Trump won, in some cases easily.
Furthermore, while Democrats lost some other close races they had a shot to win, they also won a bunch of races in districts Trump won four years ago, including the seats held by Lucy McBath (Ga.), Jared Golden (Maine), Elissa Slotkin (Mich.) and Abigail Spanberger (Va.).
To be clear, this wasn’t a terrific election for House Democrats. But it wound up about the way we should have expected given the turnout.
Which means we had the wrong expectations going in, partly because of wishful thinking (Surely the country will rise up in disgust at Trump and every Republican who enables him!) and partly because polls led us astray.
The 2020 generic House ballot polling showed a steady lead for Democrats all year, ending at just under a seven-point advantage. That was obviously wrong.
Not only that, it was very close to what the polling showed in 2018, when Democrats really did get a sweep. So just as with the election overall, the polls — which apparently weren’t sampling enough Trump supporters, for still-unclear reasons — helped set expectations that didn’t match with the reality on the ground.
There’s no doubt that Democrats have a lot of work to do to expand their House majority, and there are different approaches they could take. But the result this year is one we should have seen coming.
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