What an interesting time to be a political scientist! I must say though, it can get frustrating reading generic top line comments about the Presidential election. It seems as if everyday the news is quoting political scientists who just read headlines. Elections are a multitude of independent and dependent variables working together. One of the reasons we at PG Targeting called the 2016 Presidential election for Donald J. Trump, when 90% of everyone else got it wrong, was because Presidential elections are more than just singular events.
In 2016, the internal political climate of Pennsylvania was all over the place. Here was a state that elected conservative U.S. Senator Rick Santorum. The governor’s seat had a history of flipping back and forth, and you had Mr. Trump trending up and Mrs. Clinton barely holding steady. Polls, which are just snapshots in time with margins or error, said Mrs. Clinton would win by 1.9 points and every pundit was running with it. Anyone who disagreed was laughed at, including us.
President Trump won by 0.7 points.
The 2020 Presidential election is just under 5 months away. What we want to do is give you a bit more than just a top line poll of the states. Let’s look beneath the surface and use more than just a national job approval poll to forecast 2020. What possible implication could an electoral vote breakdown have this far out? It gives us a snapshot of where we are and where we are going, and both parties have a lot of work to do if they want to win it in November.
Here we go…
There are 538 Electoral Votes you can get. You need 270 Electoral Votes to win. If neither candidate gets 270, the election gets decided by Congress. Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia are Winner take all. Two states use proportional systems: Maine and Nebraska. Maine has a new system of voting in Federal elections called “Ranked-Choice.”
Former Vice President Biden picks up Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia, and the Maine statewide electors.
President Trump picks up Indiana, and Texas.
I know, ya’ll think placing both Indiana and Texas in the “likely” category is wrong. Let me explain.
Indiana is Vice President Pence’s home state. This is a huge advantage, but I just cannot seem to get 2008 out of my head. President Obama won Indiana which proves it’s doable, and that was technically only two elections ago. If I were to be more specific on the ratings I would put Indiana right on the line of Safe and Likely… just to be accurate.
Texas’ red and blue voting margins, combined with all the polling we have, make Texas too close to be a Safe seat. As a native Texan, involved in elections here, I can’t mathematically come up with a scenario where red rural Texas doesn’t neutralize the big blue inner-city vote… especially in a Presidential year.
But what about 2018 you ask? In 2018, former Congressman and U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke took 48.3% of the vote against incumbent GOP U.S. Senator Ted Cruz because Democrats turned out in Presidential year numbers (a trend we saw across the nation). Republicans stayed home, not thinking there was a threat. The cat’s out of the bag – the alarm has been sounded – the jig is up!
On top of that, the GOP has the best political team and candidate leading the charge for Republicans in Texas: U.S. Senator John Cornyn. I feel sorry for the presumptive democratic candidate for U.S. Senate MJ Hegar. Republicans are going to turn out in Texas, and MJ Hegar’s career as a professional candidate who can’t get elected is over after 2020.
Former Vice President Biden grabs Minnesota, and New Hampshire.
President Trump picks up Georgia, the Maine 2nd Congressional District, and Ohio.
Minnesota consistently votes blue, but President Trump only lost it by 1.5 pts in 2016. Polls show him closing the gap. Unfortunately, the GOP cannot seem to break past 45% of the vote. They could this year with the money and the ground game, but not at this moment. We will see.
New Hampshire voted for President Bush in 2000, and has voted democrat ever since. The GOP is consistently down in the polls, and the electoral history of the state shows they cannot break past a 46% threshold on election day.
Georgia has lot of variables working against a GOP victory. There was a contentious governor’s race in 2018 which has stirred up democrats, and there is a lot of money that will go into democratic voter turnout in 2020 because of the U.S. Senate races. Yes, I said races – plural. Both seats are on the ballot. One is a special election, and the other is a regular election with a GOP incumbent. Ultimately, Georgia is a reliable red state with President Trump winning in the polls, and the GOP did win in 2018 even with record turnout for Democrats.
The Maine 2nd Congressional District was won by President Trump in 2016, but the district flipped blue in 2018. Seems serious until you realize in 2018 Maine changed how you vote. Maine uses a system called ranked choice which only works if no candidate gets 50+1% of the vote. The problem with ranked choice is we do not exactly know how voters will rank their choices. Pollsters will need to adapt this to their models. The district still shows it will vote GOP, and I think President Trump can pull off 50+1%, just as he did in 2016.
Ohio is classified as “lean” because President Trump does not have a down ballot statewide candidate, like a governor or senator, augmenting GOP turnout operations. But he did win it in 2016, and is statistically tied in relevant polling, while former Vice President Biden keeps trending down. Come election day, President Trump is winning this bellwether.
Former Vice President Biden picks up Arizona and Wisconsin.
President Trump carries Florida, Iowa, Michigan, the Nebraska 2nd Congressional District, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania (again).
Wisconsin was won by President Trump in 2016, but this time around he is trending down while former Vice President Biden is holding steady. When you combine those trends with there is no statewide help like a governor or senator on the ballot, it is hard to see a GOP win at this time. If President Trump can get a boost here with a good ground game, then he’ll have a shot. Keep in mind, the state voted for Scott Walker multiple times, and the democrats can’t seem to get past 1.38 million votes, with the GOP topping off at 1.4 million… it’s going to be close!
Arizona has a lot of unique variables right now. President Trump won Arizona by 3 points in 2016. The GOP has won every presidential election in Arizona in recent memory, except for 1996 and that was more because of Ross Perot than Bill Clinton. The GOP lost the 2018 U.S. Senate race by a narrow margin, yet the incumbent GOP Governor was re-elected by an outstanding 14-point margin.
This time around the democrats smell blood in the water. There is a massively contested U.S. Senate race happening right now. Democrats have picked themselves a “golden ticket” with former NASA Astronaut and husband to nationally known former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, Mark Kelley. He has skyrocketed in the polls and is sitting at a 10-point lead against incumbent GOP U.S. Senator Martha McSally, who was appointed to fill the late John McCain’s seat after losing the other U.S. Senate seat two years prior.
Above them on the ballot the polls have President Trump hovering in the mid 40’s, with former Vice President Biden not that far above him. Considering all the internal dynamics, Mark Kelly might be popular enough to throw the former Vice President across the finish line in Arizona. At this moment in June, I am coloring Arizona blue.
Florida voted for President Trump in 2016. In 2018, the GOP flipped the U.S. Senate seat red, and held on to the Governor’s seat. Both by slim margins. For 2020, President Trump gets the advantage of being an incumbent, and the state GOP has a proven playbook to win. Polls at this moment are statistically tied. It is going to come down to who has the best turnout operations on election day. For today, I am giving Florida to President Trump.
Iowa voted republican in 2004, democrat in 2008 and 2012, and for President Trump in 2016 by more than 9 points. The President is polling ahead of the former Vice President, and he has the help of incumbent GOP U.S. Senator Joni Ernst on the ballot. Iowa goes to President Trump.
Michigan voted for President Trump by 10,000 votes in 2016. The GOP held the governor’s seat until 2018 when democratic turnout matched presidential year numbers. While the President is down in the polls, he has trended up and former Vice President Biden has trended down. On top of all that, the GOP’s U.S. Senate candidate is John James. He is a charismatic West Point graduate, Army Ranger, and a candidate who has raised some serious cash to take on the incumbent democrat. With President Trump and John James on the ballot together, and considering the state’s history, the GOP has a great shot. *At the time of posting this breakdown, I noticed another Michigan poll pop up. Now I’m on the fence. It shows how easy these states swing back and forth.
Nebraska 2nd Congressional District data is hard to come by. They voted GOP in 2012 and 2016. This time around they have popular U.S. Senator Ben Sasse on the ballot and spending statewide. The incumbent GOP Congressman for the 2nd District, Don Bacon, is also on the ballot and spending. If Congressman Bacon could survive the 2018 culling, President Trump will have the numbers to pull off another Nebraska sweep.
North Carolina is voting for President Trump. The state has voted for every republican president since 1980, with the exception of President Obama in 2008. President Trump has incumbent GOP U.S. Senator Thom Tillis on the ballot and spending to help. North Carolina has a massive GOP congressional delegation all spending in their districts. On top of all that, the GOP candidate for Governor is the Lt. Governor, and he is about to get his campaign up and running. The polls have everything in a dead heat, which means all the variables combined give President Trump the advantage in North Carolina.
Pennsylvania votes for President Trump, again. This is a state where the GOP has a U.S. Senate seat, half the congressional delegation, and majorities in the state legislature and state senate. Polls have President Trump trending up and former Vice President Biden trending down. If the GOP can repeat 2016 and message appropriately by working together across the state, they have the advantage to win it in 2020.
To wrap up…
Can all this change by November? YES. Honestly, it will probably all be different next month. Especially in Arizona, Wisconsin, *Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Former Vice President Biden’s VP pick will probably turn the election math upside down, but there is plenty of 2020 left. If President Trump rallies the economy, again, he will have passed the ultimate test of re-electing an incumbent President.
Cody Davis is PG Targeting’s Partner for Political Design. Over the last decade Cody has worked on 39 campaigns across local, state, and federal elections, and was one of the few political scientists to predict President Donald Trump’s victory in Pennsylvania. Cody has directly contributed to political wins for former Congresswoman and now U.S. Senator Martha McSally (R-AZ), Congressman Randy Weber (R-TX), Congressman Michael Cloud (R-TX), and has been nominated for political awards 4 times and won twice. Cody Davis is a veteran of the United States Air Force, having served in Iraq and Afghanistan, is a graduate of Texas A&M University, and lives in Austin, Texas.