Do Democrats Have the 2020 Election in the Bag?

Do Democrats Have the 2020 Election in the Bag?

There was fevered discussion among Democratic obsessives this week over an article in Salon that seemingly contained a blockbuster: Dr. Rachel Bitecofer, a political scientist who made startlingly accurate predictions about the 2018 midterms, is now forecasting a virtual lock on the White House for Democrats in 2020 (see map).

Bitecofer 2020 electoral college prediction map.jpg

Dr. Bitecofer’s argument is that the old American political paradigm centered on persuading voters in the middle has to be replaced by a focus on partisan turnout.  The fact that our politics is now dominated by “negative partisanship” means that most people stick with their own party because of hatred of the other, and thus, election outcomes are usually determined by how motivated one side’s voters are to show up, not through persuading swing voters.  Her model is based on this premise.

Now, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and there is definitely some good support for Dr. Bitecofer’s, not just because of the accuracy of her 2018 model – which was on the nose months ahead of other models – but also because of her reasoning. Most analysts agree on the impact of negative partisanship.  I personally have sounded similar themes: that the shrinking number of swing voters and burgeoning importance of base motivation explained Donald Trump’s 2018 midterm strategy and really his whole political existence; and that the majority of voting effects don’t come from flipping persuadable voters, but from “activating” your own side while “deactivating” the other.  

And Dr. Bitecofer points out some compelling examples, including from the 2017 Virginia gubernatorial election:  “Northam ended up winning by 9%. And he did it by a surge in Democratic Party participation, not by winning over Virginia’s right-leaning Independents. In 2013, 37% of the electorate were Democrats and in 2017 that percent increased to 41%.”

That said, I do want to offer one significant disagreement with her argument, one that matters for Democrats’ approach.

Dr. Bitecofer points to Democrats’ “poor electoral strategy” in running “Blue Dog candidates who were as unobtrusive as possible” in swing districts in hopes that “moderate Republicans [would cross over and vote] for them,” suggesting instead that they should have focused on base motivation and anti-Trump sentiment. There are 3 reasons why I’d argue differently:

1) The Parties Are Different

The graph below shows how conservative or liberal members of congress were over the last four decades, broken out by what types of districts they were in (safe to competitive – for a fuller discussion see here).  Republicans not only got more conservative, they became totally politically homogeneous, whereas the Democrats maintained ideological diversity, ranging from liberal to moderate.

IDeology of memebers of congress over time.png

A key difference is that the Republican Party is defined around ideology – low taxes, small government, social traditionalism  – whereas the Democratic Party represents a coalition of constituencies: labor, urban, college-educated, African American, Latino, and younger voters. So appealing to the base is a pretty straightforward proposition for Republicans (hint: be more conservative), while for Democrats it’s more complicated than just being more liberal: for example African American voters favor relatively moderate, practical economic measures  and only 46% of Hispanic voters support the idea of changing border crossing to a civil infraction. In fact, if you’re trying to goose turnout, you’re probably going after the less activist segments of the party, and there’s very strong evidence that they are more moderate. The bottom line is that effectively motivating the base doesn’t mean becoming a liberal flame-thrower.

2) Turnout Cuts Both Ways

There is a good reason for “Blue Dogs” (i.e., moderate Democrats in swing seats) to be “unobtrusive”: you don’t want to adopt an easy-to-caricature position – or an aggressive move like impeachment – that activates the opposition, which often matches or outnumbers you (polling shows that it is moderate Democrats who are turned off by the idea of their candidates veering toward “Socialist” policies). So it’s not necessarily that Blue Dogs are deluding themselves by aiming to win independents – they may also need to avoid riling up the base on the other side, and if they have effective messages that avoid that pitfall, it’s simply a smarter approach (which is exactly why we see so many Democratic presidential candidates focusing on affordable health care, but now backing off Medicare for All).


3) What If We’re Wrong

There are competing theories for what’s going on. The progressive data analysis firm Catalist found that 89% of the 2018 Democratic vote margin was due not to turnout but to people changing their votes from Trump in 2016, i.e., swing votes. Plus, even if usually the number of swing voters is small, it can be significant. As Vox pointed out, “there were 25 House Republicans who won reelection in 2016 despite Clinton carrying their district, plus 12 Democrats who won races in districts that voted for Trump.”  That’s a substantial ~10% of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2016 who came from split ticket districts. With high turnout forecasted for 2020, persuading the small swing sliver may take on outsized importance in key states.

What can we conclude from all of this? Dr. Bitecofer has made a significant contribution here to drive Democrats to look more creatively for races where a turnout-focused strategy makes sense (and there may be plenty in surprising places — she notes near-wins in the 2018 Georgia governor and Texas senate races). There are still solid reasons for Democrats to avoid leaning hard left, but Democrats don’t always have to in order to motivate their base. Ultimately, as Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson says, Democrats “need to work on persuasion and turnout simultaneously,” and avoid a false choice between them.

Oh, and what about that forecast of a Democratic lock on 2020? I love it. But I recommend not believing it, if for no other reason that if Democrats become complacent, the turnout underlying the Bitecofer model will collapse and Democrats will change their future.  If I take one thing away from the analysis, it’s that running smart is good, but running scared may be better.

POST SCRIPT: Dr. Bitecofer was kind enough to respond to this piece via Twitter, and her comments are pasted below:

Replying to @MattLRobison and @Morning_Joe Thanks for @ ing me about your post. Couple of comments. When you say, "The bottom line is that effectively motivating the base doesn’t mean becoming a liberal flame-thrower" know that I agree. My strategic argument is that there are other ways to motivate base voters than extreme issue positions and I do not endorse that as a strategy. On point two and three: I'll be dropping an analysis that shows that no matter how "unobtrusive" you run (think Spanberger) R turnout surges. So there is no benefit to the strategy in that regard. And the way that one campaigns to moderates and seeing voters is wholly different in my playbook then the DNC'S current playbook. Finally, the @catalist analysis also finds a big role for turnout in '18, esp in the competitive races and I'm in talk w them about possibly teaming up about that.

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