EveryDistrict 2020 Nationwide Predictions

With only a day left until Election Day 2020, the EveryDistrict team is zooming out and taking a broad look at what could happen nationwide in state legislative elections. 

Two weeks ago, we covered the most competitive 22 chambers in an overview here and a state-by-state breakdown here. The EveryDistrict team has calculated the partisan competitiveness of every state legislative district, giving us a unique vantage point on every state legislative election on the ballot this year. What might happen when the votes come in for the 5,875 districts up this year?

First, let’s quickly revisit the past. Democrats lost 1,000 state legislative seats during the Obama years. But where those districts were lost may tell us a little bit more about how and whether we can win them back. After the 2008 election, Democrats controlled both chambers in battleground states like Iowa, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Wisconsin that would fall into GOP hands in subsequent years. But Democrats also controlled both chambers in states like Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, where ancestral Democrats still voted for their local Democratic state legislator while embracing Republicans at the federal and statewide level. 

That all changed starting in 2010, when state legislative election results started to align more closely with top-of-the-ticket results. After the 2016 election, Democratic power in the states was at a historic low: Democrats controlled 3,145 seats to Republicans’ 4,210. The power imbalance was even more stark: Democrats controlled 30 chambers, while Republicans controlled 68.* Democrats should have had two more chambers in their column, but conservative Democrats caucused with Republicans in the Washington and New York Senates.

Following the 2016 election, Democrats started to build back and saw broad gains in special elections and the 2018 general election. After the 2018 midterm, Democrats netted over 300 seats. Democrats flipped closer to 400 seats between 2017 and 2018, but those gains were tempered by a continued loss of Democratic seats in conservative areas.

The good news is that while Democrats continue to bleed in rural areas, this is a year when Democrats can use nationwide changes in voter behavior to their advantage. When Republicans drew state legislative districts after 2010, they carved up the reliably red suburbs into safe GOP districts. Starting in 2018, the suburban revolt against Trump led to Democratic gains in states across the country, and particularly in battleground states. Despite Trump’s efforts to win suburban women by “getting their husbands back to work,” polling indicates that suburban women will vote against the GOP nominee in historic numbers. If that is indeed the case, Democrats are in a strong position to flip chambers across the country and make broad gains in states where Democrats are already in control, especially if state legislative election results continue to closely track with top-of-the-ticket results.

So what is going to happen on Tuesday (and the days after)?

This year, we expect these two forces to collide in the states: meaningful gains in suburbs driven by college-educated voters and voters of color, tempered by continued bleeding for Democrats in rural and non-college areas.

Across the country, our modeling indicates that Democrats will net approximately 150 seats across both upper and lower houses. While Democrats may pick up approximately 330 seats, they could lose around 180 seats. We ran three models to estimate these outcomes: Model 1 incorporates just our Legislative District Index, Model 2 layers in state-specific corrections based on Biden’s polling, and Model 3 adds incumbency effects to the mix. As you can see, a range of outcomes are possible based on either how strongly results adhere to a) past results in the state, b) Biden’s top of the ticket effect, and c) how much incumbency matters. 

What do we make of this?

Democrats have always had a narrow map when it comes to who will control state legislative chambers post-2020. They could pick up 10 chambers by flipping only 48 seats. And many of the districts that Democrats need to win to gain power in the key states are quite Republican-leaning. We estimated that, in the 22 most competitive chambers, over 70 percent of the most competitive districts have historically favored Republicans at the top of the ticket. It is not surprising that Democratic gains may end up being relatively modest this year.

At the same time, the potential for Democratic losses at the state legislative level are a stark reminder of the continued challenges that Democrats face in the uneven geography of the states. Like the electoral college or US Senate, state legislatures have a tremendous imbalance toward non-college white voters. As Democrats look to build the next generation of gains, in states like Kansas, Montana, or South Carolina, they will have to confront the continued education divide that has emerged over the past decade. 

Democrats’ narrow net gains, though, hide the potential shift in power that they portend. With Democrats currently controlling 39 chambers to Republicans’ 59, flipping those 10 chambers would lead to a major shift in power dynamics in state legislatures. Republican supermajorities are also in threat in Kansas and Ohio. That gives Democrats an opportunity to have a seat at the table during the redistricting process to ensure the next decades’ maps are more fair than the previous decade of gerrymandered maps.

Check back in on Election Night, when we’ll start our coverage of state legislative elections; the EveryDistrict Election Dashboard is here. Starting Election Night and the following days, our focus will be on the battleground states outlined here. But we’ll also work our way through all 5,875 state legislative districts on the ballot in the coming weeks and months. Sign up for our email list to receive regular updates as we get new results in. Questions? Contact the EveryDistrict team at info@everydistrict.us.

*The Alaska House was controlled through a power-sharing agreement between Republicans and Democrats.