Part 5: Who We Need to Win in the States

If you’re interested in remaking the states in 2020, we have one message: it’s going to be challenging. It’s going to be harder than 2018. But it’s a challenge we can and must overcome.

Over the past three years, we’ve built a unique public resource: a trove of data about the most critical state legislative districts across the country. We’ve shared that data through two avenues: our nationwide map of every district in the country and our Purple States Report evaluating the demographics, competitiveness, and finances of the most important state legislative districts. This article builds on that work to outline key facts about the roadmap ahead in 2020:

To help tell this story, in this article we’ll look at the landscape in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, one of the biggest opportunities for Democrats in 2020.

In the districts we need to win, Republicans have the edge

Throughout this article, we’ll look at two kinds of districts. “Target districts” are the potentially winnable state legislative districts in the 24 state legislative chambers across 13 states that we’ve identified. “Priority districts” are the winnable districts in the eleven 2020 chambers where we have the best path to victory.

Figure 1. Target and priority states in 2020

Dark purple states have priority chambers where we are best poised to win a chamber or beat a GOP supermajority. Light purple states have target chambers where flips are possible but more challenging.

Across both types of districts, Democrats will need to win in relatively unfriendly territory to make big gains. Nearly 70% of priority districts either lean or favor Republicans (vote toward the GOP by 1-10 points, on average). Across all target districts, over 80% favor Republicans. There are only 43 districts in these purple states where Democrats are favored. From 2017-2019, Democrats have won the “low hanging fruit” of Democratic-leaning districts that Republicans happen to hold. Now we have to win on their turf.

Table 1. The Republican-leaning path for Democrats

  GOP Held, Lean D GOP Held, Lean R GOP Held, Favor R Total
Target Seats 45 69 107 221
Percentage of Total 20% 31% 48%  
Priority Seats 29 38 18 86
Percentage of Total 34% 44% 21%  

If we turn to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, we can see this same story told in just one chamber. We can look at the state in map form:

Figure 2. The path in Pennsylvania

The districts in blue are held by Republicans, but lean Democratic. The light pink districts are held by Republicans and vote for Republicans by 1-5 points on average. The red districts are held by Republicans and vote for Republicans by 6-10 points on average.

If we put this in a table, we get this:

Table 2. The partisan tilt in GOP-held seats in Pennsylvania

  Need to Flip Lean D Lean R Favor R Total
Pennsylvania House 9 7 8 18 33

We cannot win the Pennsylvania House of Representatives without districts that lean toward Republicans. This fact is common to multiple states across the country.

In the districts we need to win, demographics are a core consideration

While demographics are not destiny, they do provide a way for us to understand more fully the nature of the districts we need to win. On demographics, we separate state legislative districts into three categories:

When we look to 2020, across all target districts there are 29 “Engage” districts, 113 “Growing” districts, and 127 “Rebuilding” districts. Focusing in on the biggest opportunity priority districts, there are 10 “Engage” districts, 50 “Growing” districts, and 44 “Rebuilding” districts.

Table 3. The 2020 demographic landscape

  Engaging Growing Rebuilding  Total
Target Seats 29 113 127 221
Percentage of Total 13% 51% 57%  
Priority Seats 10 50 44 86
Percentage of Total 12% 58% 51%  

What does this tell us? While the diverse Democratic coalition may power us to statewide wins across the country, winning in the geography of the specific districts will rely heavily on the newly Democratic white college-educated voters and also on reclaiming white non-college voters.

This fact should not be a cause for despair. The shifts among college whites in suburban areas are creating massive and rapid change, where districts that Obama lost by double digits are now competitive. Additionally, in the places that we need to win legislatively in 2020, there were gains in non-college voters in 2018, particularly in states like Iowa and Wisconsin. Non-college voters don’t vote the same everywhere and we don’t need to win them overwhelmingly, we just have to improve margins. Several districts are both “Growing” and “Rebuilding,” underscoring just how white some of these must-win districts are in 2020.

What does this mean for what we do in 2020? We have to continue the basic blocking and tackling of elections: turning out base voters and persuading those that we can. However, we need to tailor our strategies to be responsive to the demographic groups we must win. Let’s take a look at how this plays out in the Pennsylvania House.

First, in map form:

Figure 3. The demographics in Pennsylvania

In this map, the blue districts are “Growing” districts with large numbers of college-educated white voters. The red districts are “Rebuilding” districts, with large numbers of non-college white voters. The purple districts are those where both of those two groups each represent more than 40% of the likely electorate.

And then as a table:

Table 4. Demographics in Pennsylvania House

  Lean D Lean R Favor R
Engaging 0 0 0
Growing 3 6 13
Rebuilding 5 5 12

In Pennsylvania, we see a stark example of the nature of the demographics confronting Democrats in 2020. Democrats gained in the state legislature in 2018 based on engaging and rebuilding districts, predominantly. They’ll have to continue to build a base of suburban white voters and make further in-roads in the non-college populations to flip a state like Pennsylvania. That does not mean that engaging the diverse coalition is not important in Pennsylvania: it’s vital to winning statewide and to creating the conditions for success in these predominantly white districts. Still, we’ll need to grow beyond that to succeed in the Keystone State’s legislative races.

Even if Democrats perform as they have from 2017-2019, we’ll fall short

The third key takeaway that the data tells us about 2020 is that the landscape is markedly different from where Democrats won in 2017-2019. To help tell this part of the story, we developed two regression models to estimate how many of the 2020 must-win districts we would win if these past three cycles were run again. The “Virginia” model replays the 2019 Virginia results in the key purple states.[1] The “2018” model runs the 2018 election again.[2]

Here’s what we find: under either model, the margin between disappointment and transformation is small. If Democrats do just as well as they did in 2017-2019, they would pick up between 42 and 68 of the 153 most critical seats in 2020 and only win 4-6 chambers.

Table 5. Modeling the 2020 elections initially

  Seats Won Chambers Won
Virginia Model 68 4
2018 Model 42 2

Chambers won in both models: Minnesota Senate and Pennsylvania House

Chambers won in Virginia model: Iowa Senate and Iowa House

Kansas supermajority beaten in Senate and House in both models

That would lead to a landscape in the states that looks like this, at best:

Figure 4. The country if we do as well as we did in Virginia in 2019

In this map, red states have both chambers of the legislature controlled by Republicans. Blue states see Democrats control both chambers. Only Pennsylvania would have a divided state legislature.

What happens if Democrats do uniformly two points better? Their win margin jumps considerably, now taking approximately 100 of the 153 must-win seats and snagging 11 chambers. In other words, if Democrats can focus on these core districts, understand their demographics, and build on their 2018 success, they can fundamentally reshape this country. It’s not easy—and everyone needs to be reminded of that fact—but it’s doable. Here’s what that world looks like:

Table 6. Modeling the country with a two-point Democratic shift

  Seats Won Chambers Won
Virginia Model 71 4
2018 Model 44 2
With Two-Point Shift 106 11

Chambers won with a two-point shift: Arizona Senate and House, Iowa Senate and House, Michigan House, Minnesota Senate, North Carolina Senate, Pennsylvania Senate and House, Texas House, and Wisconsin House

Kansas supermajority beaten in Senate and House in both models

Figure 5. The two-point shift and the nationwide results

In this map, red states have both chambers of the legislature controlled by Republicans. Blue states see Democrats control both chambers. Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin would have split control.

So let’s do it. Let’s make this shift happen. These two points could make the difference on so many issues we care about: health care, choice, the environment, economic fairness, and criminal justice reform.

Again, let’s see what this means in Pennsylvania. In 2020, we’re looking at 6-10 pickups as a starting point. If we’re able to overperform 2018 by only two points, we are in prime position to win all D and R leaning GOP-held seats, creating a strong Democratic majority for the new decade.

Table 7. Pennsylvania modeled results

Pennsylvania 2020 Seats Won
Virginia Model 6
2018 Model 10
With Two-Point Shift 15

Figure 6. Pennsylvania with a two-point swing over 2018

In this map, the blue seats represent those that Democrats could win by improving on their 2018 state legislative dynamics by two points nationally. The pink seats are those that are competitive, but that we’d just miss out on winning. Strong candidates in those districts could push us over the top.

What this means for 2020

Over the past few weeks, we’ve discussed in detail the 2020 landscape. We’ve talked about where there are winnable districts and where we plan to invest. We have explained how good candidates and the right resources can make a difference. And now we’ve laid down what it will really take to win.

It is easy to get distracted by the presidential race. The Presidency is vitally important, but control of the states is a fundamental piece of achieving political power in this country. And achieving it is considerably cheaper than winning the presidency, though it will take targeted focus and new strategies. Join with us as we do our part to remake the states in 2020. 

[1] The Virginia model incorporates partisan lean, incumbency, and demographic characteristics.

[2] The 2018 model incorporates partisan lean, incumbency, state-level effects, and money trends.