What Happened: The Campaign Perspective

As part of our “What Happened” series looking at 2020 state legislative elections, today we’re back with the results of our 2020 post-election campaign survey. Since 2017, EveryDistrict has worked with and invested in state legislative candidates running in the most competitive state legislative districts across the country. This survey – distributed since 2018 – offers a comprehensive look at the successes and challenges legislative candidates have faced in recent years, from those working on the front lines of the effort to flip districts – and chambers – blue.

As we wrote in our first look, the state legislative results in 2020 were devastating for Democrats. Polling suggested that major gains were possible; instead, Democrats saw minimal gains (at best) or net losses (at worst) in chambers we thought we could flip. In this latest installment, we’ll look at the tensions in state legislative races this year. While Democratic candidates had the fundraising advantage and ran professional campaigns, they struggled to find a message that resonated in a GOP-leaning landscape at the state legislative level. 

In 2020, EveryDistrict endorsed 94 candidates in red-to-blue flip districts. We received 82 responses from 74 campaigns, a 79% response rate. In this article, we’ll also look at the responses from our 2018 post-election campaign survey, which we covered in detail here. Both years we received a representative split of responses from successful and unsuccessful campaigns.

Now, let’s start with the bright spots.

What Went Well: Fundraising and campaign operations

The past four years have seen a dramatic increase in fundraising for state legislative campaigns, and we saw that pay off in a big way in 2020. In 2018, 54% of campaigns said the GOP held the fundraising advantage. In 2020, that swung to a 67% Democratic advantage

2018 responses on the left; 2020 responses on the right

This fundraising advantage has rapidly professionalized state legislative campaigns over the past two years. In 2018, only 40% of campaigns said they had the staff they needed to run a winning campaign. In 2020, that number jumped to 79%. 

Increased budgets allowed candidates to build out more robust communications plans to reach voters in new mediums like digital and TV. In 2018, our survey did not specifically ask about candidates’ digital programs or TV buys; in 2020, we asked a question about each. In 2018, only three candidates mentioned a digital program when asked about their overall communications plan, and only one mentioned running TV ads. This year, at least 93% of campaigns had a digital program of note (7% did not know enough about the digital program to describe it in detail) and 77% of respondents said their campaign ran TV ads. 

Because of COVID-19, we can’t make an apples-to-apples comparison of field programs. In our 2018 post-election campaign survey, we highlighted how under-resourced campaigns struggled with voter contact. This year, despite the challenges of COVID-19, campaigns were able to pivot and spin up robust phone contact operations. 

So, if candidates raised competitive amounts, hired experienced staff, and built robust voter contact operations and communications plans, why did we fail to flip seats?

Where We Struggled: Breaking through in a nationalized political environment

2018 was a favorable year for national Democrats. With an almost 9% generic ballot advantage in congressional races, Democrats flipped the House of Representatives and those coattails helped to net over 300 state legislative seats.

Despite Joe Biden’s top of the ticket victory in 2020, Democrats have little else to celebrate. A Senate win depends on two special elections in Georgia; the House majority has been cut. Donald Trump netted over 10 million additional votes. 

In both years, Democrats competed in GOP-leaning territory. But in 2018, our campaigns were split on whether the national political environment favored Democrats or Republicans. This year, the campaigns overwhelmingly felt the national environment hurt them. What does this mean? State legislative campaigns are hybrids of national and local issues. Campaigns focused on issues that matter to the local community centered around a candidate with strong ties to that local community can break through even in an unfavorable national environment. This year, campaigns felt swamped by national Republican messaging and weren’t able to communicate a message outside of that from the national Democratic brand, as shown in the responses below.

2018 responses on the left; 2020 responses on the right

In both years, the majority of respondents (65% in 2018, 70% in 2020) said that national political factors mattered in the outcome of the race. These weren’t just localized races about local issues.  But in 2020, that national environment significantly favored Republicans.

In our 2019 Purple States Report, we identified that 60% of battleground state legislative districts leaned Republican. And in the nationalized, highly polarized environment of 2020, it was harder for candidates and their messages to break through, particularly without the face-to-face conversations that happen with door knocking. 

In 2018, Democratic state legislative candidates felt they had the messaging advantage in the race (60%) and they felt that that messaging mattered to the outcome (43%). We saw both of those numbers significantly decline in 2020. Only 39% said they had the messaging advantage in 2020, and only 32% said it mattered to the outcome of the race, as shown in the below charts.

2018 responses on the left; 2020 responses on the right
2018 responses on the left; 2020 responses on the right

With national issues dominant, it was harder for a local-focused message to break through. Similarly, candidates and their personal stories failed to resonate in 2020. Both years, campaigns said that the candidate’s background and personal story gave the Democrats an advantage (60% in 2018, 54% in 2020). But the impact that had on the race dramatically declined in 2020, from 60% in 2018 to 40% this year.

2018 responses on the left; 2020 responses on the right

In 2020 post-mortems, there has been a lot of debate about the lack of door knocking and the extent to which it hurt Democratic downballot candidates. We agree, and that was a constant refrain throughout our 2020 campaign survey. However, these survey responses point to a much more fundamental messaging failure that wouldn’t have been solved by simply showing up on someone’s doorstep.

So, how do we win more seats in the future?

How we Move Forward: New strategies for state legislative candidates

We ended our blog post with the results of our 2018 post-election campaign survey with this key takeaway: 2018 shows the importance of accelerating EveryDistrict’s model to bring better fundraising and data to Democrats in purple and red districts across America.

As the results of our 2020 survey show, the Democratic and progressive ecosystem stepped up in a big way to better support this cycle of state legislative candidates. EveryDistrict was a part of that, and we made great strides over the past two years to increase our fundraising capacity to make broader and deeper investments in competitive state legislative campaigns. In 2018, EveryDistrict invested an average of $5,000 in our 62 flip targets. In 2020, we invested an average of $24,000 in our 94 flip targets. 

The professionalization of state legislative campaigns is a huge victory of the past four years, and one that we should celebrate. Despite this year’s disappointing results, we need to make sure this infrastructure stays in place because future gains depend on it.

But we also knew that fundraising alone wouldn’t be enough to overcome the structural advantages that favored Republicans in the state legislative geography. In 2020, as we said as part of our 2018 survey analysis, we needed new approaches and strategies to win in these more “pink” and “red” districts that Democrats must flip in order to win back chambers across the country.

The current polling and data landscape is not doing enough to equip candidates with the resources they need to build winning coalitions in these “purple to pink” districts that are key for building legislative majorities – that is clear. The polls were atrociously wrong, showing Democratic state legislative candidates leading by 5-10 points in districts we would go on to lose by 5-10 points. In 2019, the average partisan lean of districts Democrats flipped in Virginia was D+7, and Democrats only flipped one GOP-leaning seat (with a partisan lean of R+1). In 2020, the average partisan lean of all of our target districts was R+3, while the average partisan lean of the districts we flipped was D+1.

Campaigns recognize that the current strategy isn’t working in the GOP-friendly territory that we have been – and will continue to – compete in in the states. When asked what additional services EveryDistrict (or a group like it) could offer that would be useful, 73% of respondents said campaign consulting, voter targeting data, and strategic messaging (while 24% said none and 3% said other). This is a massive gap in state legislative infrastructure, and one that urgently needs to be remedied if we’re going to make additional progress in the states in 2021 and beyond.

In 2020, EveryDistrict piloted our Win Number program to help candidates better understand the electorate in their district and develop strategies and messages for a winning coalition. In 2021, we’ll expand this work to help more candidates implement new strategies tailored to meet the needs of the unique state legislative landscape.