Will Democrats win back the states in 2020? Here’s what the numbers tell us.

Data is at the heart of EveryDistrict’s work. Using voter records, census data, and election results, we identify the most promising opportunities for Democrats – and how best to act upon them.

Over the course of this work, we’ve stored and catalogued data across a wide range of geographies, demographics, and election types, resulting in the most comprehensive public state legislative data resource available today: the EveryDistrict Legislative District Index (LDI). The LDI uses voter trends and past election results to identify the most winnable districts across the country, effectively offering a roadmap for activists to make change in their community.

What makes the LDI unique? There are two elements of the LDI that differentiate it from other political modeling tools. First, EveryDistrict democratizes the data. We’re the only organization that analyzes the competitiveness of every state legislative district in the country and publishes the results (click on a state on our map here to see what we mean). That information helps organizations large and small, national and local, identify where their resources are best spent. Our Purple States Report, published in 2019, is the only public assessment of the demographics of key state legislative districts anywhere.

Second, we use our data to honestly and credibly assess where and how we can win. Our strategy focuses on the districts that can meaningfully alter the political power dynamics at the state level so that with the right energy and strategy, we can wrest control back from the GOP. That means carefully tailoring our efforts so that resources are spent in the most impactful way possible. Below, we’ll talk through what our data is telling us about 2020.

How accurate is it? The LDI is a highly reliable metric for understanding where Democrats can pick up seats in 2020. The LDI can predict 2018 election outcomes across nine states and 1,300 districts with a high degree of accuracy (r-squared of 93%), and we continually refine and improve the model as new data comes in. In the core purple states in which we work, we have already completed our most recent updates of the LDI for 2020 races.

What does it tell us? We’ve dug into the demographics to better understand where and how we can win in 2020. There are six key takeaways:

1. The 2020 state legislative map is challenging. In our eleven priority states, over 75% of the districts that Democrats need to win to take control lean Republican. While that’s daunting, the math will only get harder if Republicans are allowed to control redistricting for another decade.

2. Democrats have to perform well with multiple constituencies. Only about 20% of competitive GOP-held districts are less than 70% white. The majority of these districts have large numbers of either college-educated suburbanites or non-college whites. Democrats need to continue to gain with the former and hold the line with the latter.

3. The geography to win statewide is different from the geography to win control of the state legislature. With Democrats’ growth in the suburbs, many organizations are focusing on the major cities and their immediate surroundings – Detroit in Michigan or Milwaukee in Wisconsin. To win in the legislatures, Democrats will need to often craft broader geographic strategies. They’ll need to win in the Kalamazoos and Scrantons and Daytons. 

4. If Democrats do as well as they did in Virginia in 2019, they will fall short in many critical states. Using a model that we developed, we ran the 2020 state legislative elections using insights from Virginia in 2019.[1] Even though Democrats picked up both the Senate and the House in Virginia in 2019, they did so by mostly winning Democratic-leaning seats and dropped the ball on the GOP-leaning seats. With so many seats leaning Republican across the country, most competitive state legislatures would remain firmly in Republican hands if we perform as we did in Virginia. We remain concerned that the headlines of success coming out of Virginia fuel a complacency about state legislative races in 2020. We’ve got to win more people and in more difficult places than before.

5. If Democrats outperform in state legislative races by just 2 points as compared to Virginia in 2019, they can wrest back power from the GOP. Despite the sobering insights from Virginia, Democrats have a lot of upside going into 2020. If Democrats do just 2 points better than they did in Virginia in 2019, they can substantially increase their performance, as shown in the table and maps below. They can go from winning only two chambers to picking up five, in addition to increasing the number of Republican supermajorities that they break.

Table 1. The Difference Two Points Makes

Virginia Replay2-Point Bounce
Chambers WonSupermajorities BrokenChambers WonSupermajorities Broken
Minnesota (S)Kansas (S)Arizona (S)Kansas (S)
Pennsylvania (H)Kansas (H)Iowa (H)Kansas (H)
Ohio (H)Michigan (H)Ohio (S)
Minnesota (S)Ohio (H)
Pennsylvania (H)

6. If Joe Biden maintains his polling lead in key swing seats, Democrats could be poised to make sizable gains. Biden’s strong polling performance in critical states is encouraging, though we have a long way to go until November. However, if we take Biden’s early polling performance in our key purple states, there is an opening for Democrats to make major gains across the country. As shown in the table below, Democratic gains could expand to at least seven chamber pickups, with some additional opportunities in Iowa and North Carolina only a few points behind.

Table 2. If Biden’s Momentum Helps Carry the Day

Virginia ReplayFollowing Biden’s Coattails
Chambers WonSupermajorities BrokenChambers WonSupermajorities Broken
Minnesota (S)Kansas (S)Arizona (S)Kansas (S)
Pennsylvania (H)Kansas (H)Arizona (H)Kansas (H)
Ohio (H)Florida (H)Ohio (S)
Iowa (H)Ohio (H)
Michigan (H)
Minnesota (S)
Pennsylvania (H)
Texas (H)

While these signs are encouraging, we note that “downballot drop-off” is a pervasive crisis in the state legislative space. For these state legislative gains to happen, Democratic state legislative candidates need to have sufficient resources to get their messages out (and as we discussed recently, right now they don’t). They would also benefit from top federal candidates making downballot endorsements so more voters know how to make local change. With the direction that our data provides, we are able to see where Democrats could make substantial gains in state legislatures in 2020. How well Democrats are able to raise money, galvanize volunteers, and convince voters in an unprecedented time will determine how much of their potential they can realize. The maps below show the potential future for America’s states in November 2020.

The States Today

Where there is split control, Democrats control the Minnesota House. Alaska is complicated.

If Virginia in 2019 Plays Out Everywhere

Where there is split control, Democrats control the Pennsylvania House and break the GOP supermajority in the Ohio House. Alaska is complicated.

If We Do Two Points Better than 2019

Where there is split control, Democrats control the Arizona Senate, Iowa House, Michigan House, and Pennsylvania House. Alaska is complicated.

If Biden’s Momentum Helps Carry the Day

Where there is split control, Democrats control the Florida House, Iowa House, Michigan House, Pennsylvania House, and Texas House. Alaska is complicated.

[1] The model predicts for Democratic performance based on LDI scores and incumbency effects.