2020 Elections Enter New Stage

by Nathan L. Gonzales November 6, 2020 · 12:12 PM EST

If your job involves the elections, you’re going to be humbled at some point, and probably more than once. Apparently four years is long enough to almost forget the fun and challenges of handicapping an election with Donald Trump on the ballot.

With votes still being counted and races still to be called, it’s too soon for any definitive analysis and potential changes that need to be made going forward. But we know enough to begin digesting what happened and start evaluating our projections, including a few things we got right.

We, along with most of the rest of the media, have been preparing people for an extended period of vote counting and litigation. That’s exactly what we’re walking through right now. For nearly two years, we’ve been projecting a modern record for voter turnout. And that’s going to happen. 

It may only be fitting for a year such as 2020, we’re staring at a strange combination of election results and reaction. Republicans are taking victory laps while President Donald Trump is about to become the first incumbent president to lose re-election in 28 years, Democrats maintained their House majority and Democrats gained at least one seat in the Senate. Yet the initial narrative of the election is funereal or the Democratic Party.

That GOP euphoria is fueled by potentially keeping the Senate and dramatically overperforming expectations in the House. Those expectations were set by a majority of national, state, and district level polls (partisan and nonpartisan, public and private) which showed Trump severely underperforming in nearly every part of the country.

At the congressional level, this is the type of election Republicans have been envisioning since the party took its lumps in the 2018 midterms. But to be clear, this exceeds what even Republicans were seeing in much of their data in the days, weeks and months leading up to Election Day. 

The state of polling will be a hot topic of conversation for at least another two (if not four) years. A key question moving forward is whether public opinion polling is irreparably broken or if polling is just broken in elections with Trump on the ballot. For example, our projections in the 2018 midterm elections, using the same methods of analysis, were accurate. We projected a Democratic gain of 25-35 House seats and Democrats gained 40. Our Senate project was no net change to Republican gain of two seats. And Republicans gained two seats. 

For months, we’ve been saying that it would take dozens of pollsters, partisan and nonpartisan, independently making the same methodological mistake for the outcome to be different than what we were projecting. And that is apparently what happened. With the benefit of some results and a few hours of sleep, what we thought was widespread Trump underperformance might have been widespread Trump underestimation.

But from a 30,000-foot level, our projection that the most likely scenario was a Democratic trifecta in the White House, Senate, and House is still a possibility and won’t be known until early January.

In the race for the White House, we consistently had Biden with the advantage since he captured the Democratic nomination and he is poised to win the race.  

While the former vice president will likely fall short in two states where we gave him a slight advantage (Florida and North Carolina) and President Trump swept the toss-up races, the rest of the states are likely to fall as expected. Biden could even garner 306 Electoral College votes, the same number Trump received four years ago. 

It’s a little ironic about how the emerging 2020 storyline is how this is a redux of 2016. Political handicappers are being marched out for another round of apology tours to explain how and why Biden won a race that Biden was projected to win. At the same time, national, state and district-level polls under-estimated Trump’s support and it had a huge impact on congressional races.

In the Senate, Republicans are most likely to maintain control, but it is not a foregone conclusion. Democrats are currently sitting on a net gain of one seat after Doug Jones’ loss in Alabama and defeating Cory Gardner in Colorado and Martha McSally in Arizona. GOP Sen. Thom Tillis is likely to prevail in North Carolina, as is GOP Sen. Dan Sullivan in Alaska, even though those races might not be called by the Associated Press until next week.

That means Democrats need to win both runoff races in Georgia on Jan. 5 for a net gain of three seats to get to 50-50 and then have Vice President-elect Kamala Harris poised to break any tie votes. It’s possible, but not the most likely outcome at this point. 

Overall, we’ve consistently described the fight for the Senate as the most competitive of the battles for the White House and the House. And that continues to be the case. Our projection of a net gain of four to six seats for Democrats was based on the president’s struggles to match his 2016 margins and the large number of vulnerable Republican seats. Now we know that Trump over performed the polls and saved the Senate majority for Republicans, provided they win the Georgia races 

In the House, Democrats are going to maintain their majority but Republicans will gain seats, potentially even reaching double digits. That’s very different from our pre-election projection of double-digit gains for Democrats. 

Coming into Election Day, there were dozens of close races. When that happens, the party with the wind at its back from a positive national environment usually wins a disproportionate number of those contests. From Biden’s large national lead to a significant Democratic advantage in the generic congressional ballot, it looked like the national environment favored the Democrats. Now we know it was a much more neutral environment aided by Trump’s late recovery or hidden strength. 

Republicans deserve credit for knocking off a large number of well-financed Democratic incumbents with reputations for being tough campaigners. The incoming class will bolster the ranks of GOP women, veterans, and people of color on Capitol Hill.

But to be sure, in spite of the public victory lap by Republicans, these House gains exceed private GOP expectations. If Republicans had really believed they would come within a handful of seats of the House majority based on their polling, they would have been singing a much different tune before Election Day. They also would have been funneling money into races that ended up being unexpectedly close, such as Illinois’ 14th District (long abandoned by the GOP) instead of focusing their resources on races that were ultimately uncompetitive, like Minnesota’s 7th, where Democrat Collin Peterson lost by 14 points.

While we correctly projected Democrats would maintain control of the House, completely missing the size and direction of the movement of the competitive races is frustrating. Once the results are final, we’ll be better able to evaluate what happened, understand how our House projection went askew, and implement changes to sharpen our analysis.