Up-Ballot Effects: Expanding the Electoral College Battleground



— A presidential campaign strategy narrowly focused on Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan might work for the Electoral College but could hurt a candidate’s party in down-ballot Senate and House races.

— Senate and House battlegrounds are scattered across the Rust Belt and Sun Belt, which could incentivize presidential candidates to compete in states that they otherwise may have overlooked.

— Both presidential campaigns will have plenty of money, allowing them to invest in lower priority states with the dual purpose of trying to win longshot Electoral College votes and helping Senate and House candidates down-ballot.

— To help their respective parties down-ballot, presidential campaigns will need to appeal to a broad demographic of voters including white non-college voters in the Rust Belt and diverse, college-educated voters in the Sun Belt and suburban House districts across the country.

Overlapping elections in the Electoral College, Senate, and House

The 2020 Senate and House elections will determine the future president’s ability to implement his or her agenda. Losing either chamber would hamstring a president, allowing the opposition to obstruct legislation, oversee the executive branch, and, in the case of the Senate, stall executive and judicial appointments. Given these stakes, the 2020 presidential campaigns would be wise to run with an eye towards down-ballot Senate and House races.

Due to partisanship and straight-ticket voting, the presidential election will be the most important factor in down-ballot races next year. A landslide victory for either presidential candidate would likely deliver their party the Senate and House. Marginal differences in presidential strategy would not affect the topline results in either chamber. In a closer election, though, the states and voters targeted by presidential campaigns could influence crucial Senate and House races.

The nuances of the Electoral College and the distribution of competitive Senate and House seats will incentivize next year’s presidential candidates to expand the presidential battleground in order to boost their party’s chances down-ballot. Given that spending on the presidential general election is expected to reach a record $1.7 billion, there will be plenty of campaign resources to go around. The Trump campaign has already started looking at less competitive states like New Mexico and Nevada, and Elizabeth Warren’s primary campaign is investing in states such as Maine and Georgia with the explicit goal of helping down-ballot Democrats. A memo sent last month by Warren’s campaign manager said that the campaign is “targeting our resources to invest in places that will be critical to keeping the House, taking back the U.S. Senate, and regaining ground in key state legislatures in 2020.”

Whether Trump or the Democratic nominee would actually prioritize the party over his or her electoral chances in the general election, were they at odds, is unclear. Still, the fact remains that while a blinkered strategy focused on Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan might help a presidential candidate win the Electoral College, it would hurt his or her party in elections crucial to controlling the Senate and House.

The Electoral College Battleground

According to the Crystal Ball’s Electoral College ratings, both Democrats and Republicans have 248 Electoral votes in their Safe, Likely, or Lean categories. This leaves 42 Toss-up votes.

Map 1: Crystal Ball Electoral College Ratings

The competitive states, defined here as those rated as Toss-ups or as Leans Democratic or Republican, fall broadly into two geographic regions: the Rust Belt and Sun Belt. The Rust Belt — comprising much of the Midwest and northern U.S. — includes the competitive states of Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa. I’ll also include the New England states Maine and New Hampshire in this category due to their similar demographic and geographic characteristics.

Trump won in 2016 because he flipped Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, all of which Barack Obama carried in the previous election. If 2020 is a repeat of 2016 in the 47 states besides Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, these three would determine the winner. Other competitively-rated states in this general region are Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Ohio.

The other competitive region is the Sun Belt, which sweeps from the southwest to the southeast. The competitive states in this region are Nevada, Arizona, Texas, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, and — stretching the definition of Sun Belt — Colorado and Virginia. The only state in the region that the Crystal Ball rates as a pure Toss-up is Arizona. North Carolina, Florida, and Georgia are probably a bit more competitive for Democrats than Texas, while Nevada is likely friendlier to Republicans than Colorado or Virginia.

There are many ways to split up votes, but if Democrats won Florida and Arizona (while carrying all of the states they won in 2016), they would win the Electoral College and could afford to lose Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Other options include flipping North Carolina and Georgia, or less likely, Texas. There are also various scenarios in which Republicans flip the Democratic states of Colorado, Nevada, or Virginia and could afford to lose the Rust Belt trio.

Overall, though, the Sun Belt states are less competitive and less likely to determine the Electoral College winner than the Rust Belt states. If Democrats were able to flip Florida and North Carolina, they would probably have already carried Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Similarly, if Republicans won Colorado, Virginia, or Nevada, they most likely already would have won the crucial Rust Belt states. There is the outside chance, however, that Sun Belt states surprise us and tip the Electoral College.

The Senate battleground

The current Senate breakdown is 53 Republicans to 47 Democrats (including the two independents who caucus with Democrats). Democrats will need to net at least three seats to take control of the Senate as long as they win the vice presidency, the position responsible for casting any tie-breaking Senate votes. Map 2 shows the current Senate ratings.

Map 2: Crystal Ball Senate ratings

The most vulnerable incumbent in either party is Democrat Doug Jones in Alabama. The state voted for Trump by a 28-point margin and still largely approves of the president. If Democrats lose this seat, they will need to pick up at least four Republican-held seats. Their most plausible pickup opportunities are in Colorado, Arizona, and North Carolina. Clinton won Colorado by five points and the incumbent, Cory Gardner, is one of the least popular senators in the country, with a net -3% approval rating according to Morning Consult’s recently-updated senator approval rankings. Trump carried Arizona by about 3.5 points, but the Crystal Ball rates the state’s Senate race a Toss-up for 2020, as dense areas, like Phoenix’s Maricopa County, continue to trend blue.

The next best opportunity for a Democratic pickup is North Carolina — Trump carried it by about the same margin as he carried Arizona. Republican incumbent Thom Tillis won his first term in 2014, a year where Republicans ran 5.7% ahead of Democrats in the House popular vote, by just 1.6 points. Tillis remains unpopular, at a -5% approval rating.

After Colorado, Arizona, and North Carolina, though, Democrats have no clear target. If they lose Alabama, they will need to pick off one of the Lean Republican seats in Maine, Iowa, or Georgia (host of two Senate elections). Maine might seem the most promising, as it was the only one of these states to vote for Clinton in 2016, and Republican incumbent Susan Collins’ approval rating is 6% underwater. But Collins won reelection in 2014 by 37% even as Obama carried the state in 2008 and 2012.

Georgia and Iowa seem like stretches for Democrats barring a Trump combustion in 2020, but there are glimmers of hope for the party in each state. Democrat Stacey Abrams came within two points of winning Georgia’s gubernatorial race in 2018 and the state’s dual Senate election invites uncertainty. Iowa Democrats have a potentially strong challenger in Theresa Greenfield in a state where many voters have soured on Trump. It’s not unthinkable that the Democrat could best Joni Ernst, with her -4% net approval.

Beyond Alabama, Republicans’ best shots are in New Hampshire and Michigan. But Trump is unpopular in both of these states, and barring a strong Trump victory it’s difficult to see Republicans beating the states’ incumbents. New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen has the highest approval rating of any senator up for reelection in 2020. And while Michigan’s Gary Peters struggles with name identification (37% of registered Michigan voters don’t know if they approve or disapprove of the senator), he doesn’t have any obvious baggage and has run strong races in the past. Either of these seats would probably be window dressing on a Republican Senate majority.

Table 1 shows the competitive Senate races by region and gives Trump’s 2016 margin and the incumbent senator’s approval rating. The first column uses a similar color scheme as the Crystal Ball maps above (yellow for Toss-up, light red for Lean Republican, and light blue for Lean Democratic). The second column uses red to show states that Trump won in 2016 and blue to show where Clinton won. The third column uses red to indicate a Republican incumbent and blue to indicate a Democratic incumbent.

Table 1: Competitive Senate races by region

SourcesDaily Kos Elections and Morning Consult

The House battleground

Due to its fractured nature, the House’s regional battleground is not as neat as those of the Electoral College or Senate. The House has competitive districts across the country, with 51 rated as either Toss-up or leaning one way or the other in the Crystal Ball ratings. The seats are, however, disproportionately concentrated in the Rust and Sun Belt, with the former holding 16 and the latter 12. The remaining 23 are spread out across the rest of the nation. Like 2018, the geographic feature that defines the House battle is suburbia. Of those 51 most competitive districts, 45 of them have significant or predominant suburban characteristics according to CityLab’s Congressional Density Index.

Table 2 shows the competitive districts by region and gives each district’s Density Index. The color scheme is the same as the Crystal Ball maps above.

Table 2: Competitive House races by region

Source: CityLab

Presidential strategy: An eye down-ballot

It might seem wise for both presidential campaigns to pour campaign time and resources into the states most likely to decide the Electoral College: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

This strategy, though, is shortsighted on two fronts. First, there is still the outside chance that a different Rust Belt state or a Sun Belt state would flip before Michigan, Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin. Second, each presidential candidate will want to campaign in the Sun Belt and other Rust Belt states in order to help his or her party’s Senate and House candidates down-ballot. Table 3 shows all the competitive Electoral College states and the down-ballot contests that will happen within them.

Table 3: Competitive Electoral College states and their competitive down-ballot races

Note: *Maine splits its electoral votes by district. Nebraska’s Second District is also competitive in the Electoral College, but is not included because it is not a state. While Minnesota, Texas, and Virginia will hold Senate contests in 2020, none of them fit this piece’s definition of competitive (Toss-up or Lean — the incumbent party is rated as Likely in all three cases). However, they are included to avoid confusion but shaded in a darker color to indicate the Likely ratings.

Of the 10 competitive Senate elections, five are in the Sun Belt and three are in Rust Belt states outside of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Of the 51 competitive House elections, 12 are in the Sun Belt and nine are in the Rust Belt outside Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. These elections could determine control of the Senate and House, incentivizing presidential campaigns to invest in these states because any improvement at the top of the ticket will help down-ballot. Note that the most competitive Senate races, at least based on the Crystal Ball ratings, are mainly in the Sun Belt.

The actual strategy the campaigns employ will involve demographic as well as geographic targeting. While the demographic trends in these regions are complex, below are five characteristics that the campaigns will need to keep in mind. If you’re interested in specifics and calculations, take a look at my personal blog.

  1. The Rust Belt has more white (88% to 65%) and white non-college (60% to 42%) eligible voters than the Sun Belt. (Daily Kos, 2013-2017 American Community Survey)
  2. Trump’s average approval in competitive Rust Belt states (43%) is worse than in competitive Sun Belt states (46%). (Morning Consult)
  3. Trump’s approval with white non-college voters is much worse in the Rust Belt, where it hovers around the low 50s, than in the Sun Belt, where it is the mid-60s. (Gallup, The Atlantic)
  4. Trump’s approval with white college-educated voters is poor everywhere, but is much worse in the Rust Belt (mid to high 30s) than the Sun Belt (mid to high 40s). (Gallup, The Atlantic)
  5. Trump has dismal approval ratings among minorities, but he does worse with this demographic in the Rust Belt than in the Sun Belt. This largely comes down to the president’s dreadful approval among black voters (~15%), who make up most of the minority voters in the Rust Belt and some southern states like Georgia and North Carolina, versus his marginally better approval among Latino voters (~25%), who are more dominant in Florida, Texas, Arizona, and Nevada. (Gallup, The Atlantic)

The stark demographic differences between the Sun Belt and Rust Belt will challenge candidates to craft a message that appeals to the distinct voter groups. While Trump could double down on winning over non-college white voters as a strategy to lock down the Electoral College in the Rust Belt, this could prove fatal for Republican House and Senate prospects in the Sun Belt. The electoral incentives, then, are for the presidential campaigns to find a message that will help them win over the crucial white non-college voters in the Rust Belt, but also boost their prospects in the more diverse Sun Belt and suburban House districts across the country.

The Republican and Democratic presidential nominees may not take these down-ballot incentives into account in their campaign strategies. But they do so at the risk of winning the presidency while failing to construct a governing majority. This prospect of a stalled legislative agenda, executive branch investigations, and unfilled court vacancies should drive the presidential campaigns to a down-ballot, party-centric strategy that expands the Electoral College battleground.

Seth Moskowitz is the founder of the elections blog, EverySecondYear.com, which focuses on the U.S. House. He graduated from Emory University in 2017 and specializes in political and non-profit communications. Seth can be reached at s.k.moskowitz@gmail.com or on Twitter @skmoskowitz.