Election Forecast: Three Months to Go
By Nathan Gonzales,
Inside Elections Editor and Publisher
Public Affairs Council Senior Political Analyst
The biggest mistake of 2016 was not underestimating Donald Trump’s support but a failure of imagination. Too many people couldn’t comprehend how he could win. Four years later, too many people can’t comprehend how he could lose and underestimate how far the president could possibly fall.
If the election were held today, Trump would be defeated, Democrats would win control of the Senate and expand their majority in the House. Republicans would get routed. (It’s essentially Scenario 2 from April’s Impact.)
We’re supposed to say that “[insert any time frame] is an eternity in politics.” But is it really? While Election Day is three months away, 24 states will start sending ballots to people in September. More than half of voters are likely to cast a ballot before Nov. 3. That means Trump has less time to recover and has a narrow path to a second term considering 50% of registered voters said there was “no chance at all” they might support the president, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
Race for the White House
While the precise cause can be argued, Trump’s job rating has been on a steady decline over the past 2½ months, not only putting a second term increasingly out of reach but potentially wreaking havoc on GOP candidates down the ballot.
Trump continues to hemorrhage support among college-educated voters, causing him to underperform his 2016 totals by eight to 10 points or more. Joe Biden leads the president in Inside Elections’ Electoral College projection 319-187, with 270 needed to win.
Biden’s total includes all the states Hillary Clinton carried four years ago, along with Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida, Wisconsin and Nebraska’s 2nd District — all of which Trump carried in 2016. Georgia, North Carolina, and Maine’s 2nd District make up the Toss-up category. Iowa, Ohio and Texas join the Tilt Republican category, while Alaska and Montana are now rated Lean Republican. The Likely Republican category is evidence of the expanding softness in Trump’s support and now includes Kansas, Missouri, South Carolina and Utah. There could be more candidates for this category, but there aren’t a lot of data in most of the other states assumed to be going Republican. And there isn’t significant evidence that there is a single state getting better for Trump right now.
Trump’s larger problem is that voters trust Biden considerably more on his ability to handle race relations and the coronavirus (two of the biggest current news stories) and marginally more on crime and safety issues, while Trump’s edge on the economy is evaporating. That makes it less clear how the president regains his footing.
The race isn’t over. But to call it some sort of toss-up because of some flawed analysis four years ago is ignoring the data and leading to the potential of adding a second mistake.
Control of the Senate
The Senate has been in play for at least nine months, but Democratic chances of winning control of the chamber have improved significantly in the past few weeks.
As Biden has grown a significant lead over Trump, the Senate battleground has improved for Democrats. Some states, such as Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina, have been competitive for the entire cycle. But previously lower-tier contests in Georgia, Iowa and Montana are now neck-and-neck races. And Kansas, Texas, and even Alaska and South Carolina can’t be considered solid for Republicans anymore. That gives Democrats more than one legitimate path.
Democrats need a net gain of four seats for a majority, but can control the Senate by gaining three seats and winning the White House. With less than four months to go before Election Day, the most likely outcome is a Democratic net gain of three to five Senate seats. Since Biden has a clear advantage in the presidential race, that means Democrats are more likely than not to win control of the Senate.
Democratic candidates continue to raise money at astounding rates, but arguably the biggest factor in boosting the party’s chances is Trump underperforming his 2016 totals. It’s not that a large number of Democratic candidates are going to win Trump states; it’s that Trump is on pace to win fewer states than four years ago.
Even after losing 40 seats in 2018, there’s no guarantee Republicans won’t lose more in November. Not only is their House majority not at risk, Democrats could gain seats. Right now, the most likely outcome is close to the status quo and could fall into a range of a GOP gain of five seats to a Democratic gain of five seats. But Democratic gains could reach higher.
With Trump struggling to reach his 2016 marks in key districts, not only is he far from being strong enough to boost GOP challengers who trail Democratic incumbents in the polls and in fundraising, but his poor standing is also creating a batch of newly vulnerable GOP incumbents.
Under these circumstances, there should be a growing number of Republican members starting to feel their political mortality and dozens of previously ignored Democratic challengers worth getting to know, because they could be making laws next year.
The vast majority of GOP strategists have believed that 2018 was a Democratic high-water mark because Trump wasn’t on the ballot to turn out his base, but 2020 is looking closer to a replay of nearly a decade ago, when things also weren’t going so well for Republicans. Democrats gained 31 seats in 2006 and captured the House majority. Two years later, they gained 20 more seats and took back the White House.
Even though the majority isn’t at risk this November, each seat is important. The House margin matters not only for passage of critical legislation but also because the 2020 results will set the stage for the midterms, when the president’s party historically loses seats.
Nathan L. Gonzales is a senior political analyst for the Public Affairs Council and editor of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan newsletter with a subscription package designed to boost PACs with a regular newsletter and exclusive conference call. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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