These outcomes were a big surprise, to say the least. Every well-known forecast had projected Democrats would expand their House majority by 10 to 12 seats. Instead, Democrats came perilously close to losing control of the House altogether. Most forecasts also expected Democrats to win a Senate majority, with analysts regularly acknowledging the possibility of a Democratic landslide. In the end, Democrats retained a razor thin House majority and eked out party control of a 50-50 Senate. But why did Democrats so markedly underperform expectations?
The simplest story is that Democrats proved unable to expand their appeal beyond the districts that had favored Democrats in the 2016 presidential election. Many of the defeated House Democrats were freshmen elected in the 2018 midterms in districts that Trump had carried in 2016. With Trump at the top of the ticket again in 2020, these districts flipped back into the Republican column.
In short, the same political geographic divide we saw in 2016 is still largely with us. This is remarkable political stability considering everything that has happened since November 2016 — including two presidential impeachments, the longest ever government shutdown, a huge rise in unemployment, an unprecedented surge in poverty and a pandemic that killed more than 400,000 Americans. Despite it all, few minds have been changed.
The “snap back to 2016” story is not a complete explanation of the 2020 election outcome, however, because congressional Democrats did worse than one would have predicted on the basis of the 2016 vote in some respects. Across the board, Democrats performed worse among Latino voters in 2020 than in 2016. This resulted in two surprising House incumbent defeats in South Florida in districts Clinton carried. Democrats also lost three heavily Hispanic seats in Southern California that had favored Clinton in 2016. In addition, they lost a competitive House district along Texas’s Mexican border that Democrats had expected to win after the Republican incumbent’s retirement. Biden’s weakness with Latino voters was a widespread phenomenon, not confined to Cuban Americans in South Florida.
Congressional Democrats also performed worse than one would have predicted on the basis of the 2020 presidential vote. Political scientists used to write a lot about presidential coattails — meaning the number of new members of the president’s party elected to Congress in a presidential election — and how they affected a president’s clout in Congress. Biden had no coattails at all. The last winning presidential candidate to enter office having lost so many seats in Congress was Bill Clinton in 1992, in the midst of the South’s realignment to Republicans. Democratic candidates for Congress received 4 percent (3.7 million) fewer total votes than Biden, while Republican candidates for Congress received only 2 percent (1.3 million) fewer votes than Trump. These results suggest Trump’s supporters were more likely to vote a straight ticket than were Biden’s supporters. There was not much split-ticket voting in 2020, but what there was disproportionately harmed congressional Democrats. An increment of Biden’s supporters may have preferred him to Trump, but they did not become Democrats.
Taken together, what all this means is that the 2020 elections did little to clarify the direction of the country. Neither party received a vote of confidence from the American people. Democrats won the presidency at the same time as voters opted to weaken the Democratic Party in the House. This outcome reflects a basic fact about American public opinion: a majority of Americans has not approved of either the Republican or Democratic Party since 2009. Although public opinion of the Republican Party turned sharply negative in the wake of the Capitol riot of Jan. 6, the Democratic Party continues to fall short of 50 percent approval. The 2020 congressional elections yielded a remarkably narrow division of power. Whatever the shortcomings of our representational institutions, they accurately reflect a country that remains divided down the middle between the two parties.
This article is part of a seminar on the 2020 election and its aftereffects organized by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University. See below for the complete list of contributions to the seminar.