The Democrats' out-party advantage in 2020

The Democrats' out-party advantage in 2020
© Greg Nash

In politics, there are times when context overwhelms candidates. No matter the skill of the messenger, their message is lost to the wind. This is one of those times. 

Senate Republicans not only have more seats than the Democrats to defend in 2020 (23 to 12), but they have to defend their sustained defense of President TrumpDonald John TrumpKimberly Guilfoyle reports being asymptomatic and 'feeling really pretty good' after COVID-19 diagnosis Biden says he will rejoin WHO on his first day in office Lincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad MORE. While most of these incumbents represent ruby-red states and staunch support for Trump will be an advantage, the national political environment strongly favors the out-party (Democrats) and a few seats flips will make a majority for Sen. Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerA renewed emphasis on research and development funding is needed from the government Data shows seven Senate Democrats have majority non-white staffs Trump may be DACA participants' best hope, but will Democrats play ball? MORE (D-N.Y.). Democrats need to flip four seats and win the White House (the vice president would break tie votes), assuming they lose the seat in Alabama held by Democratic Sen. Doug Jones.

While it may be too soon to forecast a blue wave, it is not too early to take stock of the converging tides running with the Democrats. 


The first is Trump. Although his approval rating has stayed within a narrow range for most of his presidency, his 43 percent average rating places him among inauspicious company. According to FiveThirtyEight's comparative approval tracker, at this point (1,219 days in), only two of the last six presidents who ran for reelection possessed such low approval ratings: Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterThe Hill's Campaign Report: Trump's job approval erodes among groups that powered his 2016 victory Gallup: Trump's job approval rating erodes among key groups The Memo: Trump grows weak as clock ticks down MORE and George H.W. Bush. His disapproval rating is higher than each of his predecessors. 

Even before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the country’s economy and caused nearly 100,000 deaths, few held favorable impressions of Trump’s character. A survey done by Pew Research in February found that 80 percent of Americans agreed that “self-centered describes him very or fairly well, while 59 percent view him as prejudiced.” Further, “only about a third each say Trump is honest (36 percent) and morally upstanding (32 percent).” These preexisting views will not make it easy for Trump to convince the public that he cares about them. 

Yet, this is likely what boosted President Obama in his reelection in 2012. While Obama garnered more than 3.5 million fewer votes in 2012 than he had in 2008, enough Americans held positive personal views of him that they overcame their concerns with his handling of the economy. 

The second is policy. As columnist Paul Waldman explained, if Republicans were thinking straight, then getting the “economy back on its feet as quickly and strongly as possible … [is] the only thing that will avoid a political disaster in November. So spend, spend, spend.” They would be giving “monthly checks to every family, payroll support to every business, hundreds of billions to prop up state governments crushed by the crisis, a massive new infrastructure plan.” They would have a chance at winning with one message: We’re giving it all we’ve got. This strategy would also take away the possibility of Democrats criticizing Republicans for not doing enough. 

And sometimes in politics, trying amounts to doing, if the public believes one inherited the problems. This was President Franklin Roosevelt’s strategy in 1936: fight everybody but the worker. As Professor William Leuchtenburg cogently described, “Roosevelt seemed to relish the attacks of Republicans, maintaining that he and his New Deal protected the average American against the predations of the rich and powerful. Referring to ‘business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking,’ FDR crowed, ‘Never before have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.’ Roosevelt’s supporters believed their candidate understood and sympathized with them. As one worker put it in 1936, Roosevelt ‘is the first man in the White House to understand that my boss is a son of a (expletive).’”


This year, Trump and the Republican Party seem to be doing everything possible to prove to Americans that they stand with big business, not them. Their campaign platform appears to include: standing against the Affordable Care Act; against the extension of a boosted unemployment benefit; and against holding businesses liable for coronavirus exposure.

The third are the states in play. Incumbent Republican Sens. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisLincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic Unity Taskforce unveils party platform recommendations Democrats awash with cash in battle for Senate MORE of North Carolina, Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerLincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court orders Dakota Access Pipeline to shut down | Energy companies cancel Atlantic Coast Pipeline | House rejects Trump cuts, proposes boost for environmental agencies Senate outlook slides for GOP MORE of Colorado, Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesLincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic Unity Taskforce unveils party platform recommendations Democrats awash with cash in battle for Senate MORE of Montana and Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstLincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic Unity Taskforce unveils party platform recommendations Trump renews culture war, putting GOP on edge MORE of Iowa were last elected six years ago. The 2014 midterm election was a Republican “wave year,” which meant that “the average Republican candidate for Senate outperformed what we would have expected given the map by 8.5 percentage points.” Not only did each of the above senators win by less than 8.5 points (1.5 percent, 1.9 percent, 7.7 percent and 8.3 percent, respectively), but this was a year in which the “generic ballot” polling average, according to RealClearPolitics, favored the Republicans by 2.4 percent. For some perspective, the “generic ballot” polling average for this past year has favored the Democrats by about 8 percent

There are two other incumbent Republican senators in trouble in their purple-hued states: Susan Collins of Maine and Martha McSally of Arizona. Although Republicans believe that these senators’ votes to acquit Trump on the articles of impeachment will help them rally Trump’s base to vote for them, the case can be made easily in an advertisement that if they are responsible for keeping Trump in office, then they also are responsible for the havoc he has wrought in the federal government since his acquittal.

Beyond this electoral context, Doug Sosnik provided a deeper dive into why some of these states are likely to be out of the Republicans reach in this election. The demographic composition of Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina are changing. Immigration from other countries and migration from other states are increasing the size of the groups (college-educated voters, young voters and people of color) most likely to vote Democratic. Further, Trump's offensive rhetoric and persistent tweeting are continuing to turn off many women voters. A recent Fox News poll shows that among women, Trump’s approval rating is 36 percent. That is a far cry — about 14 points lower — from where President George W. Bush stood among women in the spring of 2004.

Taken together, Republicans may not yet be feeling the effects of the brewing storm, but a blue wave appears to be forming and it seems that six Senate Republicans could well get swept out to sea. If the tide is strong in November, Sens. Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad State and local officials beg Congress to send more election funds ahead of November Teacher's union puts million behind ad demanding funding for schools preparing to reopen MORE (R-Ky.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamLincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump backs another T stimulus, urges governors to reopen schools Democrats awash with cash in battle for Senate MORE (R-S.C.) also may find that undertows are tough to escape from. This year, it may well be good not to be an incumbent from the president’s party. 

Lara M. Brown is director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. Follow her on Twitter @LaraMBrownPhD.