Category: State & Science

Introducing Watching Mates

Your favorite podcasting 20-something-year-old former DC boys are back on the air with their upcoming project, Watching Mates. Coming out later this March, each episode they’ll delve into postwar presidents, starting with Harry Truman, through the lens of the films of the era. Each episode, Lars and Michael will each watch a movie chosen by the other from that presidency and discuss how the silver screen reflects the particular administration.

Stay tuned for an all new podcast, fresh banter, discovering some films you might enjoy from the last 70 years, and of course — a new intro theme! Subscribe now to catch out first episode on the films of the Truman era later this month.

Chatroom: Which State Should Go First in the Primary?

After the disastrous Iowa Caucuses in 2020, there has been increased scrutiny of the first-in-the-nation competitions in the party primaries. Iowa (with the first caucus) and New Hampshire (with the first primary) are both disproportionately (90%) white, rural and not very representative of the nation as a whole.

The 2020 Democratic nominee and now president Joe Biden did not win either state, but his more diverse coalition saved his campaign when the primary moved on to Nevada and South Carolina, both states that had more significant Asian, Latinx, or Black populations and a more diverse swath of voters.

This past week, legislation was introduced in the Nevada Assembly to convert its caucus into a primary and assert itself as the first state in the primary calendar. Despite being much more representative of the nation as a whole, Iowa and New Hampshire are fighting back hard, and we wanted to take this time to reflect on the primary calendar and some potential changes that could be made. Which we’re doing in The Postrider‘s first ever Chatroom.

[This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity]


Lars: So, here today is Michael Lovito, our editor-in-chief.

Michael: Hello.

Lars: And myself! Your State & Science editor and passionate primary follower.

So Michael, why don’t you kick us off with hey, should we change it at all? Or should Iowa and then New Hampshire go first forever?

Michael: Well, I’ll start off with something I think we can both agree on, which is that whichever states go first, the parties need to get rid of caucuses. They’re exclusionary and complicated, and a lot of former caucus states (like your old home of Colorado) have already moved on to primaries

Lars: Yes, totally with you there. Caucuses are nightmares, but it seems like they’re on the way out anyway.

Michael: And it’s worth pointing out too that they aren’t constitutionally mandated like the Electoral College. While they’re mandated by state law in Iowa, that’s only been the case since 1972. Our parents are older than the Iowa caucuses! New Hampshire has a similar law about primaries as well

Lars: It’s like if New Jersey passed a law saying “we always have to get vaccines before other states” but then for some reason the government went along with it because “oh well they have this law… can’t step around that”

But I digress…

Michael: Yes, anyway, I’m avoiding the central question. Would it make sense for a more diverse, less rural state than Iowa to have the first presidential nominating contest? Absolutely it would. But part of me wonders if we wouldn’t be having this conversation if the Iowa caucuses weren’t such a disaster in 2020, and if we would have felt differently if Biden had won them. Because between 1996 and 2016 (and keep in mind that a fair bit of uncompetitive caucuses happened in that time frame), the eventual Democratic nominee did, in fact, end up winning in Iowa.

It’s actually the Republican caucuses that have had the worse track record selecting a nominee in recent years, with Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Ted Cruz winning in 2008, 2012, and 2016, respectively, which is especially ironic considering that Iowa looks a lot more like the Republican base than the Democratic one.

So I guess my question is, 1. What is the goal of reshuffling the primary calendar, and 2. Are we sure it’s as broken as we think it is?

Lars: Well that’s a great transition into kind of the other side of this, is should it change for both parties, should the primary calendar be standardized for both parties, and should there be more of a top-down primary system as oppose to the state-up system we have?

Having Iowa go first is clearly detrimental on the Democratic side, it’s just not reflecting of the Democratic electorate at all.

People spout off all the time that it allows Democrats to learn “retail campaigning” in a small state and that Iowans are “experienced” vetters of candidates who are better equipped than other voters to choose which makes me roll my eyes.

Pete Buttigieg won the Iowa primary in 2020 but he was clearly not the best suited candidate to win nationally.

As for the Republicans, as you pointed out, Iowa hasn’t actually chosen their eventual nominee in quite some time, since Bush in 2000 actually (keep in mind their winners since have been… Huckabee in 08, Santorum in ’12, and then “Flyin'” Ted “Cancun” Cruz in ’16).

But I generally believe states should have both parties go on the same day. Though the parties should be free to choose different mechanisms for voting and delegate allocation (more winner-take-all in the GOP’s case, proportional in the Democratic case), it allows some innovation and has been very helpful on the Democratic side especially.

Michael: Yes, as someone who follows and occasionally writes about these things, I think I’d go insane if the parties decided to hold their primaries/caucuses on different dates.

Lars: Yeah, political reporters across the world plead — do not do that.

Michael: So, I think where I stand on Iowa (and I guess New Hampshire), is that 1. for Democrats they are not representative of their base and should probably not go first, but 2. I think that we’re overreacting a little bit to what happened a year ago, unless you think that the reason the Democrats lost in 2004 and 2016 was because John Kerry and Hillary Clinton were worse nominees than John Edwards and Bernie Sanders, but I know at the very least that you don’t hold that opinion.

But let’s entertain some hypotheticals: assuming only one state gets to go first, which should it be? This may be controversial, but I don’t think it should be Nevada or South Carolina, either!

Lars: Oh forgive me for thinking John Kerry would have been a better president than John Edwards… 😆

But I actually think that’s a case against Iowa! Kerry-Edwards was a very close race in Iowa when it was not nationally, and same with Clinton-Sanders. Iowa actually favored Edwards and Sanders relative to the nation at large, whereas Kerry and Clinton were stronger candidates and more representative of the party overall!

But so you asked what should it be, if not Iowa…

So I’m at first drawn to FiveThirtyEight’s article which orders each state by demographic similarity to the Democratic Party at large and notes Illinois is the most similar.

Illinois is… much bigger than Iowa or NH, obviously, which I think poses its own problems, which is why I think it’s not my final choice. But it has a major city, rural areas, 22% Black, 9% Hispanic, and a good mix of those with a college degree and those without one, it’s much more aligned with the Democratic Party and the nation as a whole.

Michael: I’m obliged to point that number two on the list is my home state, the Great State of New Jersey, and even before reading this article I was thinking that it might be a good first state for similar reasons. It’s home to a significant African-American and Latin American community, as well as the kind of middle class suburbs that handed Biden his win against Trump in 2020. If you were looking for a microcosm of the Democratic base, it’s not a bad choice…

Lars: It’s not! They’re both fairly large, which means they’re expensive to campaign in, and it’s less personal than in say… Iowa 😑

So I kind of have a different idea… unless you want to make a very strong case for one particular state?

Michael: I think my case is New Jersey! It’s got a lot of people but it’s compact area wise and is fairly representative as the party as a whole.

Lars: Okay let’s talk about that then because there are some big hurdles there.

So the problem is, and this is great because I get to use one of my favorite maps in the world…

New Jersey falls into two media markets. And they’re two of the most expensive media markets in the country: New York and Philadelphia. It literally does not have its own media market. It would be untenable for anyone without pretty significant (Bloomberg or Sanders level) funding to have any play there.

I agree that demographically NJ has a good case, but it is very different and less accessible than Illinois in this way specifically. In Illinois, Chicago is one of many media markets, there are also several others in the state (Peoria, Springfield, Rockford, St. Louis, Quincy, Harrisburg, etc.) that are not so expensive.

Michael: Fair enough. But is Illinois your pick for number one?

Lars:
I think if it had to be one state, Illinois is a pretty good choice. Certainly for the Democrats… but I think it’s similar enough for the nation as a whole that it’s probably a good idea for Republicans too. It’d do that party some good to have to have candidates campaign in cities as well as suburbs and rural areas (same with Democrats, for that matter, but in the inverse)

But if I’m the kingmaker and decided of all in primary world. And if I can stretch this a little bit, I think you have to start the primary with several states. No one state should go first, but maybe four should?

Basically, at the beginning of the year — and hey, make an event of it! Gamify the primaries a little! — you do a drawing of one state from each region (Northeast, South, Midwest, and West) and one state from each goes all on one day. And then a week or two later, the next state from each goes.

This is a good way to ensure a diversity of states, ensure no one state goes first, and makes it as close to fair as it can be — while allowing different candidates the choice of where to prioritize.

Michael: I think I tend to agree with this approach — the messed up thing about the primary system is that it was never really meant to work this way. The first primaries were really “beauty contests” that potential nominees would run in to show that they were viable electorally, but in most cases the results were non-binding — Hubert Humphrey didn’t even run in any primaries in 1968! So what you have now is a weird sort of combination audition and election, where candidates try to prove that they’re a viable general election nominee by performing well with the party’s base…it really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you think about it.

In lieu of a same day, popular vote primary (which I know you’re vehemently opposed to but I’m not all the way out on), I think a “sampling” of states from across the country holding primaries over the course of a few weeks makes the most sense and balances it all out.

Lars: Yeah, exactly.

We’d have to rebalance the “regions”. Like, put Maryland, Delaware, and DC in the “Northeast”, since they’re not really the “South” culturally anymore, and include the territories (who do vote in the party primaries) logically, so Puerto Rico could be the South but Guam would be the West.

And yes, there would technically be a chance that California, New York, Illinois, and Texas are all drawn as the “first four” primaries — which would be a bummer. But more likely you’d get like a New Mexico-Virgin Islands-Michigan-Connecticut primary. Which is a pretty good mix of things!

And candidates could say “hey well I’ll probably do well in Michigan but not so much in Connecticut” so it helps bring back the diversity of candidacies that I think the Iowa caucuses has really done a disservice to.

Michael: Part of me does wonder — would this approach drag out the process and maybe even lead to more contested conventions? Will it be harder for one candidate to pull away?

Lars: That is a good point. I think not so much in the GOP with their winner-take-all system.

But I think it also discourages fringe candidates, since everyone enters the race you know a year before anything even happens and then only at the start of the year do we find out the schedule.

You’d have to have some semblance of national viability to have a shot; and yeah, you could be the beloved governor of Nebraska and then your state is one of the first four, and that’s awesomely lucky for you, but that doesn’t mean you played so well in Florida and Rhode Island that same day, unless you chose to go there and campaign too and they ended up liking you.

It also means all of these months and months of investment in one state are meaningless, right? So it could even be more accessible to candidates who haven’t spent two years deploying an army to Iowa.

Michael: Well, that leads me to another question: Do we think any change is likely to happen? Or are the Iowa and New Hampshire lobbies too strong within either party?

Lars: I’ve been watching the Nevada drama, Nevada definitely has a better case to go first than Iowa just in terms of diversity and handling their elections way better. But I think you’d have to have the party come down on Iowa for it to change it since Iowa’s law requires its caucus take place eight days before any other state’s election.

But if the DNC and all of its prospective candidates in 2028 say leaned on Iowa and said “we aren’t going to go here first”, then maybe? Momentum is pretty hard to find for stuff like that though, and it almost becomes a game theory problem. Any one candidate who then decides to go to Iowa and eschew the party means they all have to rush back there.

The DNC could do something like decide delegates from Iowa will be almost worthless, but you still get a lot of media attention from winning the first contest, which is incentive enough to go.

We seem to agree we’re due for change, but do you think it’s going to happen?

Michael: Not really. My feelings on Iowa and New Hampshire at this point are a lot like my feelings on cigarettes: We all know they’re a bad idea, but there’s too much money and influence involved to ever do away with them for good. Maybe Iowa moves to a primary, but both of those states’ identities are so wrapped up in their “first in the nation” status. They might have to make some sort of compromise with the parties, but I don’t think anything too radical is going to happen. Heck, even if Nevada moves their primary to January 1st, I wouldn’t put it past Iowa and New Hampshire to move their contests to December.

Lars: Yeah I agree. Well, what an uplifting way to wrap up our first chat. “Nothing will change”. 

Any parting thoughts or headlines or are we doomed to live in Iowa’s America forever? 

Michael: I think that about sums it up for me — I look forward to lots of hate mail from Iowans and New Hampshirites in the coming days.

Lars: Haha yeah, well, thank goodness there aren’t many of them to begin with…

I think I’d sum this up with noting that of the last seven presidents, only two of them actually won Iowa in their primaries.

Michael: And yet five of them would end up winning Iowa at least once in their general election. Elections — they make no sense!

If Trump Runs in 2024, Who Will Be His Running Mate?

In 2019, we ran a piece about President Trump’s upcoming reelection and his relationship with Vice President Mike Pence — who we dubbed “the one man in the administration that President Trump cannot fire.” The article centered on whether or not Trump would drop Pence from the ticket, how it might play out, the historical context to keep in mind, and who he might choose in 2020 if Pence got the boot. 

It turned out to be wonkish conjecture. Despite some prognosticatorsbold predictions of Trump switching Pence for former UN Ambassador and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley at the last minute, Trump kept the steady and reliable Mike Pence on the ticket. It was probably a smart decision — the staid Pence performed much better in his debate than his running mate, and as we’ve discussed many times in our Running Mates series, it never projects confidence and stability if you have to drop your own running mate for reelection. It reflects a fault in your own decision making ability, displays disloyalty, and perpetrates a message of chaos in your own administration.1Not to mention all that campaign merch you’ve now got to replace! These traits are somewhat emblematic of the Trump administration, to be sure, so kicking Pence off the ticket would not seem too out of place from the Trump White House tumult we’ve come to expect.

In 2020, Trump assigned Pence to lead the coronavirus task force, distancing the president from the day-to-day fallout of the virus. The pieces were there to shuffle Pence off, blame him for the escalating crisis, and invite some exciting new talent in now that Trump had his pick of the Republican litter in 2020, if he wanted to. Had Trump not inserted himself into daily briefings on the coronavirus, blamed everyone but himself, and downplayed the crisis, it just might have worked. But of course, he did not, and the crisis culminated in the deaths of over 200,000 Americans by Election Day as well as an outbreak in the White House itself, infecting the president and the first family. Trump, with Pence, went on to lose reelection to the Biden-Harris ticket in November, in large part a consequence of the bungled response to the coronavirus and its economic consequences.

Now facing his own political mortality, as he slowly acknowledges he will not be president come January 20, 2021, Trump has ratcheted up hints of a run for the presidency in 2024. “Otherwise, I’ll see you in four years,” he told guests at a White House Christmas Party on December 1. The president has told allies he may run in 2024, potentially even announcing during Biden’s inauguration, and his campaign has emailed supporters asking if they want Trump to run again in 2024. This has some people thinking ahead — if Trump runs again in 2024, does he choose Pence as his running mate again? And if not, who is the alternative? Can Trump even pull off getting the nomination again?

It’s Happened Before… But You Won’t Remember It

Let’s start by looking at the only person to pull off what Trump would be trying to achieve were he to run again in 2024. President Grover Cleveland lost re-election in 1888 to Benjamin Harrison, but would go on to avenge himself in 1892 to reclaim the title. For his second run, Cleveland replaced Thomas A. Hendricks, his 1888 running mate and first vice president, with Adlai Stevenson I, who served as Postmaster General during Cleveland’s first term. Of course, Cleveland didn’t have much of a choice: Hendricks died in his sleep only eight months into his vice presidency (Cleveland served without a vice president for the remainder of his first term and tapped former Ohio senator Allen G. Thurman as his running mate in 1888).

Presidents and their running mates weren’t always expected to mate for life.

Presidents and their running mates weren’t always expected to mate for life. Eight presidents have had at least two vice presidents (Franklin D. Rooselvelt holds the record with three), and while some of these VPs met the same unfortunate fate of Thomas Hendricks, some were shuffled aside for purely political reasons. Of course, seven of those eight presidents (namely Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Licoln, Ulysses S. Grant, William McKinley, and Roosevelt) served in a much different era of party and electoral politics than the one we find ourselves in today. Whereas the perception nowadays is that a presumptive nominee for president picks their running mate and then tells the convention to vote for them, it used to be the other way around. Running mates weren’t decided until the convention itself, when various factions of the party would lobby for a candidate that best reflected their interests — that’s how a free silver advocate like Stevenson wound up running with the goldbug Cleveland, and how a Southern conservative like Garner found himself serving two terms under a Northern liberal like Roosevelt. If building a modern presidential ticket is like speed dating, then the process of yore was more akin to an arranged marriage, with the unions in question dissolved if it suited the party. The influence of the party made itself felt as recently as 1976 when Gerald Ford became the last incumbent president not to run for re-election with his incumbent vice president after deciding he needed to dump the liberal Nelson Rockefeller in favor of the more conservative Bob Dole to win his contested convention against Ronald Reagan.2Ford, for the record, called it “one of the few cowardly things I did in my life.

If we’re trying to find a historical example that would best guide our assessment of a Trump-Pence reunion, we’d have to look at the eighth and most recent president to have multiple understudies — Richard Nixon. His comeback victory in 1968 after losing in 1960 is probably the closest modern equivalent to what Trump might try to achieve in 2024. In 1960 Nixon chose Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. who, like the oft-rumored Pence replacement Nikki Haley, served as Ambassador to the United Nations. The pick made sense: Nixon was only 47 at the time and represented the younger, more conservative wing of the Republican party while Lodge, who had also represented Massachusetts in the Senate, was nearly 60 and represented the Northern, centrist party establishment.3Lodge had a fascinating career: In addition to serving in the Senate and as Eisenhower’s ambassador to the UN, he would also serve as the Kennedy and later the Johnson administration’s ambassador to South Vietnam during the ramp up of the Vietnam War. While still serving in that capacity, he sought the Republican nomination for president, meaning that he would be running against his boss for president under a completely different party banner had he been nominated (and this wasn’t a long shot: he won the New Hampshire primary!). Eventually Johnson appointed him to the West Germany ambassadorship and once Nixon took office he made him the Personal Representative of the President to the Holy See, a post he would hold under both Ford and Carter as well. But when Nixon ran eight years later, a little older and a bit more of a known quantity, he went in a totally different direction by selecting Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew, a man five years Nixon’s junior who had been elected to his office only two years prior. In Nixonland, Rick Perlstein describes Nixon and Agnew as kindred spirits: “Both the sons of grocers who were strict disciplinarians, both had worked their way through college, both junior officers in World War II.” Agnew also matched Nixon politically by ostensibly supporting civil rights (he won the governorship by accurately painting his opponent as a virulent racist) while also cracking down on civil rights protests. In 1960, Nixon had to make room on the ticket to represent the interests of the rest of the party. In 1968, he had enough clout to try and remake it in his own image.

In 1960, Nixon had to make room on the ticket to represent the interests of the rest of the party. In 1968, he had enough clout to try and remake it in his own image.

On the surface, it seems like Trump could make a similar switch. While Pence was ultimately chosen by the Trump campaign, it was no doubt done so to placate the party establishment and the Republicans’ socially conseravtive base. But for a while it seemed like Trump would be able to reshape the party in his image too — his approval was regularly polling in the upper 80s and low 90s among Republican voters, and while he lost re-election, he avoided the drubbing many had predicted, and may have even had some coattails on the congressional level. Even if they didn’t like his style, the Republican Party had to like the results.

But then January happened. Trump’s constant crowing about unsubstantiated voter fraud, particularly in Georgia, hamstrung Republican efforts in that state’s Senate runoffs and handed both of their candidates defeat, shifting Senate control towards the Democrats for at least the next two years. The very next day, Trump incited a crowd of his supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol while Congress was counting the electoral votes, putting the lives of members of his own party in danger. An unprecedented second impeachment followed, which ten House Republicans voted in favor of, including a member of the party’s leadership. A second trial awaits, one in which Trump may in fact be convicted by members of his own party and be prevented from serving as president again. In just two months, he went from a mitigator of Republican decline to the first president to lose the White House and both houses of Congress in one term since Herbert Hoover, and then to an incitor of violence against Congress, and a true pariah inside his own party’s leadership, if not publicly, then privately. 

In just two months, [Trump] went from a mitigator of Republican decline to the first president to lose the White House and both houses of Congress in one term since Herbert Hoover.

The events of the last few weeks may make this article feel futile, but let’s not miss the forest for the trees. Three quarters of Republican voters still approve of the job Trump is doing as president, and the impeachment votes and the votes to certify the Arizona and Pennsylvania electors show that he still has the support of most of the House of Representatives, who are typically closer to the grassroots activists, local parties, and — by extension — primary voters, rather than senators or other national party leaders. In other words, it’s very possible that Trump could win the 2024 Republican primary with a big part of the party’s national and congressional leadership opposing him. In that case, does he try to placate the party by choosing a running mate who represents them, or does he dip into his pool of congressional and state level allies to try and create a party that represents him? Or does he try it all over again?

Feeling Pence-ive?

Let’s start with the obvious. Ever since the November election and the slew of ceremonial counting and certification instances that followed, Pence’s relationship with Trump has soured. And it’s soured — at least publicly — fairly quickly. Trump called on Pence, in his role as vice president presiding over the electoral vote count, to “reject fraudulently chosen electors,” a power which, of course, the vice president does not have. Pence pushed back, reportedly told Trump he has no such power, and that therefore the election would not be overturned.

During the ensuing chaos at the Capitol, in which Pence’s own life was put in danger, Trump supporters chanted “hang Mike Pence!” as they breached security. Pence nonetheless finally announced the electoral count certifying Joe Biden and Kamala Harris had won and relations between Trump and Pence really fell by the wayside. Trump didn’t speak to Pence that day, or the days following (once again, remember that Pence was being targeted by name by Trump’s own supporters), and it seems like Pence is quietly heading for the door, ready for a political life away from Trump.

Pence has very little to gain by publicly supporting Trump and thus meeting the wrath of most of the country and an emerging bulwark of his own party, or publicly condemning Trump and thus meeting the wrath of Trump’s supporters who already view him as a traitor.

It’s the most strained their relationship has been since the Access Hollywood tape emerged during Trump’s 2016 campaign for president. But this time, Pence has very little to gain by publicly supporting Trump and thus meeting the wrath of most of the country and an emerging bulwark of his own party, or publicly condemning Trump and thus meeting the wrath of Trump’s supporters who already view him as a traitor. His best course is to do exactly what he’s been doing: keeping his head down and waiting it out. Even if Trump still liked Pence, which there’s not a lot of evidence for, Pence doesn’t need Trump to carry him to office next year. That ship has already sailed; Trump failed to win reelection, and Pence may have machinations of his own in the years to come that may put him in direct conflict with the big man himself.

For starters, Mike Pence may be planning to run for president himself in 2024. Pence, pretty understandably, considering it’s been a modern norm for vice presidents to seek the promotion themselves, has run a high risk-high reward gambit for the last five years in tying himself to Trump. It paid off incredibly in 2016, catapulting the relatively unimaginative Indiana Governor to the White House by sheer nature of the fact that Pence was one of the few mainstream Republicans (something Trump needed to complement his erratic outsider candidacy; we have an entire podcast episode about it) willing to join what was then viewed as a losing ticket. Mike Pence is now a household name, the presumptive heir to the Republican throne, and he’s set himself up nicely (and continues to do so by unassumingly biding his time until the inauguration) as the “establishment” Republican most related to the president who can carry on the administration’s legacy.

If Trump neuters Pence’s presumptive candidacy by declaring that he’ll be running again in 2024, it could set up quite a showdown for the nomination. Despite Pence starting to emerge as a popular alternative after the January 6 Capitol riot and an unprecedented collapse in Trump’s approval ratings, Trump remains a pretty popular figure within the party, and a frontrunner in 2024, with 40% of Republicans backing him

A president facing his own vice president for the nomination in the modern era has never occurred, and though it’s happened in American history (looking at you, election of 1800), the only real point of comparison we have is the 1940 Democratic Convention. President Franklin Roosevelt, seeking a third consecutive term, was challenged by his own vice president, John Nance Garner.4Garner is perhaps most famous for being the vice president to declare his own office as “not worth a bucket of warm piss.” To be fair to Garner, Roosevelt had hedged and hesitated on his intentions to run for president for a third term, so Garner went ahead planning on Roosevelt’s stepping down, as did DNC Chairman James Farley (who had also been Roosevelt’s campaign manager), and they both declared their candidacies, only to lose to a “spontaneous” nomination of Roosevelt for a third term during the convention. Garner — and many other Democrats for that matter — did not like the idea of a president seeking an unprecedented third term in office and their relationship had soured in Roosevelt’s second term. This bit of machiavellian chicanery providing the illusion of humility likely didn’t improve that, so Roosevelt selected a new running mate, Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace.5This is also the moment that we have to thank for the practice of presidential nominees selecting their own running mates, as opposed to the conventions themselves, so followers of this site owe a debt of gratitude to John Nance Garner, no matter how much he hated the vice presidency…

This analogy is actually more astute than it may seem at first. Trump has done everything to set himself up as a 2024 candidate outside of explicitly saying that he’ll run. The party is nervous about him seeking another term, and Pence and Trump’s relationship has crumbled (if not quite as publicly). Pence was frustrated about being left hung out to dry by the president after his years of fealty, and the entire episode stinks of the breakdown of communication that seemed prevalent in the Garner-Roosevelt saga.

Pence is a proponent of the system and its traditions; he plans to attend Biden’s inauguration, symbolically upholding the election result, and is working within the GOP to coalesce support for congressional candidates and his own future aspirations. If you’re distancing yourself from Trump while trying to ruffle as few feathers as possible, this is exactly how one would go about doing it. It’s much better to stand inside the party, saying nothing, and look out at the president than to join him flailing uncontrollably, destroying the party’s future electoral prospects from the outside. Better to appear a president-in-waiting than a sore loser willing to tear down your remaining credibility on the way out the door. 

“Go Down in History as a Patriot… Or Go Down in History as a Pussy”

Trump will brand Pence as the man who couldn’t find a way to overturn the election for him. The man who was in charge of the White House Coronavirus Task Force and can easily be thrown under the bus as mishandling the crisis if it proves politically expedient.

There’s the flipside to this too, in that Trump probably doesn’t want Pence around either! Before Pence headed to the Capitol for the January 6 electoral vote count, Trump reportedly pushed once more on his number two: “You can either go down in history as a patriot…  or you can go down in history as a pussy.” Pence, in Trump’s mind, chose the latter. Trump will brand Pence as the man who couldn’t find a way to overturn the election for him. The man who was in charge of the White House Coronavirus Task Force and can easily be thrown under the bus as mishandling the crisis if it proves politically expedient. Trump can blame Pence for his administration’s failures (the coronavirus pandemic being the most costly, with almost 400,000 Americans dead as of January 19). To Trump, Pence is yet another RINO insider who failed to defend him and his followers in making America great again. 

The track record for those people has not been encouraging, at least not while Trump has been president. They’ve been cast to the side of the party (Mitt Romney), lost primaries to a more Trump-aligned conservative (Scott Tipton, Jeff Sessions), or declined to run for reelection for fear of both (Jeff Flake, Paul Ryan, Justin Amash, Will Hurd). Pence will probably go the way of other Trump cabinet officials who have been fired or resigned. Much like Jeff Sessions before him, Trump will blame him for his own mistakes, accept no fault of his own, insult his character, and deem him insufficiently loyal, while he tries to maintain his absolute loyalty and support for the president.

Like Nixon’s second run for the presidency in 1968, Trump no longer needs someone to give him credibility, or to convince people he’s a conservative Republican — he will want a more kindred spirit. Someone with the same vitriol and disdain for institutions and traditions. Someone who will be more vocally defensive of the former president than even Mike Pence was, and let Trump — like Nixon — remake the entire party in his own image.

Trump-Pence 2024?

So, yes, a Trump-Pence reunion seems pretty unlikely at this point. But we live in unprecedented times, so let’s entertain the possibility of an unprecedented reconciliation.

Let’s assume that Donald Trump wins renomination in 2024. If he does so, it’ll be as the standard bearer of a divided party — he’d likely be challenged in the primary by a Never Trump Republican (Maryland Governor Larry Hogan seems like a potential contestant) and a faction of Republicans who voted to impeach or convict him in 2021 (headlined by Utah Senator Mitt Romney) could refuse to support him. He’ll still have his die-hards within the party of course, but there’ll also be a group of conservative Republicans who are skeptical of Trump personally, though they recognize that he turns out voters for the party. For that final group, the selection of a Trump yes man to the ticket would leave them without a voice in the White House and without a check of Trump’s worst impulses. They’ll lobby him to include someone who can advocate for their interests in the White House while making sure he doesn’t go completely off the rails by, say, overturning the results of a presidential election. Lucky for them, Michael Richard Pence has already done all of those things, making him an acceptable choice to the party.

But why would he be an acceptable choice for Trump? Well, there’s always the issue of Trump’s ego: he doesn’t want to make it look like he made a mistake in 2016, and the only way to avoid that is to pick Pence again. But there’s also the problem of the general election, and winning enough independents and Democrats to actually become president again. Pence was arguably the most visible figure of the Capitol riots, and that would help him in any election, be it presidential or vice presidential. He refused to be intimidated by people calling for his death and executed his constitutional duty, even though it required him to humbly announce his defeat in the electoral college. There is something virtuous, perhaps even heroic, in the role he played during the vote count that has the potential to appeal to Trump-skeptical voters. It’d probably be hard for most people to reconcile seeing him up on stage again with the very man who whipped up those riots and tried to upend the system Pence wound up defending, but hey, at least someone would be around to prevent Trump from trying to do the same thing over again. And who knows: Trump will be 78 in 2024, and that nice Midwestern man who stood up to him would only be a heartbeat away…

Trump picking Pence as his running mate again is a long shot, for sure, and hinges almost completely on the fact that Pence is likely to be remembered more fondly by the American public than Trump himself. But politics is a business, and it never hurts to have a popular running mate. The Democrats once had to balance their tickets between Northern liberals and Southern segregationists. Stranger things have happened. 

Who Might He Choose?

If Trump secures the Republican nomination again in 2024, maintaining his relevance and ability to truly define and shape the GOP for decades to come, his running mate will be the surest sign of what he plans and believes his success is due to. In 2024, Trump would presumably have his pick of the litter, in stark contrast to 2016 when many in the Republican Party believed Trump would never be elected president and flatly declined to be considered. With hindsight we know Trump has a slim, but functional electoral strategy: turn out an incredibly passionate base who are overrepresented in states on the electoral college margin. It’s not a strategy that can win Trump a majority of American voters, but with a built in electoral bias against urban areas, it’s a strategy that can, and has, succeeded. 

How Trump chooses to compose the 2024 ticket and its subsequent success or failure could define his legacy. If he can prove that his strategy and his narrow vision of America can be all-encompassing and even majoritarian, he could become the Republican’s new Ronald Reagan. But if it spirals into failure, costs Republicans two successive presidential elections and control of the Congress, leaving them with a coalition based on a minority of Americans, it will put the bullet in his political career and his vision of the Republican party. 

This leaves Trump an array of options across his admittedly-large corner of the Republican Party. Who he chooses will be a key indicator in how he sees himself and what he prizes if he runs again. Electability or shared rhetoric, acquiescence or diversity, loyalty or appeasement. 

The Diplomats

Trump’s second (and most loyal) Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, is unique in his ability to combine Trump’s ideology and style with a respectable and technocratic position and personality. This is a choice of convenience and adaptation rather than one of deeply held conviction, as the former Army officer turned Republican Congressman from Kansas is not very similar to Trump in terms of mercurial governance or volatile rhetoric. Pompeo is much more a creature of Washington than Trump, which may make them unlikely bedfellows. But in truth, Pompeo is one of the strongest candidates to display what Trump and his supporters may see as the administration’s success. Trump has received praise from unlikely sources for his foreign policy and Pompeo is well positioned to provide credibility and experience, while moulding to Trump’s messaging and policy goals.

The prospects on Trump-Pompeo really depend on how you view Trump and his aims. If Trump wants to get elected to enact his policies and crusade for what he views as right, Pompeo is the ideal choice. But if Trump uses his described policies and rhetoric simply as a means to get elected, an end in itself, then Pompeo is not the choice for him. This is not to say either philosophy is correct. A foundational question in political science rests on whether politicians run for office to support policies (probably, initially at least), or support policies simply to get in office (probably, after they’ve been elected before).

Which brings us to the other memorable and perhaps more electorally-motivated diplomat from the Trump administration: his first ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley. Haley, an Indian-American, was the first female governor of South Carolina, and is unique among former Trump administration figures in that she left her office as United Nations ambassador seemingly on good terms and even spoke at the Republican National Convention in his favor (as did everyone at the convention, so being allowed to speak at all reflects well on her relationship with Trump). Haley has quietly critiqued Trump on some points, but publicly she stresses her loyalty to the man, remarking in her memoir that early in the administration, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sought to bring her on their side to “save the country” by resisting Trump, but she refused to do. After the 2020 election, Haley remained hushed (and therefore complicit) in regards to Trump’s claims of a stolen election and his attempts to undermine it. After the January 6 storming of the Capitol, Haley criticized Trump (in closed-door remarks), but she also said that Twitter blocking Trump was akin to “what happens in China.” To put it mildly, Haley is playing every side of the GOP. Mainstream Republicans like her for her solid conservative credentials and reputation, Trump and his posse appreciate a woman of color’s supposed reverence for the president, and the media magnify her electability as a more compassionate candidate for the party suffering from a reputation of being dominated by white men.

The Senators

While most Senate Republicans dropped their objections to the electoral vote count after the riot at the Capitol, Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri stood steadfastly by President Trump’s baseless accusations of voter fraud. While this appears to have hurt them reputationally and financially in the short term, it could certainly help them in 2024 if the Republican base decides they want a Trump redux. Although both are likely candidates in a Trumpless field (recall that Cruz came in second place in the 2016 primary), the assumption is that Trump values loyalty above all else, and few have been more loyal in the waning days of his administration than Cruz and Hawley. 

The assumption is that Trump values loyalty above all else, and few have been more loyal in the waning days of his administration than Cruz and Hawley. 

Cruz probably makes the most sense from an electoral strategy standpoint — Trump made gains among Latino voters in 2020, and nominating a Cuban Texan could appeal to precincts in the Rio Grande Valley and South Florida that have been traditionally Democratic constituencies. But while Cruz is a former constitutional conservative who now seems to bend whichever way the wind blows, Hawley has taken reliably Trumpian position on abortion, China, and trade from day one. If Trump truly wants to rebrand the Republican Party in his image, his best bet is probably Hawley who, in addition to concurring with Trump’s request for $2000 coronavirus relief checks, will be only 43 in 2024, and could carry the Trump banner into future presidential bids himself. 

Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas checks a lot of the same boxes as Hawley. He seconded Trump’s suggestion that the United States buy Greenland and seemed to delight at “owning the libs” at the “failing” New York Times after the ensuing controversy surrounded by his op-ed in favor of using the military to put down this summer’s unrest. He is also another 2024 aspirant, but his early opposition to overturning the electoral college vote docks him loyalty points. His latest hobby horse is arguing any impeachment trial that would take place after Trump leaves office would be unconstitutional, so he may end up back in the soon-to-be-former president’s good graces sooner rather than later.

Rick Scott is another Republican senator frequently floated as a 2024 candidate, and while his ability to self-fund and his electoral success in Florida (he was a two term governor before being elected to the Senate) make him an appealing choice, he’s had a rough month. The new chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee had to endure the indignity of his party losing both Georgia Senate seats on only his third day on the job, and on his fourth day of the job he voted to reject Pennsylvania’s electoral votes. That’s a big problem, because it means that the big corporate donors who have pledged not to donate to candidates who voted to reject 2020’s electoral votes may opt not to donate to him or the NRSC. Still, these things may not matter as much on a presidential ticket, where Scott can help bring some more traditional conservatives back into the Trump camp. Although the fact that he and Trump will be a combined 150 years old in 2024, and that one of them would have to change their state of residence for electors in Florida to legally vote for both of them,6Electors from one state are forbidden from voting for two candidates from the same state on their ballot. They’d be forfeiting a given number of electoral votes, possibly ending up with a situation where a president or vice president were elected without the other. This almost happened in the year 2000, both George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were registered in Texas, but Cheney changed his registration to Wyoming before the election. The electoral vote was close enough where this would have deprived Cheney the vice presidency (at least initially) and required the Senate to choose a vice president. are also points against him.

Lastly there’s Tim Scott, Senator from South Carolina and the 2020 Republican National Convention’s keynote speaker. Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, is a natural choice for a party looking to build on the marginal gains they made among Black voters in 2020. But a political marriage between him and Trump would be uneasy. Scott did not vote to reject either Arizona or Pennsylvania’s electoral votes, and he’s been a frequent critic of Trump’s flirtations with white nationalism. There are a myriad of reasons why it makes sense for Scott to be on a Republican presidential ticket; the path to him sharing a ticket with Trump, however, is a bit more fraught. If Trump wants to nominate a non-white Republican who’s been a little more loyal to him, he could always opt for Florida’s Marco Rubio, who after being a sharp critic of Trump in the 2016 primaries, became one of his more high profile apologists. A Rubio nomination could help shift South Florida from light blue to light red in 2024, lock the state up for Trump, and also expand the GOP’s outreach efforts to Latino voters.7Though Rubio would face the same electoral issue as Rick Scott in that he and Trump are from the same state. If Trump is really left without many friends in 2024, he could also turn to Lindsey Graham of South Carolina whose relationship with Trump has followed a similar trajectory to Rubio’s. Though Graham’s age and ties to Bush-era neoconservatives may make him a non-starter electorally.

The Trump True Believers

If there’s one place in Washington where Donald Trump’s legacy will be felt after he leaves office, it’ll probably be in the House of Representatives where an entire generation of early career politicians have made a name for themselves by defending the 45th president and adopting his brand of politics as their own. Perhaps the most high profile among them is Matt Gaetz of Florida, who has a reputation as one of Trump’s most vocal defenders in Congress. Look at any of the many Trump-related controversies over the last four years and you’ll likely find Gaetz on a cable news channel or on Twitter acting as the president’s unofficial PR arm. His most high-profile stunt was probably his storming of the SCIF8Which stands for Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, which is a closed room where members of government access and review classified information. They are limited to those with certain security clearances and electronic devices are restricted. during the testimony from a Pentagon official as part of the Trump impeachment inquiry, which drew the ire of even Trump ally Lindsey Graham. Gaetz’s support of the president has persisted into the lame duck period, during which Gaetz has parroted Trump’s baseless claims of widespread voter fraud and alleged that some of the rioters who stormed the Capitol were Antifa members. Gaetz’s compatibility with Trump on a political level is undeniable, and his youth (he’ll be 42 in 2024) and penchant for brand building make him a natural bridge to a new generation of Trump Republicans. While he’s still a backbencher, there’s still plenty of time for him to make a move (including an unlikely run for the Senate in 2022) to raise his profile. Like fellow Floridians Rick Scott or Marco Rubio, either Gaetz or Trump would have to leave Florida for them to become a viable presidential ticket, but seeing as Gaetz floated the idea of moving to Alabama for a day to run for the Senate in 2020, I’m sure he’d be happy to acquiesce.

Dan Crenshaw of Texas is another stalwart Trump defender who, on paper, is a much more appealing choice than Gaetz. A photogenic retired Navy SEAL, he first came to wider national attention after appearing on Saturday Night Live to respond to Pete Davidson’s controversial jokes about Crenshaw’s eyepatch (he lost his right eye while serving in the War in Afghanistan), and has crafted an online personality for himself via his Twitter account and action movie-esque campaign ads. A fresh face from a large and rapidly changing state is an appealing choice for a running mate, but Crenshaw has started to break with Trump in recent weeks. While he initially filed an amicus brief in support of Texas’s lawsuit to overturn Pennsylvania’s electoral votes, he voted against overturning those same votes after the riot in the Capitol, and defended House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney’s vote to impeach Trump. Like Gaetz, he probably needs to build up a more substantive legislative record separate from his antics and advertisements for him to be taken seriously as a vice presidential contender by the party elite.

If you know the name of two freshman representatives of the 117th Congress, it’s probably Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, neither of whom may have had political careers if not for Donald Trump. Both have been tied to the pro-Trump QAnon consipracy theory and both have alleged that Trump actually won the 2020 election. Republicans have fretted about their prospects with suburban white women, and Boebert and Greene’s embodiment of the members of that demographic  who have adopted Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric about Black Lives Matter, COVID-19, and the dangers of the political left could help mobilize similar voters.  Of course, they’ll only have two terms under their belt by 2024, which makes it harder to argue that they are ready to serve as president if the event arose. But hey, a lot can happen for two years — unfortunately for Boebert, that includes being investigated for her role in the Capitol riot, and unfortunately for Greene, I don’t think that it will include an impeachment of Joe Biden.

An indispensable part of the Trump brand is a sense of victimhood and aggrievedness.

Lasty, there’s the longest of long shots: Representative Ronny Jackson of Texas. Jackson served as Physician to the President until 2018, when Trump nominated him as Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Jackson’s nomination was quickly sunk by allegations that he drank on the job and improperly handed out medications, prompting him to withdraw his nomination and set his eyes on Congress instead. He centered his campaign around his closeness to Trump and even went as far as to claim that Obama illegally spied on the Trump campaign. Again, Jackson is a hell of a longshot, but an indispensable part of the Trump brand is a sense of victimhood and aggrievedness, which Jackson will be able to play into with his failed cabinet appointment. If high profile Republicans defect from another Trump nomination and all of the prime choices are apprehensive to join the ticket, why shouldn’t Trump turn to someone who’s been a friend?

The Metaphorical Trump Heirs

While the Capitol riot has cooled relations between Trump and some of his one-time allies in Congress, he enjoys the adoration of a number of state level officials and even some members of the media. If there are two governors who seem positioned to sell themselves to the Republican base as “kinder, gentler” versions of Donald Trump, it’d probably be Ron DeSantis of Florida and Kristi Noem of South Dakota. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, DeSantis and Noem have won favor in some conservative circles for largely eschewing the stay-at-home orders embraced by most other governors. DeSantis was a staunch defender of Trump while a member of Congress, where he sought to end funding for the Mueller investigation and joined in efforts to pass the Trump tax cuts and repeal Obamacare. As governor, he made fighting illegal immigration a priority, passing anti-sancutary city laws while directing local law enforcement to cooperate with ICE, and implied that legislatures in states won by Biden should send their own electors to Congress. From an electoral perspective, he’s young and from an important state, but he also has to run for reelection in 2022. Even though Florida seems to trend redder and redder with each election cycle, he only won his first election by half a percentage point, and who knows what effect his controversial handling of the pandemic will have on next year’s contest — even a close win may deplete some of his resources and political capital.

Like a lot of potential running mates, Noem is clearly angling for a presidential run of her own, recently speaking at an RNC forum for potential candidates, where she won over attendees by praising Trump and lambasting Senators-elect Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff of Georgia as “communists.” There was also speculation that Trump could replace Pence on the ticket with Noem this past summer, after Noem hosted Trump at a Fourth of July celebration at Mount Rushmore and rode with him on Air Force One back to Washington (that celebration included presenting Trump with a replica of Mount Rushmore with his face added to it). Trump and Noem clearly see each other as kindred spirits, and along with their mutual admiration and compatible politics, Noem could also help Trump regain some of his edge with suburban female voters. Not to mention her penchant for hunting and shooting will surely sew up his already solid rural base. The potential Trump campaign may want to monitor her performance in the 2022 reelection bid to see if the handling of the pandemic hurt her in a solidly red state, but she’s virtually assured of victory, and a big win could springboard Noem to higher office.

Carlson’s blend of cultural conservatism, opposition to immigration, and advocacy for protectionist and interventionist fiscal policy would make him appealing to a Trump-controlled Republican Party in search of a more coherent messenger.

Last in this array of outsiders, Tucker Carlson has never held public office, but the Fox News host’s shift from Ron Paul-esque libertarian to Trump-esque populist have made him one of the loudest voices of the pro-Trump right, and has even generated some presidential hype of his own. From an ideological perspective, Carlson’s blend of cultural conservatism, opposition to immigration, and advocacy for protectionist and interventionist fiscal policy would make him appealing to a Trump-controlled Republican Party in search of a more coherent messenger. There’s certainly tremendous potential from an electoral standpoint — his attacks on free market capitalism could attract some disaffected leftists from the Democratic Party (he’s even gone as far to endorse some of Elizabeth Warren’s economic views) and assuming he keeps hosting his show for at least part of the campaign, he’ll have access to what’s effectively free advertising. But his association with the polarizing Fox News brand and controversial statements about minority groups and women may make him anathema to suburbanites who are already turned off by Trump’s rabble-rousing. It’d fire up the base for sure, but may not expand it. 

The Actual Trump Heirs

Let’s say this upfront: Donald Trump is almost certainly not going to run for reelection with a member of his own family on the ticket. The chances of this are overhyped, overrated, and overblown. Yes, Trump made his children and their spouses key figures in his campaign and in his administration, but it’s worth noting that he never 1) nominated them for any Senate-confirmable position; 2) deployed them in any legal capacity (unlike other nepotistic but equally incompetent defenders, like say, Rudy Giuliani); or 3) seriously utilized them in a congressional-relations or domestic capacity. They were outsourced to campaigning, defending the patriarch on the airwaves, or a “Middle East peace plan” that even Trump did not seem to care strongly about.

These three things matter because they indicate a lack of domestic, inter-governmental, and administrative efficacy. Jared Kushner is not destined to run for governor of New York, Ivanka Trump is not equipped to negotiate with congressional leaders, and Eric Trump is not capable of running a government department. The chances of any of them sailing through even a Republican-controlled Senate and landing in a cushy ambassadorship, let alone a technocratic role like Secretary of the Treasury are slim to none. It’s a bad look, and Trump even somewhat conceded this during the brief stint where he was considering Ivanka to lead the World Bank. “If I did, they’d say nepotism, when it would’ve had nothing to do with nepotism,” were Trump’s sentiments, despite his insistence that Ivanka was uniquely qualified because “she’s very good with numbers.”

So, why include the Trump clan at all in our listing here? Because if the goal is truly to remake the Republican Party in Trump’s image, guarantee loyalty and absolute devotion, while consecrating the Trump family as synonymous with a Republican dynasty, choosing his family is one of the surest and most egregious ways to do it. It falls squarely outside of any norms or traditions in the American political system, no matter how controversial John F. Kennedy appointing his brother Robert as attorney general may have been. If Trump can sail through the 2024 Republican primary and seamlessly retain control and command of attention during the Biden administration, that may be the only situation in which a Trump-Trump ticket has a chance to emerge. Senate confirmation isn’t necessary to choose a running mate, so a pluralistic primary with a populist winner-takes-all election that the Republican Party thrives on is the only way we could seriously see a full Trump family takeover. Just remember that a lot of Republican interests, including Republicans in power, would have to resolve themselves to this, or at least be willing to do what they did for much of Trump’s four years in office, and quietly accept yet another break in democratic norms in the name of electoral benefit. This is why the primary itself is the key factor in whether the GOP becomes the all-encompassing party of Trump, or some derivation of him with a more compassionate approach.

What to Watch for

Let’s sum this up with what you can look out for, and what we’ll be watching for in the next few years as the 2024 primary heats up. If Trump runs, be mindful of the competition he faces and the messaging he embraces. 

First, the competition. The 2024 Republican primary is on track to be a populated one, with perhaps the starkest difference in paths for the party we’ve seen for Republicans in a while. Moderates seeking to reclaim the party and “move on”, like Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, will represent one path for the post-Trump era. Trump die-hards already empowered in the Senate like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz will represent a more clean-cut version of Trumpism, while Tom Cotton — almost as depraved in his fealty to the Trumpian idea — distances himself from their corner of the party. And the most obvious candidates, like Nikki Haley and Mike Pence, try to set themselves up as Trump’s successors, without the demagogic anti-democratic behavior (which honestly, may be a liability). Pence’s behavior the last four years and this January has upset everyone in the party who either loved Trump and believes the election was stolen from him, or dislikes Trump and the path the party has taken under him. And that’s… well, almost everyone.

If Trump runs once more in 2024, don’t expect any of his primary opponents to get picked as his running mate. Trump’s not one for letting things go and putting someone who challenged him in a position of power. This is reason alone to be skeptical of the senators we’ve listed, who are more preoccupied with running for president themselves and see supporting Trump as a means to that end. The party will push back a lot more on a dynasty ticket than they will on picking a younger Trump true believer, but picking a devout governor or outsider in the vein of Trump may offer the best of all worlds. However, if Trump enters the race and clears the field, as he had high prospects for before the attack on the Capitol, there will be a broader slate of options, and some of the more loyal senators may be able to bridge Trump’s good graces with the support of those who have been leading the resistance to Biden’s agenda in his absence in government. 

The Republican Party can be coerced and once more assimilated, rather than annihilated in [Trump’s] path.

Finally, take note of how a potential candidate Trump exhibits himself. If he spends the next two years claiming the election was stolen from him, defending pardoning his cronies and supporters, and burning every bridge with a party hesitant to fully break from him, Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, and the senators are out of the running. He’ll have to sink to the depths of those who remain devoted to his lost cause and tear a hole in the Republican Party once more. Trump’s campaign in 2020 was, to be generous, light on policy and lacked any overarching message other than the radical left destroying the country and making it worse, which is a hard message to deliver when you’re literally the president. But if Trump goes back to his 2016 campaign playbook and runs on a concrete message of election fraud, an immigration crisis, and arguing that he alone can save the country as an outsider, the Republican Party can be coerced and once more assimilated, rather than annihilated in his path. In this case, the premise in reuniting the dream team, running a more electable ticket, or hand-picking a successor to his legacy from the legion of mainstream Republicans who stood by him once and may do so again, will seem ever more apparent. 

Evaluating Our 2020 Presidential Ratings

With every state now called in the race for the presidency, it’s official: Joe Biden has won the election, becoming the first nominee to successfully unseat an incumbent president in almost 30 years. The Biden ticket featured the first ever woman of color on a major party presidential ticket, picked up states that Democrats haven’t won in decades despite campaigning with a hand tied behind its back, and — this cannot be stated enough — defeated an incumbent president, which had only happened five times since the start of the 20th century. 

As anticlimactic as it has felt, with an electoral aftermath full of fruitless lawsuits, a delayed start to the presidential transition, and an impending runoff in Georgia for two Senate seats that will determine control of the Senate,1Not to mention the fact that the president of the United States is still spreading falsehoods and claiming that the election was stolen from him. Which, while it may not be surprising or effective, slowly but surely chips away at democracy and the rule of law in the United States. it at least feels as over as it can be. We know who won and who lost, and we can start to unpack why. So now, after several weeks of votes being counted, data coming in, and several good nights of sleep, it’s time to lay 2020’s presidential election to rest with a retrospective on our 2020 presidential ratings.

The Topline

Let’s start with an overall picture of our ratings. Every single state and district race which we claimed at least “leaned” towards one candidate over the other went to that candidate. There was no state we called incorrectly, though of the five races we believed just leaned one way (Nebraska’s Second Congressional District, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin for Biden; Texas for Trump), we’d have expected one to run counter to our rating as “lean” implies around that there’s a 15-40% chance of the other candidate winning. However, because some of these states are correlated (i.e. if Biden wins Wisconsin, it’d be pretty difficult to have not won Pennsylvania as well, due to similar demographics and voting patterns), this is still a pretty good reflection of how the race stood.

We rated seven races as toss-ups. Trump won five (Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, Maine’s Second Congressional District, and Ohio. And Biden won two (Arizona and Georgia). We probably should have stuck to our initial analysis and ratings for Iowa and Ohio, both of which we initially listed as “Lean Trump” and ultimately went for Trump by 8% this cycle, but we feel strongly that we made the right call on moving Georgia to “toss-up” (which Biden won by about a quarter of a percent of the vote). 

If we averaged all of our ratings across all states, we estimated that Biden would walk away with — on average — about 323 electoral votes. It looks as though, barring any faithless electors, he will win 306. So we overestimated Biden by 17 electoral votes (or about one Georgia’s worth). Had we rated Texas as “Likely Trump” and kept Ohio and Iowa (more on them later) as “Lean Trump” as opposed to toss-ups, we would have been almost exactly on the money. Our ratings were also far more conservative than FiveThirtyEight’s (they projected Biden getting an average of 348 electoral votes) or The Economist’s (projecting 356 electoral votes on average for Biden), so we feel pretty good about our ratings, whiched hewed closer to the actual result.

Michigan, as Compared to Wisconsin and Pennsylvania

In mid-October we made an unusual call and changed our rating for Michigan (which was “Lean Biden”) to “Likely Biden”, while maintaining Wisconsin and Pennsylvania as “Lean Biden” races. In 2016, Trump famously won all three, thus breaking the Democrats’ “Blue Wall.” The truth is, Michigan’s polls and data indicated that the race there was much less competitive than most predicted; as they hedged on whether Trump could make an electoral comeback in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, they were inclined to give Michigan some doubt too. However, Biden ended up winning Michigan by around 3%, while only carrying Pennsylvania by just over 1%, and Wisconsin by just under 1%, which is not negligible. The fundamentals in Michigan are simply stronger for Democrats, and we correctly thought that Trump winning Michigan again was far less likely than him eeking out victories in Pennsylvania or Wisconsin.

Iowa and Ohio

If there are two places I wish we would have stuck to our guns and defied the polling data, it would have been Iowa and Ohio. We originally believed both of these states were “Lean Trump”, which may even have been a smidge too conservative. In 2016, Trump won Ohio by over 8% and Iowa by over 9%. Texas was actually a closer state in 2016 than Iowa was, and that held true this cycle. Despite Obama winning both states twice, there has clearly been a swing, and even the more down-to-earth, Rust Belt-rooted Biden (in an election where he won overall by a pretty large margin) did inconsequentially better than the more lofty Clinton in 2016, but still couldn’t close out either state. These states will probably be more competitive in 2024 thanks to an incumbency benefit, but it’s pretty hard to deny that, despite a lot of effort, they’re simply pretty Republican-leaning states at this point — akin to Florida.

Arizona and Georgia

Joe Biden is the first Democrat to win either of these two states since Bill Clinton, and they’re definitely indicative of the Democratic Party’s strengths going into 2024 and on. Arizona is following the trajectory of similar states in its region like (in order of “quickest to manifest as a Democratic stronghold”) California, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada — while Georgia, a diverse state with a major metropolitan area, isa testament to how intense campaigning and hard work can produce stunning results, even if Democrats may not see similar success in the near future.

A lot has been made over what Democrats should be worried about in the 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential election, as they lost House seats and may be on track to lose the chamber in the next cycle. But Arizona should keep Republicans up at night. The state that produced conservative icons (and one-time Republican presidential nominees) Barry Goldwater and John McCain has now borne compelling gains by the Democratic Party. Both of its Senate seats flipped to Democrats in the last two years,2Giving Martha McSally — who ran for retiring Arizona Senator Jeff Flake’s seat in 2018 and lost to Kyrsten Sinema, then was controversially appointed a month later to the deceased former Senator John McCain’s seat in December of 2018 and ran in and then lost the special election this cycle — the embarrassing distinction of costing the GOP two Senate seats in one state in a less than two years. and it is now a clear swing state.

Georgia, which is considerably less likely to consistently remain in Democratic hands, is not something I’d dwell on if I were a Republican strategist (Biden’s win here feels akin to Obama’s in North Carolina and Indiana in 2008). However, it is a race that is key for messaging for Democrats this cycle, as it enables a Democratic president-elect to convincingly make the case for moderation and claim a referendum and rebuke on an unpopular incumbent president (despite the fact that Biden also lost several states Obama had won twice such as Florida, Iowa, and Ohio). You could call it the “most valuable state” this cycle in terms of messaging, even though you shouldn’t expect Democrats to hold the state often in the future.

And Because You Know We Had To…

As we wind down election 2020 and this tumultuous year, let’s look back to where it started. In January, recognizing that the fight for the presidency and the Democratic primary was getting plenty of coverage, we sought a niche focus on the vice presidency. We unveiled our Vice Presidential Tracker in January, just before the Iowa caucuses, and spent a lot of time focusing on the vice presidency in historical context and what it might mean for aspiring Democratic nominees as we wound through the primaries, a global pandemic, national unrest, and the general election campaign. True to our model and what we’d been writing about all year, Joe Biden chose California Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, who will now go on to be the first vice president of color and the first woman ever elected to this country’s executive branch. 

In our final episode of our Running Mates series, recorded before the election about the race for the vice presidency between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, we talked about what we thought this meant, and what might happen with a Harris vice presidency. And now we’re there. Harris’ victory is one of the most historic, important, and inspiring moments in the history of American elections. For all the drama of the presidential election, our biggest lift this year was in the right place: looking at the history of American vice presidents, what they say about their running mates, and what they tell us about our nation.

Our Final 2020 Presidential Election Ratings

Election Day is hours away, and after pushing out our final overview of the race for control of the Senate yesterday, we’re excited to give our final overview of the state of the presidential race. 

Our two-person team here at The Postrider has been following the election news and scene religiously and we’re ready to stay up all night — and probably many, many nights afterwards, to watch the results trickle in and the array of responses from the Biden and Trump camps. So before we bear down on Election Day/week/month, it seems fitting to provide one final update on where the race for the presidency stands going into Tuesday.


Our presidential ratings, originally pointing towards a cautious-but-favorable environment for Biden when he first published them in early September, have gone through a few changes in the last couple months. We initially expected the race to tighten and we were therefore more conservative in our ratings on states that were decisive in a Trump win in 2016 like Ohio, Iowa, and Georgia. But as the months went on, Trump never made up ground, and may have even lost some due to some truly remarkable events. But the overarching trend was that things were, despite a whirlwind of news in September and October, oddly steady

There are a number of explanations for this, but the one I’d encourage you to subscribe to the most is increasing partisanship. Trump’s approval ratings have held at around 39-44% throughout his term in office, with few exceptions, and this is a sign of polarization in the electorate, with very few members of the public actively changing their very positive or very negative opinions of the president from week to week or even year to year. There are few undecided voters this year, so there is less margin for a 2016-like situation wherein both candidates were historically disliked and a large swath of undecided voters broke late for Trump, putting him over the edge in key states. This is also related to polarization and what we call “negative partisanship”, that hatred of the other side is a larger motivator than love for one’s own. This all points to a race with little potential to really change from the get go, almost everyone made up their minds on November 9, 2016, and almost everyone who was left probably made up their minds as soon as the coronavirus washed over the country and Biden became the nominee.

With things so steady, we saw it fit to make a few adjustments in our ratings over the last couple of months. Most notably, we downgraded Trump’s odds in Georgia and Ohio and then Iowa (all of which we initially characterized as “Lean Trump”) and we upgraded Biden’s odds in Virginia (now “Safe Biden”), Michigan (now “Likely Biden”), and Nebraska’s Second Congressional District. We have only moved one state, Utah, into a more favorable condition for the president than we had when we first published our ratings. But the truth is, none of these changes (with the exception of Iowa, in which Biden pulled even in polls only recently) reflected a major shift in any state. They were all characteristic of things largely staying the same in terms of polling and demographic data, election narratives, and performance in similar states. We just initially believed that Trump would gradually claw back some support that he — as of mere hours before Election Day — has not evidently reclaimed. 

Our final ratings give Biden an average of 323 electoral votes to Trump’s 215 and point to more opportunities and routes to the necessary 270 electoral votes for Biden than for the president. 

States to Watch

If you want an early sign on how things are going, Florida may be the best option. Florida, which we and most other ratings sites consider a “Toss-Up”, may be the most significant swing state to have a count as early as Tuesday night. If Biden carries Florida, Trump has less than a one percent chance of winning the presidency.1Here’s a nifty tool from FiveThirtyEight to play around with as you read through this article, just to compare and contrast why some swing states are more liable to swing the odds than others. So, if Biden is having a very good night and he easily carries Florida to the point where it could be announced as soon as election night, this race is all but a done deal. Be mindful of the fact that the first votes reported in Florida will be early votes and mailed-in votes, which will probably over-favor Biden compared to the rest of the state. If these returns don’t look strong for Biden, he may be in some trouble in Florida. 

Notable mentions for early states that will be indicative of the election as it unfolds are Georgia and North Carolina, both of which process ballots before Election Day and are likely to have a large array of results on Tuesday night. We count both of them as “Toss-Ups” in our ratings. Like Florida, if Biden has locked in these states, it’ll be a quick night, and Republicans will be poised to take heavy hits in the Senate as well.

If you’re looking for a late sign on election night, your best bet is probably Arizona, a “Toss-Up” by our ratings (though most other raters give Biden the edge), which starts counting ballots before election day and is likely to have many returns in come election night. Since it’s further west, Arizona will close the polls later than most other states, and Biden is expected to overperform initially — as in Florida — since early votes will be counted first. Still, Arizona is probably a more favorable state for Democrats than Florida is this cycle, which is a bad sign for Trump, considering Arizona was a reliably Republican state for a long time. And, if things go worse than expected for Biden in the Midwest, Arizona and a fallback Sun Belt strategy could provide Biden with a lifeline and propel him to the White House regardless.

If you want to wait for the most important state, that’s probably Pennsylvania, which we rate as “Lean Biden”. Polls have consistently put Biden in the mid-to-high single digits in the state.  While Pennsylvania is not make or break for Biden, it’s probably make or break for Trump; should Trump win it, the race would turn into more of a pure toss up. This is because Pennsylvania is the most likely tipping point state (the state that would deliver the determinative 270th electoral vote to the winning candidate). Pennsylvania may take several days to count ballots though, and it’s probable that a longer count would increase Biden’s margin there due to a phenomenon known as the “blue shift.” So if you’re looking for an easy answer on election night, Pennsylvania is worth watching out of the corner of your eye, but not worth waiting for, since ballots can be accepted up to November 6 there.

The Takeaway

If there’s one thing you should keep in mind, even if you’re not following returns live on election night, it’s that, yes, much of this election will probably come down to what happens in Pennsylvania, Arizona, or Florida, but the fact that Biden is favored in each of these states, and in a handful of other states that haven’t been competitive in a long time is not something to shrug off. Biden has a better chance to win Alaska than Trump has to win Michigan, a better chance to win Montana than Trump has to win Nevada, and a better chance to win Missouri than Trump has to win Colorado. The fact that the former of these states are all reliably conservative and the latter were all typical swing states last cycle should be evidence of the significant hurdles Trump needs to overcome. To be sure, many of these states are correlated — it’s very unlikely that Biden carries Pennsylvania but not Wisconsin, or that Trump wins Arizona but not Texas, but there are enough states that are at least potentially competitive for Biden across a wide range of demographic and geographic areas.

Trump, on the other hand, needs to run the table, winning Florida and Arizona and Georgia and North Carolina and then also Pennsylvania to really be guaranteed a win. The fact that Biden needs to win just one of these states to lock the race down (and the fact that these historically conservative states are even competitive at all!) bodes poorly for Trump, and is ultimately what makes him the underdog in our ratings overall. 

“But guys! What about 2016?! And Hillary?!2AnD hEr EmAiLs! Wasn’t she supposed to win too?!” Well, no. Our favorite forecast from 2016 gave Clinton about 70% odds on Election Day, 2016. And if there was a 30% chance of something happening, you’d take that pretty seriously, or at least you should! Forecasts are giving Biden closer to 90% odds, and that means Trump has only one-third the chance of winning as he did back in 2016. We can say with a very high degree of certainty that Trump will not win the popular vote, but he nonetheless maintains an electoral college advantage that is disproportionate to the popular vote. 

The other truth is that Biden is in a better position than Hillary Clinton in 2016 because he routinely polls above 50% nationally (something Clinton never really managed), because there are fewer undecided voters who can swing late for one candidate over another, because of the detrimental state of economic and other fundamentals which reflect negatively on an incumbent, and because Biden is simply perceived as more likable and moderate than both Trump and Clinton. If we assume a fair election, and assume no extra-constitutional shenanigans — which may not be a guarantee — Biden is a clear favorite to win the election, with better odds than Clinton in 2016, and about equal odds to Obama winning reelection in 2012

Our Final 2020 Senate Election Ratings

Election Day is days away, and if you’re not glued to FiveThirtyEight, Politico, and political Twitter, you probably have a life. 

Our two-person team here at The Postrider certainly has been and we’re ready to stay up all night — and probably many, many nights afterwards — to watch the results trickle in and the array of responses from the parties, candidates, and whatever may happen in disparate election systems across the states. So before we bear down on Election Day/week/month, it seems fitting to provide one final update on where the race for the Senate stands going into Tuesday.


Our Senate ratings have not budged since we published them in early October, which is a testament both to the stability of the race on the national level, and to our conservative ratings. Democrats need to win 16 races this cycle, or 15 along with the presidency (as the vice president breaks ties in the Senate). We believe Democrats are guaranteed to win at least ten of the 35 races, and are favored to win at least six more, which would give them control of the Senate if they have a night that goes moderately well for them. Republicans are expected to hold nine and favored to win nine more, with one race we believe is a true tossup: Iowa’s race between incumbent Senator Joni Ernst and challenger Theresa Greenfield.

The Senate map gives Democrats a slight advantage because of Biden’s competitiveness on the national level, which has given moderate Democrats in conservative states like Montana, Georgia, and Kansas a shot thanks to Biden’s own overperformance in these states. Democrats have also nominated strong candidates overall to take on vulnerable Republican-held seats: two popular two-term governors, a former Republican state senator, a state House Speaker, and an astronaut! So, we give Democrats the edge and our ratings indicate Democrats winning just over 16 seats, which we round down to project a 51-49 Senate majority for Democrats.

Races to Watch

If you’re looking at the races to watch, it probably comes down to two: Maine and North Carolina. Both of these states lean towards the Democrats, and will determine if Democrats can hit 50 seats and gain control of the Senate. The race in North Carolina between incumbent Republican Thom Tillis and challenger Cal Cunningham is probably the closest. It was rocked by scandal in the final month of the election, but has nonetheless held remarkably steady throughout the fall. Maine’s race, in which the State House Speaker Sara Gideon is challenging one of the few remaining Republican moderates, Susan Collins, has also been billed as a close race — but I’m not sure I buy it. Collins hasn’t led in a poll since July, and she is literally the least popular senator in the country.

If Democrats can carry both North Carolina and Maine handily, they’re well on their way to carrying Iowa, and probably pretty close to putting a seat in Georgia and the seats in Kansas and Montana in play too. But Republicans are trying to play offense in a couple states too. They’ve dumped a lot of money into Michigan in the last week of the race in an attempt to replace Democrat Gary Peters with businessman John James, and they’re almost certain to oust Democrat Doug Jones in Alabama. The problem for Republicans is that they don’t have the wide array of options that Democrats do. Democrats could lose Alabama’s race and Iowa’s race but still potentially pick off Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, defeat Dan Sullivan in Alaska, or win in Montana or Kansas. Democrats simply have a “longer tail”, and thus more opportunity to expand their number of Senate seats to 50, 52, or even 55 seats if they have a really good night.

On Georgia… 

Georgia has two Senate races this year: a special election, in which incumbent Republican Kelly Loeffler is facing another Republican and several Democrats; and a regular election, in which the incumbent Republican David Perdue is being challenged by Democrat Jon Ossoff. We’ve kind of gone against the grain this year by rating these two races as likely (for the special election) and lean (for the regular election) Republican. Other ratings sites have called one or both of these races toss-ups, but we have been steadfast (despite some internal arguing) in holding that they are more likely to go to the Republican than the Democrat, even though we moved Georgia to a “Toss-Up” on the presidential level, for a couple of reasons. First of all, in Georgia, if no candidate wins an outright majority, the election goes to a runoff in early January. In the likely situation that the special election goes to a runoff, there is a chance that is between one of the Republicans and the most prominent Democrat, Raphael Warnock; in this case, the Republicans in the relatively-conservative Georgia would consolidate (especially if they’re reeling from the likelihood of Biden winning the presidency) against the Democrat. There is also a (fairly unlikely at this point, but plausible) chance the runoff is between the two Republicans, which would obviously make the odds for the Democrat zero. As for the regular election, we believe this is a lean Republican race because there are only two serious candidates, and therefore the odds of a runoff are smaller, but nonetheless remain — in which case the same throughline above would follow, with Republicans consolidating and motivated by an impending likely Biden presidency. It should not surprise you if Ossoff wins more than 50% in the first round, which is why this is only a lean Republican race; but it should absolutely surprise you if Warnock wins more than 50% outright in the first round in the special election, and it would be very surprising if Warnock is able to pull it off in a special election two months later if Joe Biden has won the presidency. 

So, Georgia probably isn’t the race to watch for control of the Senate, even if it will be interesting and have wide-ranging consequences in a state that Democrats have made a true toss-up at the national level. But, Georgia could be key in expanding an already emerging Senate majority for Democrats in the 117th Congress that convenes next year, and determine whether Democrats have a broader majority to work with. Keep your eyes on Maine, North Carolina, and Iowa — and as long as Democrats continue to make inroads in the Southwest, a Democratic-controlled Senate is likely next year.

Presidential Race Ratings Update: Iowa

It’s been a couple weeks, and we’re really getting up against the wire here with less than one week until Election Day. But we have one last (probably) ratings change for our presidential map as we face down the election in November.

Iowa

Iowa was considered a “Lean Republican” state by many forecasters and pundits back in 2016. This seemed unusual for a state that voted for Barack Obama by over 6% twice, and even supported Al Gore in 2000, but it turned out to be an astute assessment. Donald Trump won Iowa by over 9%, the largest winning margin in a state that had voted for Obama in 2012. Democrats probably should have sensed trouble when Clinton was considered a slight underdog in Iowa and Ohio in 2016. In 2020, it was initially assumed that both Ohio and Iowa’s electorates were representative of the blue collar, rural, “middle America” coalition that Trump had assembled four years prior. But as we’ve gotten closer to the election we moved Ohio to “Toss-Up” and, following a spate of strong polls for Biden in Iowa, it seems fitting to throw Iowa in that same category. We join most other forecasters in making this adjustment, who also initially had it pegged as leaning towards Trump, but it’s hard to argue with Biden’s improving numbers, not to mention a Senate race that has become more competitive than anyone expected (and is now considered to lean Democrat by some pundits) and Iowa’s high level of elasticity. Iowa is a Toss-Up state if there ever was one.

Presidential Race Ratings Update: Michigan, Nebraska’s Second Congressional District, and Virginia

Another week, another series of ratings changes. We’re three weeks away from Election Day and looking every day at the wave of new polls and information coming in. After playing it safe for the last few weeks, we’ve come to realize that there are a couple states and one congressional district that are clearly favoring one candidate over another as the race continues to favor Biden, so we’re adjusting our ratings for them accordingly. 

Michigan

Over the course of the last month, Biden has routinely received high-single digit or double digit polling leads in the Great Lakes State. Of the “Blue Wall” states that flipped to Trump, Michigan was the narrowest and most surprising, going for him by just under 11,000 votes. Last cycle, in the home stretch towards Election Day, Clinton led in the RealClearPolitics voting average of the state by 3.6%, and Michigan was largely considered a “Lean Clinton” race. This year, Biden leads by 7%, is in much better shape with white voters than Clinton was, and Democrats are looking to strengthen their position in a state where the “blue wave” was felt strongly in the 2018 midterms. Biden doesn’t just have an advantage in this race, he simply looks likely to outright win Michigan.

Nebraska’s Second Congressional District

I’m so glad we get to do a ratings change here because it lets us explain a quirk of the Electoral College. Maine and Nebraska both allocate electoral votes based on congressional district (so, whichever candidate wins the vote in that district, wins one elector) and then its two at-large electoral votes to the winner of the state overall. This is generally considered a bad system, perhaps even worse than the winner-take-all system most states use, as it would make gerrymandering far more dangerous and contentious than it already is, and would have delivered an electoral inversion (wherein the popular vote winner loses the presidency) not once in 2000, not twice in 2016, but three times this century, giving Mitt Romney the presidency in 2012. 

Getting back to the point, we hedged on whether Nebraska’s Second Congressional District was less competitive than a pure toss-up. Obama won the district in 2008, and then he and Clinton both lost it in the succeeding elections, but Biden has led in every poll of the district so far. The district is characteristic of the shift that has happened over the last few years under the Trump presidency. It is a mix of urban and suburban, covering the city of Omaha, and with a competitive congressional election there to boot, Biden is at least the favorite in the “Big O.”

Virginia

We talked about how Virginia is not as exciting as it used to be in our Senate preview for the state, and it’s true. Though it used to be a Republican stronghold, over the past twenty years it went from being a toss-up, to a lean Democratic state, to a likely Democratic state, and now has seemed to have completed the transformation into a safe Democratic state. Biden has never been behind Trump in a poll of the state, and the campaigns and state itself have acknowledged its time to shine as a battleground has passed. It’s a state whose center of economic and political power increasingly revolves around the very-liberal DC beltway and we believe 2020 is the first year that we can truly say Virginia is safe for the Democratic candidate. When you look back on political history in this century, it’s fair to say that no state has moved so dramatically from solidly Republican to solidly Democratic than Virginia, and that is in large part the fault of Donald Trump.

The Postrider’s 2020 Senate Ratings

The presidential election may be hoarding the spotlight this cycle, but Americans across 34 states will simultaneously determine the fate of the nation’s highest deliberative body, the Senate. With 35 seats up for election,1Georgia is holding two elections, one for its regular class 2 Senate seat, and the other is a special election for former Senator Johnny Isakson’s seat. He resigned in 2019 and Kelly Loeffler has been serving in his stead. and nearly two-thirds of them controlled by Republicans, the fight for the Senate will be fierce as Democrats seek control of the chamber. 

Democrats need to net four — or three, if they also win the White House, as the vice president breaks ties in the Senate — seats to win control of the Senate. They’ve been able to put enough seats in play, considering their intrinsic Senate disadvantage, thanks to strong electoral support at the top of the ticket, and a long tail of races that they have weaker chances to win in more conservative states. 

If you followed our 2018 Senate race ratings and analysis last cycle, or our 2020 presidential ratings we released a few weeks ago, you may be familiar with what we’re doing again this year. But here are some things to keep in mind as you look at our Senate map:

Ratings- and Individual-Focused

In our 2018 Senate ratings, we focused on telling the individual stories behind the candidates — because candidates matter more in localized races, and less so on the presidential level — and every state’s Senate race is different, with different personalities and dynamics. We’re doing the same thing this cycle, aiming to capture the local quirks, personalities, and stories that make each individual Senate election unique. So, unlike our presidential ratings, which is an analysis of two candidates nationwide and is thus by definition, more nationalized and consistent, we’ll be separating the races out on our Senate map with an intent to focus on what you should know about each individual election.

Each race will be rated on a scale as follows:

“Safe”
The party has over a 99% likelihood of winning the state. This is an all but assured state for that party, but be mindful that if you were to run the election hundreds of times, thus with hundreds of “Safe” states, you’d expect less than one out of 100 to flip; that’s very low and very rare, but it does happen. Nonetheless, “Safe” means we are confident in a party’s odds in a given safe state.
“Likely”
The party has at least an 85% certainty of winning the state, so the other party has at least an outside chance of winning the state in 1% to 15% of cases. In our map, we have around ten “Likely” states, so if one of them flips, that would not be surprising. It would also not be totally crazy if none of them flip, though the more there are, the more you should expect one to flip.
“Lean”
The party is slightly favored but is by no means safe; the other party has somewhere between a 15% and 40% chance of winning the state too. In our map, we have around five of these states, so it should actually be surprising if at least one of these states does not flip.
“Toss-Up”
The race in this state does not clearly favor either party over the other. Each party has between a 40% and 60% chance of winning the state.

We determine ratings at large based on polling data, demographic data, news events, historical trends, the electoral environment in similar states,2Some states are highly correlated, like the midwestern states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Minnesota. If things take a dramatic turn in Wisconsin, you’d expect similar movements across these states based on their similar demographics, political histories, urbanization, population size, economic similarities, etc. Note that geography is not always the best determinator for these variables; for instance, Washington state and Colorado are also similar; as are Maine and Montana. how states are responding to COVID-19 and planning their election procedures, and all sorts of other smaller variables. We then dive into the local conditions, biographies, and narratives in each state’s race to fine-tune our analysis. It’s slightly more scientific than a “gut instinct” but less so than an explicit statistical model. We’re aiming for something closer to the Cook Political Report, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, or Inside Elections,3Inside Elections’ publisher is also employed by this author’s employer and The Postrider is completely independent. I mention this for full disclosure. Washington is a small town. with the intent to handicap the race, more so than our idols at FiveThirtyEight, though our various ratings are generally similar other than at the margins. All of our ratings are approved and determined by both the Editor-in-Chief, Michael Lovito, and yours truly, the State & Science Editor.

Update-Oriented

If we decide a state rating merits adjustment, we will publish that under the hover-over for a given state, and write a larger article if necessary. For example, at the time of publication, we have the Colorado race rated as “Likely Democrat”, but if a few weeks from now the Republican candidate has improved his numbers dramatically in traditionally Democratic-voting strongholds around Denver, we’d be inclined to revise our rating in Colorado down to “Lean Democrat”. We will provide a ratings’ history when you click on any given state which will include the date of the ratings revision(s) and an explanatory note or link to a larger piece justifying the change. This will make interacting with our ratings map a little more interesting, involved, and useful to watch as the race goes on and provide more context where necessary.

All ratings revisions will be approved by both of the editors on this project, and based on the same criterion noted above in terms of changes in polling, how the party’s candidates in each state are doing amongst certain demographics, state-by-state correlations, any relevant turns that may occur in these races, etc. We won’t change ratings if we believe they are likely to change by Election Day, since that would defeat the purpose of forward-rating these races, but we will change as often as we need to if compelling evidence points to better or worse prospects for the candidates in a given state.

The Overall Projection

Our projection of the final control of the Senate is not a prediction, it is a mathematical allocation based on the parties’ respective odds across the states. For example, we have Tennessee as “Safe Republican” so we count that as 0.99 seats for Republicans (as “Safe” we’ve determined means it’s at least better than 99/100 odds that the Republican wins that race), or 0.01 seats for Democrats. Meanwhile we’ve rated Arizona as “Likely Democrat”, so we would count that as 0.85 seats for Democrats and 0.15 for Republicans. “Lean” is multiplied by 0.6 and “Toss-Up” by 0.5. Once all states’ Senate races have been split in this way, we round down to the nearest full seat.

At the time of publication, our projection has Democrats at 16 seats as “Lean” or safer, exactly how many they need to win to get control outright without winning the presidency, about on par with FiveThirtyEight’s forecast and a bit more conservative than The Economist’s forecast model. Angus King and Bernie Sanders are both independents who caucus with the Democrats, so we have included them as “Democrats” for the sake of the total count for Senate control, though neither of them are up for election this cycle.

Remember that we’re not making predictions, we’re just providing an educated assessment on the state of the race in every state. So don’t write us a mean note after Election Day saying “you had it as leaning Democrat in North Carolina but then the Republican won by one percent, you goofballs!” No, we didn’t predict that North Carolina will “only” go for Democrats by a little, we’re merely stating it’s more likely than not to go for the Democrat, but the Republican still absolutely has a shot there.

With all of this in mind, The Postrider is proud to present its own ratings and analysis on this year’s Senate elections

Presidential Race Ratings Update: Georgia, Ohio, and Utah

In the month since we released our 2020 presidential election ratings, we’ve been forced to reckon with two major news events for which the full impacts on the presidential election are unclear, but certainly relevant: the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and President Trump’s contraction of COVID-19. While we at The Postrider have generally held to the philosophy that this race was largely decided months — if not years — ago, considering how few undecided voters there are and the intensifying levels of partisanship. We also expected (which, in hindsight, feels stupid) President Trump to behave more like your traditional incumbent and to try and consolidate support across the spectrum rather than rely on his enthusiastic but minoritarian base.

When we released our presidential ratings, we noted that we would offer a ratings-focused take on the presidential race at large, and we’ve been keeping a watchful eye on the situation in a much larger group of states than likely anyone thought they’d be looking at four years ago. And, in a situation where we decide a state’s rating truly merits adjustment, not just in the short term, but for Election Day itself, we would provide a justification and background as to why and update our presidential map to reflect that. This week, we will be making our first three ratings adjustments by moving both Georgia and Ohio from “Lean Trump” to “Toss-Up” and moving Utah from “Likely Trump” to “Safe Trump.”

Georgia

Unlike other “Lean Trump” states, which include Texas and Iowa, Trump’s lead has actually decreased in the last month in Georgia, and Biden is now ahead or even in many recent polls. Considering the polling looks similar to what we’re seeing for Biden in North Carolina now, those states’ similar demographics (though Georgia has a much larger share of African-Americans, which should help Biden further), and the narrowing of Georgia’s concurrent Senate races, we see no reason to pretend Georgia is less competitive than it ought to be, and that means Biden has about the same odds to win it as Trump does.

Ohio

After several high quality polls have put Biden even or ahead in the Buckeye State, it’s getting harder to ignore the signs that Ohio may be reverting to the mean after a big swing towards Trump in 2016. Democrats and the Biden campaign have also stepped up their efforts there, realizing that, if Trump cannot carry Ohio (or Florida) the election is likely sealed. Trump is behind with educated white voters and in the suburbs, and his coalition looks weaker this time than last, especially as neighboring states with similar demographics and economies, like Pennsylvania and Michigan, pull away from his reach. With that in mind, we are adjusting our rating accordingly. Ohio is now even odds for Trump and Biden.

Utah

Whatever we were thinking might happen in Utah — a Mitt Romney endorsement of Biden, a further degradation of Trump’s standing with Latter-day Saints, an expansion of Biden’s lead in other states with large Latter-day Saints populations like Arizona and Nevada — hasn’t panned out. Biden has not polled higher than 44% in any credible poll of the state, and with no third party “McMuffin” spoiler this year, Trump looks soft, but for this year, safe, in Utah. 

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