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.