Photo by Gage Skidmore
In the last post, I examined Joe Biden’s claim of a popular mandate. Compared to winning candidate’s historical vote margins, Biden’s popular vote margin was average and his electoral college vote margin notably below average. Like many presidents before him, Biden’s mandate claims are exaggerated.
However, it’s useful to examine additional election results to fully appreciate the political environment that Joe Biden must navigate to succeed as President.
U.S. House of Representatives
Every two years, the entire US House stands for election – all 435 members. In 2018, Republicans had controlled the House majority since January 2011. Yet Democrats were able to win back control and gain a net total of 41 seats. This was Democrats’ largest seat gain since 1974, when they increased their numbers by 49. Democrats were therefore optimistic about their chances to expand their majority in 2020.
Nevertheless, contrary to forecasts, House Democrats lost 10 seats and Republicans gained 15. While Biden earned a historic 80 million votes nationwide, the enthusiasm did not trickle-down to key House races. Rather, Trump appeared to be a factor. His 74 million votes seemed to reshape House races, lifting down ballot Republicans – especially in rural areas.
While Democrats were able to maintain their majority, the margins in the House have narrowed considerably. Without question, this makes Joe Biden’s – and Nancy Pelosi’s – life more difficult.
House Election Results – 2020
U.S. Senate Races
Every two years, a third of the Senate stands for election. Of the 33 seats up in 2020, 21 were held by Republicans, 12 by Democrats. Republicans thus had to defend nearly twice the number of seats.
To capture a majority, Democrats needed to add 3 seats and the Vice Presidency. They did so – though given the favorable circumstances they under-performed expectations.
Now, for the first time since 2001 the partisan balance is tied 50/50 – Independent Bernie Sanders and Angus King caucus with Democrats. Vice President Kamala Harris will cast tie-breaking votes which effectively means Democrats control the chamber.
However, the 60 vote filibuster rule represents an especially challenging hurdle for Biden’s agenda. Republicans are expected to use the filibuster to stop that agenda – or use it as leverage to moderate Democrat legislation or to negotiate for more favorable Republican outcomes. To overcome a Republican filibuster, Democrats require the support of 10 Republicans and every Democrat.
Senate Election Results – 2020
As events during 2020 demonstrated, governors are increasingly important political figures. Public health, education, and law enforcement are typically state functions. The pandemic and widespread protests spotlighted governor influences in these key policy areas. In addition, governors can be convenient partners or persistent foes to presidents hoping to advance national policy objectives.
Only 11 governor races were held in 2020 – 7 Republicans and 4 Democrats. Nine governors ran for reelection and all 9 won. Due to term limits, Montana Democrat Steven Bullock could not run again, and Democrats lost the open seat.
Overall, Republicans picked up one governor, increasing their numbers by to 27 of 50 states.
Governor Election Results – 2020
Of the 99 state chambers, 86 held elections in 2020. Many important issues are decided in state legislatures including state budgets, gun policy, infrastructure spending, abortion, taxes, healthcare, and education. Redistricting – or drawing electoral map boundaries – is also on tap for 2021. In most states, legislatures redistrict – once a decade. So, 2020 state legislature elections were important for many reasons.
Democrats held a majority of state legislature seats until 2010. That year, 23 chambers shifted to Republican control. By 2016, Republicans held a whopping 66 chambers. In 2018, Democrats took back seven.
In 2020, Republicans won new majorities in two chambers – the New Hampshire Senate and House. The result is a 61 to 37 split in favor of Republicans.
State Legislative Results – 2020
Related, Republicans improved their single-party control of states – occupying the governor’s mansion, the Senate, and the House, a so-called Trifecta, to 23. Controlling the three institutions enables a party to pass its agenda relatively unencumbered. Republicans gained trifectas in New Hampshire and Montana, both entering the election under divided government.
The analyses point to three conclusions. First, the Democrats have reason to celebrate. They beat an incumbent president, took back control of the Senate, and kept control of the House – a federal trifecta. Only four years ago, Republicans celebrated their own trifecta.
Second, majorities in the House and Senate are razor thin. This means nothing will be easy – significant compromises will be necessary. Strident partisanship may be attractive to constituents, and grab the attention of an insatiable press, but governing in this context demands concessions. I will be watching the Senate for early signs of cooperation or sustained partisan hostilities.
Finally, the 2020 election offers several competing interpretations. One, the Democrats extended their 2018 House victories to the presidency and the Senate. This election story is about Democrats momentum, mobilization, and redemption.
Two, Republicans prevailed in state elections and took back some of the House seats lost in 2018. Amid considerable head winds, Republicans produced significant enthusiasm for their party candidates and added to their advantage in the statehouses. This election story is about the Republican brand surviving a devastating pandemic and economic collapse.
Third, 2020 is yet another chapter in a long-struggle for power between two evenly matched parties. The electoral margins are tight, and have been for some time, especially at the federal level. It does not take much to tip the balance of power. In this sense, Independents and Moderates do not receive near the attention they deserve. Trump won both groups in 2016. Biden won them back in 2020. This election story is not about Republicans or Democrats but about the millions of Americans that stand aside and watch the partisan wars and ultimately decide who wins.
We started with an inquiry about Biden’s mandate. The data offer a clear answer.