2019 Was a Win for Democrats, But We Still Have a Long Road to 2020

Credit: FiveThirtyEight

The elections on Tuesday, November 5, saw Democrats take the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate, the Kentucky governorship, and a myriad of local seats. 

In Virginia, the redrawn congressional maps helped break the gerrymandered Republican lock on the House of Delegates which, after Tuesday, Democrats hold 54-43 (with three races still too close to call). Democrats also now hold the Virginia Senate 21-19. Also, no Democratic incumbent in either the House of Delegates or the Senate lost their seats. However, some of the races came down to a razor-thin margin. For example, as of this article’s publication, in House District 27, Democrat Larry Barnett is losing by only 194 votes, and in House District 83, Nancy Guy is winning by only 18 votes. Both of these races are still “too close to call.” 

In Kentucky, Democrat Andy Beshear won by only 5,189 votes, and is facing challenges by Republican incumbent Matt Bevin who has now formally requested a recanvass (review of all ballots cast). Governor Bevin was endorsed by President Trump, who also held a rally for him on Monday night. During that rally, President Trump said that if Bevin loses, “they are going to say Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world. You can’t let that happen to me,” which then became the headline for Wednesday morning. Despite Beshear’s win, no other down-ballot Democrat won in Kentucky in 2019. 

In a vacuum, this looks decent-to-good for the Democrats’ attempt at taking the White House in 2020. However, there are three major problems with this picture: 1) The President is elected by the Electoral College and not the national popular vote; 2) The situation that the Kentucky gubernatorial incumbent faced on Tuesday is a very different one from the one that Trump will face in 2020; 3) The Democrats still don’t have a nominee. 

First: Several polls project that the Democrats will likely win the popular vote in 2020, but say nothing about their success in the Electoral College. An ABC/Washington Post poll published November 5 predict former Vice President Joe Biden beating President Trump by 17 points, the largest margin to date. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders also led President Trump by 15 and 14 points, respectively. However, in a New York Times/Siena College poll published November 4 similarly focused on head-to-head match-ups in five battleground states: Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, North Carolina, Arizona, and Pennsylvania. The best margin for Democrats was Trump vs. Biden in Arizona (+5 for Biden); the worst was Trump vs. Warren in Michigan (+6 Trump). An additional three match-ups were dead ties. This means that, while Democrats as a whole might not like President Trump, the states that really matter for an Electoral College win are not the landslides that the national polls might suggest. Thus, when analyzing what 2019 might mean for the Democrats, the outcomes of the off-year elections in Virginia and Kentucky are not particularly relevant. 

Second: Kentucky’s governor, Matt Bevin, went into the 2019 race in a terrible place; President Trump will almost definitely not be in the same place going into 2020. Going into Tuesday, Governor Bevin was the country’s second most unpopular governor with an overall approval rating of only 34% and an approval rating among Republicans of only 54%. In contrast, President Trump has an overall approval rating of 43%, and 59% of Republicans say they approve of him and nothing he could do would change that. An additional 16% reported supporting President Trump, but that their opinion could change. Those numbers paint a stark picture contrasting President Trump and Governor Bevin. Although Trump very publicly supported Bevin just hours before polls opened, Kentucky’s gubernatorial election should not be viewed as a preview of how Trump will play in red states in 2020. This race may say more about Senator Mitch McConnell’s re-election chances in 2020, but that is a different issue. Kentucky will still go for Trump in 2020, and the governor’s race will not change that. 

Third: All of our speculation and punditry must remain vague until we have a nominee. There is no way of truly figuring out how well any individual candidate will do against Trump until they have been officially named and are subjected to the full weight of Trump’s Twitter machine. Yes, we can poll head-to-head matchups in battleground states, but these are not enough to make accurate predictions. 

Regardless of their success on Tuesday, Democrats still need to work hard to mobilize, organize, and energize voters across the country for 2020. Continue knocking on doors, making phone calls, sending texts, and convincing your friends and family to do the same. That is what we should take away from 2019.