Beating Trump: Pathway to a Democratic Victory in 2020

Trump’s electoral win came down to a narrow margin, something like 50,000 votes total, scattered across three states–Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania where more than nine million ballots were cast. There were several other combinations of narrow wins in other states that would have changed the electoral total in Hillary Clinton’s favor, but these three were still uncalled and left when even the die hards went to bed early in the morning after the election.

In the final analysis, Trump failed to reach Mitt Romney’s vote totals in all three states by 3%. But Clinton failed to match President Obama’s 2012 totals in Wisconsin by 4%, in Michigan by 6% and in Pennsylvania by 7%. Turnout wins elections. The Clinton campaign did not invest much in the way of campaign funds in any of the three states and unlike Obama in both 2008 and 2012, did not have an effort organized “on the ground” to boost turnout in heavily Democratic areas. Trump made late October appearances in all three states, two in each of the largest television markets. Clinton spent little money an any of them and had no “on the ground” effort to turn out votes. She held a late rally in Michigan on her way to the big rally they held in Philadelphia the night before the election, her only appearances in those states during the campaign. It cost her the election by the thinnest of margins.

Those three states are absolutely critical to any Trump re-election chance. He has to carry them all, or he has to flip a blue state with a comparable number of electoral votes somewhere else. At the moment, there’s not one of those available. And what has transpired in all three of them since 2016 is one of the top reasons why Trump doesn’t appear to be headed to re-election.

Democratic Party Gains in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania Since 2016

Whether it is attributed to “voter remorse,” or what pollsters are calling “the Trump Factor,” Republicans have not won a statewide election in any of those three states since 2016. And for the most part, especially in Pennsylvania and Michigan, Democratic turnout and voter registration has been high and so have the victory margins for Democratic candidates.

This factor first showed up in a special election for a congressional seat in Pennsylvania, in heavily Republican House district 13 made up of mostly suburban areas south and east of Pittsburgh, including one of the state’s largest clusters of coal mining areas and a small sliver of the city of Pittsburgh. Represented by Tim Murphy, an evangelical conservative who had to step down following an affair that produced a child, the Republicans nominated a popular state senator, Rick Saccone, a major Trump ally.

The last time Murphy ran against a Democrat in this district, he won by 20 points. Saccone, also a conservative Evangelical who promotes the use of the motto “In God We Trust” being placed on public buildings, had every advantage; a district gerrymandered to create one of the safest GOP areas in the state, a reputation as one of the staunchest conservatives in the state legislature, a Democratic opponent, Connor Lamb, a military veteran who had never run for public office before, a huge advantage in money and Trump himself showed up and conducted one of his rallies for Saccone just a week prior to the election. It should have been a GOP slam dunk, but Lamb won by less than one percent of the vote.

Redistricting dissolved the 13th district prior to the mid-terms, so Lamb was forced to run against another popular Republican incumbent in the 17th district, another GOP stronghold wrapped around Democratic Allegheny County. Lamb beat incumbent Republican Keith Rothfus, another huge Trump supporter who also benefitted from lots of money and a Trump rally appearance prior to the election. Lamb won handily. Do you see a pattern here?

Lamb’s win was a preview of the reversal of Republican fortunes that was about to hit Pennsylvania statewide. Complacent Democrats, who didn’t show up in large numbers in 2016 were shocked into action by Trump carrying the state and its 20 electoral votes and showed up in record numbers to give landslide wins to Democrats. They re-elected Bob Casey to the senate and Tom Wolf to the governors office with more than 57% of the vote, picked up five, yes, five house seats in the state and ended the six-year stretch of Republican domination of the state house with a turnout that was 5% higher than 2016.

Momentum for the Democrats extended into Michigan and Wisconsin where Democrats swept the statewide races. Tammy Baldwin won a relatively easy re-election to the Senate in Wisconsin as did Debbie Stabenow in Michigan. Democrat Tony Evers unseated Scott Walker as Wisconsin governor and Gretchen Whitmer won the governor’s chair in Michigan where Democrats picked up a house seat. Democrats won in both states by clear majorities, 57% in Michigan, 54% in Wisconsin on average.

Getting the Democratic Base Riled Up

Dr. Rachel Bitecofer doesn’t have a household name. She is a professor of public policy at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, a school that also isn’t a household name. But she is making a name for herself in analyzing polling data and making election predictions. She was first noticed in Virginia when she predicted the off-year 2017 Virginia statewide elections within a hair’s breath of being exactly on target. The Democrats won all three statewide offices and came within one vote of a one-seat majority in a state legislature that had been overwhelmingly Republican prior to that election. Using the same model for the mid-terms, she hit the nail on the head with mid-term predictions, down to the exact number of house seats that would flip and where, and distinguished herself as one of the top political analysts in the country.

Bitecofer noted that the string of victories pulled off by Democrats in special elections between 2016 and the 2018 mid-terms and in the mid-term elections themselves were the result of an increase in turnout among the Democratic base and not so much on flipping moderate Republican voters. The Democrats did pick up over 60% of the independent vote in 2018, but that’s comparable to what they got in 2016. The key to their wins is getting out their base because it is considerably larger than Trump’s.

Doug Jones’ victory in the Alabama Senate special election to fill Richard Session’s old seat was the result of anti-trump sentiment, not because some Republicans switched loyalties. There was a large number of dormant Democrats in Alabama, with turnout suppressed by years of losses at the polls. An opportunity brought on by rejection of the previous governor’s choice to fill the seat before resigning from office because of an affair gave the GOP nomination to Roy Moore, a highly controversial state supreme court judge. His presence and Trump’s endorsement turned up a flame that increase Democratic party registration in Alabama by over 40% in just six months and moved Democrats to the polls in numbers not seen in that state in decades. Jones had a strong following for his previous civil rights legal work in Alabama and the Democrats turned out, giving him an absolutely unexpected win in one of the most Republican states in the country.

The mid-term elections were a disaster for Trump and the Republicans. The Democrat base turned out, according to Bitecofer, when they didn’t really show up in 2016. Clinton got 3 million more votes than Trump did, but 7 million less than Obama did in 2012. If the top of the ticket in 2020 can turn out the Democratic base, the Republicans can’t match that in enough states to pick up the electoral votes. Bitecofer’s predictions were exact and accurate in 2020, down to the districts that flipped and by how much.

Most of the polling data shows what appears to be shaping up for 2020. In the academic institutional polls, like Monmouth and Quinnipiac, which generally leave out leading questions or indirect language, a consistent 57-59% of voters in the surveys say that they do not plan to vote for Trump in 2020, and a consistent 51-53% say they will vote for the Democrat whomever that turns out to be. The generic “any Democrat who is nominated” already has a distinct 51-41% advantage over Trump and there are currently eight Democrats in the field whose poll numbers across the board show them beating Trump, from as little as a 3-5% margin all the way up to the blockbusters who come in between 7 and 10% better.

Trump either has to carry Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania again or find other blue states to flip with comparable electoral votes. But according to Bitecofer’s model, it doesn’t appear that there are any available for him to flip. In fact, in addition to surges in Democratic registration and votes in those three states, Democrats also did better than the 50% threshold in Ohio and Florida, two states he carried, where house seats were flipped and the Republicans also lost state house margins (and in Ohio where another anti-Trump Republican was elected governor).

There are a couple of states where the Democrats are picking up disaffected Republicans and where some of the soft side of Trump’s base is shifting to “likely Democrat.” One of those is West Virginia, where a combination of Bernie Sanders town hall meetings about access to health care and continuing price drops, mine closings and layoffs testify to Trump’s broken promise to coal miners. They expected more immediate action but there’s almost nothing Trump can do to boost coal sales. Sanders, who has conducted nationally televised town hall meetings in small West Virginia towns to talk about health care isn’t who you might think has appeal among the state’s voters. But a recent pew survey following one of his meetings showed that if the election were held tomorrow, 47% of West Virginia voters would support him, with 39% support for Trump and the rest undecided. Elizabeth Warren does almost as well. Trump got 69% of the vote in West Virginia in 2016.

Minority Group Support

Some Republican analysts put forth the balance of election prediction in negative terms. It’s not so much convincing minority voters that they have . a better candidate, but convincing them just to stay home. That happened to Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to exit polling data. Lagging turnout, particularly among African American and Latino voters, made a difference, especially in Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa. She got 88% of the African American vote, 92% of it in North Carolina where, if the 7% who stayed away from the polls had showed up like they did in 2012, she would have carried the state. 7% of the African American vote in Ohio would have easily overcome the margin by which Trump won there, but turnout was down 10% among black voters.

Generally, the rule of thumb is that the Democratic candidate for president must have 85% of the black vote to win. Exit polling showed that Clinton got 86% of the black vote, but that black voter turnout was down 7% from 2012 and that was the difference in the election. An additional 1 or 2% turnout in the three states in which Trump won the election and Clinton would be president. Turnout among African American voters was super high during the mid-terms, 13% higher than in 2016, and equal to what it was in 2012. If the turnout is that high, a Democratic presidential candidate can drop to as low as 80% and still gain support in predominantly African American communities.

Trump loves to claim increased support of African Americans, but that’s not showing up in any legitimate polling data. His highest approval rating among black voters reached 13% at one point in 2017, but it has hovered around 9% since then. His remarks to “the squad” to “go back” where they came from did major damage to his favorability among both Latino and Black voters.

The increase in Latino voters may well be the decisive element in 2020. Among no other racial minority has support for Trump dried up and evaporated than it has among the Latino community. He picked up about 35% of the Latino vote in 2016 due mostly to Clinton’s lack of popularity with Latino voters. It won’t be anywhere near that much in 2010. If he picks up 20% of the Latino vote it will be a miracle, with polls showing that his level of support is currently somewhere around 15% and dropping.

The strength and growth of the Latino vote has showed up in recent elections in Texas, where Beto O’Rourke pulled in 48% of the vote against Ted Cruz, the highest percentage a Democratic candidate has received in a statewide election in Texas in a decade, and in Arizona where Democrats captured Jeff Flake’s old senate seat. O’Rourke’s candidacy fuelled a registration drive among Latinos, whose percentage of the vote in Texas climbed from 27% in 2016 to 38% in 2018. In Arizona, the voter registration drive that pushed turnout and ousted former Maricopa County sheriff and noted white supremacist Joe Arpaio helped the Democrats pick up Jeff Flake’s old senate seat. Mark Kelly, the former astronaut and husband of former Representative Gabby Giffords, is challenging the loser of the 2018 senate race, Martha McSally, who was appointed to take John McCain’s place after she lost the election and has a wide lead in the polling data. McSally’s old congressional seat also flipped, giving reliably Republican Arizona a majority Democratic congressional delegation for the first time.

It’s hard to make a prediction early on. Reliable polling data from Monmouth, Quinnipiac and a composite of individual state and newspaper polls show that upwards of 59% of the electorate state that they will not vote for Trump and that he should not be elected. That’s observable in election results all over the country, where Democrats have gained back control of seven governor’s offices, seven state houses and myriads of other state and local positions. My guess, based on factual data, not speculation, is that whomever the Democrats nominate will win by a comfortable margin, over 300 electoral votes, and they will keep control of the house, increasing their current majority by at least 10 seats, and gain enough Senate seats for a 2-3 seat majority.


Dr. Bitecofer made a recent appearance on MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell show explaining her process and methodology and predicted that the Democratic nominee for President will receive at least 278 electoral votes in 2020. That model is based on current polling data and exit polls from the 2018 mid-term election and doesn’t name a Democrat as candidate. When the limited data currently available about specific candidates goes into her model, the total increases. She says 278 is the minimum expected for the Democrats.

Bitecofer says Trump’s base is all he’s got and it’s not big enough. Even among Evangelicals, approval for Trump’s practices and policies has dropped, most notably since the detainment of asylum seekers at the border was publicized and since he started the trade war with China. Approval has fallen from 82% to 73% among those who identify as white, Evangelical conservatives while the percentage of Evangelicals as a voting block has also declined 5% since 2016, that according to Gallup.


Monmouth Poll July 15-25, 2019, Monmouth Poll July 1-5, 2019, Quinnipiac University July 15, 2019, Welch-McDowell Register January 3, 2018, USA Today, July 31, 2019, California Press-Examiner July 14, 2019, Fox News America April 15, 2019, USA Today//Marist July 10, 2019, the Arizona Daily Star ref. Kelly, Giffords, Kirkpatrick,Mc Sally, Sinema, De Moines Register April 4, 2019, Ohio Secretary of State Ofc., The Philadelphia Inquirer multiple references, Red State, The Democratic Observer, The Charleston Daily Mail

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