Sabatos Crystal Ball

2020 Redistricting: An Early Look

GOP retains edge, but perhaps not as sharp of one as it had following 2010

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball July 18th, 2019



— The Supreme Court’s recent decision to stay out of adjudicating gerrymandering doesn’t necessarily change anything because the court had never put limits on partisan redistricting in the first place.

— Republicans are still slated to control the drawing of many more districts than Democrats following the 2020 census, although there are reasons to believe their power will not be as great as it was following the last census.

— How aggressively majority parties in a number of small-to-medium-sized states target incumbents of the minority party following 2020 may help tell us whether the Supreme Court’s decision will lead to more aggressive gerrymanders.

Redistricting: Rucho and beyond

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Rucho v. Common Cause last month reiterated something that has always been true: There are no court-enforced limits on partisan redistricting. By declaring that such cases are nonjusticiable, the high court decided that federal courts are going to stay out of determining what is and what is not a gerrymandered House map, at least for the time being.

Again, this is not really a change. While the court has suggested at times, such as in 2004’s Vieth v. Jubelirer, that it hypothetically could create standards for determining whether a gerrymander has gone too far, it never actually created such a standard.

It may be that this ruling could allow gerrymanders to become even more aggressive in the future, although it may also be that they already are maximally aggressive. For instance, one North Carolina Republican — whose party authored not just one, but two, effective congressional gerrymanders this decade — bluntly conceded that they drew a map designed to elect 10 Republicans and three Democrats “because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.” (In 2018, North Carolina elected nine Republicans and three Democrats, with a pending election do-over in NC-9 coming in September.)

Part of the reason that lawmakers can be so brutally frank about partisan gerrymandering is that using such language seeks to define their behavior as something that is legal and always has been legal –partisan gerrymandering — instead of something that courts have ruled can be illegal: racial gerrymandering.

Courts can still weigh in against districts that constitute racial gerrymanders, which illegally pack minority voters into single districts to make surrounding districts whiter (this can benefit Republicans, given that nonwhite voters are much likelier to vote Democratic than white voters). Because of racial differences in voting, constraints on racial gerrymandering may effectively represent constraints on partisan gerrymandering.

There are reasons to believe both that redistricting after 2020 will be more balanced in the aggregate, but also that when given the opportunity, one-party-dominated redistricters may act aggressively.

Who draws the lines?

First of all, we don’t precisely know exactly how many seats Republicans will hold sway over, how many Democrats will, and how many will be decided through bipartisan or nonpartisan methods. The 2019 and 2020 elections will help finalize partisan control of redistricting in some places.

Following the 2010 elections, Republicans had the power to draw 193 districts while Democrats had the power to draw only 44. So Republicans had much more redistricting power than Democrats, and they used that power to reinforce its then-new majority, which survived without much trouble until the 2018 Democratic wave.

As of right now, that topline is not that much different, according to a post-election analysis by Daily Kos Elections’ Stephen Wolf, a redistricting expert and liberal critic of gerrymandering.

Wolf found that Republicans currently control the redistricting levers in states containing 179 districts while Democrats control only 49. The rest will be drawn by divided governments or through bipartisan or nonpartisan methods (or they are in states that have only a single House member and thus have no need to redistrict).

However, the alignment of line-drawing control has shifted in ways that make the GOP’s current edge less imposing than the one they enjoyed after 2010.

For instance, two of the few states where Democrats actually controlled redistricting after 2010 were in Arkansas and West Virginia; now Republicans control those states, but they already hold all seven seats between them.

Meanwhile, Republicans have lost their dominance in some key places. Pennsylvania and Wisconsin now have Democratic governors, blunting the GOP gerrymandering power from a decade ago (the Keystone State’s Democratic-controlled Supreme Court unwound the GOP gerrymander in advance of 2018).

It is also possible that new reforms will emerge in certain places, or state courts will intervene, as has happened in Florida and Pennsylvania. Michigan, another site of a GOP gerrymander that held up from 2012-2016 but not in 2018, now has a nonpartisan redistricting system and also divided government.

This count on current control of redistricting also does not take into account reapportionment following the census. Speaking of:

State-by-state assessments

According to a late 2018 report from Election Data Services, here are the current projections for the states that will gain and lose seats thanks to population shifts.

Projected gainers: Arizona (+1), Colorado (+1), Florida (+2), Montana (+1), North Carolina (+1), Oregon (+1), and Texas (+3)

Projected losers: Alabama (-1), California (-1 or even), Illinois (-1), Michigan (-1), Minnesota (-1 or even), New York (-2), Ohio (-1), Pennsylvania (-1), Rhode Island (-1), and West Virginia (-1)

As has been the overall trend for decades, the South and West — particularly Florida and Texas — are gaining seats at a rapid rate, while the Northeast and Midwest continue to grow more slowly and lose seats. A big exception to that trend would be California if it indeed loses a district: The Golden State delegation consistently grew from statehood through the 2010 census, when it failed to add a seat, so it has never seen its seat total contract.

The reapportionment projections provide a good jumping-off point to look at some of the redistricting decisions coming after 2020. Here are some possibilities in the states projected to gain or lose seats, a list that allows us to assess redistricting in many of the nation’s most populous states (Michigan and Pennsylvania, both slated to lose seats, were addressed above).

— Assessing the partisan consequences of some of these shifts, if in fact they occur, are easy. For instance, if Rhode Island (-1) and West Virginia (-1) each indeed lose a seat, the Democrats will lose one of their two seats in the Ocean State and the Republicans will lose one of their three seats in the Mountain State. Those losses cancel each other out.

— Alabama (-1) has only one Democratic district as it is, which almost assuredly will be protected as a majority-minority district, so Republicans probably will have to eliminate one of their own members.

— Texas (+3) seems to be becoming less Republican, and the state’s GOP gerrymander came perilously close to breaking in 2018: Democrats picked up a couple of seats and came close to winning several others. Assuming Republicans retain control of the process, it will be interesting to see how they both add seats and protect incumbents, potentially of both parties. For instance, if newly-elected Reps. Colin Allred (D, TX-32) and Lizzie Fletcher (D, TX-7) win second terms next year, Republicans could give them safe seats as a way of shoring up neighboring Republicans and helping preserve the GOP’s overall edge in the delegation, which is currently 23-13.

— The Republican majority in Florida (+2) may be blunted by state-specific reforms. Their previous gerrymander already was, back in 2015, although the state Supreme Court that ordered the change based on a state constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2010 may now be less receptive to acting against a gerrymander.

— Illinois (-1) Democrats, who also controlled the process a decade ago, will be faced with the challenge of eliminating a seat and shoring up some new incumbents. On the current map, Democrats drew IL-6 and IL-14 in the Chicago exurbs as Republican vote sinks, but the GOP’s troubles in the suburbs allowed Democrats Sean Casten (IL-6) and Lauren Underwood (IL-14) to actually win both districts in 2018. Meanwhile, Democrats may be able to reconfigure downstate districts to endanger Rep. Rodney Davis (R, IL-13), who won very narrow victories in both 2012 and 2018, although they probably will also be inclined to help Rep. Cheri Bustos (D, IL-17), whose gerrymandered district is trending Republican.

— California (maybe -1) has a nonpartisan process that undoubtedly helped Democrats this decade: Democrats netted a dozen seats there this decade, creating a lopsided 46-7 Democratic edge in the nation’s largest House delegation. This was after the 2000s, when California’s map was amazingly stable: In 265 individual House elections over five cycles (53 contests per year), only one seat ever changed hands. Though the process is formally nonpartisan, ProPublica found back in 2011 that Democrats found ways to influence the maps in their favor. Republicans might be able to make gains on a new map — or even on the current map as they try to win back some lost ground in 2020 — although the state has become so Democratic that even places where the GOP used to dominate, like Orange County, are trending blue. Some perspective: As recently as 2004, George W. Bush only lost California by 10 points, and he carried much of Southern California outside of Los Angeles County; that included carrying four of the seven counties in the whole state that cast more than 500,000 votes in that election: San Diego, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino. By 2016, Hillary Clinton was carrying the state by 30 points, and she carried all the big counties (all 13 that cast 250,000 or more votes). So while the Democrats’ huge edge in the state’s House delegation probably is unrealistically inflated, it may not be.

— New York (-2) also will be trying out a nonpartisan redistricting process next decade. It may be that both the Democrats and Republicans will lose a seat apiece in the interest of fairness.

— Arizona (+1) and Colorado (+1) are competitive states with nonpartisan redistricting systems that favor the creation of competitive district when possible: Arizona’s has been in place for a couple of decades, while Colorado’s is new. So perhaps each will get a new swing seat as part of the growth of their delegations?

— Oregon (+1) is controlled by Democrats, who hold a 4-1 edge statewide. Presumably they will try to make that 5-1 Democratic, although in the process they may also need to shore up the districts of Reps. Peter DeFazio (D, OR-4) and Kurt Schrader (D, OR-5), both of whom occupy districts that are competitive on paper if not necessarily in practice (at least for them).

— If Montana (+1) gets back its second district, which it lost following the 1990 reapportionment, the state might revert back to having a district covering the state’s eastern two-thirds and then its western third; the eastern district would be safely Republican in all likelihood, but the western one could very well be competitive and winnable for a Democrat even if it leaned Republican on paper.

— Ohio (-1) voters approved a constitutional amendment last year to make redistricting less partisan; we’ll have to see how effective it is. But a reasonable compromise between the two parties might involve Democrats getting new, winnable seats centered on Cincinnati and Toledo while Rep. Tim Ryan’s (D, OH-13) Democratic but Republican-trending seat that runs from Akron to Youngstown could be split several ways, potentially making it difficult for Ryan to win reelection in 2022. Perhaps the uncertainty of redistricting provides some of the explanation for why Ryan is trying to raise his profile through a quixotic presidential bid.

— The 2020 election will determine if Minnesota (maybe -1) Democrats will get to control redistricting (they hold the state House and the governorship; Republicans have a narrow edge in the state Senate). If divided government endures, judges may end up drawing the map, as they have done recently in Minnesota.

— In North Carolina (+1), the state’s Democratic-controlled state Supreme Court has just begun hearing a gerrymandering case involving the state’s legislative districts. If Democrats succeed in that lawsuit, perhaps the threat of a similar lawsuit concerning congressional districts might hamstring GOP efforts in that state (or the Democrats might win control of a state legislative chamber, giving them a formal say in the process). North Carolina is unusual in that the governor — Roy Cooper, a Democrat who is up for reelection next year — has no role in redistricting. That was a change made by North Carolina Democrats back in the 1990s, back when moderate-to-conservative Democrats still held a dominant position throughout the South. State legislative Democrats “reason[ed] they would always hold the legislature but voters might occasionally elect a Republican governor,” observed the authors of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics as they described a devastating gerrymander passed by a Republican state legislative majority over the objections of a powerless Democratic governor following the 2010 census. Things change in a hurry.

Beyond these reapportionment changes, it will be interesting to see if partisan majorities in one-party states will crank up their gerrymandering. For instance, assuming the GOP retains control of the process in states like Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Tennessee, they could attempt to break apart the districts of Reps. Andre Carson (D, IN-7), John Yarmuth (D, KY-3), Emanuel Cleaver (D, MO-5), Kendra Horn (D, OK-5), Joe Cunningham (D, SC-1), or Jim Cooper (D, TN-5), assuming these members are reelected in 2020 (Carson, Yarmuth, Cleaver, and Cooper occupy safe Democratic seats, but first-termers Horn and Cunningham are among the most vulnerable House Democrats). These efforts would generally involve cracking big, Democratic-heavy urban areas into smaller pieces that are absorbed by surrounding Republican-held districts. If Republicans are able to really flex their redistricting muscles after 2020, it may be that it manifests itself in some of these smaller states.

Maryland Democrats, who hold veto-proof majorities in both houses of the state legislature and thus could overrule Gov. Larry Hogan (R-MD) on redistricting matters, successfully eliminated a GOP district in the post-2010 round (which led to one of several lawsuits that the Supreme Court effectively threw out as part of its recent decision). They could try to turn their 7-1 Democratic delegation into an 8-0 majority if they went after Rep. Andy Harris (R, MD-1) on the Eastern Shore. Democrats could have attempted to draw an 8-0 map following the 2010 census, but some of the Democratic members of the state’s delegation didn’t want to potentially risk drawing such a gerrymandered map and then see it backfire.

This sort of dynamic could also emerge in some of the aforementioned GOP-dominated states, in which the self-interest of individual members could come into conflict with larger partisan goals.

Democrats also currently control the process in Nevada and New Mexico, where they may be able to shore up newly-elected members in competitive districts: Reps. Xochitl Torres Small (D, NM-2), Susie Lee (D, NV-3), and Steven Horsford (D, NV-4), assuming they survive 2020.

What happens in some of these small states could help us determine the impact of Rucho. Was redistricting already maximally aggressive, or can it become more so? In the states with one-party rule, we’ll find out.

P.S. In the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court’s redistricting decision, I appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal to discuss it and other redistricting topics. Click here if you’re curious to hear more about the ruling and the fallout.

Notes on the State of Politics

Farewell Ross Perot; Senate races on the fringe of the competitive map; the curious case of Justin Amash

Larry J. Sabato and Kyle Kondik, Sabato's Crystal Ball July 11th, 2019



— Ross Perot, who died earlier this week, provided something of a template for Donald Trump. He also was the best-performing third-party presidential candidate since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912.

— They are not top-tier races, but there have been noteworthy Senate developments on the outer fringes of the competitive map in Kansas, Kentucky, and Virginia.

— Justin Amash’s decision to leave the GOP creates another House swing seat.

Ross Perot, political prophet

There is a great quote from George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee and South Dakota senator: “You know, sometimes, when they say you’re ahead of your time, it’s just a polite way of saying you have a real bad sense of timing.” Given how American politics has developed over the past half-century, that may be a fitting way to look at businessman Ross Perot, who died Tuesday at the age of 89.

Perot ran two of the most credible third-party presidential bids in American history, garnering 19% of the vote in 1992 and a still-impressive 8% in 1996. Despite his showing, he didn’t win any electoral votes, confirmation of how the Electoral College helps perpetuate the nation’s two-party duopoly.

Nonetheless, the themes of Perot’s campaigns provided something of a preview of Donald Trump, as he ran an outsider, populist campaign that was critical of free trade. Perot’s economic orthodoxy, at least as expressed in his campaign, probably existed to the left of the GOP, which one could also say about Trump, at least as a candidate if not necessarily in practice as president. This is not to say that Perot and Trump were platform twins. Contrary to Trump, Perot was pro-choice on abortion, and the Texan did not engage in race-baiting, which has been a staple of Trump’s career before and during his White House years.

Perhaps if Perot had been 25 years younger and came around for the 2016 Republican primary instead of Trump, he’d be in the White House right now. Instead, Perot ended up as something of a forerunner to Trump. Perot’s homespun quips and memorable soundbites were different than Trump’s often coarse ones, but they had the same effect on his followers; the most fervent base prior to Trump’s may have been the so-called “Perotistas” of 1992.

As it was, Perot produced the best presidential vote share of any non-Democrat or non-Republican since former President Theodore Roosevelt, running as a Bull Moose Progressive, won 27% of the vote in 1912. Table 1 shows the history of third-party performance since 1912.

Table 1: Third-party presidential performance, 1912-2016

Note: *In 1968, one faithless elector in North Carolina cast his vote for George Wallace rather than Richard Nixon. In 1972, one faithless elector in Virginia cast his vote for Libertarian John Hospers rather than Nixon.

Source: Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections

Perot’s passing reignited a long-simmering debate about who Perot hurt and who he helped in 1992, when Bill Clinton unseated incumbent President George H.W. Bush. Some Bush backers are still convinced that without Perot in the race, Bush would have beaten back the Clinton challenge. Hypotheticals are difficult to prove, but we believe the evidence accumulated from 1992 onwards strongly suggests that Clinton would have won a two-way contest — and received the elusive majority he failed to win in both 1992 (43%) and 1996 (49%). But judge for yourself — here are some useful pieces about this enduring political question:

— First, we recommend this instructive video from FiveThirtyEight about the “myth” that Perot cost Bush the 1992 election.

— This New York Times article from just after the 1992 election discusses a poll of Perot voters. When asked if Perot had not been on the ballot, 38% of respondents said they would have voted for Bush and 38% said they would have voted for Clinton. Since Clinton already had over a 5% lead on Bush, this even split would have given the election and a majority of the vote to the Democrat.

— This Washington Post article was published after the 1992 election and focuses on the Election Day exit polls. It concludes that Perot did not change the outcome of the election.

— MSNBC published this analysis in 2015 when Trump was considering running as an independent rather than a Republican. It shows that Bush would have needed to win two-thirds of Perot voters to win the 1992 election — a very unlikely outcome given the hostility to Bush among a large percentage of Perot’s base.

Action in fringe Senate races

National Republicans groaned Monday as Kris Kobach (R), a far-right former Kansas secretary of state and weak 2018 gubernatorial nominee, announced a bid for Senate. While Kansas is a very Republican state — it hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1932 — it also has a significant contingent of moderate Republicans that might recoil at a Kobach candidacy. We moved the race from Safe Republican to Likely Republican earlier this week, just as a precaution. Outside Republicans groups are openly slamming Kobach and assuredly will work against his nomination if needed. Trump endorsed Kobach in the 2018 gubernatorial primary.

Table 2: Crystal Ball Senate ratings change

Senator Old Rating New Rating
KS Open (Roberts, R) Safe Republican Likely Republican

The seat became open after Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), himself a weak performer in 2014, announced his retirement. Roberts beat independent Greg Orman by about 11 points in 2014, which amidst a sterling GOP environment was still the weakest showing for a GOP Senate candidate since a 1996 special election there held to replace Bob Dole, who had resigned his seat in the midst of his unsuccessful presidential bid.

In any event, there very well could be competitive primaries on both sides. For the Republicans, besides Kobach, state Treasurer Jake LaTurner and former NFL player Dave Lindstrom are already in the mix, and Rep. Roger Marshall (R, KS-1) and state Senate President Susan Wagle may also join the race. Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union and frequent TV defender of the president, is another possibility (his wife, Mercedes, recently joined the president’s reelection campaign after serving in a top White House communications position).

Former U.S. Rep. Nancy Boyda (D, KS-2) and former U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom are running on the Democratic side, but the most intriguing potential candidate hasn’t officially entered the race yet: state Sen. Barbara Bollier, who switched parties after the election and who is representative of the kinds of Kansans (moderate Republicans) that any Democrat would need to win.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has made no secret of the fact that his dream candidate is U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who represented KS-4 in the House before becoming CIA director and then leading the State Department. Pompeo seems to still be entertaining the idea.

Speaking of McConnell, he got a notable challenger in his own reelection bid earlier this week when retired Marine pilot Amy McGrath (D) entered the race. McGrath lost a close race against Rep. Andy Barr (R, KY-6) last fall, but became something of a national sensation thanks to a splashy announcement video and her primary upset against former Lexington Mayor Jim Gray (D), who himself challenged Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) in 2016. We are holding Kentucky at Likely Republican: Even though McConnell carries baggage as the leader of his party’s Senate caucus and isn’t popular, Kentucky has become very Republican. Readers may remember that McConnell’s 2014 race seemed very competitive throughout that cycle, but we never bought the hype, holding that race at Likely Republican the whole time. McConnell ended up winning by 15 points. McConnell likely will run behind Donald Trump in Kentucky — the state is less Republican down the ballot than it is for president — but we need to see a great deal of persuasive evidence before declaring him truly vulnerable. The gubernatorial election this fall will provide some clues: If Gov. Matt Bevin (R-KY), who has very weak numbers himself, nonetheless triumphs against a Democratic challenger who is more proven than McGrath, state Attorney General Andy Beshear (D), that will be even more of a signal that the Bluegrass State just isn’t really open to voting Democratic for much of anything these days. It is also not a guarantee that McGrath will have the Democratic field to herself.

One other note: Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) also picked up a challenger this week, former Rep. Scott Taylor (R, VA-2). Taylor, a former state delegate, defeated a sitting House member, Randy Forbes, in a 2016 primary after Forbes switched districts following court-ordered modifications to the state’s congressional districts, which effectively made Forbes’ old district, VA-4, unwinnable for a Republican. Taylor won in 2016 but lost in a close race to Rep. Elaine Luria (D, VA-2) last November, and he found himself bogged down by a scandal in which members of his staff allegedly forged signatures to help his 2016 challenger get on the ballot as an independent as a way to hurt Luria. One of those staffers was indicted in May, and the investigation continues.

Taylor has his problems, but he also is a better candidate than Republicans might have otherwise fielded; certainly he is more credible than Corey Stewart (R), the neo-Confederate rabble-rouser who ran a weak challenge to Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) last cycle. Taylor’s chances are probably dependent on Trump winning Virginia in 2020, which seems unlikely although is not impossible if the president is otherwise running considerably better than he did in 2016 nationally. That said, Taylor seems capable of at least converting Trump votes into votes for himself, which should keep him within range of Warner, who shockingly nearly lost in 2014. We continue to rate the Virginia Senate race as Likely Democratic.

None of Kansas, Kentucky, or Virginia is likely to make or break the Senate majority next year: Realistically, we’re closer to rating all of them as Safe as opposed to Leans in our ratings. But the action in those states reminds us that there is more going on in the battle for the Senate than in just the topline races.

Map 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings

Amash switch endangers his House seat

The morning of July 4, Rep. Justin Amash (I, MI-3) declared his independence from the Republican Party. Amash, a conservative who has long been a thorn in the side of party leadership, stuck his neck out when he endorsed opening impeachment proceedings against President Trump in the wake of the release of the Mueller Report. He had at least four primary challengers, according to Politico.

It seemed possible, at least to us, that Amash could emerge from a primary if the vote was splintered, given that Michigan has no runoff. But he decided to simply leave the party.

It’s hard to be a true independent in the House, because even independents typically need to pick one party caucus or the other to get committee assignments. For instance, even though Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Angus King (I-ME) are technically independents, they are members of the Senate Democratic caucus, which allows them to serve on committees in the Senate. Amash left the Republican caucus and resigned his post on the House Oversight Committee. To borrow the immortal words of Keith Richards, he walked before they made him run: Republicans were not going to allow Amash to remain in their caucus or serve on Oversight following his departure from the party.

Amash said he will run for reelection as an independent, although it seems possible he may run as a protest presidential candidate, either as an independent or as the Libertarian nominee. If Amash does remain on the ballot, a three-way race would be hard to predict. His western Michigan-based district, MI-3, is effectively a version of the seat that former President Gerald Ford (R) held while he was in Congress. MI-3 definitely leans Republican, though not overwhelmingly so: Trump won it 51%-42%, and it was considerably closer in the state’s gubernatorial and Senate races last year, according to Bloomberg’s Greg Giroux. The heart of the district is the Democratic city of Grand Rapids, county seat of Kent County, a usually Republican but Democratic-trending swing county. Indeed, if you’re looking for a place that voted for Trump in 2016 but might vote Democratic for president in 2020, Kent County, which is mostly contained in Amash’s district, is a good possibility.

The combination of a potential blue trend in MI-3 and a possible three-way race pushed us to move MI-3 from Likely Republican to Toss-up. We might move it to Leans Republican, though, if Amash leaves the race and it becomes a standard Republican vs. Democrat contest. We do think it should be competitive regardless, though.

Table 3: Crystal Ball House ratings change

Member/District Old Rating New Rating
Rep. Justin Amash (I, MI-3) Likely Republican Toss-up

2 Debates, 20 Candidates, 26 Hours

And some words, more than one, on all the participants

Larry J. Sabato and Kyle Kondik, Sabato's Crystal Ball June 28th, 2019



Editor’s note: The Crystal Ball will be away next week for Independence Day. We wish all of you a safe and enjoyable holiday.

— The Editors



— Do not necessarily assume that this first debate will dramatically reshape the Democratic primary race.

— The biggest moment from either night was almost certainly Kamala Harris’ attack on Joe Biden.

— The leftward shift of many Democrats may be heartening to the president as he tries to turn a referendum election into a choice election.

Referendum or choice in 2020?

The opening two debates of what Democrats hope is the 2020 Donald Trump Demolition Derby are in the books. Ultimately, the polls and maybe the upcoming donation totals will tell us whether there were any clear winners, and whether the debate changed anything.

We are now in what feels like a disorienting part of a four-year presidential cycle featuring a presidential incumbent. Even though any president is essentially the center of the American political universe — particularly Donald Trump, who insists on dominating the day-to-day news — he is strangely sidelined in the race that will produce his opponent. Other than the State of the Union, the regularly-scheduled big primetime political events of the next year — the debates, and the caucus and primary results — will not include him as a major participant, in all likelihood. On one hand, that’s great for the president: He has a clear path to renomination. On the other hand, Trump — like Barack Obama at this same point in the political calendar eight years ago — has to share the spotlight with a huge number of competitors.

Then again, the president may enjoy what he’s hearing. Three of the leading candidates — Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Bernie Sanders — raised their hand when asked if they would abolish private insurance as part of a Medicare-for-all plan. One wonders if that would be a position that’s a bridge too far in a general election: a lesson of the last three decades seems to be that proposing change from the health care status quo is politically problematic. Republicans also will use the concept of providing health care coverage for undocumented people against the eventual Democratic nominee.

The next election may be similar to the last couple of elections featuring incumbent presidents: 2004 and 2012. The incumbents those years, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, wanted the election to be a choice between them or their challengers; the challengers, John Kerry and Mitt Romney, respectively, wanted the election to be a referendum on the incumbent. Bush and Obama found enough cracks in their opponents that they avoided the kind of straight referendum that could have doomed either. Trump is clearly trying to make this election a choice, too; if it’s a referendum on him, he probably won’t win, given his middling approval ratings. It may be that the policies some of the Democrats support give Trump weapons to use as he tries to present the election as a choice.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves – the candidate who will emerge to be the alternative to Trump remains a mystery. Here’s what we thought of every candidate over the two nights of debates:


Vice President Joe Biden: The former vice president was the quasi-incumbent on stage. Standing right behind him was the outline of Barack Obama, still enormously popular among Democrats. Just as you would expect, Biden invoked Obama to good effect on several occasions, but Biden was forced to own his pre-vice presidential years all by himself. Biden escaped unmentioned and unharmed the first night, but once present, he wasn’t so lucky. Bernie Sanders made sure the audience recalled that Biden voted for the Iraq war and Sanders voted against. Michael Bennet clocked Biden for a compromise with Mitch McConnell that preserved the Bush tax cuts. But it was Kamala Harris who memorably confronted Biden about the vice president’s praise for segregationist senators with whom he had worked in his early Senate career (Biden denied his comments were praise). Harris powerfully reproached Biden for his opposition to school busing to achieve racial balance in the 1970s, noting that she had benefitted from busing. It was another time and place, and older observers (including one of us) recall that plenty of Democrats were damaged or defeated because of their support of busing, which was greatly unpopular among whites and also disliked by many blacks, because it limited extracurricular activities and resulted in many students leaving home very early and returning home after dark. But none of that matters now, and Biden is paying a price. Biden didn’t answer these criticisms well, and some of his staff privately said he hadn’t followed the script they’d devised. Yet while Biden didn’t soar, we doubt he was fatally damaged by any of this. Nonetheless, as frontrunner, Biden can look forward to many more attacks. Whether this sharpens Biden for the campaign against Trump (should he win the nomination) or deconstructs Biden on his way to losing the Democratic nod, we cannot guess.

California Sen. Kamala Harris: As just suggested, Harris was widely viewed as the winner of the second night’s debate since she managed to corner Biden while most of her rivals steered clear of challenging the former vice president. Some critics found her to be too hard-edged, even mean, but that was not a view widely shared among Democratic pols and pundits. Simply put, Harris is a contender. We’ll be surprised if she doesn’t show movement in the next round of polls. Harris’s objective is clear. She needs to shake or split Biden’s strong African-American support so she can scoop it up (presumably, though Cory Booker and others have a different plan for those voters). At the very least, debate watchers in July and beyond are going to pay close attention every time she has the floor.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders: The irascible independent senator came off almost exactly the same as he did in the 2016 debates: Aggressively liberal and on message, and confident in his beliefs. The difference is that the surroundings around him have completely changed: He is no longer the sole alternative to Hillary Clinton, but rather just one of many options for Democratic voters. Elizabeth Warren and Sanders are going to come into conflict sooner rather than later given that they are directly competing for the same liberal bloc of the electorate. From that standpoint, the pair being split in this first round is only delaying what may be inevitable.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand: Gillibrand tried to inject some issues of importance to herself, and many Democrats, into the overall conversation, such as abortion rights, but it’s hard to see how her underwhelming candidacy will get a jolt from this first debate.

South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg: “Mayor Pete” displayed many of the attributes — such as introspection and intellect — that won him attention and praise over the past several months and allowed him to surpass many Democratic pols with better resumes. He is often compared to Beto O’Rourke –- his rise probably came at some expense to O’Rourke’s numbers — and Buttigieg impressed more than O’Rourke did on Wednesday (more on the former Texas Senate candidate below). However, it felt like the action in this debate was elsewhere, and his already very long odds of winning meaningful black support have not been helped by a recent officer-involved shooting in South Bend that he tried to show contrition for during the debate. For all of Buttigieg’s progress, he either needs to attract many more liberals to his side (and he may be blocked in doing so by Warren and Sanders) or many more black voters (where he is blocked by Biden and probably Harris and Booker, among others). So we’re struggling to find a path for him even as he ranks among the better-polling candidates.

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet: If the eventual Democratic nominee is someone other than a white male, Bennet may very well get a look as a running mate. He displayed both knowledge of the issues and a bit of fire and passion in discussing them; he also mixed it up with Biden to some positive effect, as noted above.

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper: Hickenlooper must be very frustrated because his credentials equal or exceed anybody else’s on stage, except for Joe Biden. He was a successful mayor of a major city, Denver, and then a durable, popular two-term governor of Colorado. Yet he hasn’t found his niche in this presidential race, and so far is a minor figure — a status very probably unchanged by the debate. Snappy soundbites are not his strength, nor is he inclined to interrupt others — normally praiseworthy but unhelpful in the dog-eat-dog world of politics.

California Rep. Eric Swalwell: The debate was probably the first time most Americans have laid eyes on him, and the impression was likely favorable. Unlike most of the others, Swalwell is not afraid to lighten up a bit when the opportunity presents itself, and his responses are pointed and often effective. Like Buttigieg and Gabbard, he is young and uses that to his advantage, quoting Joe Biden (quoting John F. Kennedy) about “passing the torch to a new generation of Americans.” Having said all this, the California congressman doesn’t have the money or standing to become one of the top contenders, and his oxygen is being sucked away by fellow Californian Kamala Harris.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock: The successful vote-getter from Montana spoke to… oh wait, he actually wasn’t there. Instead…

Former tech executive Andrew Yang: A single-issue candidate who seems to have devoted support in at least some corners of the Internet, Yang actually came across as a fairly normal and reasonable person pushing the idea of a universal basic income. That said, Yang also didn’t really stand out compared to the other nonpolitician on the stage…

Author Marianne Williamson: Whatever we write about her will not be as funny as what the late-night shows and The Onion come up with. We will defer to them.


Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren: It seemed like she would dominate the debate in the early going, as the moderators routinely went back to her. But then she was largely ignored in the second half, although she closed the night with what we thought was a powerful concluding statement that encapsulated her worldview: government played a powerful role in her life, and can play a powerful role for others. Whether one agrees with her, she has a plan, or plans, to make government do precisely that, and she summed it up in 45 seconds effectively.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker: A couple of months ago, many of us were wondering why Warren’s campaign didn’t seem to be taking off. Now that Warren has emerged as one of the frontrunners, it’s been reasonable to wonder the same thing about Booker, who like Warren is a nationally prominent member of the Senate. Maybe Booker can get going following the first debate, when he got the most speaking time — though still only about 10 minutes out of two hours.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar: As much as anyone else, Klobuchar needs Biden to fall apart fast so she can try to step into the vacuum his collapse would create among the less liberal voters in the party. That she didn’t even get to share the stage with him may have been bad luck. Her contributions on the debate stage were perfectly fine, but not very memorable.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro: Generally an inert presence in the campaign so far, Castro ended up getting a surprising amount of time and seemed to make the most of it. The Associated Press’s Alexandra Jaffe noted Thursday morning that Castro parlayed his well-reviewed debate showing into a bunch of additional media appearances. For successful candidates, the debates need to be a springboard to something else. Could it be for Castro? Has he now eclipsed his fellow Texan, O’Rourke, to inherit the money and votes in the Lone Star State?

Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke: One of us has been arguing that O’Rourke had a real chance to shine during these crowded debates given his rhetorical talents. natural charisma, and experience debating Ted Cruz. It’s hard to argue that he did, at least in his first appearance. He appeared nervous and intimidated by Castro and de Blasio — not a presidential image, to be sure.

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard: It is possible that Gabbard was a hidden winner of the evening, given that she ended up being the leading candidate in Google search trends on Wednesday. However, such searches do not necessarily equate support: Williamson, for instance, led on Thursday night. Here’s the thing: If Gabbard has true and growing support, we’ll look for it in the polls. We also thought she got the better of Tim Ryan during their back and forth on American involvement in Afghanistan, and there is undoubtedly a constituency on the left (and the right) for Gabbard’s anti-interventionist stances. Like any other candidate, if she does emerge a bit from the pack, she will face more scrutiny, both on her curious relationship with the Assad regime in Syria and her past anti-LGBTQ stances (both of which were mentioned during Wednesday’s debate).

Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan: Speaking of Ryan, we thought he had some decent moments but didn’t quite nail his discussion of the Lordstown, OH GM plant closing (which essentially provides the rationale for his candidacy). Ryan did provide something different on stage — a candidate making an explicit argument about the Democratic Party’s decline with white voters in small towns and rural areas (a trend that was exacerbated by Trump but also precedes the incumbent’s presidential candidacy) — but it’s also hard to say Ryan made a lasting impression.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee: Climate change did not get much attention at the first debate. That’s probably not a great thing for the candidate who has premised his campaign around the topic. Remarkably, the only state governor on stage was unable to assert himself to grab his fair share of time because the moderates weren’t going to give it to him. His five minutes of airtime was smaller than any other participant that night.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio: We give de Blasio credit for one thing: The fringe candidates need to make their own time or else they will be ignored. De Blasio butted in whenever he could. That said, he seemed arrogant and pushy and, all in all, he didn’t come across as very appealing, and he made a boneheaded move on Thursday when he used a rallying cry associated with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in Miami, a city whose politics has long been influenced by anti-Castro Cuban exiles. Oops.

Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney: Closing now?

Yes, we are.

OK, more fairly, Delaney had a lot to say from a moderate perspective and has honed his appeal during near constant-campaigning for many months, but he just didn’t seem to fit on this presidential stage. No offense, Rep. Delaney, we don’t fit either, and 99% of our fellow citizens wouldn’t make the cut.