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The Biden Ceiling

Once a political narrative takes hold, it's hard to dislodge. And, one of the most stubborn of those narratives is that while GOP attacks on Democrats for their support of "defunding the police" and 'socialism' may not have cost Biden the election, it came close to denying House Democrats the House majority.

Here's how the Washington Post's Paul Kane, one of the sharpest reporters on Capitol Hill, described an internal analysis by the DCCC about what went wrong for their candidates in 2020. "With so many freshmen running as still relative newcomers, they often lagged behind Biden in their races." Kane writes. "And the socialist attacks landed heavier on House Democrats than on Biden, a household name for more than 40 years with a moderate brand." DCCC Chairman Sean Patrick Maloney, who commissioned this deep-dive, told Kane, "If you had a crystal ball, you would have surged resources around incumbents that we now know were in more danger than the polling suggested, and you would have felt less enthusiastic about some red-to-blue opportunities."


Districts where incumbent took 55% of vote or less



But, when you look at the closest races of 2020 — including those involving the 12 freshman Democrats who lost — this narrative starts to get clouded. In fact, what's more accurate to say is that Republicans had an easier time distancing themselves from Trump than Democrats had in out-running Biden's showing in their CDs.

I looked at the 40 Democrats and 42 Republicans who took 55 percent or less of the vote in 2020. The first thing that jumps out is how closely the down-ballot and the top of the ticket performances were aligned: that is how many points above or below the presidential vote a House candidate received. For example, if Biden took 52.3 percent in a district and the Democratic candidate in that district took 50 percent, that candidate UNDER-performed Biden by 2.3 points.

The average deviation from Biden's showing in the 40 most competitive Democratic-held districts was 1.8 percent. For the 42 most competitive Republican-held seats, the average deviation from Trump's vote share was a bit higher — at 2.7 percent. If you weren't already convinced that the era of "all politics is local" is dead, these numbers should be a brisk wake-up call. Just take a look at Democratic Rep. Colin Peterson, who lost re-election in 2020. For years, Peterson was able to win re-election even as Democratic presidential candidates were losing his rural Minnesota district by double-digits. In 2004, for example, Peterson won re-election with 66 percent of the vote — a 23-point improvement over John Kerry in this CD. In 2020 Peterson once again outperformed the top of the ticket but by a more modest 6-point spread (40 percent to Biden's 34 percent).

I then looked at the number of districts where the winning candidate either over-performed or under-performed their party's presidential nominee by 1 point or more. Almost twice as many Republicans than Democrats in these 82 competitive CDs out-polled their presidential nominee. In fact, 61 percent of Republicans who won with 55 percent or less of the vote out-polled Trump by one point or more. On the Democratic side, just 37 percent out-polled Biden by one point or more.

Even so, of the twelve freshman Democrats who lost in 2020, Biden carried just four of those districts. Trump won the rest. And, in every one of those Trump-won CDs, the Democratic freshmen outperformed Biden by anywhere from 1 point (Abby Finkenauer in IA-01) to five points (Anthony Brindisi in NY-22). If there were any districts where the 'socialist' or 'defund the police' messaging would disproportionately hurt down-ballot freshman Democrats, it would be in these red, conservative CDs. These Democrats didn't lose because they were unable to define themselves as "Biden moderates." They lost because Biden didn't do better there.

Instead, it was in the most Biden-friendly CDs where Democratic candidates underperformed the top of the ticket. If there should be a deeper study of anything, it should be why Democratic down-ballot candidates in heavily Latino districts in California (CA-21, CA-39, CA-48) and south Florida (FL-27), under-performed Biden's strong showing. For example, Biden carried the Central Valley-based CA-21 by 10 points, yet Republican David Valadao beat Dem. Rep. TJ Cox by about one point — a swing of almost 11 points Republican.

Overall, however, most Democratic candidates simply matched Biden's vote share. Of the 40 closest districts won by Democrats, 35 percent of those candidates came within less than one point of Biden's showing. For example, in Iowa's 3rd CD, Rep. Cindy Axne's 49 percent showing was just 0.1 percent better than Biden's 48.9 percent. Rep. Connor Lamb in PA-17 outperformed Biden by just 0.5 percent.

Given that incumbents will be running for re-election under new lines in 2022, what does an analysis of results under the 2020 tell us about the midterms? First, the fact that a majority of House Republicans in the most competitive CDs out-performed Trump suggests that the former president's presence in 2022 is more of a liability than a benefit for vulnerable GOP House incumbents. The fact that House CDs with significant Latino populations provided the largest ticket-splitting gaps (voting overwhelming Biden and narrowly for House GOPers) means that we need to take a very different approach in how we assess races in these types of districts in upcoming elections.

Another pattern that's worth keeping an eye on for 2022 is the underperformance of Democrats in certain types of suburban CDs. While Biden handily carried the once-GOP-controlled suburbs around Dallas (TX-32), Houston (TX-07) and Chicago (IL-06), House Democrats (who also won here) polled 2-3 points lower. We saw the same pattern in the suburban exurbs where Biden came up short, like MO-02, TX-21 and TX-22. These House Democrats would have lost even if they matched Biden's showing in those CDs. But, their 2-4 point underperformance suggests that the anti-Trump vote doesn't completely convey to down-ballot Democrats. It’s also true that disdain for Trump, not opinions of the Democratic Party, is what drove vote choice in these districts for the last four years. With Trump no longer in the White House or on the ballot, will these congenitally GOP voters revert back to supporting Republican candidates for Congress?

There's understandable frustration among House Democrats about their lackluster showing in 2020. But, it's also important to appreciate how closely tied House Democrats were to the performance by the top of the ticket. Biden's ceiling in these CDs was — for the most part — the ceiling for House Democrats. 

Image Credit: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, Pool