Three Numbers From New Hampshire’s 2020 Primary That Should Give Democrats Heartburn

I have been thinking a lot about the presidential elections. Could President Donald Trump win reelection? 

The newest national poll conducted by Emerson College has Trump beating all his Democratic rivals by slim margins. The exception is Bernie Sanders, who beats Trump by 2%. The recent ABC News/Washington Post survey has better news for Democrats as all the potential nominees beat Trump by a few percentage points. An USA Today/Suffolk University Poll from December 2019 finds that Trump wins by healthy margins if respondents are asked to choose between Trump, one of his Democratic rivals, and an unidentified third-party candidate. 

Seen through the lens of this November’s presidential elections, the results of the New Hampshire primaries offer Democrats three warning signs.

15%

Many of New Hampshire’s voters are registered as independents. The state’s Democratic primary is semi-closed. The exit polls that 52% of primary-goers this year are Democrats, 45% are independents and the rest were Republicans. 

New Hampshire may be once again a battleground state and in a tight election, its four electoral college votes could make a difference for either side. Thus, both parties need to attract independents, while energizing their base. This is not always an easy balance as efforts to increase one group of voters could dissuade the other group from turning out. 

The exit poll for the Democratic primary asked primary-goers if they would “vote Democratic in November regardless of nominee”. And 15% of respondents said “No”. More worrying, 27% of these respondents are Sanders supporters and 22% voted for Buttigieg. This means that around 10% of the state’s Democratic primary-goers could potentially either vote Republican, support a third-party candidate, or stay at home. 

-6%

Young voters part the Democratic Party’s coalition and in the past the Sanders campaign has energized this voting bloc. In 2016, the exit poll for the New Hampshire Democratic estimates that 19% of primary-goers were between the ages of 18–29. Sanders won 83% of these voters’ support.

The exit poll for the 2020 New Hampshire Democratic primary indicates that turnout among this voting group declined by 6%. Sanders won 47% of this vote, which is in line with our expectations. We see a similar pattern in this year’s Iowa Democratic caucuses. Voters ages 17–29 represented 13% —  a drop of 15% from 2016. Like in the Granite State, 47% of these young voters supported Sanders. 

Sanders argues that the only way Democrats will beat Trump is by expanding the electorate and obviously he believes that he is in the best position to do it. Will young voters, who are more diverse than older Americans, turnout in big numbers come November?

129,461

According to Dante Scala’s calculations, New Hampshire’s Democratic primary broke the 2008 voter turnout record. This is good news for Democrats, especially given the lower than expected voter turnout in the Iowa Democratic caucuses. 

Trump may be the incumbent, but he was still in the ballot in New Hampshire’s Republican primary. Unsurprisingly, the president won 88% of the vote. What was surprising was the estimated 146,896 Republican and independent voters, who participated in the primary.  

Why does this matter? Read the table carefully.

This year’s voter turnout may have not matched 1992 levels, but Trump won a bigger share of the vote than the other incumbent presidents, including Reagan!

Does this mean that Trump will win in November? Not necessarily. But Trump’s margin of victory is higher than other incumbent presidents, who successfully won re-election.

These three numbers — 15%, -6% and 129,461 — should give Democrats something to think about as they select their nominee and get ready for the general election.

Could President Donald Trump win reelection? The newest national poll conducted by Emerson College has Trump beating all his Democratic rivals by slim margins. The exception is Bernie Sanders, who beats Trump by 2%. The recent ABC News/Washington Post survey has better news for Democrats. All the potential nominees beat Trump by a few percentage points. An USA Today/Suffolk University Poll from December 2019 finds that Trump should win by healthy margins if respondents are asked to choose between Trump, one of the main Democratic candidates, and an unidentified third-party candidate.

Seen through the lens of this November’s presidential elections, the results of the New Hampshire primaries offer Democrats three warning signs.

15%

Many of New Hampshire’s voters are registered as independents. The state’s Democratic primary is semi-closed. The exit poll estimates that 52% of primary-goers this year were Democrats, 45% were independents, and the rest were Republicans.

New Hampshire may be once again a battleground state. In a close election, its four electoral college votes could make a difference to either side. Thus, both parties need to attract independents, while energizing their base. This is not always an easy balance as efforts to increase one group of voters’ participation could dissuade the other group from turning out.

The exit poll for the Democratic primary asked primary-goers if they would “vote Democratic in November regardless of the nominee” and 15% of respondents said: “No”. 

More worrying, 27% of these respondents are Sanders’ supporters and 22% voted for Pete Buttigieg. This means that around 10% of the state’s Democratic primary-goers could potentially vote for Trump, support a third-party candidate, or stay at home.

-6%

Young voters are integral part the Democratic Party’s coalition. The exit poll for the 2016 New Hampshire Democratic primary found that 19% of primary-goers were between the ages of 18–29. Sanders won 83% of these voters’ support.

The exit poll for the 2020 New Hampshire Democratic primary suggests that turnout among this voting group declined by 6%. Sanders won 47% of this vote, which is in line with our expectations. We see a similar pattern in this year’s Iowa Democratic caucuses. Voters ages 17–29 represented 13% — a drop of 5% from 2016. Like in the Granite State, 47% of these young voters supported Sanders.

Sanders argues that the only way Democrats will beat Trump is by expanding the electorate and obviously he believes that he is in the best position to do so. So far, Sanders’ candidacy has not increased voter turnout among this group. Will young voters, who are more diverse and progressive than older Americans, turnout in big numbers in November? 

129,461

According to Dante Scala’s calculations, New Hampshire’s Democratic primary broke the voter turnout record set in 2008. This is good news for Democrats, especially given the lower than expected voter turnout in the Iowa Democratic caucuses.

Trump may be the incumbent, but he was still in the ballot in New Hampshire’s Republican primary. Unsurprisingly, the president won 88% of the vote. What was surprising was the estimated 146,896 Republicans and independents, who participated in the primary.

Why does this matter? The next table shows that Trump’s victory should not be taken lightly. 

Even though he did not face a serious challenge from Bill Weld, the former Massachusetts Governor and the Libertarian Party’s former vice presidential nominee in 2016, the Trump campaign was able to energize and mobilize their supporters. This year’s voter turnout may have not matched 1992 levels. However, Trump’s share of the vote is bigger than Reagan’s share!

Does this mean that Trump will win in November? Not necessarily. But the figure above shows that Trump’s victory is in line with the performance of other incumbent presidents who successfully won re-election.

Should We Reform the Electoral College? A Few Considerations

For the last days, I have been thinking about the way Americans elect their president and I am not the only way thinking about this issue, according to Google Trends data.

To win the presidency, a nominee has to earn a minimum of 270 electoral votes, rather than a majority of votes cast. This is not the place to review the history of the Electoral College (EC), but it is important to keep in mind that it totals 538 votes. Each state and the District of Columbia gets a proportional share of these electoral votes, according to the following formula:

  1. States receive two electoral votes, which corresponds to each’s allotment of two seats in the U.S. Senate.
  2. The remaining electoral votes are distributed among the 50 states based on each’s number of Congressional Districts.
  3. With the adoption of the 23rd amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the District of Columbia has three electoral votes.

The EC is a much-maligned system. In a recent town-hall, Massachusetts Senator and presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren explained why she wants to get rid of the EC and let Americans vote directly for their president. Here is one of Senator Warren’s tweets summarizing her position:

Unsurprisingly, Republicans oppose her proposal. For example, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted:

Even President Donald Trump, who won the EC but lost the popular to Hillary Clinton by almost 3 million votes, entered the debate, sharing his thoughts on Twitter.

https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1108187855954870272

https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1108190837257764864

What do Americans think of the EC? Do they want to get rid of it? Last summer, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) conducted a poll that found that close to two-thirds of Americans want to directly elect their president by popular vote. It also demonstrated that Democrats strongly favored getting rid of the EC while Republicans’ attitudes are mixed. A Rasmussen survey of likely voters carried out in early October 2018 did not corroborate the PRRI’s findings. Only 46% of respondents favored “eliminating” the EC. In December 2016, Gallup found that 49% of Americans wanted “to amend the Constitution to allow for a popular vote for president”, but this was lower than the 62% of respondents who in 2012 wanted to get rid of the EC. In addition, Gallup’s research also suggested that 81% of left-leaning and 19% of right leaning Americans wanted to do away with the EC.

While many Americans are dissatisfied with the EC, amending the constitution is unrealistic in today’s hyperpartisan environment. So what can we do?

One solution, as Jamelle Bouie recently argued in the pages of The New York Times, is for states to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. This initiative is quite simple. It requires states (and the District of Columbia) to pledge their delegates to the winner of the national popular vote. So far, 13 states, equaling 181 electoral votes, have passed legislation supporting this project. But the system goes into effect once the initiative attracts 270 electoral votes.

StateGovernorState Legislature2016 Pres. WinnerVote Margin
CADemocratDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton30%
CODemocratDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton5%
CTDemocratDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton16%
DCDemocratDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton86%
HIDemocratDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton32%
ILDemocratDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton17%
MARepublicanDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton27%
MDRepublicanDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton26%
NJDemocratDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton14%
NYDemocratDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton25%
RIDemocratDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton16%
VTRepublicanDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton26%
WADemocratDemocratic MayorityHillary Clinton16%

While other states are considering joining the Compact, the biggest hurdle, as the table shows, is that Republicans still dominate a majority of the states’ legislatures and governor mansions across the country. For now, the Compact is an unrealistic option.

Another solution could be for states to adopt what I call the Maine-Nebraska Model or what is also known as the “Congressional District Method“. These two states distribute their electoral votes using the following formula:

  1. The winner of the popular vote receives the two electoral votes associated with their states’ representation in the U.S. Senate.
  2. A presidential candidate can lose the state’s popular vote, but still earn electoral votes if he or she can win a majority of the vote in each of the state’s Congressional Districts.

In 2008, Nebraska split its electoral votes, awarding John McCain four of its five electoral votes and one to Barack Obama. Obama won the majority of the vote in the state’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes Omaha and its suburbs. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won three of Maine’s four electoral vote, while Donald Trump won the electoral vote of the mostly-rural 2nd Congressional District.

What if all the states adopted this Maine-Nebraska Model? Would it have affected the results of the 2016 presidential race?

The table below includes numbers for the actual outcome of the elections, while the next column looks at the results if we apply the Maine-Nebraska Model. The table also includes the number of Congressional Districts and states each candidate won. The last column shows who won the District of Columbia’s three electoral votes.

Actual OutcomeMN_ModelStatesCongressional DistrictsDC
Clinton232237201943
Trump306301302410

If all states had apportioned their electoral votes using Maine’s and Nebraska’s approach, President Trump would have still comfortably won the presidency. Should this disqualify this alternative to the EC?

Let us apply the Maine-Nebraska Model to the 2012 and the 2008 presidential elections.

Actual OutcomeMN_ModelStatesCongressional DistrictsDC
Obama332265262103
Romney206273242250

Under the Maine-Nebraska Model, President Obama would have been a one-term president. And Obama’s victory in 2008 would have been narrower.

Actual OutcomeMN_ModelStatesCongressional DistrictsDC
McCain173255281990
Obama365283222363

What if we applied the model to the 2004 and 2000 elections?

Actual OutcomeMN_ModelStatesCongressional DistrictsDC
Bush286318312560
Kerry251220191793
Actual OutcomeMN_ModelStatesCongressional DistrictsDC
Bush271300302400
Gore268238201953

Under the Maine-Nebraska Model, President Bush would have earned more electoral votes in both elections.

What can we learn from this analysis? If we agree we Senator Warren’s belief that we need to change the EC in order to force presidential candidates to campaign outside “battleground states”, the Maine-Nebraska Model accomplishes this goal. After all, would Maine or Nebraska have received any attention during the last presidential elections, if they distributed their electoral votes as the other 48 states?

It is important to note that Senator Warren would probably not support the Maine-Nebraska Model. But, her desire to eliminate the EC is unrealistic. Amending the constitution will not take place in the next years.

Republicans’ opposition to reforming the EC is understandable. If it was not for the EC, Al Gore and Hillary Clinton would have won their respective races. But if public opinion starts to turn against the EC, Republicans could propose that states adopt Maine’s and Nebraska’s approach as a measure that seems more democratic than the current electoral system.

Would this be good for democracy? It would be a step in the right direction. But the chances that states will adopt Maine’s or Nebraska’s approach is also a long shot. It is not in either party’s interest. By turning battleground states into battleground districts, the parties would have to adapt their campaigning structures and raise more money to target even more districts.

For now, it seems we will just have to accept the EC’s limitations as it is unlikely that Americans will be able to reform or replace the current electoral system.