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16 November 2020updated 04 Sep 2021 12:42pm

Why did the Republicans perform so well in the US Congressional elections?

Three factors played a part: preconceptions, policy and polls.  

By Emily Tamkin

One of the many ironies of Republican support for President Donald Trump’s efforts to challenge the outcome of the 2020 election is that the Republican Party, save the president himself, actually did very well in it. Unless the Democrats manage to win both runoffs in the special election early in January, Republicans will keep the Senate. While Democrats held on to their majority in the House, the margin of that majority has shrunk, leaving the party to worry about 2022 already.

This was unexpected: Joe Biden was polling ahead, yes, but so were Democrats in many congressional races. Yet relative Republican success followed. The Republican Senator Susan Collins, who was expected to lose her Maine seat, not only won, but won quite comfortably. In Iowa, almost all polls besides the state’s own Des Moines Register showed a tight presidential race. In fact, not only did Trump win the state, but the Republican Senator Joni Ernst kept her seat and the Democratic Representative Abby Finkenauer lost hers.

All of which raises the question: what went right for Republicans and wrong for Democrats?


There are three possible answers: preconceptions, policy and polls.

Since the Democrats did well in the 2018 midterms, there was an expectation that they would do similarly well in 2020. “The frame of reference is usually the most recent election,” Robert Erikson, a professor of political science at Columbia University, said. “In 2020, discerning moderate voters thought they knew Trump would lose, so that put the thumb on the scale for voting Republican for balance.”

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That leads into the second possibility, which is that Republicans did as well as they did in Congress because they wanted a check on Biden and the more progressive wing of the Democrats. “There were a number of voters who apparently voted for Joe Biden at the top of the ticket, but Republican candidates for House and Senate seats,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster at North Star Opinion Research, in the “hope that Republicans would be a moderating force on Biden”.

[see also: Is Donald Trump conducting a coup?]

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A version of this argument is also playing out in the Democratic Party, where moderate House members are accusing their more progressive counterparts of being responsible for the Democratic seats lost. Progressives, including New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have argued that those making such charges didn’t invest enough in digital; that they should have campaigned door to door; and that those who embraced Medicare for All and a Green New Deal in fact won re-election. (That some progressive policies went through where Republicans won the day – for example, that Florida voted for $15 minimum wage and Donald Trump – suggests that progressive policies alone are not the problem.)

Some of Ocasio-Cortez’s arguments have found unlikely champions, including Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman and Democratic presidential candidate who worked to “get out the vote” in Texas, and Doug Jones, who just lost re-election in the Senate in Alabama. All have articulated the Democrats’ need to change the way they campaign: voter outreach, they argue, needs to be done not only around elections, but in the years between them as well.

There’s a third possibility, which is that polls were wide off the mark about support for Trump, and for the Republicans more generally.

Democrats underperformed in 18 congressional districts – seats they were expected to win
Expected outcome data taken from FiveThirtyEight modelling.

Republican voters – which means not necessarily registered Republicans, but people who regularly vote for Republicans – “won’t talk to pollsters”, said Jason Husser, an associate professor of political science and policy studies at Elon University in North Carolina.

Husser directs the Elon Poll, but his call centre was closed in 2020 due to the pandemic. From his vantage point, even where pollsters tried to correct models – for example, by including white voters from lower socioeconomic groups – Democratic voters in those groups may have been overrepresented or weighted more heavily. Husser added that “there’s no perfect way to identify likely voters”, and that people change and make up their minds at the last minute.

Husser urged caution when drawing conclusions about the 2020 election. It could be read as the story of America coming together, rejecting Trump’s behaviour and his mishandling of the pandemic, he said. Or it could be read as a reaction to the economic turbulence resulting from the pandemic.

“Every voter has a slightly different reason,” Husser said. Which, in turn, means that every story we tell about what went wrong for the Democrats and right for the Republicans in 2020 will be just that: a story.

[see also: How Facebook ad spend predicted the US 2020 election]

An earlier version of this story misspelled Jason Husser’s last name. It has been amended to the correct spelling.