ANALYSIS — With a year to go, it’s clear that the outcome of the 2024 elections is decidedly unclear. With narrow majorities in the House and Senate, and a volatile presidential race, anything from a single-party sweep to a split partisan decision is possible next November.
It could be a banner year for the GOP. In the race for the White House, Republicans get to run against an unpopular incumbent and the oldest president in U.S. history, forcing questions about President Joe Biden’s ability to serve a second term. They have eight viable opportunities to gain the two seats they need for a Senate majority. And it got easier for the GOP to hold the House majority after North Carolina redrew its map.
But Democrats could also run the table. With Republicans rallying behind former President Donald Trump, who has been indicted in four different criminal cases and could be convicted before Election Day, Democrats have an opportunity to win the presidential race. That could propel House candidates to gain the five seats needed to take back the majority. And another cycle of strong incumbents against flawed GOP nominees could help Democrats hold the Senate narrowly.
Or the final results could fall somewhere in between, with the parties splitting the elections’ top prizes.
Even though the fight for the Senate and House majorities is a collection of individual races, the presidential race and the national political environment will set the tone and provide the foundation for the down-ballot races.
With the early primaries still two months away, Democrats and Republicans are poised to renominate Biden and Trump, setting up a rematch of 2020. But that doesn’t guarantee the same outcome.
Instead of being the alternative to an unpopular incumbent, Biden is the incumbent with a mediocre job rating. His job approval rating has been consistently 10 points lower than his disapproval rating for two years, ever since the country’s exit from Afghanistan caused voters to view Biden more skeptically.
With his 2020 loss, Trump shed the shackles of incumbency but has gained the burden of legal troubles never seen before by a major party candidate. Republicans have to hope independent voters are too focused on the country’s current problems to consider the scope of a second Trump term.
Under normal political conditions, the presidential contest is likely to come down to six states that Biden carried narrowly in 2020 (Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Nevada) and one state Trump carried narrowly (North Carolina) as the nominees seek the 270 electoral votes necessary to win.
Broadly, the 2024 elections are most likely to center on the economy and related issues including the cost of living, inflation, jobs and fuel prices, but each party will highlight issues that benefit their candidates. Republicans will emphasize security issues, including urban crime, immigration and the Southern border, while Democrats will highlight access to abortion.
One wild card is foreign policy. While it has been near the back of voters’ minds for most of the cycle, ongoing conflicts in Israel and Ukraine have pushed foreign policy into the news. Similar to the war in Iraq in the 2006 cycle, it would likely take American men and women being deployed and dying for those conflicts to become a top issue. But even if it’s not a top focus for voters, foreign policy could contribute to an overall malaise on Biden’s watch that could stoke voters’ desire for change.
Fundamentally, Democrats need to frame the election as a choice between two unpopular options, rather than a simple referendum on the current incumbent. It’s a risky, but viable, strategy.
Even though Republicans and Democrats are lining up behind extremely flawed presidential nominees, each party is so focused on the flaws of the other party’s likely nominee that they’re unwilling to entertain contingency plans if their own candidate collapses at the top of the ticket. And that lack of foresight could have significant consequences because of the high correlation between presidential and congressional results.
Amid all the talk about incumbents and candidates cultivating political brands that allow them to overperform and win in hostile partisan territory, voters in the vast majority of states and districts vote for the same party for president as they do for the Senate and House.
In 2020, voters in 97 percent of the states with a Senate race voted for the same party for the Senate and president. Maine was the only state to vote for one party for president (Biden) and the other party for Senate (Republican incumbent Susan Collins). Overall, just five of 100 senators represent a state that voted for the other party’s presidential nominee in 2020. That’s why the top of the ticket matters.
In 2022, Democrats expanded the majority against long odds. With strong incumbents, flawed Republican candidates and the Supreme Court’s abortion decision motivating abortion-rights voters, Democrats overcame an unpopular Democratic president, an electorate frustrated with the economy, and having to defend the core of the Senate battlefield.
With a year to go, some of the ingredients are in place for Democrats to replicate their success. But holding the majority will be even more difficult than last time. Last cycle, Democrats didn’t lose a single incumbent, but the competitive races were not in states Trump carried in 2020. Democrats didn’t win a Senate race in any Trump states in 2022, and even lost a race in one state Biden carried in 2020 (Wisconsin).
This cycle, they probably need at least two incumbents to prevail in states that Trump carried handily, including Joe Manchin III of West Virginia (where Trump won by 39 points), Jon Tester of Montana (Trump +16), and Sherrod Brown of Ohio (Trump +8). Democrats may also need to win Senate races in a half-dozen states that Biden loses, if the president falters at the top of the ticket and fails to carry states he won narrowly in 2020, including Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
On paper, Republicans should win the Senate majority. Democrats are defending nine of the 10 seats rated as competitive by Inside Elections, including the Arizona seat held by former Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who is now an independent. Republicans have more than enough opportunities to gain the two seats they need for a majority. They could also control the Senate by gaining a single seat and winning the White House because a Republican vice president could break tie votes. Biden’s job rating is consistently underwater, and concerns about his age could supersede some of Republicans’ flaws.
But the GOP still has to win the races. Once again, Democratic incumbents will be prepared and well-funded. Republicans haven’t been able to avoid primaries in key states and could be going to the general election battle with flawed or untested nominees.
A Trump victory would boost GOP efforts to win the Senate, but it’s probably not necessary. Trump could win West Virginia, Montana, and Ohio by large enough margins to help Republican challengers, yet still lose the presidential election.
Similar to the Senate, there’s a strong correlation between the top of the ticket and races in the House. In 2020, 96 percent of congressional districts (419 of 435) voted for the same party for the House and president.
At the macro level, Democrats need a net gain of just five seats out of 435 to retake the House majority after two years in the minority. But looking at the individual races, it looks like a steeper climb.
Overall, 73 races are rated as competitive by Inside Elections. If the GOP wins all of the races the party is favored to win based on the ratings (all of the ones rated Solid, Likely, Lean and Tilt GOP), Republicans would be at 217 seats, just one seat shy of a majority.
In other words, Republicans would need to win just one of the 12 Toss-up races to retain control of the House. Democrats, on the other hand, would need to win all of the races where they are favored (including the newly redrawn 2nd District in Alabama) and all 12 of the Toss-ups to reach 218. A new map in North Carolina drawn by Republicans (and for Republicans to pick up at least three seats) helps cushion the GOP majority.
It will be easier for Democrats to win the House majority if Biden wins at the top of the ticket, but it’s not completely necessary. Democrats have 14 takeover opportunities (including nine in the Toss-up or Tilt categories) in California, New York, and Oregon, where Biden could do well as he did in 2020 and still lose the overall presidential race. Positive redistricting developments in New York, Georgia and Louisiana would also help Democrats’ cause.
A close and competitive presidential election would most likely yield a split result, with one party winning the White House and a single chamber of Congress, and the other party winning the other chamber. But, with Biden’s and Trump’s significant liabilities, a lopsided race for president is possible and could yield a single-party sweep in either direction.