Down-ballot losses could be coming for Democrats — but there's room for hope

Democrats overlooked state government for years, and have paid a steep price. It's not too late to fix that

Published November 7, 2022 6:00AM (EST)

A Miami-Dade election official with the Miami-Dade County Elections Department conducts a comprehensive examination of the voting equipment that will be used in the November 8th general election on October 19, 2022 in Miami, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
A Miami-Dade election official with the Miami-Dade County Elections Department conducts a comprehensive examination of the voting equipment that will be used in the November 8th general election on October 19, 2022 in Miami, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Regardless of the outcomes, this midterm election will be historic. Midterm turnout records are likely to be shattered. Enthusiasm, fueled by abortion restrictions and the Jan. 6 hearings, is high. Several high-profile contests for U.S. Senate and Governor are polling within the margin of error. These factors should give hope to the Democrats, even though the president's party historically loses ground in midterms. 

But it's critical to remember that other, equally important races are also taking place this year. The future of our democracy is on the line — and it runs through our state legislatures. We know that Republicans plan to use their unearned state legislative majorities to compromise election outcomes. And the Supreme Court is poised to further expand state legislative power through the "independent state legislature" theory with the upcoming case Moore v. Harper. State legislatures are growing in power. It is existentially important for Democrats to build power at this level of government, which the party has overlooked for generations.

While the outcomes are not yet set, it is instructive to recall some broader electoral trends that may affect the election landscape and contextualize the results. 

Midterm down-ballot "declines" for the president's party are larger than presidential-year "surges"

The first thing Democrats will need to contend with is the fact that the president's party tends to lose seats in midterm elections. While this "surge and decline" pattern is typically observed at the congressional level, our research identifies this same pattern at the state legislative level too. Support surges for the elected president's party in presidential years and sweeps in co-partisans lower on the ballot, but that support tends to declines in midterm election years, leading to the loss of seats. 

Interestingly, it appears that midterm state legislative seat declines are larger in magnitude than the seat gains that happen during presidential surge years. Data from the whole country over the past decade, and from seven battleground states going back to 2002, indicates that this pattern of larger declines than surges is fairly reliable. In fact, the largest presidential surge in this period (Obama in 2012 at 6.32%) was smaller than the smallest decline in this period (Obama in 2014 at 8.16%). The only exception to this steady pattern was the 2002 election, when Republicans won seats in a traditional decline year (almost certainly a reflection of the aftermath of 9/11). 

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Since 2004, the presidential party's midterm declines in battleground state legislatures have ranged from 8.16% to 26.51% in aggregate. Even though we cannot predict how many seats Democrats might lose this year with any real accuracy, these trends indicate that Democrats could lose a significant number of seats in state legislatures.

Democrats struggle with ballot "roll-off" much more than Republicans do

Democrats also have to contend with ballot "roll-off," the term that describes voting for candidates higher on the ballot, such as those running for president, governor and Senate, but then ignoring candidates lower on the ballot, such as state legislators or local officials. Democratic voters roll off the ballot more than do Republican voters

In fact, the findings of our recent study exploring down-ballot roll-off at the state legislative level suggest a startling differential:  From 2012 to 2020, across 10 battleground states, Democrats in contested state legislative races experienced ballot roll-off almost 80% of the time, whereas Republicans in contested state legislative Republicans only experienced roll-off 37.25% of the time. 

This indicates that ballot roll-off has a serious partisan skew. In the short term, voting the whole ballot needs to be a central part of Democrats' closing argument this year. In the longer term, Democrats need to address this through sustained civic engagement and narrative-building efforts about the power and promise of state and local levels of government. 

Down-ballot races, and control of statehouse chambers, will be decided by tiny margins

While this is sobering, there is good news: State seats and chambers are often decided by a comparatively tiny number of votes. It's truly shocking how close Democrats were to winning majorities in several key chambers in 2020. If Democratic candidates had gotten just 4,451 more votes in the two closest races in the Arizona state House (0.09% of the total 5,028,382 votes cast), they would have flipped the chamber. Just 1,813 votes in the two closest districts would have flipped the Minnesota Senate. A similar story played out in Virginia in 2021, when Democrats lost the majority in the House of Delegates by just 733 votes across the three closest seats. Democrats are often closer to winning power in state chambers than aggregate vote totals suggest, which is a call to arms to keep fighting for every vote.

Just 4,451 more votes in the two closest races in the Arizona state House would have flipped the chamber. Just 1,813 votes would have flipped the Minnesota state Senate.

Clearly, Democrats face challenges to build and maintain state legislative power this year. But there is reason for hope. This is not a traditional midterm year, so the typical presidential-party declines we tend to see in state legislative seats may not bear out, or at least not to the degree often observed in the past. Democrats struggle mightily with roll-off, and must work to combat this through public education and urgent communication about the need to vote the whole ballot. Recent messages from progressive allies such as Robert Reich, Anat Shenker-Osario and Pod Save America have begun to make this pressing case. Finally, state legislative races and control of entire chambers will likely come down to just a handful of votes in key districts. Current polls show Democrats within the margin of error in critical races and states. That means whichever party can engage the most voters in the final days will determine the outcome. Democrats need to act now — as the same time as they build toward a better future.

By Gaby Goldstein

Gaby Goldstein is an attorney and political strategist who focuses on the growing importance of state legislatures. She is co-founder of Sister District, whose mission is to build progressive power in state legislatures and support progressive state legislators once elected, and co-moderator of the State Power Series, a virtual event series co-sponsored by Vote Save America/Crooked Media and Sister District. Follow her: @gaby__goldstein

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By Mallory Roman

Mallory Roman is a social psychologist and political researcher focused on voter mobilization, volunteerism and electoral outcomes at the state legislative level. She is director of research at Sister District.

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Analysis Democrats Elections Republicans State Legislatures Supreme Court