Scoring the election: More a ripple than a wave

The results from Election 2020 are (mostly) in, so it’s time to look at our pre-election guide to whether there was a Democratic wave or not.

For the sixth straight campaign cycle, the Tampa Bay Times offered a list of factors to measure how broad-based a potential Democratic wave would be on a national scale — in the presidential race, in U.S. Senate and House races, in state-level contests, and in ballot measures.

After settling on eight key questions, we set a baseline for what was “expected” — based on current analysis by independent electoral handicappers including the Cook Political Report and U.S. News & World Report — and established a sliding scale that awarded increasing credit to the surging party for exceeding the conventional wisdom once the ballots were counted.

So how did the Democrats do? Let’s take a look.

Louis Jacobson, senior correspondent for PolitiFact.

1. How many of these 15 battleground states or congressional districts does Joe Biden win?

The Democrats start out our list in reasonably strong shape.

The following states have been called for Biden: Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska Second District, New Hampshire and Wisconsin. He’s also leading in Arizona and Nevada.

By contrast, Trump has won Florida, Iowa, Maine’s Second Congressional district, Ohio, Texas, and he’s leading in North Carolina.

It’s too early to say who will win Georgia and Pennsylvania. But if we give Biden the seven states where he’s won or is leading, that puts him in the “good night for Democrats” category. If he pulls out a win in both Georgia and Pennsylvania, which is looking possible, that would kick Biden up to a “very good night for the Democrats.”

2. How many of the following 13 battleground counties flip from supporting Trump in 2016 to supporting Biden in 2020?

Biden has won Maricopa County, Ariz.; Duval, Pinellas and Seminole counties, Fla.; Kent and Saginaw counties, Mich.; and Northampton County, Pa.

By contrast, Trump won Monroe and St. Lucie counties, Fla.; Robeson County, N.C.; and Kenosha and Winnebago counties, Wis.

Erie County, Pa., is still counting its ballots. That’s seven counties Biden was able to flip, including Maricopa, the big Phoenix-based county that made Biden’s lead in the state possible. Whether or not Biden wins Erie, that’s enough to reach “very good night for the Democrats” status.

3. How many of these 14 U.S. Senate races do the Democrats win?

This is where our list gets rough for Democrats.

Democrats are only certain to win the Senate seats in Arizona, Colorado and Michigan.

Republicans, however, appear to have won the races in Alabama, Alaska, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Montana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.

The only two contests not yet decided are the special election in Georgia, which will definitely go to a runoff, and the regular election in Georgia, which may go to a runoff. If the Democrats can win one or both of them, which would be no easy task, they could kick this into the “good night for the Democrats.” Short of that, they’re stuck in “weak night for the Democrats.” And a Democratic Senate majority seems like a difficult reach.

4. How many net seats in the U.S. House do the Democrats gain or lose?

This category rates even worse for the Democrats and strong for Republicans. Prior to the election, most analysts had expected some net gain in U.S. House seats for the Democrats; the main question was how much of a gain.

As it turned out, the Republicans have so far picked up a net six House seats nationally, and it doesn’t appear that Democrats are in a position to erase that GOP lead once the uncalled races are settled. So whatever the final Republican gains end up being, it will represent a net loss of seats for the Democrats. That rates a “very weak night for the Democrats.”

5. How large is the net partisan shift in the control of state legislative chambers?

While some 20 state legislative chambers nationally were considered by analysts to be in play, relatively few of them appear to have changed hands – and most of the action has benefited Republicans. The biggest surprise came in New Hampshire, where the GOP may have flipped both Democratic-held chambers, despite Biden winning the state more comfortably than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. It also appears that the Alaska House, which had been held by a coalition of Democrats, independents and some Republicans may be heading toward GOP control. (Legislative control often takes some time to solidify, so it’s possible that these changes may be reversed, or that new flipped chambers could emerge.)

The Democrats’ only hope is to take over one or both of the Republican-held chambers in Arizona. That’s possible, but far from a sure thing.

Even if that happens, the Democrats could see an overall net loss of chambers, with hoped-for takeover targets in Michigan, Iowa, North Carolina and Pennsylvania evaporating amid stronger-than-expected Republican strength downballot in battleground states.

In the likely event that the Democrats suffer a net loss in chambers, this category rates “very weak night for Democrats.”

6. In how many states does the “liberal” side prevail in the following ballot measures?

This is where our list brightens a bit for progressives.

Voters passed a tobacco tax for health care (Oregon), a family and medical leave program (Colorado), a hike in the minimum wage (Florida) and creating curbing payday loans (Nebraska). A measure to raise taxes on the wealthy to fund education (Arizona) was ahead but not yet called.

Two liberal measures failed: introduction of a graduated income tax (Illinois) and an end to cash bail (California).

On balance, this category rates as a “decent night for liberals.”

7. In how many of the following five states do voters enact ballot measures expanding access to marijuana? Recreational marijuana was on the ballot in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota, and medical marijuana was on the ballot in Mississippi.

As it turned out, every single marijuana measure passed. Call this a “strong night for liberals,” although with the success of the measures in such solidly red states as Mississippi, Montana and South Dakota, the notion of calling this issue just for liberals may be outdated.

8. How many more Democratic-leaning candidates win compared to Republican-leaning candidates in contested judicial races or retention elections in these states?

Judicial races this year produced a mixed bag of results.

The good news for Democrats is that they won two key races in Michigan, which was enough to flip control of the state supreme court from Republican to Democratic. In addition, a Democratic judicial candidate ousted one of the two GOP incumbents facing a contest on the Ohio supreme court; this narrowed the court’s Republican majority.

However, Republicans can take some comfort in seeing the reelection of Ohio’s other judicial incumbent. And beyond that, three Republican supreme court candidates are narrowly leading in North Carolina, each of the seven GOP incumbents in Texas were reelected, and voters in Illinois denied retention to an incumbent Democratic justice.

On balance, this counts as a “weak night for Democrats.”

So where does this leave us?

In all, it looks like Election Day produced a bifurcated wave.

There was a reasonably strong tug in favor of the Democrats in the presidential race, along with some good results in ballot measures.

However, on the congressional, state legislative and state supreme court fronts, the Democratic performance ranged from weak to very weak, with Republicans clearly outperforming expectations.

If the 2020 election was a wave for Democrats, it sure wasn’t much of one.

Louis Jacobson is a senior correspondent at PolitiFact.com.