The Electoral College and the Senate create a state-based political system disconnected from the nationwide popular vote.
The future of Democratic power depends on being able to win in the right states. Many progressive strategic planning exercises consider opportunities for power building without thinking critically about the role of state lines in reshaping who and where we need to win.
Where will our future wins need to take place to build a strong Senate majority that can pass progressive reform? To answer this question, we used demographic and electoral trends since 2008 to model varying political climates across the next twenty years.
How the model works
We modeled five different scenarios, all based on who wins the presidency in a given year.1 As we have increasingly seen, Senate results are highly correlated in presidential years with the Democratic top of the ticket, now in excess of 90%.2
In midterm years, a swing against the President’s party of 5-6 points is generally expected.3
We take these two “rules of the game” and model them against the long-term trajectory of the different states based on performance over the last twenty years and their demographic composition.
The modeling of Senate composition is then used in the next section to model future control of the courts.
In the maps below, we show the composition of the Senate as it plays out in the modeled scenarios.
Figure. A Demographic View of the Senate in 2040
Building an enduring Senate majority depends on building power in more states
As shown in the table below, the five modeled scenarios spell out potential different outcomes for the upcoming presidential elections.
Table. Modeled Presidential Election Scenarios
Across these different modeling scenarios at the state level, the nation is split into states where Democrats are poised to hold both Senate seats over the next twenty years (15), those where they have no clear path to holding either (19), and a core set of 16 battleground states where seats are likely to flip at least once.
Table. Senate Battlegrounds, 2020-2040
|DEM All Scenarios||Battlegrounds||GOP All Scenarios4|
|New Jersey||New Hampshire||Louisiana|
|New York||New Mexico||Mississippi|
|Washington||West Virginia||South Carolina|
Based on the five scenarios modeled, we estimated the total number of Democratic seats in the Senate between 2020 and 2040.
As shown in the figure and table below, Democrats could face daunting shortfalls in the Senate if current trends continue.5
Chart. A Changing Senate Landscape, 2020-2040
Projected Number of Senate Seats Controlled by the Democratic Party
Table. A Changing Senate Landscape, 2020-2040
Projected Number of Senate Seats Controlled by the Democratic Party
In most scenarios, Democrats remain below 50 seats for the next twenty years.
Why do Democrats fall so far behind Republicans over this twenty-year period?
There are three reasons. First, viewed on a state level, a key dynamic at play is an issue of insufficient substitution for lost votes.
Our continued losses in states that have large percentages of white voters and, in particular, non-college white voters, result in a big penalty in the Senate. This causes us particular trouble in the Upper Midwest.
The below table is a breakdown of the demographics of the core purple Senate states, per Cook Political Report.
Table. The Challenging Demographics of the Swing Senate Seats
What do these demographics tell us? They help to explain the challenge and opportunity of the future Senate map, perhaps best borne out by the dynamics of Georgia and Iowa.
Georgia, with a relatively even split between college and non-college whites and a substantial Black population, has been able to see gains as those college-educated voters become a larger portion of the population and as communities of color have been further mobilized.
Iowa, a state Obama won twice, shifted substantially to Trump in 2016 and stayed there in 2020. The two-to-one non-college white advantage in that state has pushed the state away from Democrats, and it will take serious gains with those voters to build back.
Still, across the map it is clear that Democrats’ current challenges with non-college white voters may be a meaningful barrier to further growth in the Senate.
Second, the polarization of our country means that our opportunities for Senate seats in states we are not winning at the top of the ticket declines.
The last large Democratic majority, in 2008, featured senators from North and South Dakota, both seats in Montana, and a seat in Nebraska. If the recent trend of extreme correlation between Senate and presidential results continues, a 60-seat majority becomes challenging.
Third, as the Upper Midwest shifts away from us and we lose the senators currently standing against the demographic tide, like Joe Manchin (WV) and Jon Tester (MT), we won’t make up the seats in the Sun Belt and other regions quickly enough.
Alaska, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas all become substantially more competitive, but only comfortably so in the 2030s. With the rapid changes seen in places like Arizona and Georgia, that could come more quickly. It will have to.
Winning more states will take a nationwide coalition
First, the continued success of Democrats in the Upper Midwest is key to broader Democratic control of the Senate.
It is hard to envision a map that produces a reliable Democratic majority over the next decade that does not rely heavily on support in the “Blue Wall,” the Minnesota-Pennsylvania line of states along the Great Lakes. Winning in these states remains a fundamental path to Democratic power in the Senate.
Second, demographic trends should turn some former red states reliably blue by the 2030s. An increasing share of non-white voters in Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas should continue to pull those states leftward, and continued gains among college-educated suburban white voters could accelerate the trend.
As we saw in 2020, though, non-white voters do not automatically vote for Democrats. We need to actively win their votes. We should also not assume all changing states are the same – North Carolina, for example, is substantially less Black than Georgia and more rural. The strategy in North Carolina has to adapt to those realities.
Third, some smaller, rural states like Alaska or even Montana could become competitive. For example, Alaska has shifted from a 25% Bush victory in 2004 to a 10% Trump victory in 2020.
Their relatively low raw vote totals could make it an easier task to purple these states. For example, even in losing by ten points in Alaska, Biden only needed 36,000 more votes to claim the state. And again, losing in a blowout in Montana in percentage terms, Democrats were only 100,000 votes from victory.
However, Democrats do not have a long and sustained history at winning in many of these states. For all the talk of organizing and building power, there is no evidence that the foundation is particularly firm.
Of the 15 identified battleground states, most have predominantly voted for Republicans at the presidential level and many have mostly had GOP senators.
The table below highlights these weaknesses, reinforcing that sustained investment in these states will be critical to their future path.6
Table. The Shaky Foundation of the Future Democratic Senate Coalition
(out of 40)
How do we build a stronger Senate majority?
To build consistent strength in these states where Democrats have not held a dominant position over the past twenty years, we will need to take the following steps:
Develop a better geographic strategy informed by the Senate realities
As mentioned above, Democratic messaging on what we need to do too often leaves behind the fact that we have to win in certain individual states. Party-building has to focus on these states.
Invest in the demographic groups that the Senate favors
The Senate gives outsize influence to white voters, particularly rural voters, non-college white voters, and other groups that Democrats have struggled to win in recent years. As the modeling above shows, we cannot consistently win the Senate unless we regain our footing with those groups.
We need to invest in strategies, like Fair Fight has successfully employed in Georgia, that move the needle for key white suburban, college-educated voters, while also identifying approaches to tackle the non-college white vote.
These involve large-scale direct messaging strategies to build up support for the Democratic Party and its policies and undermine core Republican messages.
Build real Black and Hispanic organizing power
Despite broad continued support from these demographics, Democrats lost ground within the Black and Hispanic voting blocs between 2016 and 2020.
As we’ll discuss throughout this report, a renewed approach to engaging these voters will be critical to every aspect of building Democratic power.
This approach must entail organizing and messaging to cultivate voters on a wide range of issues and to fight back on messaging that Republicans successfully employed in 2020.
Don’t give up the Midwestern ship
While there has been much focus on the future promise of the Sun Belt, our Senate modeling shows that we can’t give up the Rust Belt if we want to have any chance of a Democratic Senate. The Upper Midwest is a crucial landscape without which Democrats are unable to build a majority.
Embrace the small, elastic state
We mentioned briefly above the unique opportunities that exist in Alaska and Montana. Because of the small statewide populations in these states, only a relatively small number of voters need to be persuaded to cross the aisle for Democrats to win valuable Senate seats.
And our track record in Montana, in particular, is strong, with a history of winning Senate and Governor’s races, though the 2020 results were not favorable to Democrats.
In many places across the country, the presidential and Senate results are highly correlated. The good news there is that those results should put Democrats in contention to win Senate seats in states where we’re winning the presidential vote.
However, it makes it harder to win in Republican-leaning states, hampering our opportunity at a Senate majority. In Biden’s large electoral college victory, he only carried 25 states.
Alaska and Montana are highly elastic states, with close statewide elections even when the presidential race has been more Republican-leaning. The standard deviation of the last four statewide races in Montana, for example, is 11%.
Address the right-wing imbalance in national media
Over the past decade, Senate races have become more correlated with Presidential results than ever before. With a nationalized media environment due to the loss of local media, Democrats have to better counter the onslaught of Fox News, right-wing talk radio, and Sinclair-owned local stations.
Building message discipline around popular, transformative, Democratic policies and relentlessly delivering this message through all channels can help to combat the Republican messaging advantage.
What role will EveryDistrict play?
Crack the code for non-college white voters
Through our Win Number program in 2021 and 2022, we’ll identify the successful strategies for candidates to do better among the non-college white voters that are essential to winning more Senate seats over the next two decades.
Build out state-level grassroots infrastructure in the next set of crucial Senate states
In 2022, EveryDistrict will build out infrastructure to consistently engage voters in the states that Democrats need to win next.
As shown in the above chart, the next generation of Senate pickups largely exist in states where Democratic control has been minimal or waning over the last two decades.
Our work to invest in local communities will help to reshape the trajectory of these states.
Identify the persuasion tactics that can make a difference in the small states
In states like Alaska or Montana, otherwise-challenging persuasion tactics become paramount where relatively few votes are needed to reshape control of the Senate.
In 2021 and 2022, we’ll test emerging persuasion tactics to convince more winnable voters to pull the lever for Democrats moving forward.