Every election cycle, FairVote uses a powerful tool called Monopoly Politics to predict the results of all 435 House of Representatives elections - two years before they actually occur. Monopoly Politics operates under the basic assumption that incumbency and partisanship (both local and national) are the primary factors determining our elections, regardless of other changes in the larger political landscape. Based on Monopoly Politics’ predictive success, this methodology is sound: in 2018, a particularly volatile election year, Monopoly Politics correctly projected 368 of its 379 “high confidence” House seats, a 97.1% accuracy rate.
In 2020, Monopoly Politics triumphed once again. Monopoly Politics 2020 predicted the results of 356 “high confidence” seats with 99.7% accuracy, missing only one single seat. These high confidence seats are considered the “safest” seats in Congress, where a popular incumbent regularly wins re-election, or a candidate represents a district that heavily favors their party. Even despite the pandemic and the changes Trump has wrought upon U.S. politics as a whole, Monopoly Politics proves that incumbency and traditional party preference still reign supreme in forecasting voters’ preferences. On top of its predictive function, the results of Monopoly Politics also illuminate some key truths about American politics in 2020.
A first key takeaway is that Americans still prefer their incumbent representatives, but that this preference is diminishing over time. Monopoly Politics measures voters’ overall favoring of incumbents through a metric called the “incumbency bump.” The incumbency bump has declined consistently since 2000, falling to yet another low of 1.4% this year (compared to 1.5% in 2018). This means that incumbents still get re-elected because they’re incumbents, but their overall performance has weakened in the eyes of the electorate. In 2020, the brunt of the incumbency bump’s decline was borne by Democrats who won their seats through the “Blue Wave” of 2018, which was widely interpreted as an electoral rebuke of the Trump presidency.
This leads to another key Monopoly Politics takeaway: the “Blue Wave” has effectively broken. The national partisan preference for Democrats fell from 54.0% in 2018 (a historic high save for 2008), to 51.5% in 2020. Though Americans still favor Democrats overall, Democrats were not able to replicate their unprecedented momentum from the 2018 midterm elections. At the time of writing, Democrats have lost 13 House seats thus far, mostly in traditionally red or swing districts that elected a “Blue Wave” candidate. It appears that Democrats gained as many seats as they possibly could during the midterms, within the constraints of urban/rural divides and partisan biases in district design, and were primed to lose ground in the House this year. On a national level, Americans strongly leaned Blue in favor of Joe Biden, but locally, voters fell back into traditional patterns of partisanship when electing their House representatives.
As in years past, Monopoly Politics is an instrumental mechanism for evaluating American politics in 2020. Monopoly Politics’ power lies in its ability to cut through the chaos of political discord and the fickleness of public opinion to highlight just how little our system actually changes.