TagBP Analysis

Incumbent governors had a 100% re-election rate in 2020

Eleven states held elections for governor this year, including nine where the incumbent ran for re-election. All nine governors up for re-election won another term this year.

Republicans had greater partisan risk in 2020; the eleven states electing a governor included seven with Republican governors and four with Democratic governors. Republicans won eight of those races to Democrats’ three. The only state where control of the governorship changed was Montana, where Greg Gianforte (R) was elected to succeed Steve Bullock (D).

Gianforte is the first Republican to win election as governor of Montana since 2000. His election gives the Republican Party its first trifecta (unified control of the governorship and legislature) in the state since Democrats flipped the governorship in 2004. Montana’s 16 years without a state government trifecta is the longest among any state currently without one.

Outgoing Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) was the only governor prevented from running for re-election by term limits this year. The other outgoing governor, Gary Herbert (R-Utah), chose not to run for a third full term. Herbert, who took office in 2009, is the nation’s longest-serving governor currently in office.

Both parties were defending the governorship in two states where the other party’s presidential candidate won in 2016. Republican governors won re-election in New Hampshire and Vermont, which both went to Hillary Clinton (D) in 2016 and Joe Biden (D) in 2020. Democrats were defending governorships in both Montana and North Carolina, which President Trump (R) carried in both elections. While Republicans flipped the governorship in Montana, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) won a second term.

After Governor-elect Gianforte is sworn in Jan. 4, Republicans will hold 27 governorships nationwide to Democrats’ 23; the same totals both parties held after the 2018 election (Democrats flipped the Kentucky governorship in 2019). Democrats last held a majority of governorships nationwide in 2010.

In 2016, the same eleven states (and Oregon) held gubernatorial elections. That year, Republicans gained three governorships (in Missouri, New Hampshire, and Vermont), while Democrats gained one, in North Carolina.

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13 percent of open congressional seats changed party hands in 2020

Forty congressional incumbents—four in the Senate and 36 in the House—did not run for re-election in 2020. Of these 40 open seats, five (12.5 percent) changed party hands as a result of the 2020 elections. All five changes occurred in the House, where Democrats picked up three open seats previously held by Republicans and Republicans picked up two open seats—one held by a Democrat and the other by a Libertarian. Those seats were:

  1. Georgia’s 7th (Republican to Democrat)
  2. Iowa’s 2nd (Democrat to Republican)
  3. North Carolina’s 2nd (Republican to Democrat)
  4. North Carolina’s 6th (Republican to Democrat)
  5. Michigan’s 3rd (Libertarian to Republican)

In Iowa’s 2nd, certified results showed Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R) beating Rita Hart (D) by six votes. Hart indicated she would challenge the results of the election with the U.S. House. 

The group of 40 incumbents who did not run for re-election included 10 Democrats, 29 Republicans, and one Libertarian. They represented 8.5 percent of all 470 Congressional offices up for election.

Across all 2020 Congressional elections, 16 seats changed hands. Democrats picked up two seats in the Senate while Republicans picked up one. In the House, Democrats picked up three seats while Republicans picked up 10 seats.



A closer look at voter turnout in Retained and Boomerang Pivot counties

Ballotpedia has been analyzing the 206 Pivot Counties that voted for Barack Obama (D) in 2008 and 2012 and Donald Trump (R) in 2016. This year, we have introduced two new categories: Retained Pivot Counties, which voted for Trump again in 2020, and Boomerang Pivot Counties, which voted for Joe Biden (D).

Based on unofficial results that are subject to change, Ballotpedia has identified 181 Retained Pivot Counties and 25 Boomerang Pivot Counties.

Voter turnout in these counties has increased compared to 2016.

Nationwide, voter turnout in the 2020 presidential election was the highest since 1900 at 69.25%. Retained Pivot Counties had a total turnout of 67.81%, 1.44 percentage points below the nationwide rate, and Boomerang Pivot Counties had a total turnout of 71.64%, 2.39 percentage points above the national rate.

The 2020 presidential election saw a continuation of the trend where turnout in Boomerang Pivot Counties exceeds that in Retained Pivot Counties. In 2020, the total turnout in Boomerang Pivot Counties was 3.83 percentage points higher than the turnout in Retained Pivot Counties. Since 2008, the total turnout in Boomerang Pivot Counties has exceeded that in Retained Pivot Counties by an average of 3.95 percentage points.

Seventy-nine percent of Retained Pivot Counties (143) and 76% of Boomerang Pivot Counties (19) recorded their highest turnouts since at least 2008.

Nationwide, voter turnout increased by 8.21 percentage points compared to 2016. All Retained Pivot Counties except for two—Woodruff County, Arkansas, and Benson County, North Dakota—saw increases in voter turnout compared to 2016. Voter turnout increased in every Boomerang Pivot County.

The table below shows the ten Pivot Counties with the largest increases in voter turnout compared to 2016. Of the ten, nine are in states that automatically sent absentee/mail-in ballots to voters during the presidential election. Colorado, Oregon, and Washington routinely conduct all-mail elections. New Jersey conducted its 2020 presidential election by mail in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Retained Pivot Counties are shown with red dots and Boomerang Pivot Counties with blue dots.



Retention elections and judicial partisanship

State supreme court justices facing retention elections won re-election more often than their counterparts in states using other systems of judicial selection, according to Ballotpedia’s recently-published study on state supreme courts.

Between 2008 and 2019, 155 justices have faced retention elections. Incumbent justices won 152 (98%) of these elections. Since 2008, there have been 196 non-retention elections with incumbent justices. The incumbent justices won 176 (90%) of these elections. Incumbent justices experienced a 93% win rate across all selection methods.

The most recent retention election to result in an incumbent losing occurred November 3, 2020, in Illinois. Justice Thomas Kilbride, who recorded a Mild Democrat Confidence Score, did not receive the necessary 60% of the vote needed to win retention. In 2014, Justice Lloyd Karmeier faced opposition in his retention election bid for his seat on the Illinois Supreme Court. He was retained by a margin of 0.8 percentage points. Karmeier recorded a Mild Republican Confidence Score. Illinois has been a Democratic trifecta for 14 out of the last 18 years.

Between 2008 and 2019, Iowa was the only state with retention elections where justices were not retained. Iowa Supreme Court justices Marsha K. Ternus, Michael J. Streit, and David L. Baker lost their retention elections in 2010. Ternus was appointed by Republican Governor Terry Branstad, while Baker and Streit were appointed by Democratic governors. They were replaced by Bruce Zager, Thomas Waterman, and Edward Mansfield, all three of whom were appointed by Republican governor Terry Branstad in 2011.

Retention elections are meant to give voters an opportunity to evaluate judges after their first years on the state supreme court. Missouri’s Nonpartisan Court Plan reads in part: “The nonpartisan plan also gives the voters a chance to have a say in the retention of judges selected under the plan…. The purpose of this vote is to provide another accountability mechanism of the nonpartisan plan to ensure quality judges.”

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2020’s state supreme court elections resulted in changes on two of country’s least homogenous courts

The partisan makeup of two of the country’s most politically divided state supreme courts changed as a result of the 2020 elections, according to a Ballotpedia ranking of states by supreme court partisanship.

As part of the Ballotpedia Courts: State Partisanship study, Ballotpedia assigned each state supreme court justice a partisan confidence score based on factors including the justice’s history of political contributions and personal political party membership. Each individual justice’s confidence score was considered when assessing how divided a particular state’s supreme court was.

The primary factor in determining a court’s overall political homogeneity is whether the court is split or has a majority of one party. We also considered the difference between the low score and the high score of justices on the court, the ratio of justices with strong partisan Confidence Scores to justices with indeterminate Confidence Scores, and the ratio of justices with Democratic and Republican Confidence Scores on the court. 

The states with the least homogeneous supreme courts—in other words, with the most partisan differences among justices—were Michigan, Illinois, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Vermont. 

Illinois had the least homogeneous court with a Democratic majority; four justices had Democratic confidence scores and three had Republican confidence scores.

Michigan, Tennessee, and West Virginia had the least homogeneous courts with Republican majorities. Michigan had a 4-3 majority of justices with Republican confidence scores, while Tennessee had a 3-2 majority. West Virginia a 4-1 majority, although two of the Republican-aligned justices also had links to the Democratic Party.

The 2020 election changed the composition of both the Illinois and Michigan state supreme courts.

In Michigan, Justice Stephen Markman (R) had to retire due to the state’s mandatory retirement age and Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack (D) ran for reelection. Justice Markman was one of the four justices in the majority who recorded Republican Confidence Scores according to our study. Elizabeth Welch, who was one of the state Democratic Party’s two nominees, was the second-highest vote-getter and will take Markman’s seat. Justice McCormack was the highest vote-getter and will retain her seat on the court. As a result of this election, the Michigan Supreme Court went from a 4-3 majority of Republican-leaning justices to a 4-3 majority of Democratic-leaning justices.

In Illinois, Justice Thomas Kilbride (D) stood for retention election, where voters choose “yes” or “no” to retain a justice on the court. In Illinois, a justice must win at least 60% of the vote in order to win retention. Justice Kilbride received 56% of the vote and will vacate the seat as a result. In the interim, the Illinois Supreme Court will choose a justice to fill the vacancy of Kilbride’s seat for 2021. There will be an election to choose a justice to permanently fill Kilbride’s seat in 2022.

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A closer look at the demographics of Retained and Boomerang Pivot Counties

Ballotpedia has been analyzing the 206 Pivot Counties that voted for Barack Obama (D) in 2008 and 2012 and Donald Trump (R) in 2016. This year, we have introduced two new categories: Retained Pivot Counties, which voted for Trump again in 2020, and Boomerang Pivot Counties, which voted for Joe Biden (D).

Based on unofficial results that are subject to change, Ballotpedia has identified 179 Retained Pivot Counties and 25 Boomerang Pivot Counties.

A detailed look at two characteristics, population and educational attainment, shows that Retained Pivot Counties are, on average, less populous and have lower rates of high school graduation and bachelor’s degree attainment compared to Boomerang Pivot Counties.

Collectively, Pivot Counties make up 4.9% of the U.S. population at 16,070,734. The 179 Retained Pivot Counties make up 70.9% of that total and the 25 Boomerang Pivot Counties make up the remaining 29.1%.

The average population of a Retained Pivot County is 63,615 compared to 186,852 for a Boomerang Pivot County. The nationwide county population average is 104,435. Since the 2016 presidential election, the population of Retained Pivot Counties decreased an average of 0.1% while the population of Boomerang Pivot Counties increased 1.0%.

The map below shows all Retained and Boomerang Pivot Counties by population. Larger circles indicate more populous counties. The largest Retained Pivot County is Suffolk County, New York, with a population of 1,476,701. The largest Boomerang Pivot County is Pinellas County, Florida, with a population of 974,996.

For educational attainment, Ballotpedia examined high school graduation rates and bachelor’s degree attainment as a percentage of individuals 25 years and older. The table below highlights the averages of these demographics in 2020, 2016, and shows the change between those years.

On average, Boomerang Pivot Counties have a higher rate of high school graduation than Retained Pivot Counties, but a majority of both types of counties exceed the national high school graduation rate. Ninety-two percent of Boomerang Pivot Counties (23) exceed the national rate compared to 68% of Retained Pivot Counties (122). The table below shows the counties with the five highest and lowest high school graduation rates. Red dots indicate a Retained Pivot County and blue dots indicate a Boomerang Pivot County:

Boomerang Pivot Counties also have a higher rate of bachelor’s degree attainment than Retained Pivot Counties on average. Thirty-two percent of Boomerang Pivot Counties (8) have above average attainment rates compared to 3% (5) of Retained Pivot Counties. The table below shows the counties with the five highest and lowest bachelor’s degree attainment rates:

To learn more about the demographics of these counties, click here.



President Donald Trump leads in endorsement win rates among Ballotpedia’s tracked influencers

During the 2020 election cycle, Ballotpedia tracked candidate endorsements from five noteworthy influencers: President Donald Trump (R), President-elect Joe Biden (D), former President Barack Obama (D), Vice President Mike Pence (R), and Senator Bernie Sanders (I). 

Obama issued the most endorsements in 2020 elections at 232, according to Ballotpedia’s count. Of these 232 endorsed candidates, 82 won, 115 lost, and 35 races were uncalled as of December 2nd. Not including uncalled races, 42% of Obama-endorsed candidates won their races.

We counted 181 endorsements that Trump issued during the 2020 elections, the third-highest among our tracked influencers. Of these candidates, 136 won, 40 lost, and five races were uncalled as of December 2nd. Not including uncalled races, 77% of Trump-endorsed candidates won their races.

Biden issued 50 endorsements in 2020. Twelve of these candidates won, 29 were defeated, and nine races were uncalled as of December 2nd. Not including uncalled races, 29% of Biden-endorsed candidates were elected to office.

We counted 202 endorsements that Sanders issued during the 2020 elections, the second-highest among our tracked influencers. Of these candidates, 125 won, 62 lost, and 15 races were uncalled as of December 2nd. Not including uncalled races, 67% of Sanders endorsed candidates won their elections.

At 10 endorsements issued in 2020 by Ballotpedia’s count, Pence endorsed the fewest candidates in 2020 among our tracked influencers. Seven of these candidates won and three were defeated, meaning Pence-endorsed candidates won 70% of the time.

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Trump has appointed second-most federal judges through December 1 of a president’s fourth year

Donald Trump has appointed and the Senate has confirmed 227 Article III federal judges through December 1, 2020, his fourth year in office. This is the second-most Article III judicial appointments through this point in all presidencies since Jimmy Carter (D). The Senate had confirmed 260 of Carter’s appointees at this point in his term.

The average number of federal judges appointed by a president through December 1 of their fourth year in office is 201.

The median number of Supreme Court justices appointed is two. President Trump appointed the most with three. Presidents Barack Obama (D), Bill Clinton (D), and George H.W. Bush (R) had each appointed two Supreme Court justices at this point in their first terms. Ronald Reagan (R) had appointed one, while Carter and George W. Bush (R) had not appointed any.

The median number of United States Court of Appeals appointees is 35. Carter appointed the most with 55, while Clinton and Obama appointed the fewest with 30. Trump has appointed 53. Trump’s 53 appointments make up 30% of the total 179 judgeships across the courts of appeal.

The median number of United States District Court appointees is 168. Carter appointed the most with 202, and Obama appointed the fewest with 128. Trump has appointed 168 district court judges. Those appointments make up 25% of the 677 judgeships across the district courts.

Article III federal judges are appointed for life terms by the president of the United States and confirmed by the U.S. Senate per Article III of the United States Constitution. Article III judges include judges on the Supreme Court of the United States, U.S. courts of appeal, U.S. district courts, and the Court of International Trade.

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Ballotpedia publishes special study on state supreme court partisanship

Ballotpedia recently published a study on state supreme courts entitled “Ballotpedia Courts: State Partisanship”. Among the findings, the study showed that there has been an increase in partisanship on the state courts over the past ten years and that there is a correlation between the partisanship of justices selected for state supreme courts and the results of the presidential election. In other words, the national popularity of a political party seems to correspond with the partisanship of justices selected to the state courts, and the partisan trend in state supreme court selection seems to be predictive of the presidential election.

State supreme court selection predicts presidential election:

Seven states hold partisan elections for state supreme court justices, but almost all justices on the state courts have some degree of partisan involvement. Our study tracks various data points indicating each justice’s partisan political involvement leading up to his or her selection to the state’s court of last resort.

Our data shows that in the first four years of George W. Bush’s (R) presidency, the average partisan Confidence Score (our level of confidence in a justice’s partisan affiliation) of justices across the United States was 1.2, a Republican-leaning average. In the last four years of Bush’s presidency, the average score was a -0.6, a Democratic-leaning average.

Following that period, Barack Obama (D) was elected president. In the last four years of Obama’s presidency, the average court balance score was 1.8, a Republican average. Following that period Donald Trump (R) was elected president.

Although there was an increase in justices with Democratic scores following Barack Obama’s election, it was followed by an even greater increase in Republican scores leading up to Donald Trump’s election and throughout his presidential term.

Confidence in partisanship of justices has increased in recent years

As of June 2020, there were 185 justices on the state supreme courts who ascended to the bench between the years of 2000 and 2015. Of those justices, 88 (47.6%) recorded Republican Confidence Scores, 70 (37.8%) recorded Democratic Confidence Scores, and 27 (14.6%) recorded Indeterminate Confidence Scores. On the other hand, there were 128 justices on the state supreme courts who ascended to the bench between the years of 2016 and 2019. Of those justices, 78 (61%) recorded Republican Confidence Scores, 33 (25.8%) recorded Democratic Confidence Scores, and 17 (13.2%) recorded Indeterminate Confidence Scores.

Although there was an increase in the appointment of Democratic-affiliated justices during Obama’s presidency, that was short-lived and was followed by an even greater number of Republican-affiliated state supreme court justices ascending to the bench. In 2015, the average partisanship score of state supreme court justice’s selected was -0.6, a Democratic average. In 2016, the average partisanship score of state supreme court justices selected was 4.1, a Republican average, the highest of all years for which we have data. In 2017 the average partisanship score was 3.7, a Republican average, and the second highest of all years for which we have data.

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Four Pivot Counties flip from Trump to Biden as results continue to be updated

Ballotpedia has been analyzing the 206 Pivot Counties that voted for Barack Obama (D) in 2008 and 2012 and Donald Trump (R) in 2016 by creating two new categories: Retained Pivot Counties, which voted for Trump again in 2020, and Boomerang Pivot Counties, which voted for Joe Biden (D). The analysis continues to shift as states certify their election results.

Since publishing our initial Pivot County analysis, four Retained Pivot Counties have flipped to become Boomerang Pivot Counties. Additionally, ten new counties have released vote totals, resulting in nine new Retained Pivot Counties and one new Boomerang Pivot County.

There are currently 179 Retained Pivot Counties and 25 Boomerang Pivot Counties. These numbers are still subject to change.

The four counties that flipped from Retained to Boomerang are all located in New York: Broome, Essex, Rensselaer, and Saratoga.

Based on current results, Biden’s margins of victory in Broome, Essex, and Rensselaer are lower than Obama’s in 2012, the last time a Democrat won these counties. Biden exceeded Obama’s 2012 margin in Saratoga County. The table below shows the unofficial results with vote totals in parentheses.

Biden also won Kennebec County, Maine, by a margin of 0.39 percentage points, less than Obama’s 2012 margin of 12.85 percentage points,

Trump won nine new Retained Pivot Counties, two in Mississippi and seven in Maine. Compared to 2016 results, his margins of victory increased in four and decreased in five. Those counties are listed below, split into those where his margin increased and those where it decreased:

Two counties—Alexander and Henderson, Illinois—have not yet released results.

Ballotpedia will continue to provide updates as results become available. For more information updated weekly, click here.