2020 Elections Post-Mortem

On November 3, 2020, the United States ended a weeks-long electoral process. At stake was the presidency, control of the United States Senate (“Senate”) and House of Representatives (“House”), 11 governor’s mansions, and thousands of state and local offices. That day, I published “cheat sheets” to guide election viewers through state-level presidential returns, 35 Senate elections and the gubernatorial elections.

[Ed. note: This post, my 200th, is the longest I have written to date. It is fitting that a blog which found its data-driven footing in the wake of the 2016 elections would have its 200th entry address the aftermath of the 2020 elections, beyond mere repetition of the number “20.”]

As I write this on midnight EST on November 17, 2020, precisely two weeks after the elections concluded, these are the top-line results:

  • Only one governor’s mansion changed partisan hands: Republican Greg Gianforte won back the statehouse in Montana for the first time in 16 years. As of January 2021, Republicans will hold 27 governor’s mansions, and Democrats will hold 23.
  • Democrats basically held serve in state legislative races. For more details, please see here.

On balance, the 2020 elections affirmed the status quo: a nation roughly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, though it remains possible the former could control, however narrowly, the White House, Senate and House for the first time since 2010.

Presidential election

Biden-Harris are closing on 79.0 million votes (50.9%), shattering the previous record of 69.5 million votes won by Democrat Barack Obama and Biden in 2008. Trump-Pence have just under 73.3 million votes (47.3%), ranking them second in history. Biden has now appeared on three of the four presidential tickets to receive the most votes, with Obama-Biden earning 65.9 million votes in 2012, edging out Clinton-Kaine in 2016 by about 65,000 votes. Third party candidates are receiving more than 2.8 million votes (1.8%), significantly lower than the 8.3 million votes (6.0%) such candidates received in 2016. Approximately 155.1 million votes have already been counted, with an estimated 4.1 million votes—mostly in California and New York—left to be counted. This ~159.2 million vote projection, or about 2/3 of all Americans eligible to vote, also shatters the previous record of 137.1 million votes set in 2016.

Biden-Harris’ 3.6 percentage point (“point”) margin is a 1.5-point increase from 2016, and 0.3-point decrease from 2012, making it the third consecutive presidential election in which the Democratic ticket won the national popular vote by between two and four points; adding 22 million voters did not fundamentally alter the partisan electoral divide. Based on my Electoral College model, a Biden-Harris win of 3.6 points equates to 296 EV, nearly the 306 EV they received; for a Republican ticket, this equates to 327 EV.

How did Biden-Harris win the Electoral College?

Table 1: 2020 and 2016 Presidential Election Results by State, Ranked from Highest to Lowest Biden-Harris Margin

StateEVWinnerClinton-Kaine MarginBiden-Harris MarginDelta
DC3Biden86.886.6-0.2
Vermont3Biden26.435.49.0
Massachusetts11Biden27.233.05.8
Maryland10Biden30.032.52.5
California55Biden26.429.63.2
Hawaii4Biden32.229.5-2.7
Rhode Island4Biden15.520.85.2
Connecticut7Biden13.620.16.7
Washington12Biden15.719.33.6
Delaware3Biden11.319.07.7
Illinois20Biden14.016.62.6
Oregon7Biden11.016.25.2
New Jersey14Biden16.915.5-1.4
New York29Biden22.513.7-8.8
Colorado9Biden4.913.58.6
New Mexico5Biden8.210.82.6
Virginia13Biden3.010.16.9
Maine4Biden (3)5.38.73.4
New Hampshire4Biden0.47.47.0
Minnesota10Biden1.57.15.6
Michigan16Biden-0.22.62.8
Nevada6Biden2.42.40.0
Pennsylvania20Biden-0.71.01.7
Wisconsin10Biden-0.80.61.4
Georgia16Biden-5.10.35.4
Arizona11Biden-3.50.33.8
North Carolina15Trump-3.7-1.42.3
Florida29Trump-1.2-3.4-2.2
Texas38Trump-9.0-5.73.3
Ohio18Trump-8.1-8.2-0.1
Iowa6Trump-9.4-8.21.2
Alaska3Trump-14.3-10.13.3
South Carolina9Trump-20.4-11.78.7
Kansas6Trump-18.5-15.13.4
Missouri10Trump-19.0-15.63.4
Indiana11Trump-20.2-16.14.1
Montana3Trump-14.7-16.4-1.7
Mississippi6Trump-25.1-17.87.3
Louisiana8Trump-19.6-18.61.0
Nebraska5Trump (4)-17.8-19.2-1.4
Utah6Trump-17.9-20.2-2.3
Tennessee11Trump-31.8-23.38.5
Alabama9Trump-26.0-25.60.4
Kentucky8Trump-27.7-26.01.7
South Dakota3Trump-29.8-26.23.6
Arkansas6Trump-29.8-27.62.2
Idaho4Trump-26.9-30.8-3.9
Oklahoma7Trump-36.4-33.13.3
North Dakota3Trump-35.7-33.42.4
West Virginia5Trump-41.7-39.02.7
Wyoming3Trump-46.3-43.42.9
Average  Trump+3.6Trump+0.8D+2.8

As Table 1 reveals, Biden-Harris won 25 states and the District of Columbia (“DC”) by an average of 17.4 points, while Trump-Pence won 25 states by an average of 19.8 points; medians are 14.6—reflecting the 86.8-point margin in DC—and 18.6, respectively. Biden-Harris won seven states and DC totaling 97 EV by 20 or more points, while Trump-Pence won 11 states totaling 65 EV by that margin.

Biden-Harris won 19 states, DC and the 2nd Congressional district in Nebraska by at least 6.0 points, for a total of 228 EV. Add Nevada (6) and Michigan (16), which the Democratic ticket won by ~2.5 points, below their national margin, and the total increases to 250 EV.

At around 10:30 am EST on Saturday, November 7, the major news networks declared Biden-Harris the projected winner in Pennsylvania—and its 20 EV put Biden-Harris over the total of 270 needed to win the presidency. It also makes Pennsylvania—the state in which I was born—the “tipping point” state, as it puts Biden-Harris over 270 EV when states are ranked from most to least Democratic. But the margin stands at just 1.0 points, or just 68,903 votes; Biden-Harris also won Wisconsin (0.6 points), Arizona and Georgia (0.3 points each) by similarly small margins. The Democratic ticket has a total winning margin of 104,025 votes in these four states.

In the 25 states, plus DC, won by the Democratic ticket, the average increase in margin from 2016 was 3.4 points, while in states won by the Republican ticket the average increase was 2.1 points; overall, the average margin shift was 2.8 points. In the five states which switched from Republican to Democratic, the average increase was 3.0 points, led by a 3.8-point increase in Arizona and a 5.4-point increase in Georgia. While Biden-Harris lost North Carolina by 1.4 points and Texas by 5.7 points, they improved the margin by 2.3 and 3.3 points, respectively.

However, while Biden-Harris improved on the 2016 margins by an average 3.7 points in these four southeastern/southwestern states—states I suggested were fertile ground for Democrats—they basically held serve in Iowa (D+1.2) and Ohio (no change), while falling further behind in Florida (D-2.2); I will not speculate what role undelivered ballots in Miami-Dade County played in the latter state. This should not be surprising, as these were perhaps the most disappointing states for Democrats during the otherwise “blue wave” 2018 midterm elections.

In 2016, Trump-Pence won 306 EV by winning six states Obama-Biden won in 2012: the aforementioned Florida, Iowa and Ohio, plus Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The latter were decided by a combined 77,736 votes; Clinton-Kaine also lost Georgia by 211,141 votes and Arizona by 91,234 votes. In 2020, as Table 2 shows, Biden-Harris won the former three states—more than enough to give them an Electoral College victory—by a combined 233,945 votes: a shift of 311,681 votes, or just 0.2% of all votes cast. But the Democratic ticket also increased their margin in Arizona by 101,691 votes and in Georgia by a remarkable 226,296 votes.

Table 2: Changes in Margin from 2016 to 2020 in Five Key States

State2016 Dem Margin2020 Dem MarginIncrease, 2016-20
Michigan-10,704+144,532+155,236
Pennsylvania-44,284+68,903+113,187
Wisconsin-22,748+20,510+43,258
Arizona-91,234+10,457+101,691
Georgia-212,141+14,155+226,296
TOTAL-381,111+258,557+639,668

Overall, across these five states, the margin swung toward the Democratic ticket by about 640,000 votes, which is still less than 1% of all votes cast. But we can get even more granular than that. Early in 2017, I observed that in the three states that swung the 2016 election to Trump-Pence, the Clinton-Kaine ticket did about as well in the Democratic core counties—the urban centers of Detroit, Milwaukee/Madison and Philadelphia/Pittsburgh—as Obama-Biden had in 2012. What changed was a massive increase in Republican turnout in the other, more rural counties of those states. I ultimately concluded this resulted from a split between white voters with a college degree (more Democratic suburban/urban) and without a college degree (more Republican rural).

Table 3: Changes in Margin from 2016 to 2020 in Pennsylvania Counties

County2016 D Margin2020 D MarginIncrease, 2016-20
Phila Suburbs   
Bucks+2,699+17,415+14,716
Chester+25,568+53,598+28,030
Delaware+66,735+87,066+20,331
Montgomery+93,351+133,343+39,992
TOTAL+188,353+291,422+103,069
    
Major Urban   
Philadelphia+475,277+457,649-17,628
Allegheny+108,137+146,706+38,569
TOTAL+583,414+604,355+20,941
    
All Other Counties-816,051-826,874-10,283
TOTAL-44,284+68,903+113,187

Table 3 shows just how this split played out in 2020, using Pennsylvania as an example. Compared to 2016, the margins for the Democratic ticket increased only at 21,000 votes in the heavily urban Democratic counties of Allegheny (Pittsburgh) and Philadelphia. And the 61 counties outside these two counties, excepting the four-county ring around Philadelphia, also held serve for the Republican ticket; Erie and Northampton Counties switched, barely, from Trump-Pence to Biden-Harris. In fact, the two parties may have reach voted saturation in these two areas. But those four suburban Philadelphia counties, swung even further toward the Democratic ticket, from a margin of 188,353 votes to nearly 291,422 votes, for a total increase of 103,069 votes, nearly the entire swing from 2016 to 2020.

What about the polling?

With most of the vote counted, Biden-Harris lead Trump-Pence nationally by 3.6 points, which is 4.6 points lower than my final weighted-adjusted polling average (“WAPA”) of 8.2 points.

For my final post tracking national and state polling of the 2020 presidential election, I estimated the probability Biden-Harris would win a given state. In 24 states/DC totaling 279 EV, the probability was at least 94.7%; Biden-Harris won all of them. In 20 states totaling 126 EV, the probability was 1.3% or less; Trump-Pence won all them. The remaining seven states were:

  • Florida (80.1%), which Biden-Harris lost
  • Arizona (77.5%), which Biden-Harris won
  • North Carolina (69.0%), which Biden-Harris lost
  • Georgia (56.4%), which Biden-Harris won
  • Ohio (39.1%), Iowa (37.0%) and Texas (28.4%), each of which Trump-Pence won

Florida and North Carolina were the only “misses,” though it should be noted Trump-Pence still had a non-trivial 19.9% and 31.0% chance, respectively, to win those states. Further, my final back-of-the-envelope EV estimate was 348.5 for Biden-Harris—subtracting the 44 combined EV of Florida and North Carolina essentially gets you to 306. The latter value is also very close to the 297.5 EV I estimated Biden-Harris would receive if all polls overestimated Democratic strength by 3.0 points.

Along those lines, my 2020 election cheat sheets included a projected Democratic-minus-Republican margin (“JBWM”), which adjusts final WAPA for undecided votes, along with recent polling errors in selected states. Compared to the final FiveThirtyEight.com margins/polling averages (“538”), JBWM margins were about 1.2 points more Republican.

Even so, as Table 4 shows, the JBWM margins were, on average, 3.4 points more Democratic than the final margins, and the 538 margins were 4.6 points more Democratic. When the direction of the difference is ignored, meanwhile, the differences between the two method vanish: an average absolute difference of 4.5 from JBWM margins compared to 4.8 for 538.

However, this overall difference masks a stark partisan difference: the mean JBWM difference was only 1.1 points more Democratic in states/DC won by Biden-Harris, while it was 5.9 points more Democratic in states won by Trump-Pence. The correlation between the Biden-Harris margin and the JBWM difference is 0.73, meaning the more Republican the state, the better Trump-Pence did relative to the final polling. In short, pollsters continue to undercount “Trump Republicans” in the most Republican states.

Table 4: 2020 Presidential Election Results by State, Ranked by Difference from JBWM Democratic-Republican Margin “Projection”

StateEVWinnerJBWM ProjectionBiden-Harris MarginDelta
West Virginia5Trump-20.4-39.0-18.6
New York29Biden28.313.7-14.6
Wyoming3Trump-32.1-43.4-11.3
South Dakota3Trump-15.6-26.2-10.6
North Dakota3Trump-23.2-33.3-10.1
Montana3Trump-7.1-16.4-9.3
Kentucky8Trump-17.2-26.0-8.8
Oklahoma7Trump-24.9-33.1-8.2
Texas38Trump1.6-5.7-7.3
Utah6Trump-12.9-20.2-7.3
Alabama9Trump-18.6-25.6-7.0
Indiana11Trump-9.6-16.1-6.5
Tennessee11Trump-16.9-23.3-6.4
Nevada6Biden8.62.4-6.2
Missouri10Trump-9.6-15.6-6.0
Kansas6Trump-10.2-15.1-4.9
Idaho4Trump-26.0-30.8-4.8
New Jersey14Biden19.515.5-4.0
Maine4Biden (3)12.58.7-3.8
Mississippi6Trump-14.1-17.8-3.7
Florida29Trump0.2-3.4-3.6
Alaska3Trump-6.7-10.1-3.4
Iowa6Trump-5.0-8.2-3.2
Connecticut7Biden23.020.1-2.9
Louisiana8Trump-15.8-18.6-2.8
South Carolina9Trump-8.9-11.7-2.8
Wisconsin10Biden3.20.6-2.6
Arizona11Biden2.90.3-2.6
Washington12Biden21.719.3-2.4
Hawaii4Biden31.629.5-2.1
Ohio18Trump-6.2-8.2-2.0
Michigan16Biden4.42.6-1.8
New Hampshire4Biden8.97.4-1.5
Nebraska5Biden (4)-17.8-19.2-1.4
Massachusetts11Biden34.333.0-1.3
Oregon7Biden17.516.2-1.3
New Mexico5Biden12.010.8-1.2
Pennsylvania20Biden2.21.0-1.2
Delaware3Biden20.219.0-1.2
Virginia13Biden11.210.1-1.1
Minnesota10Biden7.97.1-0.8
Georgia16Biden0.60.3-0.3
North Carolina15Trump-1.1-1.4-0.3
Illinois20Biden16.216.60.4
California55Biden29.129.60.5
Arkansas6Trump-29.1-27.61.5
Maryland10Biden30.231.91.7
Rhode Island4Biden19.020.71.7
Colorado9Biden11.413.52.1
Vermont3Biden28.835.46.6
DC3Biden74.986.611.7
Average  Biden+2.6Trump+0.8D-3.4

To again get more granular, Table 5 lists the pollsters who assessed the national popular vote at least five times since January 1, 2019, sorted by distance from the actual national margin of 3.6%. Margins are weighted for time, but not adjusted for partisan “bias.”

Table 5: Top 2020 Presidential Election Pollsters, Final WAPA National Margin

Pollster538 RatingFinal MarginDelta
OpiniumC+14.1-10.5
NORC (AllAdults only)C+11.3-7.7
CNN/SSRSB/C11.1-7.5
QriouslyC+10.5-6.9
USC DornsifeB/C10.4-6.8
Quinnipiac UniversityB+10.4-6.8
NBC News/Wall Street JournalA-10.1-6.5
Global Strategy Group/GBAO (Navigator Res)C+9.9-6.3
Data for ProgressB-9.8-6.2
Redfield & Wilton StrategiesC+9.6-6.0
ABC News/Washington PostA+9.2-5.6
Marist CollegeA+9.1-5.5
Echelon InsightsC+8.8-5.2
SurveyUSAA8.8-5.2
IpsosB-8.5-4.9
LégerC+8.4-4.8
Change ResearchC-8.3-4.7
Fox NewsA-8.3-4.7
YouGovB8.2-4.6
Research Co.B-7.8-4.2
PureSpectrumC+7.6-4.0
Morning ConsultB/C7.6-4.0
Monmouth UniversityA+7.4-3.8
Firehouse Strategies/OptimusB/C7.4-3.8
RMG ResearchB/C7.1-3.5
Harris XC6.5-2.9
Suffolk UniversityA6.2-2.6
IBD/TIPPA/B5.5-1.9
Emerson CollegeA-3.8-0.2
Zogby*C+3.60.0
Rasmussen Reports/Pulse Opinion ResearchC+3.20.4
CiviqsB/C3.10.5
AverageB/B-8.2-4.5

           * John Zogby Strategies/EMI Solutions, Zogby Analytics, Zogby Interactive/JV Analytics

These 32 pollsters accounted for 556 (80.6%) of the 690 polls conducted. On average, they estimated Biden-Harris would win the national popular vote by 8.2 points, identical to my final WAPA; the average miss was 4.5 points in favor of Biden-Harris. There was only minimal difference by pollster quality: the 11 pollsters with a rating of B or better missed by an average of 4.2 points, while the 21 pollsters with a rating of B- or lower missed by an average of 4.7 points. That said, three of the four pollsters who came closest to the final national margin—Zogby, Rasmussen and Civiqs—had ratings of B/C or C+; the fourth was Emerson College, rated A-. At the other end of the spectrum are seven pollsters who anticipated a double-digit national popular vote win for Biden-Harris: low-rated Opinium, NORC (who polled adults, not registered/likely voters), CNN/SSRS, Qriously and USC Dornsife; and high-rated Quinnipiac University and NBC News/Wall Street Journal.

Overall, though, the polling captured the broad contours of the 2020 presidential election—if not the precise margins—fairly well, with JBWM and actual Democratic margins correlated a near-perfect 0.99; the order of states from most to least Democratic was accurately predicted. It forecast a solid, if not spectacular win by Biden-Harris in the national popular vote, a restoration of the upper Midwestern “blue wall,” and continued Democratic gains in southeastern/southwestern states such as Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas, even as Florida, Iowa and Ohio become more Republican.

One final note: it is exceedingly difficult to beat an elected incumbent president. Since 1952, it had happened only twice (1980, 1992) in eight chances prior to 2020[1]; Biden-Harris beat those 1:3 odds convincingly.

Senate elections

Democrats entered 2020 needing to flip a net four seats—or three seats plus the White House—to regain the majority for the first time since 2014. As Vice-President-elect, Kamala Harris breaks a 50-50 tie.

Table 6: 2020 Senate Election Results by State, Ranked from Highest to Lowest Democratic Margin, Compared to Pre-Election “Fundamentals”

StateWinnerFundamentalsFinal Dem MarginDelta
Rhode IslandReed24.433.08.6
MassachusettsMarkey28.532.94.4
DelawareCoons18.921.52.6
OregonMerkley15.117.62.5
IllinoisDurbin21.116.9-4.2
New JerseyBooker18.415.8-2.6
New HampshireShaheen6.515.79.2
VirginiaWarner7.912.04.1
ColoradoHickenlooper1.89.37.5
New MexicoLujan8.56.1-2.4
MinnesotaSmith5.75.2-0.5
ArizonaKelly-8.32.410.7
MichiganPeters8.61.5-7.1
Georgia Special???-8.0-1.07.0
Georgia???-10.0-1.78.3
North CarolinaTillis-6.4-1.74.7
IowaErnst-5.1-6.6-1.5
MaineCollis5.5-8.9-14.4
TexasCornyn-15.7-9.85.9
MontanaDaines-19.0-10.09.0
South CarolinaGraham-16.1-10.35.8
MississippiHyde-Smith-18.1-11.26.9
KansasMarshall-21.4-11.99.5
AlaskaSullivan-19.6-12.96.7
KentuckyMcConnell-29.1-19.59.6
AlabamaTuberville-24.2-20.63.6
LouisianaCassidy-22.6-25.9-3.3
TennesseeHagerty-23.8-27.1-3.3
IdahoRisch-34.6-29.35.3
OklahomaInhofe-38.5-30.28.3
South DakotaRounds-26.2-31.5-5.3
ArkansasCotton-28.6-33.3-4.7
NebraskaSasse-26.2-41.3-15.1
West VirginiaCapito-35.9-43.3-7.4
WyomingLummis-43.7-46.1-2.4
AverageD+1 to 3GOP+8.9GOP+7.0D+1.9

Table 1 summarizes these elections; for the Georgia special election and Louisiana, margins are for all Democrats and all Republicans. Democrats John Hickenlooper and Mark Kelly defeated Republican incumbents in Colorado (Cory Gardner) and Arizona (Martha McSally), respectively, while Republican Tommy Tuberville defeated Democratic incumbent Doug Jones in Alabama. This leaves Democrats two seats shy of 50-50, pending the January 5 runoff elections in Georgia. Incumbent Republican David Perdue edged Ossoff on November 3 by 1.7 points, but fell 0.3 points short of the 50.0% needed to win outright. In the special election necessitated by the retirement of Republican Johnny Isaakson in December 2019, Warnock (32.9%) led incumbent Republican Kelly Loeffler (25.9%) by 7.0 points in the all-candidate “jungle primary;” overall, Republican candidates earned 49.4% of the vote and Democratic candidates earned 48.4%, with 2.2% split between a handful of third-party candidates.

When I took a “wicked early” look at these elections, I assessed the Democrat’s chance in each election using their “fundamentals,” or the sum of the state’s partisan lean (calculated using my 3W-RDM), the Democratic margin on the generic ballot and incumbency advantage.[2] For Table 6, the generic ballot is the difference in the percentages of the total vote for all Democratic House candidates and for all Republican House candidates; Democrats are ahead by 2.0 points.

On average, Democrats overperformed “expected” margins by 1.9 points. In the 13 elections won by Democrats, the overperformance was 2.5 points, while in the 20 elections won by Republicans, the overperformance was just 0.9 points; Democrats overperformed in the two Georgia Senate races by 7.0 and 8.3 points, confirming how rapidly it is moving toward swing-state status. The biggest Democratic overperformance—fully 10.7 points—was in Arizona, which in 2021 will have two Democratic Senators (both of whom beat McSally) for the first time since 1953. Other Senate elections in which the Democratic candidate overperformed by at least 9.0 points were New Hampshire, and three states where Democrats fell short in their attempt to win back a Republican-held seat: Montana, Kansas and Kentucky.

On the flip side, setting aside a 15.1-point underperfomance in Nebraska, the biggest Republican overperformance was in Maine, where incumbent Susan Collins, first elected in 1996, “should” have lost by 5.5 points. Instead, she won by 8.9 points; this is a 28-point decline from 2014, when Collins won by 37 points. Pending the results of the Georgia runoff elections, Maine is the only state in 2020 to have a Democratic presidential victory and a Republican Senate victory, with a gap of 17.6 points. It will be interesting to see whether Collins adjusts her voting in the next Senate. Other large Democratic underperformances, finally, took place in Michigan, where first-term Democratic Senator Gary Peters beat Republican John James by only 1.5 points and in West Virginia, which grows more Republican every year.

On the whole, though, expected and actual margins aligned nearly perfectly, with a 0.94 correlation.

What about the polling?

As with the presidential election, the final polling averages/projected margins were far less accurate, as Table 7 shows; I did not calculate a projected final margin for the Louisiana Senate election.

Table 7: 2020 Senate Election Results by State, Ranked by Difference from JBWM Democratic-Republican Margin “Projection”

StateWinnerJBWM ProjectionDemocratic MarginDelta
West VirginiaCapito-20.6-43.3-22.7
WyomingLummis-30.2-46.1-15.9
MaineCollins3.3-8.9-12.2
South DakotaRounds-19.9-31.5-11.6
NebraskaSasse-30.8-41.3-10.5
KentuckyMcConnell-9.7-19.5-9.8
OklahomaInhofe-20.5-30.2-9.7
AlaskaSullivan-3.7-12.9-9.2
AlabamaTuberville-11.5-20.6-9.1
New JerseyBooker24.615.8-8.8
MontanaDaines-1.3-10.0-8.7
DelawareCoons29.621.5-8.1
TexasCornyn-2.3-9.8-7.5
IllinoisDurbin23.716.9-6.8
KansasMarshall-5.4-11.9-6.5
South CarolinaGraham-4.7-10.3-5.6
TennesseeHagerty-21.9-27.1-5.2
MississippiHyde-Smith-6.4-11.2-4.8
ArizonaKelly6.62.4-4.2
New MexicoLujan10.06.1-3.9
Georgia???1.7-1.7-3.4
MichiganPeters4.71.5-3.2
IdahoRisch-26.1-29.3-3.2
MinnesotaSmith8.45.2-3.2
VirginiaWarner15.112.0-3.1
IowaErnst-3.6-6.6-3.0
North CarolinaTillis1.1-1.7-2.8
OregonMerkley20.017.6-2.4
ArkansasCotton-33.0-33.3-0.3
ColoradoHickenlooper9.39.30.0
MassachusettsMarkey31.432.91.5
New HampshireShaheen14.415.71.3
Georgia Special???-3.9-1.02.9
Rhode IslandReed29.633.03.4
AverageDem+1 to 3GOP+0.6GOP+6.4D-5.8

The polling may have been within historic parameters for the presidential election, but it was far worse in the Senate elections, with the JBWM margins overestimating Democratic margins by an average of 5.8 points, almost exactly the 6.0 points by which 538 margins erred on average; ignoring direction, the average misses are 6.3 and 7.0 points, respectively. That said, the correlation between the actual and projected Democratic margins was 0.97, meaning the polling correctly forecast the order of Senate elections from most to least Democratic.

These overall averages again mask substantial partisan differences. In the 13 states where the Democratic nominee won, the average miss was a historically-reasonable -2.9 points, but in the 19 states (excluding Louisiana) where the Republican nominee won, the average miss was an astounding -8.3 points. Put another way, in the 15 states Trump-Pence won by at least 10 points which also held a Senate election, the average Senate miss was -8.9 points, while it was -3.3 points in all other states. Somewhat reassuringly, in the five states whose presidential margin was within five points also holding a Senate election (Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina), the miss was only -2.2 points. Overall, the correlation between the Biden-Harris margin and the JBWM margin error was 0.57, confirming the idea pollsters systematically undercounted Republican support in the most Republican states.

My back-of-the-envelope estimate was a net gain of five Democratic seats in the Senate, with at least a 77% chance Democrats would regain control; these values dropped to 30% and either two or three seats with the assumption all polls systematically overestimated Democratic strength by three points. Democrats will ultimately net between one and three seats, corresponding more with the latter assumption. I estimate the probability Democrats win both Georgia Senate runoff elections—and thus the Senate—is between 25 and 50%, depending on the degree of ticket-splitting.

From a purely mathematical perspective, the largest Democratic underperformances occurred in the Senate elections in West Virginia, Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska: four extremely Republican states. But from a strategic perspective, the most disappointing elections were in Maine (-12.2) and North Carolina (-2.8), where incumbent Republican Thom Tillis narrowly held off a challenge from Democrat Cal Cunningham, who may have been hurt by a sexting scandal; given the narrowness of his victory (1.7 points) and the increasingly swing status of North Carolina, Tillis’ voting patterns also merit watching. These were the two states besides Arizona (98.1%) and Colorado (99.5%) in which I estimated the Democratic nominee had at least an 85% chance to defeat a Republican incumbent; I also thought Democrat Theresa Greenfield was roughly even money to defeat incumbent Republican Joni Ernst, despite projecting a final margin of 3.6 points for Ernst; the latter won by 6.6 points.

There were four additional Senate elections—in Alaska, Kansas (open seat), Montana and South Carolina—where I estimated the probability of a Democratic flip was between 11.7 and 26.4%. In a sign of how good these elections were for Republicans, their nominees won all four elections by an average of 11.3 points, a mean 7.5 points more Republican than projected. In fairness, these states tilted an average 19.2 points more Republican than the nation as a whole coming into the 2020 elections. A similar story can be told in Texas, which tilted 15.3 points more Republican, but where Democrat M.J. Hegar “only” lost by 9.8 points to incumbent Republican John Cornyn, beating expectations by 0.6 points.

Put simply, assuming a loss in Alabama, Democratic hopes of winning back control of the Senate relied on flipping two Senate seats in Democratic states, then winning at least two more seats in states ranging from somewhat Republican—Iowa, North Carolina, Arizona, Georgia—to extremely Republican—Alaska, Kansas, Montana, South Carolina and Texas—all while Trump sought reelection. To date, Democrats have only flipped seats in Colorado (D+2.2) and Arizona (D-9.7) while winning back the Vice-Presidency, losing tough elections in Iowa, Maine and North Carolina, while never really being in contention anywhere else. Senate control now rests on Democrats winning two Senate runoff elections in a nominally Republican state (D-9.6), but one where Biden-Harris won, improving on Clinton-Kaine’s by 5.4 points.

Gubernatorial elections

Unlike those for the White House and Senate, there was very little drama in these elections. Two Democratic incumbents—John Carney of Delaware and Jay Inslee of Washington—were expected to win easily; they won by margins of 20.9 and 13.6 points, respectively. Six Republican incumbents—Eric Holcomb of Indiana, Mike Parson of Missouri, Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, Doug Burgum of North Dakota, Phil Scott of Vermont and Jim Justice of West Virginia—as well as Republican Spencer Cox of Utah were expected to win easily, though I projected Parson to win by “only” 8.0 points (he won by 16.6 points). They won their elections by an average margin of 31.6 points!

The only possible drama was in Montana, where Republican Gianforte and Democrat Mike Cooney vied to win the governor’s mansion being vacated by Democrat Bullock, and North Carolina, where Democratic Governor Roy Cooper—who won extremely narrowly in 2016—faced Republican Dan Forest. Gianforte defeated Cooney by 12.4 points, easily exceeding a projected 4.5 points, while Cooper won by 4.5 points, not the projected 10.4 points. Still, my global projection was correct: a net gain of one governor’s mansion by the Republicans, giving them a 27-23 majority; this an overall net gain of seven governor’s mansions by the Democrats since 2016.

In these elections, Republicans strongly overperformed fundamentals (7.1 points) and JBWM projections (7.6 points). However, expected values were strongly skewed by Scott’s 41.1-point victory in extremely-Democratic Vermont (D+27.7) and Sununu’s 31.8-point victory in swing New Hampshire (D+0.1); exclude those two margins and DEMOCRATS overperformed expectations by 1.0 points—with Democrat Ben Salango exceeding what were admittedly very low expectations by 8.5 points. Meanwhile, in the four states with governor’s races won by Biden-Harris, Democratic gubernatorial nominees finished an average 8.9 points lower than projected, while in the seven states won by Trump-Pence, they finished an average 6.8 points worse than expected. Once again, the extreme disparity in presidential/Senate and gubernatorial voting in New Hampshire and Vermont—two of three states in solidly-Democratic New England, along with Massachusetts (Charlie Baker), to have very popular Republican governors. In fact, gubernatorial elections are among the only ones in which ticket-splitting is still relatively common: Biden-Harris won six states with a Republican governor,[3] while Trump-Pence won five states with a Democratic governor.[4]

House elections

A wide range of forecasters expected Democrats to net between five and 10 House seats[5]. I was highly dubious of this, to be honest, given the likelihood the margin for Democrats in the total national House vote would decline from the 8.6-point margin they earned in 2018; it would also be higher than the 1.1 points by which they lost in 2016, when they still managed to net six seats. However, because I was not closely tracking House races, I said nothing about my doubts.

According to the Cook House vote tracker, Democrats had earned more than 75.1 million House votes (50.1%), Republicans had earned just under 72.1 million votes (48.0%), with the nearly 2.2 million votes (1.8%) going to third-party candidates. A total of 150.0 million votes have been counted, 5.1 million less than those cast in the presidential election. The 2.0-point margin by which Democrats are winning the House vote—just under 3.1 million votes—is also lower than the 3.6 points, and 5.6 million votes by which Biden-Harris currently lead Trump-Pence. It is also much lower than the 9.7-million Democratic vote margin in 2018, albeit with 36.3 million more votes cast in 2020, reinforcing the conclusion a few million Republican-leaning voters “balanced” a vote for Biden-Harris with Republican votes elsewhere…or simply chose not to vote in down-ballot elections.

In the races that have already called, Republicans have gained 11 seats held by Democrats (two each in California and Florida, one each in Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah), while Democrats have gained three seats held by Republicans (two in North Carolina, one in Georgia). This gives Democrats 221 seats, three more than needed for the majority, and Republicans 208 seats. Of the six seats yet to be called, Democrats currently hold four, with freshman Democrat Tom Malinowski leading by ~5,000 votes in New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District (“CD”). Giving that seat to the Democrats—and giving Republicans their open seat in New York’s 2nd CD—increases the totals to 222 Democrats and 209 Republicans.

That leaves four seats truly in doubt:

  • California’s 21st CD, where incumbent Democrat T.J. Cox trails Republican David Valadao, in a 2018 rematch, by 2,065 votes.
  • California’s 25th CD, where Democrat Christy Smith is within 104 votes of unseating Republican Mike Garcia, who won a special election in May 2020 after first-term Democrat Katie Hill resigned.
  • Iowa’s 2nd CD, where Democrat Dave Loebsack did not seek reelection; Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks leads Democrat Rita Hart by only 47 votes!
  • New York’s 22nd CD, where Republican Claudia Tenney’s lead over incumbent Democrat Anthony Brindisi continues to shrink as New York votes are slowly counted.

Democrats will thus lose a net 8-12 seats compared to the 234-201 margin they had after the 2018 elections. This is a bad result for the Democrats, right?

Well, no…it suggests that polling-based expectations were flawed, because the fundamentals always pointed toward a net loss of House seats for the Democrats. Moreover, the comparison should be to 2016, because that is the last election in which Trump appeared on the ballot.

Following the 2016 elections, Republicans had a 241-194 House majority. Democrats were convinced, wrongly I thought, that gerrymandering by Republican legislators and governors would keep them in the minority for the foreseeable future. Looking ahead to the 2018 midterm elections, knowing Democrats needed to net 24 seats to regain the majority, I looked at all House elections from 1968 to 2016, and I noticed that what “predicted” net change in seats from one election to the next was not the national margin in a given election, but the change in that margin from the previous election. Figure 1 helps to illustrate this.

Figure 1:

In 2018, Democrats net a surprisingly-high 41 House seats, 17 more than they needed, most by narrow margins. It is then reasonable to expect that even a small decline in the Democratic share of the total national House vote would allow Republicans to “claw back” some of these seats Democrats currently lead the total national House vote by 2.0 points, fully 6.6-point decrease f 2018. Entering this value into the OLS regression shown in Figure 1 yields an estimated Democratic loss of 22.4 seats.

In other words, while Democrats expected to gain seats—based on what we now know was polling that underestimated Republican margins by 3-7 points—they should actually have been bracing themselves for a possible loss of the House itself. Instead, they “only” lost between eight and 12 seats, meaning they did far better than history would have suggested. Moreover, Democrats have net between 29 and 33 seats since 2016, earning control of the House in back-to-back elections for the first time since 2006-2008, something that seemed nearly impossible early in 2017.

Summary

Both Democrats and Republicans can find 2020 election results to celebrate.

Democrats won back the White House after just four years (beating 1:3 odds to defeat an incumbent), rebuilding their upper-Midwestern blue wall while expanding into the southeast and southwest; no Democratic presidential nominee has won both Arizona and Georgia since 1948. They also maintained control of the House of Representatives and made gains in the Senate; with two more wins in Georgia in January 2021, they regain control of the Senate as well. Democrats have not controlled both the White House and House since 2010.

Republicans, even as they lost the White House, gained as many as 12 seats in the House and staved off losing control of the Senate until January 2021 at the earliest. They net one governor’s mansion, giving them a 27-23 majority, and held their own in state legislative elections. Once again, Trump’s name on the ballot encouraged many more exurban and rural voters to vote than expected, ironically helping all Republicans but himself and his running mate.

Fans of bipartisan “balance” can also celebrate 11 states seeing different parties win their state’s electoral votes and serving as governor. Moreover, a record-smashing 155.1 million—and counting—Americans cast a ballot for president, which equates to two in three of all adults eligible to vote.

Finally, the polls erred substantially in favor of Republicans, with a miss of around 3.5 points compared to my final projections and 4.7 points relative to those from 538. Republicans fared even better in Senate and gubernatorial elections, beating final projections by around six points in the former and nearly eight points in the latter. These values mask a partisan split, with polls far more accurate for Democratic candidates than Republican ones. In the end, though, polls were far less accurate—in this Trump-led cycle at least—than simply considering a state’s recent partisan lean, the national partisan environment and incumbency. These fundamentals remain extremely predictive, at least relatively.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…


[1] 1956, 1972, 1980, 1984, 1992, 1996, 2004, 2012

[2] Democratic full-term incumbents=4.4, Democratic partial-term incumbents=2.2, non-incumbent=0, Republican partial-term incumbents=–0.4, -0.6, -1.6; Republican full-term incumbents=-2.4

[3] Arizona, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont

[4] Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina

[5] The Cook Political Report hedged a bit, labeling 229 seats at least Lean Democrat, 179 seats at least Lean Republican, and 27 seats Toss-up. Of the Toss-ups, nine are held by Democrats, 17 by Republicans, and one by Justin Amash of Michigan, who switched from Republican to Independent in July 2019.

2020 Senate and Gubernatorial Elections: The View from Labor Day

Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez should be very pleased with his performance. Since winning the chairperson position in February 2017, he has overseen a net gain of eight gubernatorial elections and hundreds of state legislative seats, as well as winning back control of the United States House of Representatives (“House”) in 2018—flipping a historic net 41 seats. He also held net losses in the United States Senate (“Senate”) to one—helped Democrat Doug Jones’ upset win in Alabama in December 2017—when 2018 looked like a terrible year for Senate Democrats.

As of Labor Day 2020, meanwhile, the Democratic nominee for president—former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.—is in a very strong position, the House appears safe for Democrats…and Democrats are poised to add seats in the Senate, with control of the upper chamber for the first time since 2014 highly plausible.

Currently, there are 53 Republicans, 45 Democrats and 2 Independents who caucus with Democrats in the Senate. To regain control, Democrats must either win a net total of four Senate seats OR a net total of three Senate seats while winning back the presidency; as president of the Senate, Vice President Kamala Harris breaks a 50-50 tie.

In May 2019, I surveyed the 34 Senate races—now 35 with the December 2019 retirement of Republican Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia and subsequent appointment of businesswomen Kelly Loeffler by Republican Governor Brian Kemp—scheduled for November 2020. I concluded then that while paths existed for the Democrats to recapture the Senate, everything would have to go just right.

More than one year later, based upon a political climate strongly favoring Democrats—they lead by 7.2 percentage points on the generic ballot[1]—and all publicly-available polls conducted since January 1, 2020, everything appears to be going right for the Democrats.

Before continuing, here is the September 2020 lighthouse photograph in my Down East 2020 Maine Lighthouses wall calendar.

**********

Table 1 presents the 35 Senate races scheduled for November 2020, sorted by 3W-RDM, my measure of how much more or less Democratic a state votes relative to the nation. “National Lean” is the current generic ballot margin. “Incumbency” is the average electoral advantage adhering to reelection candidates, calculated separately by party and adjusted downward for serving less than one full six-year term. “Sum” is 3W-RDM plus Incumbency plus National Lean, or what I call the “fundamentals”: how a generic Democrat would expect to fare against a generic Republican in a state, all else being equal.

Table 1. 2020 Senate election overview

NameStateRun 20203W-RDMIncumbencyNational LeanSum
DEMOCRATS
Edward MarkeyMAYes22.14.47.233.7
Jack ReedRIYes18.04.47.229.6
Richard DurbinILYes14.74.47.226.3
Chris CoonsDEYes12.54.47.224.1
Cory BookerNJYes12.04.47.223.6
Jeff MerkleyORYes8.74.47.220.3
Tom UdallNMNo6.50.07.213.7
Gary PetersMIYes2.24.47.213.8
Mark WarnerVAYes1.54.47.213.1
Tina SmithMNYes1.52.27.210.9
Jeanne ShaheenNHYes0.14.27.211.5
Doug JonesALYes-28.42.27.2-19.0
 
REPUBLICANS
Susan CollinsMEYes5.9-2.47.210.7
Cory GardnerCOYes2.2-2.47.27.0
Joni ErnstIAYes-4.7-2.47.20.1
Thom TillisNCYes-6.0-2.47.2-1.2
David PerdueGAYes-9.6-2.47.2-4.8
Kelly LoefflerGAYes-9.6-0.47.2-2.8
Martha McSallyAZYes-9.7-0.67.2-3.1
John CornynTXYes-15.3-2.47.2-10.5
Lindsey GrahamSCYes-15.7-2.47.2-10.9
Cindy Hyde-SmithMSYes-18.5-1.67.2-12.9
Steve DainesMTYes-18.6-2.47.2-13.8
Dan SullivanAKYes-19.2-2.47.2-14.4
Bill CassidyLAYes-22.2-2.47.2-17.4
Pat RobertsKSNo-23.40.07.2-16.2
Lamar AlexanderTNNo-25.80.07.2-18.6
Ben SasseNEYes-25.8-2.47.2-21.0
Mike RoundsSDYes-25.8-2.47.2-21.0
Tom CottonARYes-28.2-2.47.2-23.4
Mitch McConnellKYYes-28.7-2.47.2-23.9
James RischIDYes-34.2-2.47.2-29.4
Shelley Moore CapitoWVYes-35.5-2.47.2-30.7
James InhofeOKYes-38.1-2.47.2-33.3
Mike EnziWYNo-45.70.07.2-38.5

Based solely on these fundamentals, only one Democrat—Jones—entered the 2020 election cycle in serious danger of losing her/his seat, while two Republican—four-termer Susan Collins of Maine and first-termer Cory Gardner of Colorado—were in a similarly weak position. First-termer Joni Ernst of Iowa is basically a 50-50 proposition, while first-termer Thom Tillis of North Carolina is only slightly ahead, as are two recently-appointed Senators, Loeffler and Martha McSally, who lost to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in 2018; slightly further ahead, but “only” by 4.8 points is first-termer David Perdue of Georgia.

So, at least according to the fundamentals, Democrats entered the 2020 election cycle poised to net between one and six Senate seats, making control of the chamber slightly more likely than not to remain Republican.

**********

Publicly-available polling tells a broadly similar story, even if the quantity and quality—based upon FiveThirtyEight’s pollster ratings—of polls varies widely from state to state:

Table 2: Number and Average Quality of 2020 Senate Election Polls

State# of PollsAverage Rating
North Carolina46B-/B
Michigan42B-/C+
Arizona37B/B-
Georgia (Loeffler)31B/B-
Georgia (Perdue)16B
Texas13B
Maine12B-/C+
Iowa10B/B+
Kentucky10B/B+
South Carolina10B-/B
Montana7B-
Alabama6B-/B
Colorado6B-/C+
Kansas5B
Minnesota5B/B+
Mississippi5B-/B
New Hampshire5B-
Alaska3B-/B
Oklahoma2C+/B-
New Jersey1A+
New Mexico1B
Virginia1B-/C+
All other states0 
TOTAL274B-/B

Only 22 races (63%) have been polled at all, with North Carolina (46), Michigan (42), Arizona (37) and the Loeffler race in Georgia (31) topping the list; six other states—the Perdue race in Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, South Carolina and Texas—have been polled at least 10 times. Thus, just 11 races account for 227 (83%) of the 274 total Senate election polls conducted thus far in 2020.

Table 3 lists expected outcome, based on the fundamentals, and current weighted-adjusted polling average (WAPA) for each Democratic Senate nominee; New Hampshire will hold its Senate primaries on September 8, with incumbent Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen expected to win re-nomination easily. Elections with no incumbent are in italics.

Table 3: Expected and actual polling margins for 2020 Democratic Senate nominees, Labor Day 2020

StateExpectedWAPAExp – WAPA
Massachusetts33.7  
Rhode Island29.6  
Illinois26.3  
Delaware24.1  
New Jersey23.621.7-1.9
Oregon20.3  
New Mexico13.713.70.0
Maine10.73.6-7.1
Colorado7.010.03.0
Michigan13.89.4-4.4
Virginia13.120.57.4
Minnesota10.96.0-4.9
New Hampshire11.713.61.9
Iowa0.11.31.2
North Carolina-1.24.85.9
Georgia–Perdue-4.8-2.52.2
Georgia–Loeffler-2.8-5.1-2.3
Arizona-3.18.911.9
Texas-10.5-8.42.1
South Carolina-10.9-4.16.8
Mississippi-12.9-11.01.9
Montana-13.8-0.912.9
Alaska-14.4-6.48.0
Louisiana-17.4  
Kansas-16.2-4.012.2
Tennessee-18.6  
Nebraska-21.0  
South Dakota-21.0  
Arkansas-23.4  
Alabama-19.0-10.58.6
Kentucky-23.9-9.614.3
Idaho-29.4  
West Virginia-30.7  
Oklahoma-33.3-19.413.9
Wyoming-38.5  
AVERAGE-2.8*1.44.3

* Only for the 22 states with both measures

The WAPA for New Hampshire is the average of polls assessing Shaheen against retired United States Army officer Donald J. Bolduc (12.5) and attorney Bryant “Corky” Messner (14.8); all five polls were conducted by the University of New Hampshire, a B- pollster with a prior Democratic lean of 2.8 points.

The Loeffler race is a “jungle” primary in which every candidate, regardless of party affiliation, will appear on the November 3 ballot; assuming no candidate tops 50%, a runoff election between the top two vote-getters will take place on January 5, 2021. Republican House Member Doug Collins of Georgia is also running, as are Democrats Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Matt Lieberman, son of 2000 Democratic vice-presidential nominee Joe Lieberman, and former United States Attorney Ed Tarver. WAPA combines polls of all candidates—which suggest Loeffler and Collins could be the top two vote finishers—and head-to-head matchups between each Republican and each Democrat. The latter show all three Democrats beating Loeffler, and all three losing to Collins—albeit based on only one or two polls. Overall, then, this is an extremely difficult election to assess.

The correlation between expected margin and WAPA is +0.92, meaning the polling is broadly in line with the underlying “fundamentals” of the election. Still, even in a strong Democratic year, Democratic Senate nominees are “overperforming” expectations by an average of 4.3 percentage points (“points”), at least in the 22 Senate elections with at least one poll.

Table 4, finally, shows the win probability for each Democratic nominee based upon fundamentals, current polling and a weighted combination of the two, as well as a final projected margin; for calculation details, please see here. Republican seats in which Democrats lead are in boldface, while Democratic seats in which Repubicans lead are in boldfaced italics.

Table 4: Estimated state margins and probability Democrat wins, 2020 Senate Elections

StateCurrent PartyP(D win): ExpectedP(D win): WAPAP(D Win): OverallPredicted Margin
MassachusettsDEM100.0% 100.0%33.7
Rhode IslandDEM100.0% 100.0%29.6
IllinoisDEM100.0% 100.0%26.3
New JerseyDEM99.9%100.0%100.0%22.3
DelawareDEM99.9% 99.9%24.1
OregonDEM99.7% 99.7%20.3
MichiganDEM96.6%99.9%99.6%9.8
VirginiaDEM95.8%100.0%99.5%19.5
New HampshireDEM93.7%100.0%99.3%13.4
New MexicoDEM96.5%100.0%99.2%13.7
ColoradoGOP81.0%100.0%97.8%9.7
MinnesotaDEM92.2%97.7%97.2%6.5
ArizonaGOP29.2%99.8%92.5%7.6
MaineGOP91.9%88.4%88.8%4.5
North CarolinaGOP39.1%94.4%88.6%4.1
IowaGOP46.2%67.1%64.3%1.2
MontanaGOP2.0%38.7%33.1%-2.8
Georgia–PerdueGOP21.6%19.9%20.1%-2.8
KansasGOP0.8%9.4%8.2%-5.7
Georgia–LoefflerGOP30.6%4.4%8.1%-4.8
South CarolinaGOP5.0%8.7%8.1%-5.1
AlaskaGOP1.6%1.7%1.7%-7.3
TexasGOP5.6%0.3%0.8%-8.6
LouisianaGOP0.5% 0.5%-17.4
MississippiGOP2.7%0.0%0.4%-11.3
TennesseeGOP0.3% 0.3%-18.6
NebraskaGOP0.1% 0.1%-21.0
South DakotaGOP0.1% 0.1%-21.0
AlabamaDEM0.3%0.0%0.1%-11.8
KentuckyGOP0.0%0.1%0.1%-16.7
ArkansasGOP0.0% 0.0%-23.4
IdahoGOP0.0% 0.0%-29.4
West VirginiaGOP0.0% 0.0%-30.7
OklahomaGOP0.0%0.0%0.0%-26.3
WyomingGOP0.0% 0.0%-38.5

Two months before election day 2020, and with caveats about what voting will look like during a pandemic, Democrats are in a very strong position to recapture the Senate—albeit with few, if any, seats to spare.

Let us examine these 35 elections in groups.

Safe Democratic (9). Senators Edward Markey of Massachusetts, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Richard Durbin of Illinois, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Chris Coons of Delaware, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Mark Warner of Virginia and Shaheen should easily win reelection by double-digit margins, while in New Mexico House Member Ben Ray Lujan is expected to beat meteorologist Mark Ronchetti equally handily.

Lean/likely Democratic (2). The only reason first-term Senators Gary Peters of Michigan and Tina Smith of Minnesota are considered remotely vulnerable is the fact they represent two of the closest states in the 2016 presidential election, and because their polling averages are between four and five points below their election fundamentals. Still, each is very likely to prevail over businessman John James and former House Member Jason Lewis, respectively, by mid-single-digit margins.

Likely Democratic flips (4). Four incumbent Republican Senators—Gardner, McSally, Collins and Tillis—appear headed for defeat by single-digit margins. Gardner is the most likely to lose—by as much as 10 points—to former Governor John Hickenlooper. McSally is right behind, staring at a high-single-digit defeat by former astronaut Mark Kelly, husband of former Arizona House Member Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot and severely wounded in January 2011.

Collins and Tillis, meanwhile, trail Maine State House of Representatives Speaker Sara Gideon and former North Carolina State Senator Cal Cunningham, respectively, by around five points. While not guaranteed to win by any means—Collins won her last election by 37 points, and North Carolina leans 6.0 points Republican—right now these two states are likely Democratic pickups.

Toss-ups (2). Based solely on expectations—incumbent Republican in a lean-Republican state running for reelection in a strong Democratic year—Ernst is no more than even money to win reelection. And while she only trails businesswoman Theresa Greenfield by 1.3 points, that is enough to make Ernst the slightest of underdogs.

On the flip side is heavily Republican Montana, where Steve Daines seeks a second term. The fundamentals suggest Daines should easily win reelection by between 10 and 15 points. However, Governor Steve Bullock is mounting a very strong challenge, trailing by only 0.9 points overall—albeit a few points lower than when he declared his candidacy in early March.

Democrats could easily win both of these races, lose both of these races or split them, with Greenfield likelier to win than Bullock.

Likely Republican flip (1). While Jones is outpacing his fundamentals—running as a Democratic incumbent after only three years in a very Republican state—by 8.6 points, he remains very unlikely to prevail against former college football head coach Tommy Tuberville. In fact, losing “only” by single digits would be a moral victory.

Lean/likely Republican (6). Setting aside the Loeffler reelection, Democrats appear likely to fall short in Georgia’s other Senate election, Kansas, South Carolina, Alaska and Texas. Journalist Jon Ossoff, State Senator Barbara Bollier, former South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison, orthopedic surgeon (and Independent) Al Gross, and United States Air Force veteran Mary Jennings “M. J.” Hegar, respectively, are overperforming expectations by an average 6.3 points against Senator David Perdue, House Member Roger Marshall and Senators Lindsey Graham, Dan Sullivan and John Cornyn. However, they are doing so in states which lean Republican by an average of 16.6 points.

Still, just as Republican upsets in Michigan and Minnesota cannot be ruled out, neither can Democratic victories in any of these states, with Ossoff likeliest to do so, followed by Harrison. And, in Texas, roughly 20% of voters in polls conducted in July and August are still undecided, which is a warning sign for any incumbent.

It is worth noting that a Harrison victory would give South Carolina two African-American Senators, which has not happened in any state since Reconstruction.

Likely Republican/Sleepers (2). In Mississippi, first-term Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith is again facing former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, who lost by only 7.2 points in 2018. One year later, Republican Tate Reeves defeated Democrat Jim Hood by only 5.5 points in an open gubernatorial election. Currently, Espy trails by 11.0 points, very close to the 12.9 points suggested by the fundamentals. Based on recent history, then, this race could yet tighten, though Hyde-Smith is still heavily favored.

In Kentucky, meanwhile, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell seeks a 7th term against former United States Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath. The fundamentals say McGrath should be trailing by nearly 24 points. However, she is “only” down by 9.6 points, and in six polls conducted since June 1, 2020, she trails in three by 3-5 points and in three by 17-22 points, making this a very difficult race to assess. As with Espy, though, McGrath is highly likely to lose by mid-to-high single digits.

Safe Republicans (9). Senators Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Mike Rounds of South Dakota, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, James Risch of Idaho, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and James Inhofe of Oklahoma should easily win reelection by double-digit margins. And in Tennessee and Wyoming, respectively former United States Ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty and former House Member Cynthia Lummis are expected to win by similar margins.

In sum, Democrats appear all but certain to net at least one Senate seat, losing in Alabama while winning in Arizona and Colorado, and are very well-positioned to win seats in Maine and North Carolina, giving them a 50-50 tie in the Senate—broken by Vice President Mike Pence or Harris. To be fair, though, it is difficult to see how Democrats win all four seats while losing the presidential election, so I assume Harris breaks the tie in this scenario.

The question, then, is whether Democrats can add further seats in Iowa, where they are slightly favored, and/or Montana, where they are slight underdogs…and possibly in Georgia, where Ossoff has a roughly 1-in-5 chance of winning. Democrats have further pickup opportunities in some Republican states, albeit with at most an 8% chance.

Bottom line: The most likely range of Democratic pickups is three to five, with a plausible range of one to six—exactly what the fundamentals suggested in May 2019. If I simply add up the probabilities Democrats win each race, they sum to +4.1, though this is very “back of the envelope” methodology.

Another way to think about these races is to observe how Democratic win probabilities change with either of two reasonable assumptions:

  1. All polls are overestimating Democratic margins by 3.0 points.

In this scenario, Democrats remain almost certain to win in Arizona (89.0%) and Colorado (95.5%) while losing in Alabama. Maine (61.1%) and North Carolina (67.1%) are now toss-ups, though Democrats would still be the slightest of favorites in both. But Iowa would now lean Republican (29.0%), with Democrats no more than an 8.5% favorite (Montana) anywhere else. Meanwhile, Democrats would still be favored in Minnesota (84.0%), but it would not be a comfortable lead.

Bottom line: Democrats could net zero seats, or they could net three seats, with a gain of one or two the likeliest outcome; summing the probabilities suggest a 2.3 seat gain, making Democrats modest underdogs to win back the Senate.

  • All polls are underestimating Democratic margins by 3.0 points.

While Alabama is still very likely to flip Republican, Democrats would be at least a 94% favorite to win Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina—and an 88.6% favorite to win Iowa—for a minimum net gain of four seats. Montana (65.3%) and the Perdue race in Georgia (53.4%) would be toss-ups, with Democrats the slightest of favorites, albeit by 0.2 points, suggesting long recounts in both states. Should Democrats prevail in both, that increases the net gain to six seats. And Democrats would now only be modest underdogs in toss-up races in Kansas (32.5%) and South Carolina (32.2%), with the difficult-to-assess Loeffler race in Georgia (27.2%) just beyond that. However, they would still be unlikely to win in Alaska (14.3%) or Texas (4.5%).

Bottom line: In this scenario, Democrats net four to eight seats, with five or six the likeliest outcome. Summing the probabilities, though, suggests a Democratic net gain of 6.1 seats, making them very strong favorites to win back the Senate.

**********

Flying well under the radar are 11 states holding gubernatorial elections in 2020. Democrats are defending four of them; John Carney, Jay Inslee and Roy Cooper are all-but-guaranteed to be reelected in Delaware, Washington and North Carolina, respectively. The latter is somewhat surprising, given Cooper’s 0.2 point upset win over Republican incumbent Pat McCrory in 2016; the fundamentals suggest a 6.9-point lead, while the polls have him up 11.8 points—something in between these two seems likely.

The other governor’s mansion Democrats are defending is in Montana, where Bullock is stepping down after two terms (and running for the Senate). Montana leans 18.6 points more Republican than the nation, and Democrats Bullock and Brian Schweitzer have governed the state for 16 consecutive years, making it ready for a Republican flip; the fundamentals say House Member Greg Gianforte should win by 11.4 points. And while Democratic Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney is “only” trailing by 5.8 points, that is not close enough to give Democrats more than a 2.8% chance of winning.

Six Republican governors, meanwhile, are running for reelection—and all are expected to win by at least 9.3 points. This includes heavily Democratic Vermont, where Phil Scott leads Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman by 31.9 points, and partisan-neutral New Hampshire, where Chris Sununu leads both State Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes and Executive Council of New Hampshire member Andru Volinsky by more than 30 points. The other four are Eric Holcomb in Indiana, Mike Parson in Missouri, former Democrat Jim Justice in West Virginia and Doug Burgum in North Dakota. In Utah, finally, Gary Herbert is stepping down after eight years; Republican Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox is a near-lock to hold the governor’s mansion against Democratic law professor Christopher Peterson.

Bottom line: Even if one assumes polls are over- or under-estimating Democratic strength by three points, Montana is still the only state likely to flip partisan control—from Democratic to Republican. In fact, across all three scenarios, the range of “summed probabilities” is -0.50 to -0.76, with only the strong Democratic lean of Vermont keeping it even that close to no net change.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…


[1] That is, some variant of “If the election for United States House of Representatives was held today, would you vote for the Democrat or the Republican in your Congressional district?”

Organizing by themes I: American politics

This site benefits/suffers/both from consisting of posts about a wide range of topics, all linked under the amorphous heading “data-driven storytelling.”

In an attempt to impose some coherent structure, I am organizing related posts both chronologically and thematically.

Given that I have multiple degrees in political science, with an emphasis on American politics, it is not surprising that I have written a few dozen posts in that field…and that is where I begin.

I Voted sticker

**********

I started by writing about the 2016 elections, many based on my own state-partisanship metric (which I validate here).

The absurdity of the Democratic “blue wall” in the Electoral College

Hillary Clinton’s performance in five key states (IA, MI, OH, PA, WI)

Why Democrats should look to the south (east and west)

How having (or not) a college degree impacted voting

An alternative argument about gerrymandering

An early foray into what I call “Clinton derangement”

The only statistic from 2016 that really matters

**********

Here are a few posts about presidential polling (before FiveThirtyEight jumped on the bandwagon)…

Be careful interpreting President Trump’s approval polls

…and the 2017 special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District (GA-6)

Ossoff and the future of the Democratic Party

Using GA-6 polls to discuss statistical significance testing (spoiler: I am not a fan)

**********

And then I started looking ahead to 2018…first to control of the United States House of Representatives (“House”). Note that posts are often cross-generic…

An alternative argument about gerrymandering

The impact of voting to repeal (and not replace) Obamacare (May 2017)

I debut my simple forecast model (June 2017)

Making more points about polls and probability

A March 2018 update

A followup March 2018 update (after which I stopped writing about the 2018 House elections)

…then the United States Senate

The view from May 2017

What it meant that the Senate voted NOT to repeal Obamacare in July 2017

The view from December 2017

…and, finally, races for governor in 2017 AND 2018.

The view from June 2017

A tangentially-related post may be found here.

**********

After Labor Day 2018, I developed models (based on “fundamentals” and polls) to “forecast” the Senate elections…

September 4

September 13

October 23

…and those for governor (the October 23 post addressed both sets of races)

September 16

These culminated in…

My Election Day cheat sheet

And my own assessment of how I did (spoiler: not half bad)

Speaking of assessments, I took a long look at my partisan lean measure here.

And I carefully examined some polling aggregation assumptions here.

**********

Beginning in April 2019, I turned my attention to the 2020 elections.

First came a wicked early look at the relative standings of the dozens of women and men actually or potentially seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination:

April 2019

Then came a wicked early look at the 2020 presidential election itself.

April 2019

And, of course, a wicked early look at races for Senate (2020) and governor (2019-20).

With a post-Labor-Day update. Which I followed with an October update.

With the first of regular updates to both the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination and the 2020 presidential election in May 2019

This post both set up the first Democratic debates and had good news for Democrats looking ahead to 2020.

This post set up the second Democratic debates and drew some conclusions about who “won” and “lost” the first debates.

This post updated the data for August 2019 and drew some conclusions about who “won” and “lost” the second debates.

Ditto for September 2019, October 2019, November 2019,  December 2019, January 2020

Once voting commenced in the 2020 Democratic presidentil nomination process, I wrote posts specific to the

As for the 2020 general election:

On November 17, 2020, I wrote a comprehensive summary of the elections, including assessing my own projections.

I also weighed into the question of who former Vice President Joe Biden should name as his vice-presidential running mate.

And three assessments of Emerson College polls (one, two, three).

And one comparison of Emerson polling to that of Quinnipiac University.

**********

Finally, there are other politics posts that defy easy categorization.

I indulged in some speculative alternative history about the presidential elections of 1948 and 2000.

I delineated issue differences between Democrats and Republicans.

I got a bit personal here and here, concluding with the fact that, despite overlapping in the same residential college at Yale for two years, I did NOT know Associate Justice Brett Kavanagh at all.

I argued for the abolition of the Electoral College…then observed the advantage Republicans have.

Until next time…

2018 Election Cheat Sheet: How did I do?

I should apologize to our younger daughter’s friend’s mother.

In my…determination…to be settled in front of the television with snacks and beverages at precisely 6 pm EST on November 6, 2018, I might have been a bit abrupt collecting our youngest daughter from a local taqueria where said friend’s mother had generously taken them to supper (after schlepping them and one other girl back from gymnastics class).

However, thanks to help from the same daughter, I was at my post at the appointed time. Our youngest daughter even carefully picked out all of the red M&M’s (plain and peanut) from their decorative bowls. There were no red cashews to extract (but they were still delicious).

I also had a blue mechanical pencil to mark my 2018 Election Guide, as well as an entire 12-pack of unflavored Polar Seltzer cans sitting on the floor to my left (as the evening turned into midnight and beyond, the line of empty blue cans on the floor emanating from the carton grew longer and longer).

And sitting within reaching distance of my right arm was this colorful fowl.

IMG_4010

You know it is a celebration in our home when “the rooster” makes an appearance. Rather than ice water, however, this evening it was filled with blue lagoons—which my wife Nell still cannot decide more closely resembles Windex or Scope.

As the early returns from Indiana and Kentucky were being tabulated on MSNBC, however, a sinking feeling set in that I would not be drinking as much of this cocktail as I had anticipated. I remembered from 2008 that Indiana’s Democratic pockets report much later than its eastern-half Republican counties, but Democratic Senator Joe Donnelly was trailing by well over 20 percentage points in a race that both FiveThirtyEight.com and I had labeled “Lean Democratic.” (Republican Mike Braun would eventually defeat Donnelly by 5.9 percentage points [points]) And Democrat Amy McGrath was not faring as well in the early tallies from the 7th Congressional District (CD) in Kentucky against incumbent Republican Andy Barr as I had hoped. (McGrath would eventually lose by 3.2 points.)

When polls closed at 7 pm EST in Vermont and Virginia, MSNBC almost immediately projected wins in their respective United States Senate (Senate) races for Independent Bernie Sanders and Democratic Senator Tim Kaine—meaning that the first calls of the night were for men I had voted for in 2016 in completely different contexts—Sanders in the Massachusetts Democratic Presidential Primary and Kaine as the Democratic nominee for vice president.

That sinking feeling only grew worse as the FiveThirtyEight.com “live tracker” of Democrats’ chances of regaining control of the United States House of Representatives (House) dipped below 50% around 8:30 or so. Nell, worried, yelled into the living room, “I am not hearing any whoops or cheers.”

At just before 9 pm (when it was already clear Republicans would not only maintain control of the Senate but add seats), the indefatigable Steve Kornacki  announced NBC was giving the Democrats only a 65% chance of regaining the House, projecting they would finish with between 216 (2 too few) and 232 House seats; this translates to a net gain of between 21 and 37 seats.

Finally, however, as votes were counted in Virginia and, especially, New York, both the FiveThirtyEight.com tracker and the NBC “big board” manned brilliantly by Kornacki creeped higher and higher.  I do not remember when MSNBC projected Democrat Abigail Spanberger had defeated two-term Republican Dave Brat in Virginia’s 7th CD, but it was then I realized the anticipated “blue wave” (at least in the House) would materialize. When Democrat Max Rose beat two-term incumbent Republican Dan Donovan in New York’s 11th CD (on Republican-leaning Staten Island), it was off to the races.

Finally, at just before 11 pm EST, MSNBC (OK, I cannot find when they made their call, but it was likely within a few minutes of CNN) projected a Democratic takeover of the House.

A few minutes later, a not-yet-asleep Nell came downstairs to say that one of our politically-like-minded downstairs neighbors had texted her appreciation of my (partially-restrained) whooping-dancing “We got the House! We got the House!”

For the first time since the election of Republican Donald J. Trump as president of the United States, accompanied by a Republican House and Senate, plus a conservative-leaning Supreme Court, I truly exhaled.

**********

In my previous post, I laid out a series of “projected” final margins for 17 (of 35) Senate races and all 36 governor’s races. In this post, I described two simple models of the number of House seats Democrats would net in 2018 based upon the change from 2016 in the Democratic (vs. Republican) margin in the total vote cast nationwide for the House. In 2016, Democrats lost the total national House vote by 1.1 points (while netting 6 seats as they improved by 4.7 points from 2014).

Votes are still being tabulated across the country, especially in California, but enough time has passed since Election Day to see how my projections compared to the actual margins (and to the FiveThirtyEight.com assessment of those same races), starting with the House.

House. According to the indispensable Cook Political Report vote tracker, as of 6 pm EST on November 18, 2018, nearly 110.7 million votes had been cast in House races. For perspective, 81.0 million, 86.8 million and 78.8 million House votes were cast in the last three midterm elections (2006, 2010, 2014), respectively. And that total was 129.8 million in the last presidential election year (2016). (House election data from the Cook tracker and here).

Democrats have thus far won 53.0% of those votes, compared to 45.7% for Republicans (and 1.3% for a smattering of third-party candidates) for a Democratic margin of 7.7 points…and an 8.8-point shift towards the Democrats from 2016 (and 13.5 points from 2014!)

According to my preferred “simple” model (change in margin only), a shift of 8.8 points would yield a gain of 26 seats (and give Democrats a 72% chance of regaining House control). My “complex” model (accounting also for whether the election was a midterm or not) was more bullish on the net seat gain (30) but more bearish on the probability (64%). Averaging across the two models yields a net of 28 seats and a 68% probability of Democratic House control.

Meanwhile, FiveThirtyEight.com’s final House forecasts projected a Democratic national House margin of 9.2 points (the median of their Lite, Classic and Deluxe forecasts) and a net gain of 38 (ditto) seats. Using the FiveThirtyEight.com projected House margin ups my average projected House seat gains to 33 with an 82% chance of regaining control.

With three-seven House races yet to be called, the likeliest outcome is that Democrats will net 38 (36-41) House seats, widely geographically dispersed: six (with Republican David Valadao the likely winner in CD 21) in California; four each in New Jersey and Pennsylvania (+5 D, +1 R); three each in New York and Virginia; two each in Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Texas; and one each in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia (with incumbent Republican Rob Woodall leading Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux by just 419 votes[1]), Kansas, Maine, New Mexico (almost certainly), South Carolina and Washington. Incumbent Republican Mia Love also leads Ben McAdams by just 419 votes. Minnesota showed no net change as Democrats flipped the 2nd and 3rd CDs while Republicans flipped the 1st and  8th CDs.

Based on the information I had on the morning of Election Day, that is 5 (3-8) seats more than I projected Democrats to net, well below the average nine seats by which my models “missed” across 24 previous midterm elections—and consistent with my models underestimating gains/losses in “wave” elections.

FiveThirtyEight.com almost perfectly nailed the actual Democratic net gain of seats, though (as of this writing) they overestimated the Democratic national House margin by 1.5 points; historically, this is not an especially large difference.

Most fascinating, however, is that a net gain of 38 House seats would actually be one seat higher than the upper range of what NBC was projecting at 9 pm EST on Election Day. Vote counting may be laborious and require infinite patience, but it is ultimately rewarding.

Senate. Table 1 compares the actual margin (Democratic percentage of total vote minus Republican percentage of total vote) in 33 2018 U.S. Senate races; italicized states indicate Republican pickups while boldfaced states indicate Democratic pickups. I excluded California, where incumbent Democrat Dianne Feinstein beat fellow Democrat Kevin de Leon by 9.0 points, and the special election in Mississippi, where incumbent Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith will face Democrat Mike Espy in a November 27 runoff. The latter race should be an easy win for Hyde-Smith in ruby red Mississippi (18.5 points more Republican than the nation as a whole, according to my 3W-RDM), but Hyde-Smith’s recent comments may make this race closer than expected.

Table 1. Comparing projected to actual 2018 U.S. Senate election margins*

State 3W-RDM Actual Difference

(Projected – Actual)

AV Difference

(Projected – Actual)

JBWM 538.com JBWM 538.com
Hawaii 34.3 42.2 -11.2 11.2
Vermont 27.7 39.9 -1.3 1.3
Maryland 22.6 33.9 -3.3 3.3
Massachusetts 22.1 24.8 -1.3 1.3
New York 21.6 33.0 4.8 4.8
Rhode Island 18.0 23.0 -5.6 5.6
Connecticut 12.8 20.2 -1.2 1.2
Delaware 12.5 22.2 -4.7 4.7
Washington 12.1 17.0 -5.4 5.4
New Jersey 12.0 10.6 1.5 -0.9 1.5 0.9
New Mexico 6.5 23.5 5.3 5.3
Maine 5.9 19.0 -0.9 0.9
Michigan 2.2 6.6 -6.3 -4.6 6.3 4.6
Nevada 2.0 5.0 4.7 4.0 4.7 4.0
Virginia 1.5 16.0 0.2 0.2
Minnesota SE 1.5 10.6 1.4 1.0 1.4 1.0
Minnesota 1.5 24.1 2.7 2.7
Wisconsin 0.7 10.8 -0.8 -2.0 0.8 2.0
Pennsylvania -0.4 12.8 -2.0 1.3 2.0 1.3
Florida -3.4 -0.2 -2.2 -3.4 2.2 3.4
Ohio -5.8 6.4 -5.7 -5.0 5.7 5.0
Arizona -9.7 2.2 0.7 0.5 0.7 0.5
Texas -15.3 -2.6 3.2 1.9 3.2 1.9
Missouri -15.9 -6.0 -5.5 -7.0 5.5 7.0
Indiana -16.3 -5.9 -7.1 -9.6 7.1 9.6
Mississippi -18.5 -20.3 0.8 0.8
Montana -18.6 3.5 -0.2 -1.2 0.2 1.2
Tennessee -25.8 -10.8 -6.3 -5.4 6.3 5.4
Nebraska -25.8 -19.6 -4.7 4.7
North Dakota -29.4 -10.8 -2.4 -6.0 2.4 6.0
Utah -33.1 -32.2 -2.8 2.8
West Virginia -35.5 3.3 0.0 -4.2 0.0 4.2
Wyoming -45.7 -37.0 7.1 7.1
Average Difference

(all projected elections)

 

-1.7

 

-1.9

 

3.1

 

3.7

Average Difference

(both projections only)

 

-1.7

 

-2.5

 

3.1

 

3.6

      *Excluding California (two Democrats) and the special election in Mississippi (runoff

      November 27, 2018)

States are sorted from most-to-least Democratic, according to their 3W-RDM score. The table presents the numeric and absolute value of the difference between the actual and projected Democratic margins in each election for both JustBearWithMe (JBWM) and FiveThirtyEight.com. Two sets of averages are presented at the bottom of the table: one was calculated using every election projected (I only projected the 17 most “interesting” races, while FiveThirtyEight.com projected all 35) and one was calculated only using the 16 listed Senate elections projected by both JBWM and FiveThirtyEight.com.

With Democratic Senator Bill Nelson conceding to Republican Rick Scott in the Florida Senate race, and the runoff in Mississippi still likely to result in a Republican hold, Democrats appear to have lost a net of 2 Senate seats. Besides Florida, Republicans ousted Democratic incumbents in Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota; they also won hard-fought races in Tennessee and Texas. Democrats, however, beat incumbent Republican Dean Heller in Nevada and won the open seat in Arizona vacated by Republican Jeff Flake.

My final back-of-the-envelope estimate was a loss of 0.9 Senate seats, while the median final FiveThirtyEight.com projection was a loss of 0.5 Senate seats; this is at most a 1.5 seat underestimate, depending on what happens in Mississippi, though I was slightly closer to the actual outcome. Both projections “called” the Florida and Indiana Senate races wrong—while FiveThirtyEight.com called the Missouri Senate race wrong as well.

Both JBWM and FiveThirtyEight.com overestimated Democratic margins in a swath of states stretching from North Dakota (average 4.2 points) south and east to Florida (2.8); states in which both projections overestimated the Democratic margin by at least four points were Ohio (5.4, on average), Michigan (5.5), Tennessee (5.9), Missouri (6.3) and Indiana (8.4). FiveThirtyEight.com also underestimated Republican margins in solidly Democratic Delaware, Hawaii, Rhode Island and Washington, as well as in solidly Republican Nebraska.

At the same time, both projections underestimated Democratic margins in Nevada (4.4) and, to a lesser extent, Texas (2.7); FiveThirtyEight.com also significantly underestimated Democratic margins in New Mexico, New York and Wyoming.

Overall, I overestimated Democratic Senate race margins by an average of 1.7 points (3.1 points in absolute terms) while FiveThirtyEight.com missed by an average of 1.9 points (3.7 in absolute terms). Only looking at the 16 Senate races we jointly assessed, FiveThirtyEight.com’s performance is slightly worse: overestimating Democratic margins by 2.5 points (though just 3.6 in absolute terms). This suggests FiveThirtyEight.com performed slightly better in Senate races in which the winner was clear well in advance.

Governor. Table 2 compares the current actual margin (Democratic percentage of total vote minus Republican percentage of total vote) in 35 2018 gubernatorial elections; italicized states indicate Republican pickups while boldfaced states indicate Democratic pickups. I excluded Nebraska because no polls were conducted of its gubernatorial election. States are again sorted from most-to-least Democratic.

Table 2. Comparing projected to actual 2018 U.S. Gubernatorial election margins**

State 3W-RDM Actual Difference

(Projected – Actual)

AV Difference

(Projected – Actual)

JBWM 538.com JBWM 538.com
Hawaii 34.3 29.0 -4.1 -1.1 4.1 1.1
Vermont 27.7 -15.0 -10.0 -3.6 10.0 3.6
California 23.2 22.6 5.7 5.2 5.7 5.2
Maryland 22.6 -12.7 -8.7 4.9 8.7 4.9
Massachusetts 22.1 -32.6 -2.7 1.4 2.7 1.4
New York 21.6 22.2 0.5 3.1 0.5 3.1
Rhode Island 18.0 15.5 0.1 -4.9 0.1 4.9
Illinois 14.7 15.4 -2.4 6.1 2.4 6.1
Connecticut 12.8 3.2 -3.9 -1.9 3.9 1.9
Oregon 8.7 6.4 -3.0 -0.1 3.0 0.1
New Mexico 6.5 14.4 5.2 5.0 5.2 5.0
Maine 5.9 7.6 -1.8 -4.7 1.8 4.7
Colorado 2.2 10.6 1.9 -1.8 1.9 1.8
Michigan 2.2 9.5 0.5 -0.2 0.5 0.2
Nevada 2.0 4.1 2.9 3.9 2.9 3.9
Minnesota 1.5 11.5 2.7 1.4 2.7 1.4
Wisconsin 0.7 1.2 -2.9 -0.5 2.9 0.5
New Hampshire 0.1 -7.0 -0.8 1.3 0.8 1.3
Pennsylvania -0.4 16.8 0.2 1.4 0.2 1.4
Florida -3.4 -0.4 -4.3 -4.6 4.3 4.6
Iowa -4.7 -2.7 -4.3 -3.5 4.3 3.5
Ohio -5.8 -4.2 -5.4 -5.7 5.4 5.7
Georgia -9.6 -1.4 -0.4 0.8 0.4 0.8
Arizona -9.7 -14.2 -2.5 -0.5 2.5 0.5
Texas -15.3 -13.3 2.6 3.6 2.6 3.6
South Carolina -15.7 -8.0 4.7 5.6 4.7 5.6
Alaska -19.2 -7.9 -5.1 -3.9 5.1 3.9
Kansas -23.4 4.5 7.1 5.8 7.1 5.8
Tennessee -25.8 -21.1 -5.7 -7.5 5.7 7.5
South Dakota -25.8 -3.4 -2.5 -0.9 2.5 0.9
Arkansas -28.2 -33.5 -3.5 -6.1 3.5 6.1
Alabama -28.4 -19.2 1.6 -3.0 1.6 3.0
Idaho -34.2 -21.6 -3.4 -5.2 3.4 5.2
Oklahoma -38.1 -12.1 -2.3 -4.9 2.3 4.9
Wyoming -45.7 -39.8 -4.2 -9.8 4.2 9.8
Average Projected-Actual -1.4 -0.7 3.4 3.5

      **Excluding Nebraska because no polls were conducted of its gubernatorial election

With Democrats Andrew Gillum in Florida and Stacey Abrams (sort of) in Georgia conceding to Republicans Ron DeSantis and Brian Kemp, respectively, Democrats netted six governor’s mansions. Democrats defeated Republican incumbents in Illinois and Wisconsin and won Republican-held open seats in Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Nevada and New Mexico; Republican Mike Dunleavey beat Democrat Mark Begich to win the open Independent-held governor’s mansion in Alaska. At the same time, Republicans cut their losses by narrowly holding the governor’s mansions in Florida, Georgia, Iowa and Ohio.

My final back-of-the-envelope estimate was a Democratic net gain of 9.2 governor’s mansions, while the median final FiveThirtyEight.com projection was 8.2 governor’s mansions. Both projections incorrectly “called” the gubernatorial elections in Florida, Iowa and Ohio for the Democratic candidate while mistakenly projecting a win in Kansas by Republican Kris Kobach over Democrat Laura Kelly.

Both JBWM and FiveThirtyEight.com overestimated Democratic margins by at least three points in Iowa (3.9 points on average), Idaho (4.3), Alaska (4.5), Florida (4.5), Arkansas (4.8), Ohio (5.5), Tennessee (6.6), Vermont (6.8) and Wyoming (7.0)—and, to a lesser extent Connecticut (2.9); all but Vermont[2] are at least 3.4 points more Republican than the nation as a whole. However, both projections underestimated Democratic margins in Nevada (3.4), New Mexico (5.1), South Carolina (5.2), California (5.5) and Kansas (6.5)—and to a lesser extent Texas (3.1); I addressed the woes besetting Kansas Republicans here.

Overall, I overestimated Democratic gubernatorial election margins by an average of 1.4 points (3.4 points in absolute terms) while FiveThirtyEight.com did so by an average of just 0.7 points (3.5 in absolute terms). Clearly, while both forecasts were identical in terms of correct and incorrect “calls,” FiveThirtyEight.com did a better job of assessing election probabilities and final margins.

Summary. Across all 51 Senate and gubernatorial elections “projected” by both JBWM and FiveThirtyEight.com, my projections overestimated Democratic margins by 1.5 percentage points on average, only slightly worse than the FiveThirtyEight.com average overestimation of 1.3 points. This is almost exactly the latter’s overestimation of the total national House Democratic margin by, at most, 1.5 points, suggesting that the 2018 midterm electorate was slightly more Republican than pollsters estimated (though well within historic parameters). The average miss in either direction of 3.4-3.5 points was also well within the range of recent elections.

However, these averages mask wide variation in Democratic under- and over-performance. In races with both a Senate and a gubernatorial election, Democrats had the most disappointing showings in Florida, Ohio and, especially, Tennessee; they also underperformed in Senate races in mostly Democratic states and in gubernatorial elections in mostly Republican states. Underperformance in two traditional presidential swing states—Florida and Ohio—could be of some concern to Democrats as they try to unseat President Trump in 2020.

On the brighter side, states where Democrats overperformed—California, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas—are all in the southwest (as is Arizona, where Democrats won a Senate race for the first time since 1988), an area of the country trending sharply Democratic. The closer-than-expected race for governor in South Carolina plus very close losses for governor in Florida and Georgia may also herald improved Democratic prospects in the southeast.

Besides geography, did state partisanship determine which state electorates were more or less Democratic than anticipated? For FiveThirtyEight.com’s gubernatorial election projections, the answer is…maybe. The Pearson correlation[3] between a state’s 3W-RDM and its numeric difference in gubernatorial margin is +0.44, while for the absolute value of the difference it is -0.37, suggesting that the more Democratic the state, the more Democrats overperformed in that state’s race for governor, while missing less in absolute terms. However, this could simply be an artifact of FiveThirtyEight.com’s newly-minted methodology for projecting gubernatorial elections.

The bottom line. As of January 3, 2019, Democrats will control the U.S. House of Representatives—most likely by 31 seats—for the first time in eight years, despite slightly “underperforming” in the total national House vote (which they still won by nearly 8 points). Their net gain of ~38 seats is the highest Democratic total since the Watergate elections of 1974 (49). Moreover, turnout in House elections—nearly 111 million votes and counting—will be at least 35.2% higher than the average turnout in 2006, 2010 and 2014. Democrats did not regain the Senate—suffering disappointing losses in Florida, Indiana and Missouri (as well as Tennessee and Texas)—but by winning elections in two southwestern states (Arizona, Nevada), they held their losses to two (or one, if they pull off an upset in Mississippi in 18 days), ground they will almost certainly make up in 2020, when the map is more favorable to Democrats (or, at least, far less unfavorable). Finally, they netted six governor’s mansions (including holding on to win a closer-than-expected race in Connecticut), despite disappointing losses in Florida, Georgia, Iowa and Ohio. Democrats will control governor’s mansions in 23 states—the most since the 2008 elections—which have a combined 280 electoral votes, meaning more than half of the nation’s population will have a Democratic governor.

Do not let a few disappointing results fool you. The Democratic wave in 2018 was strong and wide.

Until next time…

[1] We actually know Ms. Bourdeaux’s sister from our younger daughter’s former ballet class; following our move, we also share a dog park.

[2] Vermont voters may not have wanted to tell pollsters—in just three public polls—they were unwilling to vote for transgendered Democratic nominee Christine Hallquist.

[3] A number from -1.0 to +1.0 indicating the strength of the linear relationship between two variables. Briefly, a positive correlation means that as one variable increases the other variable does the same (and vice versa), while a negative correlation means that as one variable increases the other variable decreases (and vice versa). A correlation of zero means there is no association at all.

Your 2018 Election Cheat Sheet

The 2018 midterm elections end today, November 6, 2018. If you are not one of the 36 million Americans who have already voted, PLEASE vote! Democracy is too precious not to participate, as is your right.

I voted early, so starting at 6 pm EST (when some polls close in Indiana and Kentucky), I will be parked in front of MSNBC with my family, ample snacks—and a pitcher of blue lagoons (minus the cherry—maybe blueberries instead?).

blue lagoons

I will also have the following cheat sheet to keep track of the returns as they are announced. This sheet has one side each for United States Senate (“Senate”) and United States governor’s races, sorted by when the last polling locations close in a state (some states cross time zones, meaning eastern polling locations close one hour earlier than western ones); Washington state conducts all of its balloting by mail, so I slotted it in between the 11 pm (EST) and midnight closings.

2018 Election Guide

The sheet lists the surnames of the Democratic and Republican (and occasional Independent) candidates in each race. Incumbents are underlined; the candidate of the party currently holding the seat is italicized. I also list two “projected” final vote margins for each race, one calculated by me (Just Bear With Me—JBWM) and one calculated by FiveThirtyEight.com (here and here); I did not calculate a margin for every Senate race. There is a column for the actual margin, plus columns for the difference between projected and actual margins. You can effectively ignore the Mississippi special election, which will almost certainly proceed to a November 27 runoff. I am curious how much better (or worse), on average, my methods will turn out to be compared to those designed by Nate Silver.

While I describe my algorithm (and each Senate race) here, with follow-ups here and  (plus details on each governor’s race) here, I made two recent alterations. First, all polls with a midpoint of October 25 or later are weighted twice as much as polls with a midpoint between September 1 and October 24. These latter polls, in turn, are weighted twice as much as polls with a midpoint of August 31 or earlier. Second, the calculation of how much polls are weighted over “fundamentals” now includes the number of polls conducted entirely in October or later.

Unlike FiveThirtyEight.com, I did not attempt to divine how undecided voters would vote; in essence, I assume (for better or worse) they will “break” the way decided voters did. To assess the impact of a systematic polling error in favor of one party or the other (averaging about 3.0 percentage points across the last four election cycles), you should add/subtract about 2.7 percentage points to the listed JBWM margin.

I colored seats projected to flip Democratic in blue and seats projected to flip Republican in red. I did not include the probability of a party winning each race, but (at least for the JBWM margins), you could think of any margin between +1.0 and-1.0 as a “toss-up,” any margin between 1.1 and 3.0 as “lean,” any margin between 3.1 and 6.0 as “likely,” any margin between 6.1 and 9.9 as “solid,” and any double-digit margin as “safe.”

By this method, in the Senate, there are two toss-up races: Missouri and Nevada, with the former leaning slightly Republican and the latter leaning slightly Democratic; I believe this is what will happen in those races. Arizona is likeliest to flip to the Democrats, while North Dakota is likeliest to flip to the Republicans. I thus call that the Senate breakdown will remain unchanged (using FiveThirtyEight’s margins, though, gives the Democrats a net gain of one seat, still one seat shy of a majority).

As for the governor’s races, I call a Democratic net gain of eight seats (Ohio, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Iowa and Nevada flipping Democratic, with Alaska flipping Republican), with South Dakota’s governor’s race a toss-up, leaning slightly Republican. FiveThirtyEight essentially agrees, though they are less certain about Iowa and Nevada.

But there are nine Senate and 10 governor’s races with a “JBWM” margin in the toss-up, lean or likely categories—meaning that there is still considerably uncertainty about how these races will end. This is one more reason that your vote is so vitally important.

Please vote, if you have not already!

Thank you!

And then sit back and track the returns on the cheat sheet with your company, snacks and beverages of choice.

Until next time…

A plea to readers with two weeks until Election Day 2018 ends…

The 2018 midterm elections end in two weeks, on November 6, 2018.

I write “end” because early voting is underway in 28 states, including Massachusetts. In fact, it opened Monday, October 22, and so I dragged our two daughters to Brookline Town Hall so they could participate in the process. And, yes, I voted straight Democratic with the exception of governor.

The best habits start early as our youngest daughter’s backpack reveals.

I Voted sticker.JPG

Along those lines—as a former political-scientist-in-training, lifelong political junkie and huge fan of democracy, I cannot strongly encourage you enough to vote.

Please.

This plea applies both to my American readers and to my many international readers, whenever the opportunity next presents itself.

**********

I do three things in this post.

  1. Update analyses of 2018 elections for the United States House of Representatives (“House”), United States Senate (“Senate”) and governor.
  2. Attempt to quantify the Republican polling “bounce” following the September 27, 2018 Senate Judiciary Committee testimony by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and United States Court of Appeals Circuit Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh.
  3. Reconsider House, Senate and gubernatorial election projections under two scenarios: one where polls underestimate Republican voting by 3 percentage points, and where polls underestimate Democratic voting by 3 percentage points.

**********

Updated analyses. As of Tuesday afternoon, October 23, 2018, the FiveThirtyEight forecast was that Democrats would win the national House vote by 8.9 percentage points. According to my “simple” model, that translates to an 89.8% probability Democrats net at least the 23 House seats they need to regain control of the House (projecting a 29 seat gain). By comparison, the FiveThirtyEight forecast is 85.8% and 40 seats—reasonably close to my less “complex” estimates.

Since I last wrote about Senate races, I created two new metrics.

  1. A weighted probability of Democratic victory
  2. A projected Democratic election day margin.

The victory probability is simply a weighted average of the “fundamentals” and adjusted polling average (APA) probabilities, with the latter increasing in weight based upon the number, recency and quality of published polls. I estimate the “fundamentals” probability by assuming a normal distribution whose standard deviation is that of my 3W-RDM measure (4.9), and I estimate the APA probability using a margin of error derived from the total sample size of all polls of each election conducted entirely in calendar year 2018, to which I add 3.0 to account for recent average polling bias (averaging across the last four elections in the table “Polling bias shifts from election to election”).

Weights are calculated using this formula:

#Polls/10 + #Sept/Oct Polls/2 + (Average Pollster Rating – 4.3) + %Sept/Oct Polls/10

For example, 51 total polls have been conducted since January 1, 2018 in the Florida Senate race, with 21 conducted since September 1, with an average pollster rating of 2.7 (using the letter-grade assigned by FiveThirtyEight on a scale where A+=4.3, A=4.0, etc.). Thus, the amount by which polls are weighted over fundamentals in this race is 51/10 + 21/2 + (2.7-4.3) + 41.2/10 = 5.1 + 10.5 – 1.6 + 4.1=18.1.

The “projected Democratic margin” is also the weighted average of the “fundamentals” and APA margins.

Table 1: Democratic Victory Probabilities and Margins in 10 Key 2018 Senate Elections

State Probability Democratic Victory Projected Democratic Margin Democratic Gain, Hold, Loss 3W-RDM
AZ 90.3% D+2.5 Gain R+9.7
FL 70.2% D+1.3 Hold R+3.4
IN 72.8% D+1.2 Hold R+16.3
MO 38.9% R+0.4 Loss R+15.9
MT 92.4% D+4.1 Hold R+18.6
NV 43.6% R+0.2 Hold D+2.0
ND 0.2% R+7.3 Loss R+29.4
TN 19.2% R+2.7 Hold R+25.8
TX 0.1% R+6.2 Hold R+15.3
WV 90.4% D+5.1 Hold R+35.5
  Lose 0.8 seats R+0.3 R+1 R+16.8

The rough-and-ready forecasts in Table 1 are consistent with anything from a Democratic loss of one seat to a Democratic gain of one seat, depending on outcomes of very close races in Missouri and Nevada (not to mention Florida, Indiana and, perhaps, Tennessee). In this, they are broadly in agreement with the FiveThirtyEight Senate forecast (19.0% chance Democrats regain Senate; average loss 0.5 seats), though they are far more bullish on Democratic chances in Missouri (61.1%), North Dakota (30.1%), Tennessee (24.5%) and Texas (21.5%), and more bearish on Arizona (63.4%).

Not to belabor the point, but given the extreme “redness” of these 10 states (16.8 percentage points more Republican than the nation, on average), even a net loss of “only” one Senate seat would be a moral victory of sorts for Democrats…though a net gain of two or more seats would be an actual victory, in that they would then control the Senate.

Table 2: Democratic Victory Probabilities and Margins in 19 Key 2018 Gubernatorial Elections

State Probability Democratic Victory Projected Democratic Margin Democratic Gain, Hold, Loss 3W-RDM
AK 18.8% R+2.3 Loss R+19.2
AZ 1.5% R+8.6 Hold R+9.7
CO 99.8% D+9.0 Hold D+2.2
CT 100.0% D+9.0 Hold D+12.8
FL 99.4% D+4.6 Gain R+3.4
GA 38.2% R+0.2 Hold R+9.6
IL 100.0% D+16.5 Gain D+14.7
IA 95.5% D+2.7 Gain R+4.7
KS 31.4% R+2.0 Hold R+23.4
ME 100.0% D+6.8 Gain D+5.9
MI 99.9% D+9.7 Gain D+2.2
MN 99.8% D+8.7 Hold D+1.5
NV 53.3% D+0.9 Gain D+2.0
NM 100.0% D+8.6 Gain D+6.5
OH 28.2% R+0.3 Hold R+5.8
OK 0.5% R+6.8 Hold R+38.1
OR 100.0% D+7.9 Hold D+8.7
SD 23.6% R+4.4 Hold R+25.8
WI 99.1% D+5.0 Gain D+0.7
AVE Gain 7.9 seats D+3.4 D+7 R+4.3

Table 2 presents Democratic victory probabilities and margins for those gubernatorial elections most likely to change partisan hands and/or with margin< 10 percentage points. This group of states is far more purple, averaging only 4.3 points more Republican than the nation as a whole.

The governor’s race in Alaska altered considerably on October 19, when Independent Governor Bill Walker suspended his reelection campaign and endorsed Democrat Mark Begich over Republican Mike Dunleavy, though the likely outcome (a Dunleavy win) remains the same. Otherwise, Democrats remain strongly favored to pick up governor’s mansions in Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico and Wisconsin, losing only in Alaska (Walker was effectively a Democrat). Extremely close races in Georgia, Nevada and Ohio could go either way, while Democrats are within shouting distance in Kansas and South Dakota (albeit, with only two polls). At the same time, once-possible pickups in Arizona and Oklahoma now seem far less likely.

The bottom line (again, in broad agreement with FiveThirtyEight) is that Democrats appear poised to net between six and nine governor’s mansions, putting them tantalizingly close to a majority.

A Kavanaugh bounce? There is evidence of a pro-Republican bounce in polling following the sequence of events between the Judiciary hearings on September 27 and the final confirmation vote (50-48 in favor) on October 6, including the week-long FBI investigation, spurred by increased Republican enthusiasm and voting likelihood.

To quantify the bounce, I compared Senate and gubernatorial race polls, unskewed and weighted by pollster rating, conducted before (though after August 1) and after September 27; all polls had to be completed by September 26 or started no earlier than September 27.

Table 3: 2018 Polling Data in 16 Key 2018 Senate Elections, Before and After Ford-Kavanaugh Hearings 

State Adjusted Poll Average

8/1-9/26

Adjusted Poll Average

9/27-10/22

Difference

(Pre-Post)

3W-RDM
AZ D+3.0 (11) D+0.3 (8) -2.8 R+9.7
FL D+0.3 (14) D+2.1 (10) +1.9 R+3.4
IN D+1.9 (3) D+0.2 (8) -1.6 R+16.3
MI D+14.7 (9) D+12.4 (3) -2.3 D+2.2
MN D+5.9 (4) D+10.1 (3) +4.2 D+1.5
MS R+13.5 (1) D+1.4 (1) -14.9 R+18.5
MO R+1.6 (7) R+0.8 (7) -0.8 R+15.9
MT D+5.2 (6) D+3.7 (1) -1.5 R+18.6
NV D+0.2 (5) R+1.6 (5) -1.8 D+2.0
NJ D+7.2 (2) D+6.9 (5) -0.3 D+12.0
ND R+4.6 (1) R+12.9 (2) -8.3 R+29.4
OH D+12.2 (6) D+16.5 (2) +4.3 R+5.8
PA D+15.3 (7) D+14.4 (1) -0.9 R+0.4
TN D+0.3 (8) R+6.2 (5) -6.5 R+25.8
TX R+3.2 (10) R+7.0 (7) -3.8 R+15.3
WV D+8.2 (7) D+7.9 (4) -0.3 R+35.5
WI D+7.9 (4) D+9.7 (2) +1.8 D+0.7
AVE D+4.4 D+2.4 -2.0 R+10.4

On average across 17 key Senate races (Table 3), the Republican position in the polls improved by an average of 2.0 percentage points following the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings. And the more Republican the state, the more the Republican candidate’s position improved (r=0.48)—as can be seen in Arizona, Mississippi, North Dakota, Tennessee and Texas (and also, surprisingly, in Democratic-leaning Michigan and Nevada). In fact, removing six states where the Democrat is strongly favored (albeit, four won by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in 2016; average 3W-RDM D+1.7), the Republican increase jumps to 3.7 percentage points (D+1.2 to R+2.6; r=0.31). At the same time, the bounce fades (-0.6; r=0.41) once you examine only states with at least two polls in both time periods.

Table 4: Polling Data in Selected 2018 Gubernatorial Elections, Before and After Ford-Kavanaugh Hearings

State Adjusted Poll Average

8/1-9/26

Adjusted Poll Average

9/27-10/19

Difference

(Pre-Post)

3W-RDM
AK R+0.9 (2) R+11.8 (2) -10.9 R+19.2
AZ R+6.5 (9) R+14.5 (6) -8.0 R+9.7
AR R+36.7 (1) R+37.7 (1) +1.0 R+28.2
CA D+10.6 (7) D+11.4 (4) +0.8 D+23.2
CO D+9.1 (2) D+7.5 (1) -1.6 D+2.2
CT D+8.5 (4) D+5.7 (3) -2.8 D+12.8
FL D+4.6 (13) D+4.7 (7) +0.1 R+3.4
GA D+1.9 (3) R+1.8 (6) -3.7 R+9.6
IL D+15.1 (4) D+17.6 (2) +2.5 R+16.3
KS R+0.4 (3) R+0.1 (1) +0.3 R+23.4
ME R+0.6 (1) D+7.8 (2) +8.4 D+5.9
MD R+16.9 (3) R+18.7 (2) -1.8 D+22.6
MA R+36.5 (2) R+38.8 (1) -2.3 D+22.1
MN D+6.9 (4) D+10.5 (3) +3.6 D+1.5
MI D+11.0 (8) D+11.2 (2) +0.1 D+2.2
NV D+2.1 (2) R+0.9 (4) -3.0 D+2.0
NH R+12.7 (2) R+13.7 (3) -1.0 D+0.1
NY D+1.0 (1) D+22.7 (2) +21.7 D+21.6
OH R+2.0 (5) D+1.3 (2) +3.3 R+5.8
OR D+7.0 (2) D+5.1 (1) -1.9 D+8.7
PA D+15.8 (6) D+11.4 (1) -4.4 R+0.4
RI D+7.3 (1) D+9.9 (2) +2.6 D+18.0
SC R+7.8 (2) R+23.7 (1) -15.9 R+15.7
TN R+14.5 (7) R+18.4 (3) -3.9 R+25.8
TX R+17.0 (8) R+20.1 (4) -3.1 R+15.3
WI D+3.3 (6) D+4.6 (2) +1.3 D+0.7
AVE R+1.8 R+2.6 -0.8 R+1.1

Alabama, Idaho, Iowa, New Mexico, Oklahoma have no polls after September 26

Hawaii had no polls between August 1 and September 26.

The trend was similar in 26 governor’s races (Table 4; average R+1.1)—an overall Republican increase of 0.8 percentage points, though once you remove New York (only one extreme outlier poll between August 1 and September 26), the increase becomes 1.7 percentage points. Again, the sharpest increases were in more Republican states (r=0.43), especially Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas (and, surprisingly, in purple-to-blue Connecticut, Nevada and Pennsylvania). Examining only states with at least two polls in both time periods, the Republican increase jumps to 1.5 percentage points (r=0.36).

So, the “Kavanaugh bounce” appears to have been roughly one-to-three percentage points, and it was most evident among Republican voters in Republican states—who may well have been “coming home” to their party anyway (the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings may only have started the process earlier). And there is evidence the bounce is fading somewhat—at least in House voting (which covers the entire nation rather than a Republican-leaning set of states). The FiveThirtyEight House forecast dropped from an 80.7% chance of a Democratic takeover on September 30 to 73.9% on October 4—but then started to increase again October 9. Similarly, the forecast was a 32.0% chance of a Democratic Senate takeover on September 30, but by October 11 the probability had dropped to 18.6%. After rising three percentage points since then, as of Tuesday afternoon, October 23, it stood at 18.9%; the gubernatorial forecast does not lend itself to an analogous comparison.

Alternate polling scenarios. That even a small Kavanaugh “bounce” was enough to reduce Democratic Senate and gubernatorial gains by one-to-two seats shows how close this election (or, at least, the binary outcome of “majority/minority status”) is.

This can be shown by increasing—or decreasing–every polling margin by three percentage points, consistent with the statistical “bias” polls have displayed in the last four even-numbered election years; the direction of that bias changes from year to year.

For the House, if the projected national Democratic margin in total vote was actually 5.9% (that is, a 7.0% election-to-election increase), the probability they regain control plummets to 25%, with an average net gain of only 20 seats, three fewer than necessary. By contrast, however, were the margin 11.9%, Democrats would be locks to regain House control (99.6% probability), netting an average of 40 seats. Put simply, this close to Election Day, Democrats could still fall achingly short of a House majority—or net as many as 20 more seats than necessary.

For the Senate, a pro-Democratic polling bias of three percentage points in the polls would result in losing seats in Florida, Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota, while gaining zero seats; this is the nightmare scenario for Democrats. And while a pro-Republican polling bias of “only” two percentage points would mean winning in Arizona, that would still be a net loss of three Senate seats.

By the same token, a pro-Republican polling bias of three percentage points would almost certainly give them majority status in the Senate, as they still lose Heidi Heitkamp’s seat in North Dakota while winning seats in Arizona, Nevada and (possibly after a recount) Tennessee.

That is, this close to Election Day, a range of losing four Senate seats and gaining two seats remains plausible for Democrats.

Finally, in governor’s races, Democrats appear to be far enough ahead in key states that even a pro-Republican polling bias of three percentage points would still net them five governor’s mansions (win in Florida, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, Wisconsin; lose in Alaska) with Iowa a virtual tie. But a pro-Democratic polling bias of three percentage points would truly unleash a blue gubernatorial tsunami: not only would they likely WIN in Alaska (and Iowa), they would most likely add Georgia, Kansas, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Dakota to their column. An historic net gain of 13 governor’s mansions could easily be in the offing.

**********

One overarching message from this barrage of data is that while pollsters do their best to model an unknown electorate and reduce uncertainty—the actual set of citizens who will turn out to vote remains, at best, a highly-educated guess and uncertainty (beyond just margin of error) still remains. Still, some good news for Democrats lies buried in a recent New York Times/Siena College poll. While the overall result was an eight percentage point lead for Republican Senator Ted Cruz (and among those whose certainty to vote is confirmed by prior voting behavior), Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke actually LED by three percentage points among those who said they were almost certain to vote.

The other overarching message, then, is simply that every vote counts—even the tiniest changes in the composition of the 2018 electorate could fundamentally who governs us for the next two years.

I cannot say this often or loudly enough…PLEASE VOTE!

Until next time…

2018 Gubernatorial Elections: Where the REAL action is

With the recent—and thoroughly warranted—attention on the excellent Democratic prospects for recapturing control of the United States House of Representatives (“House”) and their improving (though still less than 50%) chance to do the same in the United States Senate (“Senate”) this November 6, there has been insufficient focus on the 36 gubernatorial elections being held simultaneously.

In fact, I would argue that from a long-term perspective (innovative policy making, redistricting following the 2020 United States Census, etc.), this is where the real electoral action is. And currently Democrats only hold 17 governor’s mansions, compared to 32 held by Republicans and Independent Alaska Governor Bill Walker.

I first addressed the importance of governors in June 2017:

“In an age of increasing partisan polarization and Congressional gridlock, governors have emerged as crucial policy leaders far from Washington DC. On the conservative side are recent innovations by Republican Governors such as Sam Brownback of Kansas, Scott Walker of Wisconsin (prompting an unsuccessful 2012 recall election) and Rick Snyder of Michigan. Governors could choose whether or not to accept Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, as Republican Governor John Kasich of Ohio continues to note.

More recently, Democratic Governors have attempted to block Trump Adminstration actions. Washington’s Jay Inslee was a key leader in blocking iterations of the travel ban. California’s Jerry Brown has emerged as a leader on climate change, especially after President Trump announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Accord.”

In this post, I present an analogous comparison of “fundamentals” (state partisan lean [3W-RDM], expected Democratic “advantage” in 2018 of 8.9 percentage points, incumbency) to the current polling average (WAPA; average Democratic margin of all publicly-available polls conducted in 2018 adjusted for statistical bias and weighted by date and pollster quality) I recently conducted for 2018 Senate races. Unlike those races, however, I calculated a WAPA for all 36 races, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Summary of 2018 Polling Data in 2018 Gubernatorial Elections

State # Polls/ Pollsters Raw Margin Bias-Adjusted Margin Average Pollster Rating Adjusted

 Poll Average

Adjusted Pollster Average Final Ave
AL 2/2 D-19.5 D-19.6 2.7 D-18.4 D-18.4 D-18.4
AK 4/3 I-9.3 I-9.5 2.8/2.6 I-9.4 I-9.6 I-9.5
AZ 6/4 D-3.7 D-4.1 2.8/3.1 D-5.9 D-8.2 D-7.1
AR 2/2 D-37.0 D-37.5 3.0 D-37.2 D-37.2 D-37.2
CA 6/6 D+14.3 D+14.5 3.0 D+17.6 D+17.6 D+17.6
CO 2/2 D+6.0 D+5.9 3.0 D+5.8 D+5.8 D+5.8
CT 3/3 D+8.7 D+8.4 2.8 D+9.2 D+9.2 D+9.2
FL 10/7 D+2.9 D+2.8 2.8/2.8 D+3.0 D+3.4 D+3.2
GA 5/5 D+2.4 D+2.2 3.0 D+1.4 D+1.4 D+1.4
HI 2/1 D+25.0 D+25.7 3.3 D+24.8 D+24.8 D+24.8
ID 3/2 D-10.0 D-11.0 2.6/2.5 D-10.7 D-10.9 D-10.8
IL 12/9 D+14.4 D+14.6 2.3/2.4 D+14.6 D+14.7 D+14.7
IA 2/2 D+0.0 D-0.1 3.8 D+3.5 D+3.5 D+3.5
KS 3/2 D-0.3 D-0.9 2.7/2.7 D-1.0 D-0.5 D-0.8
ME 1/1 D+0.0 D-0.6 3.3 D-0.6 D-0.6 D-0.6
MD 6/5 D-14.0 D-14.0 2.8/2.8 D-13.7 D-13.5 D-13.6
MA 3/2 D-36.3 D-36.3 3.6/3.5 D-35.8 D-36.5 D-36.2
MI 10/8 D+8.2 D+8.2 2.8/3.0 D+8.9 D+9.2 D+9.1
MN 3/3 D+6.3 D+6.0 3.5 D+6.1 D+6.1 D+6.1
NE 0  
NV 5/4 D+0.4 D-0.4 2.8/2.6 D+0.2 D+0.2 D+0.2
NH 3/2 D-21.3 D-23.3 3.1/3.2 D-22.1 D-22.1 D-22.1
NM 6/6 D+7.3 D+6.7 2.9 D+6.8 D+6.8 D+6.8
NY 8/5 D+21.4 D+21.4 3.3/3.6 D+20.1 D+19.1 D+19.6
OH 12/9 D-2.3 D-2.5 2.7/2.7 D-0.3 D-0.5 D-0.4
OK 4/2 D+2.0 D+0.6 2.6/2.7 D-0.1 D-0.1 D-0.1
OR 5/5 D+4.2 D+4.5 2.5 D+4.2 D+4.2 D+4.2
PA 7/5 D+14.1 D+14.0 3.1/2.9 D+13.6 D+13.0 D+13.3
RI 3/2 D+1.3 D+1.7 3.1/3.0 D+1.7 D+1.6 D+1.6
SC 2/2 D-7.5 D-7.9 3.2 D-7.8 D-7.8 D-7.8
SD 1/1 D-4.0 D-5.4 2.0 D-5.4 D-5.4 D-5.4
TN 4/4 D-12.0 D-12.2 3.2 D-15.4 D-15.4 D-15.4
TX 11/9 D-14.7 D-14.6 3.0/2.9 D-15.4 D-15.1 D-15.2
VT 0  
WI 8/5 D+3.9 D+3.6 3.5/3.5 D+3.6 D+3.9 D+3.7
WY 0  
AVE 5/4 D-1.5 D-1.8 3.0/3.0 D-1.6 D-1.7 D-1.7

Gubernatorial elections are woefully under-polled: only 163 polls have been conducted for 36 races in 2018, or just 4.5 per election. These polls were conducted by an average of 3.6 pollsters, meaning most pollsters have only polled these races a single time. Only five of these elections—Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Texas—have been polled as many as 10 times, with Illinois and Ohio being polled 12 times each. At the same time, Nebraska, Vermont and Wyoming have not been (publicly) polled at all, Maine and South Dakota have only been polled once, and 13 states have only been polled two or three times. Of these 163 polls, just over half (52.1%) were conducted since July 1. Overall, the quality of the polling is marginally better than in the Senate races I analyzed recently: the average poll was conducted by a B-rated pollster. And their skew (according to the FiveThirtyEight.com pollster ratings) has only been slightly pro-Democratic (0.3 percentage points, on average—note, however, that 24 polls were conducted by non-rated pollsters).

**********

This analysis is divided into five parts:

  1. Safe seats
  2. States with Republican governors most likely to elect a Democrat
  3. States with Democratic governors that are (not very) vulnerable.
  4. Popular Republican governors in Democratic states
  5. Alaska

Just as a reminder, “expected” margin is each state’s 3W-RDM plus 8.9 plus party-specific incumbency advantage; I described how I calculate incumbency advantage in my updated Senate race post. The only difference with gubernatorial races is that I used data from the 2014, 2010 and 2006 elections—the last three times these 36 states (excluding New Hampshire and Vermont which hold gubernatorial elections every two years). Also, Republican incumbency advantage, for unknown reasons, dropped from a bonus of 16.2 percentage points (“points”) in 2006 to just 0.5 points in 2010 to a loss of 8.4 points in 2014. Averaging these values yields a Republican gubernatorial incumbency “advantage” of just 2.6 points; Democrats, by contrast, had gubernatorial incumbent bonuese of 24.0, 1.4 and 7.1 point, respectively, for an average of 10.8 points.

Safe seats. Three heavily Democratic states (average 3W-RDM=D+26.4) will remain in Democratic hands. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is ahead of Duchess County Executive (and four third-party candidates, including former Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon on the Working Families line) by 19.6 percentage points (“points”) though Cuomo “should” be ahead by 41.3 points; weighting polls 3-1 over fundamentals puts Cuomo ahead about 27 points. Similarly, Hawaii Governor David Ige leads Republican State House Minority Leader Andria Tupola by 24.8 points; an expected lead of 54.0 points works out to Ige being ahead by 34.6 points. Finally, California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newson leads Republican businessman John Cox by 17.6 percentage points; an expected lead of 32.1 points works out to Newson being ahead by 22.4 percentage points.

Next January, nine solidly Republican states (Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Nebraska, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Wyoming; average 3W-RDM=D-27.2) will still have Republican governors (Table 2); incumbents are bold-faced. Because only one poll has been released of the South Dakota governor’s race, WTD is the simple average of Expect and WAPA. The one remotely-possible upset here is South Carolina if the Democratic wave crests high enough.

Table 2: Safe Republican governorships in Republican states

State Democrat Republican Expect WAPA Diff WTD
AL Maddox Ivey D-20.8 D-18.4 D+2.4 D-19.0
AR Henderson Hutchinson D-22.0 D-37.2 D-15.2 D-33.4
ID Jordan Little D-25.3 D-11.0 D+14.3 D-14.6
NE Krist Ricketts D-19.6 n/a n/a n/a
SC Smith McMaster D-8.1 D-7.8 D+0.3 D-7.9
SD Sutton Noem D-16.9 D-5.4 D+11.5 D-11.2
TN Dean Lee D-16.9 D-15.4 D+1.5 D-15.8
TX Valdez Abbott D-9.1 D-15.2 D-6.2 D-13.7
WY Throne Gordon D-36.8 n/a n/a n/a
AVE     D-19.5 D-15.8 D+1.2 D-16.5

Here are the nominees in each election (Democrat listed first):

  • Alabama: Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox vs. Governor Kay Ivey
  • Arkansas: Former Arkansas Executive Director of Teach for America Jared Henderson vs. Governor Asa Hutchinson
  • Idaho: Former State Representative Paulette Jordan vs. Lieutenant Governor Brad Little
  • Nebraska: State Senator Bob Krist vs. Governor Pete Ricketts
  • South Carolina: State Representative James Smith vs. Governor Henry McMaster
  • South Dakota: State Senate Minority Leader Billie Sutton vs. U.S. Representative Kristi Noem
  • Tennessee: Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean vs. businessman Bill Lee
  • Texas: Former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez vs. Governor Greg Abbott
  • Wyoming: Former State House Minority Leader Mary Throne vs. State Treasurer Mark Gordon

States with Republican governors most likely to elect a Democrat. Thirteen states that currently have Republican governors represent the best opportunities for Democrats to pick up governor’s mansions (Table 3); on average, these states lean Republican (average 3W-RDM=D-4.8). However, term limits mean nine states have no incumbent running, creating an opening for strong Democratic challengers. And Iowa’s Kim Reynolds only became governor when Governor Terry Branstad became Ambassador to China in May 2017). Note that for Iowa (2 polls) and Maine (1 poll), WTD is the simple average of WAPA and Expect.

Table 3: States with Republican governors most likely to elect a Democrat

State Democrat Republican Expect WAPA Diff WTD
IL Pritzker Rauner D+21.0 D+14.7 D-6.3 D+16.2
MI Whitmer Schuette D+11.1 D+9.1 D-2.0 D+9.6
NM Lujan-Grisham Pearce D+15.4 D+6.8 D-8.6 D+8.9
ME Mills Moody D+14.8 D-0.6 D-15.4 D+7.1
WI Evers Walker D+7.0 D+3.7 D-3.2 D+4.5
FL Gillum DeSantis D+5.5 D+3.2 D-2.3 D+3.8
IA Hubbell Reynolds D+2.9 D+3.5 D+0.6 D+3.2
NV Sisolak Laxalt D+10.9 D+0.2 D-10.7 D+2.9
GA Abrams Kemp D-0.7 D+1.4 D+2.1 D+0.8
OH Cordray DeWine D+3.1 D-0.3 D-3.4 D+0.5
KS Kelly Kobach D-14.5 D-0.8 D+13.7 D-4.2
AZ Garcia Ducey D-3.5 D-7.1 D-3.6 D-6.2
OK Edmondson Stitt D-29.2 D-0.1 D+29.1 D-7.4
AVE     D+3.4 D+2.6 D-0.8 D+3.1

 Of these elections, the one for which you can most clearly say “stick a fork in it, it’s over” is Illinois. Billionaire businessman Bruce Rauner defeated unpopular incumbent governor Pat Quinn in the Republican 2014 wave by less than four points. Four years later, an equally-unpopular Rauner appears headed for a 16.2-point loss to billionaire venture capitalist J.B. Pritzker.

Two additional races also have the Democrat heavily favored. The specter of Flint’s water crisis hangs over the race in Michigan, where Governor Rick Snyder—who championed the emergency manager law that precipitated the crisis—is term-limited. Former State House Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer could crack double-digits against state Attorney General Bill Schuette; her adjusted lead in six polls since mid-July is 10.5 points, nearly the “expected” margin. New Mexico, meanwhile, is merely reverting to partisan form (D+6.5) after Governor Susana Martinez won two elections in Republican wave years. U.S. Representative Michelle Lujan Grisham would be the nation’s first Latina governor; she seems headed for a high single-digit win over U.S. Representative Steve Pearce.

Maine’s penchant for supporting Independent candidacies (as in Senator Angus King) likely cost Democrats the governor’s mansion in 2010 and 2014. In 2010, Independent Eliot Cutler won 35.9% of the vote, while Democrat Libby Mitchell only won 18.8%, allowing Republican Paul LePage to win with 37.6% of the vote. LePage proved…controversial…though he still won reelection in 2014 with by just 4.8 points over Democrat Mike Michaud; Cutler’s 8.0% could have made the difference. In 2018, however, state Attorney General Cheryl Mills is in a strong position to defeat businessman Shawn Moody (who won 5.0% as an Independent in 2010). An early August poll showed the race tied (with 22% other/undecided), but Mills “should” be ahead around 15 points; a mid-single-digits win for Mills seems highly plausible.

In four other states with a Republican governor, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee is less-heavily favored. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was first elected in the 2010 Republican wave, surviving a recall attempt in 2012 before winning reelection in 2014. This year, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers is likely to defeat Walker, whose ill-fated run for president in 2015 did not help him. Evers, who “should” be ahead by 7.0 points, leads by 3.7 points (though only by 2.2 points since mid-August), suggesting a mid-single-digits victory. Florida Governor Rick Scott is term-limited (and running for the Senate). To replace him, Democrats nominated Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and Republicans nominated U.S. Representative Ron DeSantis. Gillum, who would be the first African-American governor of Florida, rode a progressive insurgency to an upset primary victory while DeSantis decisively embraced President Donald Trump. Gillum, who would be the first Democratic governor of Florida since 1999, leads by 3.2 points (and in all seven polls released since the August 28 primary), slightly lower than the expected 5.5 points, but enough to anticipate a low-single-digits win. Businessman Fred Hubbell looks similarly headed for about a 3-point win in Iowa over Governor Reynolds as both the fundamentals and the polls (only one since January) converge. Finally, Nevada has not elected a Democratic governor since 1990. With popular Governor Brian Sandoval term-limited, however, Clark County Commission Chair Steve Sisolak has an excellent chance to change that. While Sisolak is effectively tied in the polls with state Attorney General Adam Laxalt (D+0.2), he “should” be ahead by 10.9 points. The fact that Laxalt is the grandson of the late Senator Paul Laxalt (and the son of former New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici) may explain the discrepancy. Still, a 2-3 point win for Sisolak appears plausible.

andrewgillum_rondesantis2

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a Democrat, (left) leads U.S. Representative Ron DeSantis to be the next governor of Florida

Two Republican-leaning states with term-limited Republican governors are pure toss-ups. First, former State House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams is vying to become the first African-American—and first female—governor of Georgia, and its first Democratic governor since 1995. She “should” be 0.7 points down to state Secretary of State Brian Kemp (who also ran a Trump-like ad), but polls show her ahead 1.4 points, which works out to an anticipated margin of D+0.8. And in Ohio, Democrat Richard Cordray, the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is tied in the polls (D-0.3) with state Attorney General (and former Senator) Mike DeWine. Cordray “should” be ahead by 3.1 points, which works out to an anticipated margin of D+0.5.

Finally, there are three Republican states (average 3W-RDM=D-23.7) where polls and/or weak Republican candidates give Democrats hope, merited or not. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey “should” be ahead of Arizona State University Professor David Garcia by 3.5 points, though he actually leads by 7.1 points, which works out to an anticipated margin of 6.2 points. Former Kansas Governor Sam Brownback had approval ratings in the mid-20s when he became Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom in January 2018. Then, state Secretary of State Kris Kobach—controversial in his own rightnarrowly edged Brownback’s replacement Jeff Colyer in the Republican gubernatorial primary runoff. This has given Democrats hope that State Senator Laura Kelly could be Kansas’ next governor: while she “should” be trailing by 14.5 points, polls show her trailing by less than one point (which still works out to a 4.2-point loss). And in Oklahoma, Democrats chose former state Attorney General Drew Edmondson, and Republicans chose businessman Kevin Stitt, to replace unpopular term-limited governor Mary Fallin. This race should not be remotely close (D-29.2), but polls have this race essentially tied (D-0.1), likely because of Stitt’s position on teacher pay raises. The most plausible outcome, however, remains a high-single-digits Stitt victory.

Bottom line: Democrats are heavily favored to win the governorships of Illinois, Michigan, New Mexico and (more tentatively) Maine, and they are at least modest favorites in Wisconsin, Florida, Iowa and Nevada. They are even-money in Georgia and Ohio, while Arizona, Kansas and Oklahoma appear just out of reach. Still, Democrats could easily net as many as 10 governor’s mansions from this group of 13 election.

States with Democratic governors that are (not very) vulnerable. Six Democratic states (average 3W-RDM=D+7.1) with Democratic governors are the only chance Republicans have to flip a governor’s mansion—at least based on polling (Table 4). And while it is true that Democrats are “underperforming” expectations by an average of 14.7 points in these six states, they still lead by an average of 6.7 points.

Table 4: States with Democratic governors that are (not particularly) vulnerable

State Democrat Republican Expect WAPA Diff WTD
RI Raimondo Fung D+37.7 D+1.6 D-36.1 D+10.6
OR Brown Buehler D+28.4 D+4.2 D-24.3 D+10.2
CO Polis Stapleton D+11.1 D+5.8 D-5.3 D+7.1
MN Walz Johnson D+10.4 D+6.1 D-4.3 D+7.2
CT Lamont Stefanowski D+21.7 D+9.2 D-12.5 D+12.3
PA Wolf Wagner D+19.3 D+13.3 D+6.0 D+14.8
AVE            

Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo only beat Cranston Mayor Allan Fung in 2014 by 4.5 points; Moderate candidate Robert Healey won 21.4% of the vote. Raimondo still has only middling approval, which could explain why she barely leads Fung in a rematch (D+1.6), fully 36.1 points below where she “should” be. Despite appearing headed for high-single-digits win, this is the governor’s race that should most worry Democrats. Less vulnerable is Oregon Governor Kate Brown, the nation’s first openly bisexual governor, though she “only” leads State Representative Knute Buehler by 4.2 points, fully 24.3 points below expectations. Nonetheless, I expect her to win by around 10 points. Three other states with retiring Democratic governors look solid for Democrats:

  • In Colorado, U.S Representative Jared Polis looks like a 7.1-point winner over State Treasure Walker Stapleton
  • In Minnesota, U.S. Representative Tim Walz looks like a 7.2-point winner over Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson (who beat former two-term governor Tim Pawlenty by almost nine points)
  • In Connecticut, businessman (and 2006 Senate nominee) Ned Lamont looks like a 12.3-point winner over businessman Bob Stefanowski

As for Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, he could easily be on the “Safe” list, as he appears headed for double-digit win over State Senator Scott Wagner.

Bottom line: In these six states with Democratic governors, only Raimondo in Rhode Island seems remotely vulnerable, and even she is somewhat likely to win.

Popular Republican governors in Democratic states. In 2014, Maryland and Massachusetts voters narrowly elected centrist Republicans Larry Hogan and Charlie Baker, respectively, governor. In 2016, New Hampshire and Vermont voters narrowly elected Chris Sununu (son of former governor John Sununu) and Phil Scott, respectively, governor. The common theme seems to be normally Democratic voters (average 3W-RDM=D+18.1, with New Hampshire D+0.1), selecting a moderate “check” on overwhelmingly Democratic legislatures (less so in New Hampshire). Thus, these governors should sail to reelection (Table 5) over former State Senator Molly Kelly (NH), former NAACP CEO and President Ben Jealous (MD), former state Secretary of Administration and Finance Jay Gonzalez (MA) and Vermont Electric Cooperative CEO Christine Hallquist (who would be the first transgendered governor). In fact, in the three states with polling, these Republican governors are over-performing expectations by an average of 45.1 points!

Table 5: Popular Republican governors in Democratic states

State Democrat Republican Expect WAPA Diff WTD
NH Kelly Sununu D+6.4 D-22.1 D-28.4 D-15.0
MD Jealous Hogan D+28.9 D-13.6 D-42.5 D-3.0
MA Gonzalez Baker D+28.4 D-36.2 D-64.5 D-20.0
VT Hallquist Scott D+34.0 n/a n/a n/a
AVE     D+24.4 D-24.0 D-45.1 D-12.7

Bottom line: While Jealous could make a race of it in Maryland, suffice it to say that this lifelong liberal Democrat is voting for Charlie Baker.

Alaska. This is the one state where Republicans are likely to pick up a governorship—by defeating the Independent Walker, who defeated Republican Governor Sean Parnell in 2014 with a Democratic Lieutenant Governor (Brian Mallott). In 2018, Walker will face former Democratic Senator Mark Begich and Republican former State Senator Mike Dunleavy. Dunleavy currently leads both Walker and Begich by between nine and 10 points in what “should” be a toss-up (I+0.5). Multi-candidate races are notoriously tricky to gauge, but the likelihood is that Walker and Begich split the non-Republican vote, giving Dunleavy a high-single-digits win.

Conclusion. Democrats need to net eight governor’s mansions to have a 25-25 split nationally. As of September 16, 2018, they appear well on their way to doing just that. They are clear favorites in Illinois, Michigan and New Mexico (and probably Maine), and they are likely also to prevail in Florida, Iowa, Nevada and Wisconsin. Georgia and Ohio are toss-ups, while Arizona, Kansas and Oklahoma may be just out of reach. Only in Rhode Island do Republicans have even a remote chance of netting a governorship (and Raimondo is still favored), while they will almost certainly flip Alaska from Independent to Republican.

Overall (and with all necessary warnings about polling accuracy, unforeseen events and margins of error), the (very unlikely) worst-case scenario is Democrats net two governor’s mansions, while the (very unlikely) best-case scenario is they net 13 (or more) governor’s mansions. The likeliest outcome is a net of between six and 10 governor’s mansions, with my money on the higher end of that range.

Until next time…

UPDATE: State of play in the 2018 Senate elections

Just as FiveThirtyEight.com released its Senate forecast, I update this post on the outlook for Democrats in the 36 elections for the United States Senate (“Senate”) this November 6 (and beyond, in the Mississippi special election). Feel free to compare and contrast the two.

To be more precise, I am updating the tables and a few paragraphs of text to reflect the following changes:

  1. FiveThirtyEight.com now projects Democrats to win the total vote of the United States House of Representatives (“House”) by 9.0 percentage points.
  2. Since Labor Day, a slew of new polls have been released.
  3. I corrected a flaw in how I weighted time and pollster ratings in the “adjusted pollster averages.”
  4. I now weight my adjusted polling average three times more than “fundamentals.”
  5. For the four Senate races in Table 4 and three Senate races listed as “Wildcards,” I now use the simple average margin in all polls released in 2018, as listed on that election’s Wikipedia page.
  6. I revised how I calculate incumbency advantage.

Just bear with me while I describe my Senate incumbency advantage calculation.

For each Senate election in 2012, 2014 and 2016, I calculated an “expected” outcome by adding the state’s partisan lean (3W-RDM) to the margin by which Democrats topped (or fell) to Republicans in the total national vote for Senate that year (D+0.9, D-5.8, D+12.1 percentage points in 2016, 2014, 2012, respectively). Next, I subtracted that from the actual Democratic margin in each race. I then calculated, for each election year, the average of these differences for the Senate races in which no incumbent sought reelection; open seats elections exemplify “generic Democrat” versus “generic Republican” elections. Next, I averaged the difference between each Democratic, and each Republican, incumbent’s “actual-minus-expected” margin and the open seat average for each of 2012, 2014, 2016. Finally, I took the simple average of these “incumbent-minus-open” differences, separately for Democratic and Republican incumbents, for each of the three year.

Using this new method, on average Democratic incumbency still adds 8.3 percentage points while Republican incumbency adds 9.6 percentage points.

Here is an example using 2016 data. On average, in the five open seat Senate elections that year, the Democratic-minus-Republican margin was 3.9 percentage points higher than would be expected based solely on partisan lean plus 0.9.  The actual margin for the seven Democratic incumbents averaged 10.4 percentage points (or 6.5 percentage points higher than the open seat average), and the actual margin for the 22 Republican incumbents averaged 7.5 percentage points (or 11.4 percentage points higher than the open seat average). Thus, in 2016 the Democratic and Republican incumbency advantages were 6.5 and 11.4 percentage points, respectively. The Democratic incumbency advantages in 2014 and 2012 were 9.8 and 8.5 percentage points, respectively, while for Republican incumbents the values were 1.1 and 16.5 points, respectively.

With that, here are the updated tables:

Table 1: Summary of 2018 Polling Data in 10 Key 2018 Senate Elections

State # Polls/ Pollsters Raw Margin Bias-Adjusted Margin Average Pollster Rating Adjusted

 Poll Average

Adjusted Pollster Average Final Ave
AZ 12/8 D+4.9 D+4.0/4.1 2.4/2.6 D+4.4 D+5.1 D+4.7
FL 31/16 D-0.2 D-0.7/-0.6 2.6/2.7 D-0.7 D-0.9 D-0.8
IN 4/4 D+3.8 D+2.4 2.3 D+5.3 D+5.3 D+5.3
MO 18/11 D-0.4 D-1.5/-0.8 2.4/2.6 D-1.0 D-0.7 D-0.9
MT 4/4 D+5.3 D+3.6 2.0 D+1.9 D+1.9 D+1.9
NV 9/5 D+2.7 D+1.1/0.7 2.5/2.3 D+1.2 D+1.2 D+1.2
ND 4/4 D-2.8 D-3.8 2.3 D-3.6 D-3.6 D-3.6
TN 15/11 D+0.8 D+0.1/-0.9 2.7/2.8 D+1.6 D+1.2 D+1.4
TX 17/13 D-6.1 D-6.1/-6.0 3.0/2.9 D-5.6 D-5.4 D-5.5
WV 10/10 D+8.2 D+7.2 2.6 D+6.9 D+6.9 D+6.9
AVE 12/9 D+1.6 D+0.6/0.5 2.5/2.5 D+1.0 D+1.1 D+1.1

Table 2: Most-endangered 2018 Democratic Senate incumbents

State Democrat Republican Expect WAPA Diff WTD
ND Heitkamp Cramer D-12.1 D-3.6 D+8.5 D-5.7
WV Manchin Morrisey D-18.2 D+6.9 D+25.1 D+0.6
MO McCaskill Hawley D+1.4 D-1.1 D-2.5 D-0.4
MT Tester Rosendale D-1.3 D+1.9 D+3.2 D+1.1
FL Nelson Scott D+9.4 D-0.8 D-10.2 D+1.8
IN Donnelly Braun D+1.0 D+5.3 D+4.3 D+4.2
AVE     D-3.3 D+1.4 D+4.8 D+0.3

 Table 3: Most-endangered 2018 Republican-held Senate seats

State Democrat Republican Expect WAPA Diff WTD
AZ Sinema McSally D-0.7 D+4.7 D+5.4 D+3.4
NV Rosen Heller D+1.5 D+1.2 D-0.3 D+1.3
TN Bredesen Blackburn D-16.8 D+1.4 D+18.2 D-3.1
TX O’Rourke Cruz D-15.8 D-5.5 D+10.3 D-8.1
AVE     D-7.9 D+0.5 D+8.4 D-1.6

Table 4: Once-endangered, now safe 2018 Democratic Senate seats

State Democrat Republican Expect Wiki Ave Diff WTD
WI Baldwin Vukmir D+18.0 D+11.1 D-9.4 D+12.8
OH Brown Renaccia D+11.5 D+10.2 D+4.5 D+10.5
PA Casey Barlettab D+16.9 D+13.7 D-1.5 D+14.3
MI Stabenow Jamesc D+19.5 D+17.6 D-1.6 D+18.0
AVE     D+16.4 D+13.2 D-3.3 D+14.0

Wildcards. New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez “should” be ahead of businessman Bob Hugin by 29.3 percentage points. However, Menendez “only” leads by an average of 10.0 percentage points in six 2018 polls—and just 6.0 percentage points in three July/August polls. The weighted average of these two percentages is 14.8 (11.8 using the three most recent polls), which is about where the race should ultimately land.

Minnesota Democratic Senator Tina Smith “should” be leading Republican State Senator Karin Housley by 14.6 percentage points; as an appointed senator, I arbitrarily cut her incumbency advantage in half. However, in an average of four polls released in 2018, Smith is ahead by “just” 8.4 percentage points; I currently anticipate Smith winning reelection by around the weighted average of 10.0 percentage points.

Appointed Mississippi Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith is very likely to face former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, a Democrat, in a November 27 runoff. Hyde-Smith would be expected to prevail over a generic Democrat by 14.2 percentage points, though in four head-to-head polls with Espy, she leads by “only” 7.3 percentage points (and 5.5 in the two most recent polls). The weighted averages suggest Hyde-Smith will prevail by 7.7-9.0 percentage points—though if this race ends up being decisive for Senate control, anything is possible.

nelson scott

The 2018 Florida Senate election between incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson (left) and Republican Governor Rick Scott is by far the most polled of all Senate races, and it could easily be the most expensive—and decisive for Senate control.

Bottom line. The likeliest outcomes are still between Democrats losing a net of two seats (flip Arizona; lose Nevada, North Dakota, Florida, Missouri) and gaining a net of one seat (flip Arizona, Nevada; lose North Dakota) with Tennessee and Texas JUST out of reach for Democrats. Still, there is a path for Democrats to recapture the Senate by starting with the D+1 seat outcome and winning any one of North Dakota, Tennessee and Texas.

Until next time…

2018 U.S. Senate elections: the state of play after Labor Day

I have written in broad terms (here and here) about the 36 United States Senate (“Senate”) races which will determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the Senate after the November 2018 midterm elections[1]. Including Independent Senators Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Democrats control 49 seats; Republicans hold the remaining 51 seats (now that Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has appointed former Republican Senator John Kyl to fill the seat held by the late John McCain). To regain control (assuming Vice President Mike Pence, a Republican, would break a 50-50 tie), Democrats need to win a net of two seats on November 6, 2018. And while that sounds relatively easy, bear in mind that 27 of these seats are currently held by Democrats (including King and Sanders), with 10 of those seats in states Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump won in 2016, many by large margins.

In those previous posts, I described the political context of each Senate race (a variation on what the indispensable FiveThirtyEight.com calls “the fundamentals”) using three measures:

  1. State partisan lean (using 3W-RDM[2]): what you would expect the Democratic candidate minus Republican candidate margin would be if the national vote were split evenly between the two parties.
  2. Democratic advantage in the total national vote for United States House of Representatives [“House”]. As of September 4, 2018, FiveThirtyEight.com projects Democrats to win the national House vote by 8.4 percentage points, according to their “Classic” model.
  3. Incumbency. I calculate that, all else being equal, Democratic and Republican Senate incumbents garner 8.3 and 7.5 additional percentage points, respectively.

When I wrote those original posts, the identities of the Democratic and Republican Senate candidates were not yet known, and the polling sat between non-existent and irrelevant. Now, however, it is the day after Labor Day, the traditional starting point for American political campaigns. The field of candidates is effectively set in each state, and a slew of polls (of wildly-varying quality) have been conducted.

My goal here is to compare my “fundamentals” characterization to the actual polling to assess how the Democratic quest to recapture the Senate stands with (at most) nine weeks left to campaign. For 10 especially key races, I calculated a “weighted-adjusted polling average” (WAPA; current margin by which the Democrat leads/trails the Republican), otherwise I used the RealClearPolitics (RCP) average.

Just bear with me while I explain how I calculated WAPA.

First, I collected every poll released in 2018 listed on each race’s Wikipedia page [an exception to my preference to steer clear of Wikipedia]. For each margin I added/subtracted the pollster’s average partisan “bias” (how much, on average, a pollster’s results favor Democrats and Republicans compared to all other pollsters) listed in FiveThirtyEight.com’s pollster ratings. I then weighted each bias-corrected margin by a) how long prior to November 6 it was released (midpoint of days poll conducted[3] divided by 309, the number of days between January 1 and November 6) and b) the letter-grade rating assigned that pollster by FiveThirtyEight.com (on a scale where A+=4.3, A=4.0, A-=3.7, etc.; weights were numeric equivalent divided by 4.3) If a pollster was unlisted, I did not adjust for bias and followed FiveThirtyEight.com and assigned them a C+ rating.

However, because the “polls” WAPA treated all polls from the same pollster as “statistically independent” data points, I calculated a second WAPA for the six races (AZ, FL, MO, NV, TN, TX) in which at least one pollster released multiple polls in 2018. This “pollster” WAPA is the rating-weighted average of the time-weighted, unbiased average margin for each pollster. The final WAPA was the average of the two; only in Arizona and Texas did WAPA differ by two or more percentage points.

For the record, I did not adjust for “likely” vs. “registered” voters in these analyses. While the former tend to be slightly more Republican historically, I have not seen evidence they differ much this year, nor would it materially affect my conclusions.

Table 1: Summary of 2018 Polling Data in 10 Key 2018 Senate Elections

State # Polls/ Pollsters Raw Margin Bias-Adjusted Margin Average Pollster Rating Adjusted

 Poll Average

Adjusted Pollster Average Final Ave
AZ 9/7 D+6.6 D+5.4/5.5 2.4/2.7 D+6.8 D+3.9 D+5.3
FL 29/15 D-0.1 D-0.7/-0.4 2.5/2.7 D-0.6 D-0.5 D-0.5
IN 3/3 D+3.0 D+1.3 1.7 D+4.7 D+4.7 D+4.7
MO 18/11 D-0.4 D-1.5/-0.7 2.4/2.6 D-1.0 D-0.7 D-0.9
MT 4/4 D+5.3 D+3.6 2.0 D+1.9 D+1.9 D+1.9
NV 8/5 D+2.9 D+1.2 2.4/2.5 D+1.5 D+0.8 D+1.1
ND 4/4 D-2.8 D-3.8 2.3 D-3.6 D-3.6 D-3.6
TN 14/10 D+0.7 D-0.04 2.6/2.7 D+1.5 D+0.6 D+1.0
TX 15/11 D-6.4 D-6.6 3.0/2.9 D-6.1 D-4.1 D-5.1
WV 10/10 D+8.2 D+7.2 2.6 D+6.9 D+6.9 D+6.9
AVE 11/8 D+1.7 D+0.6 2.4/2.5 D+1.2 D+1.0 D+1.1

Before I summarize WAPA and compare them to the “fundamentals” in these 10 Senate races, I have observations about the polling itself (Table 1). One, publicly-available polls of these 10 Senate races have had a modest Democratic bias of about one percentage point. The bias is worst (D+1.7) in Indiana, Montana and Nevada, primarily due to the inclusion of at least one poll conducted by SurveyMonkey/Axios, whose polls have a pro-Democratic bias of 4.9 percentage points! Two, the overall quality of polling in these races has been…meh. The average poll within each of these races has been conducted by a pollster with a C+/B- rating. Again, much of this mediocrity can be ascribed to SurveyMonkey/Axios, which FiveThirtyEight.com assigns a D- rating; removing their polls entirely bumps the average rating to a more respectable B/B-. Three, while the Florida, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas Senate races have been polled 14 or more times in 2018, the Indiana, Montana and North Dakota have only been polled 11 times in total (by C-level pollsters, on average)—with no pollster polling the race more than once; the latter is also true of West Virginia, though it has at least been polled 10 times. Finally, only 32 (28.1%) of these 114 polls were conducted in July and August. Granted, polling is even more exceptionally tricky in the summer, when potential respondents are on vacation and/or tuned out of political news. But I still would love to see higher-quality pollsters like Marist, Monmouth and Quinnipiac conduct more surveys of these races soon.

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This analysis is divided into five parts:

  1. Safe seats
  2. Endangered Democratic incumbents
  3. Endangered Republican-held seats
  4. Once-endangered Democratic incumbents who appear safe
  5. Wildcards

Safe seats. The good news for Democrats is that 15 of the 27 Senate seats they are defending are safe: all 15 states were won in 2016 by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, they average 14.8 percentage points more Democratic than the nation as a whole, and each features an incumbent running in what looks like an exceptional year for Democrats. And while I do not expect these 15 Democrats to win by an average of 14.8+8.4+8.3=31.5 percentage points, it would be a historic upset if any of these Senators lost.

And that includes two Senators, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Tim Kaine of Virginia, whose states are “only” D+1.5. The “fundamentals” still say each should win by 18.2 percentage points; the RCP averages for these two races (D+22.0 and D+19.3, respectively) suggest they are beating expectations. Also, 2016 Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson, the former two-term governor of New Mexico, recently entered that state’s Senate race between incumbent Democrat Martin Heinrich and Republican businessman Mick Rich as a Libertarian, introducing unexpected volatility. Still, in the five most recent polls, Heinrich leads his nearest opponent by about 14 percentage points, below the “expected” margin of 23.2 percentage points, but near-safe nonetheless.

Similarly, four currently Republican Senate seats—those currently held by Roger Wicker (MS), Deb Fischer (NE), Orrin Hatch (UT) and John Barrasso (WY) are certain to remain in Republican hands, even with Hatch’s retirement; 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is a near-lock to win that race.

Endangered Democratic incumbents. Six of the 10 Democratic incumbent Senators running in states Trump won appear vulnerable to varying degrees, according to Table 2. “WTD” is a weighted average of expected (0.33) and WAPA (0.67) margin, and it reflects a “best guess” (albeit with a wide “margin of error”) of what the final outcome will be on November 6; using no weights or weighting polls 3 times more than “fundamentals” does not substantively alter the conclusions.

With one exception, the polling is quite good for these six Democratic Senators, as they are beating expectations (mean=D-3.8) by 5.2 percentage points on average.

Table 2: Most-endangered 2018 Democratic Senate incumbents

State Democrat Republican Expect WAPA Diff WTD
ND Heitkamp Cramer D-12.7 D-3.6 D+9.1 D-6.6
WV Manchin Morrisey D-18.8 D+6.9 D+25.9 D-1.7
MO McCaskill Hawley D+0.8 D-0.9 D-1.5 D-0.3
MT Tester Rosendale D-1.9 D+1.9 D+3.8 D+0.6
FL Nelson Scott D+9.6 D-0.5 D-10.1 D+2.8
IN Donnelly Braun D+0.4 D+4.7 D+4.3 D+3.3
AVE     D-3.8 D+1.4 D+5.2 D-0.3

 First-term Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp, who won her first Senate race by 0.9 percentage points, currently appears headed for a mid-single-digits loss to North Dakota’s lone House member, Kevin Cramer. Granted, she is polling 9.1 percentage points better than expected, but that is not nearly enough to overcome North Dakota being R+29.4. Still, there are only three (excluding SurveyMonkey/Axios) polls of this race, and she beat expectations six years ago.

Heidi_heitkamp

North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp

The good news, however, is that the other five Democratic incumbents are currently no worse than toss-ups.

The most surprising race on this list is Florida; eight months ago, I would have expected Ohio’s Sherrod Brown to be far more endangered. Running as a Democratic incumbent in slightly-Republican-leaning Florida (R+3.4), Bill Nelson “should” be ahead by about 13.1 percentage points (almost exactly his average in three previous races). Republican Governor Rick Scott has actually taken a slight polling lead (R+0.5), though, shifting from about 0.5 percentage points behind to 1.1 percentage points ahead starting in mid-June. As Scott is currently a statewide officeholder, I allotted him half of the 7.5 percentage point Republican incumbency advantage. Nelson “should” still win by 9.6 percentage points—and the weighted average projects a low single digits win for him on November 6.

Claire McCaskill of Missouri is also (slightly) underperforming expectations. The fundamentals make McCaskill the slightest of favorites (D+0.6), but she is currently trailing Missouri’s Attorney General Josh Hawley, a Republican, by 0.9 percentage points. And that average masks the fact she has lost ground since early June (when embattled Republican Governor Eric Greitens resigned, freeing Hawley from deciding whether to indict him), dropping from nearly-tied (R+0.2) to 1.4 percentage points behind. Still, this race is nearly a perfect toss-up (R+0.3).

Joe Donnelly of Indiana, by contrast, has taken a small polling lead (D+4.7) over Republican former State House member Mike Braun in what “should” be a coin flip (D+0.4). Caveat emptor: only been three polls have been conducted of this race (including one by SurveyMonkey/Axios), two showing Donnelly behind by an average 1.5 percentage points while the other has Donnelly ahead by 12 points! Still, a low single digits Donnelly win seems in the cards right now.

Finally, Montana’s Jon Tester and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin are considered by prognosticators to be in the “Lean Democratic” category, and I agree, even as the fundamentals and WAPA suggest caution. Tester should be losing to Montana’s Auditor, Matt Rosendale, by 1.9 percentage points, while West Virginia’s Attorney General, Patrick Morrisey, should be walloping Manchin by 18.8 percentage points! However, Tester’s narrow polling lead (D+1.9—in only four subpar polls) has him eking out a very narrow win. Manchin has a larger polling lead—D+6.9—but that still would have him losing by around two percentage points. Regardless, both men are proven winners in their states, and I think will both win in the mid-single-digits.

Bottom line: Democrats are likely to lose one, maybe two, of these six seats—an improvement over the five or six Republicans envisioned flipping just two years ago.

Endangered Republican-held seats. Four Republican-held Senate seats are in varying degrees of danger of being captured by strong Democratic opponents, according to Table 3: while Democrats should be losing these four seats by an average of 7.6 percentage points, they are slightly ahead in the polls overall.

Table 3: Most-endangered 2018 Republican-held Senate seats

State Democrat Republican Expect WAPA Diff WTD
AZ Sinema McSally D-1.3 D+5.3 D+6.6 D+3.1
NV Rosen Heller D+2.9 D+1.1 D-1.8 D+1.7
TN Bredesen Blackburn D-17.4 D+1.0 D+18.4 D-5.1
TX O’Rourke Cruz D-14.4 D-5.1 D+9.3 D-8.2
AVE     D-7.6 D+0.6 D+8.2 D-2.1

The retirement of Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, facing a tough reelection against Democratic House member Kyrsten Sinema, turned a toss-up into the Democrats’ best chance to flip a Republican-held seat; the caveat is that Republicans nominated their strongest general election candidate: House member Martha McSally. The fundamentals say McSally should win by about 1.3 percentage points, but Sinema has opened up a 5.3 percentage point lead in the polls; that lead has actually widened slightly since mid-June. A low-single-digits win for Sinema seems a good bet at this point.

kysten sinema

Arizona Senate candidate Kyrsten Sinema

The only Republican Senator seeking reelection in a state won by Clinton in 2016 is Nevada’s Dean Heller. The fundamentals back this up, suggesting he should lose to Democratic House member Jacky Rosen by about three percentage points. However, Rosen’s polling lead is “only” 1.1 percentage points, and Heller won reelection to a full term by 1.2 percentage points in 2012, even as Democrats won the national House vote by 1.3 percentage points. That said, this should be a far better year for Democrats, and Rosen seems set to win by a hair under two percentage points.

Jacky_Rosen

Nevada Senate candidate Jacky Rosen

When Tennessee Senator Bob Corker announced his retirement, what looked a possible 25 percentage point loss for Democrats became a little less uphill, even if the fundamentals still had Democrats down 17.4 percentage points. And when former two-term Democrat Governor Phil Bredesen entered the race against Republican House member Marsha Blackburn, the early polls showed a lead for the Democrat (D+4.1 through May 2018). However, since June, Blackburn has opened the narrowest of leads (R+0.4); overall, Bredesen leads by about one percentage ahead. Right now, that does not appear to be enough of a lead to overcome Tennessee being R+25.8, and I would expect Blackburn to win in the mid-single-digits.

Finally, Texas Senator Ted Cruz should be ahead by nearly 14.4 percentage points in this R+15.3 state. However, Democratic House member Beto O’Rourke has dramatically reduced that gap with eye-popping fundraising and relentless campaigning. I have suggested Texas could soon be fertile ground for Democrats, and O’Rourke’s (relative) success appears to bear that out. Nonetheless, O’Rourke still trails Cruz by about five points, though this obscures that the gap has dropped from 8.4 percentage points through early July to 3.5 percentage points since then. Overall, I would expect Cruz to win in the high single digits—though Democrats could win a victory of sorts if they force Republicans to invest time and money helping Cruz rather than in vulnerable House races.

Bottom line: Democrats could easily win two of these four seats, with Tennessee and Texas tantalizingly just out of reach.

Once-endangered Democratic incumbents who appear safe. The other four Democratic incumbents representing states won by Trump in 2016, Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, Brown, Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey and Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow, appear headed for an average win of 14.5 percentage points (using RCP averages), nearly their average “expected” win of 15.9 percentage points (Table 4). Baldwin, who will face State Senator Leah Vukmir, is polling under 10 percentage points (8.0).

Table 4: Once-endangered, now safe 2018 Democratic Senate seats

State Democrat Republican Expect RCP Diff WTD
WI Baldwin Vukmir D+17.4 D+8.0 D-9.4 D+11.1
OH Brown Renaccia D+10.9 D+15.4 D+4.5 D+13.9
PA Casey Barlettab D+16.3 D+14.8 D-1.5 D+15.3
MI Stabenow Jamesc D+18.9 D+17.3 D-1.6 D+17.8
AVE     D+15.9 D+13.9 D-2.0 D+14.5

            a House member James Renacci

              b House member Lou Barletta

              c Businessman John James

Bottom line: These four swing states—three of which Trump won very narrowly—appear to be swinging solidly back toward the Democrats.

Wildcards. Three Senate races—two featuring appointed incumbents—are not (yet) in danger of changing hands, but each could still be interesting.

The fundamentals suggest New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez—in line to chair the powerful Foreign Relations Committee should Democrats recapture the Senate—should be ahead by a whopping 28.7 percentage points. However, the most recent RCP average has Menendez defeating businessman Bob Hugin by “only” 8.3 percentage points (three recent polls show an even closer race). This is almost certainly because Menendez was tried in 2017 on corruption charges, only to have a hung jury. While U.S. District Court Judge Jose Linares ultimately dismissed all the charges, they appear to have cost Menendez more than 20 percentage points of “expected” support. That is still not enough to overcome New Jersey’s strong partisan lean (D+12.0), however, and I currently anticipate Menendez winning by 10-15 percentage points.

When Minnesota Democratic Senator Al Franken resigned following allegations by numerous women of unwanted kissing and touching, Governor Mark Dayton appointed Democratic Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith to fill the seat. Smith will face reelection this November against Republican State Senator Karin Housley. Because Smith has only served in the Senate since January I (arbitrarily) cut her incumbency “advantage” in half, though the fundamentals still have her winning by 14.1 percentage points. However, the RCP average “only” has Smith ahead by 8.4 percentage points; perhaps voters hold Franken’s misdeeds against her. Nonetheless, I currently anticipate Smith winning reelection by around 10 percentage points.

And…the special election in Mississippi could decide Senate control—in late November. When Republican Senator Thad Cochran resigned for health reasons, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant appointed Mississippi’s Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Cindy Hyde-Smith, a Republican, to fill the seat, making her the first-ever female Senator from Mississippi. Hyde-Smith will run for reelection on November 6 in a non-partisan (i.e., no party labels appear on the ballot) “open primary” against two opponents: Republican State Senator Chris McDaniel and former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, a Democrat. If no candidate tops 50% of the vote, a runoff election between the top two finishers—which polls suggest would be Hyde-Smith (simple average=31.2%) and Espy (28.5%), with McDaniel (16.8%) trailing well behind—would be held on November 27, 2018. The fundamentals suggest that a quasi-incumbent Republican Senator should beat a Democrat in Mississippi by 14.1 percentage points, though Espy could certainly make that closer. Still, this race is most likely to be an asterisk—easily remaining Republican—rather than a game-changer.

Bottom line: These three Senate races are intriguing, but the partisan gravity of these states makes it very unlikely any will change partisan hands.

Conclusion. Out of 36 Senate races, only 17 (18, counting New Mexico) are even remotely interesting, and only 10 of them are more than slightly likely to change partisan hands, based on each race’s “fundamentals” (partisan lean, Democratic wave, incumbency) and the current weighted-adjusted polling averages. As of September 4, 2018, Democrats seem likely to lose a Senate seat in North Dakota; retain four vulnerable seats (barely) in Florida, Indiana, Montana and West Virginia; and face genuine uncertainty in Missouri. They also seem likely to flip seats in Arizona and Nevada while falling short in Tennessee and Texas.

Overall—and with all necessary warnings about polling accuracy, unforeseen events and margins of error—Democrats appear poised either to net one Senate seat or to break even, depending on what happens in Missouri. This is NOT a prediction, merely a “best guess” based on available evidence: a net Democratic loss of one or two seats (or a gain of two or three seats) is certainly possible and would still put Democrats in an excellent position to regain Senate control in 2020.

Until next time…

[1] In previous posts, Republican Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi had not yet resigned from the Senate.

[2] A weighted average (2008=16.7%, 2012=33.3%,2016=50%) of the difference between two measures: the state-level and national margins between the Democratic and Republican percentages of the total state/national vote.

[3] If the mid-point fell between two days, I used the later day. For example, if a poll was conducted between May 24 and May 29, the mid-point would between May 26 and May 27, meaning I would May 27.

A Supreme opportunity to overcome partisan rancor

During my senior year at Yale, I took a seminar called “Political Uses of History.” The topic of my final paper (accounting for most of the course grade[1]) was the history lessons used to defend/critique the nomination of U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (DC Appeals Court) Judge Robert Bork to the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS). Upon being nominated by President Ronald Reagan to fill the seat vacated by Associate Justice Lewis Powell on July 1, 1987, Senate Democrats immediately expressed dismay at Bork’s “originalist” legal perspective (the Constitution of the United States only means what the original framers of the document intended it to be at the time).

They were also disturbed by Bork’s role as Solicitor General of the United States on October 20, 1973.

On the night now known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” President Richard Nixon, alarmed by Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox’s request for secret White House recordings, demanded that Cox be fired–which only the Attorney General could do. When both Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned rather than comply, the next person in line was Bork, who promptly fired Cox.

Bork ultimately lost his nomination vote 58-42. Reagan then nominated DC Appeals Court Judge Douglas Ginsburg, but he quickly withdrew his name after reports about prior marijuana use surfaced.

Oh, how times have changed.

Finally, Reagan nominated Anthony Kennedy, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and he was confirmed by the United States Senate (Senate) on February 3, 1988 by a 97-0 vote.

And after serving as the “swing” vote on SCOTUS for years, Justice Kennedy announced his retirement on June 27, 2018.

The tumultuous reaction to this news—laser-focused on the possibility that President Donald Trump will choose an ultra-conservative jurist who would be the decisive vote on issues like LGTBQ rights, abortion, guns and Obamacare—reminded me of my political uses of history paper.

**********

Just bear with me, then, while I review some recent history.

First, whether or not you approve of the filibuster (a final up-or-down vote can only occur if, say, 60% of legislators agree) as way to protect the rights of the minority party in a legislative body, it served to constrain judicial nominations by requiring a broad base of support.

Of course, it also meant that a determined minority could prevent any given nominee from a final up-or-down vote. After then-minority Senate Republicans kept doing just that to President Barack Obama’s nominees, the Senate voted 52-48 on November 21, 2013 to abolish the 60-vote threshold to end debate for all judicial nominations except for SCOTUS. In retaliation (and after Trump SCOTUS nominee Neil Gorsuch, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, fell five votes shy of the required 60), the now-majority-Republican Senate voted 52-48 on April 7, 2017 to end the 60-vote requirement to end debate on SCOTUS nominees.

Goose, meet gander.

Gorsuch was then quickly confirmed by a 54-45 vote, with three Democratic Senators—Joe Donnelly (IN), Heidi Heitkamp (ND), Joe Manchin (WV)—voting yes. All three face reelection in 2018 in very Republican states: R+16.3, R+29.4 and R+35.5, respectively.

Why Gorsuch was nominated in the first place is the second bit of recent history to review.

On February 13, 2016, SCOTUS Associate Justice Antonin Scalia died. Soon after, President Obama nominated DC Appeals Court Judge Merrick Garland to replace him. Within hours, though, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced that because Obama was in the last year of his presidency (and thus some sort of irrelevant lame duck), the Senate would not even hold hearings on ANY Obama appointment until after the November 2016 elections. Charles Grassley (R-IA), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee—where any hearings would be held—concurred, and the seat remained vacant until Gorsuch was confirmed.

merrick garland

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Democrats, hamstrung by their current 49-51 minority in the Senate, appear to be taking two fundamental—and somewhat contradictory—stances on the vacancy created by Justice Kennedy’s retirement.

Some invoke the “McConnell Rule,” insisting no vote be held on a new SCOTUS nominee until after the 2018 midterm elections, even though there is no guarantee Democrats will net the two seats they need for a majority.

Others focus on defeating any nominee outright, honing in on the damage to their (and, full disclosure, my) priorities a solid 5-4 conservative majority could do, particularly the distinct possibility it would overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 SCOTUS decision that declared all state laws against abortion unconstitutional, effectively making abortion legal throughout the United States.

It should be noted that overturning Roe would not make abortion illegal everywhere in the United States. Rather, it would leave it to each individual state (and the District of Columbia) to decide whether abortion is legal within its borders. Still, many states have “trigger laws” that would immediately outlaw abortion to the extent legally possible the instant Roe is overturned.

Basically, then, the Democrats have two unpalatable options: try to delay the nomination until after the November 2018 elections, or assume a vote is inevitable and work to defeat it. The rub is that either option would require at least one Republican to buck her/his own party. For example, assuming Senator John McCain (R-AZ) is too ill to vote (and does not retire to give Republican Governor Doug Ducey the chance to pick a replacement), if the Democrats are unified, a single Republican “No” vote means the nomination is defeated 50-49. This, while not impossible, will not be easy either.

I feel compelled to note that this entire conversation is taking place BEFORE any nominee has even been announced. That in itself is worrisome.

**********

Let me address these two stances in turn before concluding with my own thoughts.

No political act enraged me more in the last few years than the theft of a SCOTUS seat by Senate Republicans. Barack Obama was president of the United States until noon on January 20, 2017, and the Senators elected over the elections of 2010-2014 were the representatives duly chosen to provide “advice and consent” on the nomination under Article II, Section 2. The people, whose will McConnell invoked, had already spoken by voting in the relevant elections. President Obama was thus denied a fair hearing and vote on his judicial nominee—that is theft.

As disgusted as I remain by that, however, I have deep concerns about the tit-for-tat invocation of the McConnell rule. Two wrongs do not make a right: as we remind our daughters, meanness by one to the other is not a license to be mean back.

I sympathize with the arguments that Democrats should not be a doormat, that McConnell brought this on himself, that turnabout is fair play, that the system is already broken…

And it is that last point that most gives me pause. With good reason, Democrats and like-minded Independents and Republicans decry the corruption and norm violations they see from the Trump Administration and its Congressional allies. But that powerful critique is severely undercut if the Democrats themselves use the violation of a norm (regardless of “who started it”) for their own partisan gain. This would simply be the rescinding of the judicial nominee filibuster all over again.

There is also the unpleasant whiff of “ends justifying the means” about invoking the McConnell rule. I recently called out the modern Republican Party for doing just that. It also recalls one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s worst moments: his 1937 scheme to expand SCOTUS by as many as six Associate Justices (which he would then appoint) to make it less hostile to the laudable New Deal.

It is fashionable to dismiss taking the high ground as weakness and some sort of “asymmetrical warfare.” And perhaps in this single instance—a uniquely pivotal SCOTUS seat following the theft of a prior seat—that is the correct conclusion. But that is a very slippery slope: if Democrats and their allies resort to using the same ruthless tactics to “win” this battle, how are they any better than the Republicans? Does that mean tribalist victory is all that matters now?

The argument may be moot—and mostly public posturing (pointing out the rank hypocrisy of blocking one nomination in an election year but not another)—since it is not clear the Democrats could actually prevent hearings and a vote, short of grinding the Senate to a halt.

And a far better argument for delaying hearings and votes is that a president who is the subject of a criminal investigation should not be allowed to nominate a SCOTUS justice who would almost certainly vote on questions pertinent to that investigation (e.g., Can a president pardon her/himself or be indicted while in office?).

The second stance is at least well within traditional Senate rules and has a successful recent precedent.

It still gives me pause, however, because I worry liberals and like-minded centrists have become too reliant—almost complacent—on the SCOTUS (and the courts more generally) to do too much of the heavy lifting of policy-making for them. Republicans, smelling blood on this point, successfully put SCOTUS front and center in the 2016 election.

It does not help that SCOTUS Justices have become as entrenched in their ideologies (though not always) as both major political parties—Justice Kennedy was the swing vote because the other eight Justices were so reliably liberal or conservative in their rulings. Gone are the days when President Dwight Eisenhower (supposedly) called his appointment of California Governor Earl Warren as Chief Justice “the biggest damned fool mistake I ever made.” Seriously, what would even be the point of arguing cases before SCOTUS if the outcome was always predetermined?

The more fundamental problem, however, is that the Democrats let too many state legislative seats get away from them in too many states over the last 10 years. It is in those very states that the most important policy outcomes—on abortion, LGBTQ rights, Medicare expansion, gun control—actually get decided. And that is how it is supposed to be. I am far from an “originalist,” but Article I and Amendment X strongly imply policy is meant to be decided, umm, politically, in the legislative arena.

I know: both parties (despite bemoaning “activist judges”) try to seek policy victories in SCOTUS by arguing that this or that law or Executive order is unconstitutional—and that the “right to privacy” articulated so elegantly in Griswold v. Connecticut had a profound (mostly progressive) legislative impact.

My point is simply that if Democrats put as much work into winning back legislative seats (so far so good) as they will into blocking President Trump’s next SCOTUS nominee that will greatly reduce their reliance on favorable SCOTUS decisions. They could even overturn many of those anti-abortion laws at the state level (not all of them, of course).

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I have previously called for cross-partisan dialogue—patriotic bipartisanship. After President Trump was elected, I also began proposing a “coalition of the center” to form in the Senate that would wield an effective veto over legislation, forcing broad compromises by both parties. Such a group could consist of “red-state” Democrats like Donnelly, Heitkamp, Doug Jones (AL—R+28.4), Manchin, Claire McCaskill (MO—R+15.9) and Jon Tester (MT—R+18.6); Independent Angus King (ME—D+5.9); and Republicans like Susan Collins (ME—D+5.9), Lisa Murkowski (AK—R+19.2) and, perhaps, Cory Gardner (CO—D+2.2).

Were this bloc (or even the smaller bloc of Donnelly, Heitkamp, Jones, Manchin, Collins and Murkowski) to insist, unequivocally, that President Trump select

…a consensus nominee to replace Kennedy. “[Senator Heitkamp] told the president that he has a chance to unite the country by nominating a true non-ideological jurist who could gain strong support from senators on both sides of the aisle, rather than create more divisions…”

…they would elevate the traditional “advice and consent” role of the Senate above partisan rancor and force both parties to compromise, in effect restoring the judicial nomination filibuster.

Now, this would infuriate the conservatives who voted for Donald Trump (and President Trump himself) solely for the opportunity to remake SCOTUS in their image (though they still “won” with Gorsuch). And it would disappoint the liberal activists who want every Senate Democrat to resist President Trump at every turn (though this is easily the least-worst nominee they will get in 2018). But those may the necessary costs of restoring civil order to our public discourse.

Plus, how poetically just would it be if that “non-ideological” jurist was…Merrick Garland!

Until next time…

[1] I received an A on both the paper and the seminar, with a special commendation by Professor Joseph Hamburger.