Three Views on the Election

Just five weeks from Election Day, with early voting well underway, and Nate Silver’s website FiveThirtyEight gives Democrats almost exactly the same shot of holding the House (31 percent, as of October 4) as it gives Republicans of winning the Senate (32 percent). This doesn’t pass the smell test, yet Silver’s site remains the go-to source for much of the legacy media’s election coverage. 

Meanwhile, RealClearPolitics says Republicans are positioned (as of October 4) to have 47 Senate seats and Democrats 46, with seven toss-ups seats in play. If other races go as expected, whichever party can win four of RCP’s seven toss-up contests will control the chamber. In its Senate projections, RCP predicts that Republicans will win five of the seven toss-ups, giving them 52 seats (and a Romney-proof majority).

On the House side, RCP gives Republicans the edge in 219 races and Democrats the edge in 182, with 34 toss-ups. That suggests a GOP gain of between 6 and 40 seats. To hold the House, in other words, Democrats would not only need to sweep all 34 toss-up races but would also need to win at least two races RCP currently puts in the GOP column. That amounts to about a 100 percent chance of Republicans’ winning the House, which is a far cry from FiveThirtyEight’s projection that Democrats have about a one-in-three chance of holding that chamber.

FiveThirtyEight’s projections appear to be favoring Democrats for two main reasons: They don’t seem to take into account recent years’ polling biases favoring Democrats. And they don’t appear to give any weight to the notion that most late-deciding voters will likely move against the party of an unpopular president. (As of October 4, Joe Biden’s approval rating at RCP was 42.7 percent.) RCP’s projections, on the other hand, take into account the degree to which polling five weeks out from previous three federal elections was off, and in which direction it erred. 

The Cook Political Report provides a third opinion. Using the handy decoder that I’ve previously described—which adjusts for Cook’s Democratic-leaning bias over the years—Cook’s projections suggest that Republicans have a slight advantage in the battle for the Senate. (My decoder isn’t designed to address Cook’s House projections, but even without such an adjustment, Cook favors Republicans to pick up about 10-20 seats.)

As of October 4, Cook has four Senate seats listed as toss-ups, three listed as Democratic-leaning, and three listed as Republican-leaning. Across the past four federal elections, Republicans have posted an 11-0 win-loss record in races that Cook has called Republican-leaning, with those Republican candidates winning by an average of 13.7 points and a minimum of 7.3 points. So, expect Cook’s three Republican-leaning races (Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio) all to go the GOP’s way. 

Over that same span of time, Democrats’ average margin of victory in races that Cook calls Democratic-leaning has been 8.0 points. So, one would expect Cook’s three Democratic-leaning races (Arizona, Colorado, and New Hampshire) to be about 6 points more competitive, on average, than Cook’s GOP-leaning races—with Democrats being the favorites in these Democratic-leaning races but with Republicans still having a shot at victory. 

Perhaps most importantly, Republicans have won 72 percent of Cook’s toss-up races over the past four federal elections. So, the most likely scenario would be to have the GOP win three out of Cook’s four toss-ups (Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin). Assuming that they also win Cook’s three Republican-leaning races, that would leave Republicans with 51 Senate seats (or 52 if they were able to win one of Cook’s Democratic-leaning seats). 

Cook’s final classifications, however, have yet to be released, and those will provide a clearer sense of the likely Senate outcome. 

In all, control of the Senate will come down to a series of head-to-head battles that will play out like Sunday at the Ryder Cup, only with 10 key matchups instead of 12. Republicans need to win five of those matchups to gain control of the Senate, while Democrats need to win six to retain control. 

Each of those 10 races could go either way. (Marco Rubio’s race in Florida, which appears to be a near-lock for the GOP, isn’t among these 10.) Republicans look to have the clear edge in four: Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Democrats look to have the clear edge in three: Colorado, New Hampshire, and Washington (which FiveThirtyEight rates as being 97 percent likely to go to longtime Democratic incumbent Patty Murray and which Cook rates as being solidly Democratic, but Trafalgar’s polling has Republican challenger Tiffany Smiley trailing by only 2 points—49 to 47 percent). Control of the Senate, then, could come down to whether Republicans can win at least one race from among Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania, or whether Democrats can sweep those three races.

Given these indica, it will be interesting to see whether Republicans will start funding Blake Masters in Arizona. Masters has been outraised by Democrat Mark Kelly by the extraordinary margin of $52 million to $5 million, yet he trails only by a margin of 2 percent (47 to 45 percent) in both Trafalgar’s and Emerson’s polling. And this is in a Republican-leaning swing state. Or perhaps Republicans, looking for that deciding fifth win (assuming they win the four key races where they’re ahead), will continue to put all of their (non-darkhorse) chips on Herschel Walker in Georgia and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, narrowing the playing field in the process. Or perhaps Republicans will be fortunate, and Joe O’Dea, Don Bolduc, or Smiley will pull out a longshot win in Colorado, New Hampshire, or Washington, respectively. 

This collection of competitive Senate races will make for interesting viewing on the night of November 8. But don’t expect similar suspense when it comes to the House—no matter what Nate Silver says.

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