Midterm Update: 4 Days To The Election — What’s A Wave Look Like?

Chris Wilson CEO, WPA Opinion Research
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We’re less than a week from Election Day and things are looking really good for the Grand Old Party. So now the conversation is shifting to what the definition of a “wave” is.

The left wants to set the bar high, so that a pick-up of a handful of House seats and moving to a 51 or 52 seat majority in the Senate will seem like failure for Republicans.

But baselines matter and moving from an already huge House majority to a nearly historically large majority would still be a major accomplishment. As would gaining six or seven Senate seats in a single election.

So, with the Democrats trying to re-define a Republican victory as a Republican loss, let’s look at the state of the races just one short week before the Election.

Who is the President?

It’s no secret that Barack Obama is unpopular. Depending on which poll you read, he may even be historically unpopular. But Democrats still need someone to whip up the base.

So while Obama stays hidden in Washington to work on his short game very important issues, Democrats are jumping in their DeLorean time machine and deploying Bill Clinton to serve as pseudo-President.

Here’s a list of Obama’s recent campaign stops:

  • Michigan
  • Wisconsin
  • Maine
  • Rhode Island
  • Connecticut

That’s hardly a battleground list — it’s a deep blue list.

And here’s where Bill Clinton has been recently:

  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Nevada
  • Ohio
  • Pennsylvania
  • Virginia
  • Wisconsin

You’d be forgiven for thinking Clinton is still in the White House and Obama was a backbench Senator from Illinois.

The Vote So Far

According to the always-indispensible Michael McDonald and his United States Election Project site, more than twelve million Americans have already cast their ballots across the country.

That would be around 13 percent of the vote if turnout matched 2010.

So while there are a lot of votes still to be cast, we can at least begin to see a few key trends in the data:

  1. States without marquee races at the top of the ticket are trending very Republican so far this year.
    1. That doesn’t matter for things like the Senate or the distribution of Governors across the country, but it matters a lot down the ballot for and may produce some house race surprises.
    2. Something very interesting is happening in Nevada where Republicans are winning the early vote return contest in Clark County (Las Vegas). That clearly scares the DCCC who recently started dumping money into the 4th Congressional District to help support Democrat incumbent Steve Horsford in what should have been an easy re-election.
    3. In Texas, the well-publicized implosion of Wendy Davis’s campaign, and no other close statewide contests, are threatening to drive down Democratic turnout. That matters for the state legislature, but it also is making the DCCC a bit nervous about Dem incumbent Pete Gallego and the expansive 23rd District.
  2. In the marquee states, the picture is more mixed and evolving daily.
    1. In Iowa, Democrats have regained a narrow early vote advantage. But D’s are still significantly under-performing their nearly six point advantage from 2010. That’s good news for Republican nominee Joni Ernst.
    2. North Carolina early in-person voting has opened and Democrats are doing very well, even outperforming their 2010 showing. It’s another bad sign for Republican Thom Tillis.
    3. Georgia, like all states without partisan registration, provides less evidence for those of us reading the early vote tealeaves. One of those tea leaves is that, according to McDonald’s data, African Americans have made up over 30% of the ballots returned. That’s a single promising sign for Michelle Nunn in a week that hasn’t seen many.

As always, early vote is only part of the picture and increasing use of early voting in many states makes it difficult to compare to previous years. But at the very least, there are real concerns for Democrats in states where there isn’t a top-of-ticket race to drive interest and turnout.

Senate Race Recap

Over the last week the discussion around the Senate has shifted from “will they or won’t they” take the majority to “how large will the majority be.”

If the definition of a “wave” election is that it lifts campaigns across the country, that’s what we’re seeing in the Senate as Republican candidates have all seemingly gotten a lift this week (except in Kansas).

The predictive models movement was mixed this week. The New York Times, long the most pessimistic for Republicans, had the most movement in favor of a GOP takeover while other models shifted slightly in the other direction.

But the net effect of all the shifts is that the consensus now stands at Republicans having from a three-in-five to two-thirds chance of winning the Senate.

Unless the Washington Post is right, in which case it’s all but certain.

Model Probability of Republican Control Change from
Last Week
New York Times 65% +8%
538.com 62% -3%
Huffington Post 63% -2%
PredictWise 74% -6%
Washington Post 93% unchanged
Daily Kos 70% +1%

Reader Brian Alford suggested last week that we also look at the betting odds for Senate outcomes. I like prediction markets of all sorts, so we we’ll look at a few alternatives.

  • Right now the online betting odds highly favor Republicans. We’re seeing best odds of 1/5 in favor of Republican control and 57/5 for Democrat control.
  • In the world of predictive trading markets, The Iowa Electronic Marketcontract for Democrats losing the Senate is trading at around .770 right now with a Dem hold contract sitting way down at .216.

No matter how you look at it, all the prediction tools available are going to be shocked if we don’t have a Republican Senate by the time the dust settles (whether that will be in November, or after run-offs remains to be seen).

As we get closer to the election and Republican numbers across the country go up, more Senate races, even those seen as previously competitive, seem to be all but won:

  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana (it will likely go to a run-off, but the run-off doesn’t appear to be close)
  • Arkansas
  • Colorado

Beyond those four, Republicans look good in many of the other competitive contests.

In Alaska, recent polling has shown everything from a ten-point Begich (D) lead to a four-point lead for GOPer Sullivan.

  • Alaska is notoriously hard to poll, but that kind of spread is astonishing.
  • Accounting for the quality of the pollsters reporting numbers and the fact that the state has historically returned a more Republican result than the polls suggest, things still look good for Sullivan.

Iowa is looking increasingly like a win for Joni Ernst (R).

  • Multiple polls had shown a small lead for the Republican before a single poll emerged at the end of last week showing a small lead for Democrat Braley.
  • All of the polls show this as a very tight race, but so far the weight of the recent evidence suggests that Ernst will win.

For a while it looked like Georgia might be the firewall for Democrats in the Senate.

  • Now, after a week of polls showing Democrat Michelle Nunn in the lead, we’ve now seen a week of polls showing GOPer David Perdue regaining that lead.
  • At this point the Democrats seem to have played their only card with attacks on outsourcing and it hasn’t gotten the job done.
  • Unless something new emerges over the next five days, it seems that this seat will stay in Republican hands.

The difference between a Senate majority and a bigger Senate majority seems to be Kansas, where none of the political environment driving the other races matters in a race between a Republican and an Independent.

  • In what amounts to a retention election for Pat Roberts, the verdict seems to be coming in “no” with four of the last five polls showing Orman leading.
  • That said, I really like the Roberts’ closing ad with KSU football coach Bill Snyder, probably the most popular man in the state right now.

North Carolina and New Hampshire both remain close in the polls, but the Democrats have narrow leads in each.  If there really is a Republican wave next Tuesday, there’s a path for a Republican win in each.  But for now they seem to narrowly favor the Democrats.  We’ll know early as NC polls close at 7:30 and New Hampshire closes at 8 (some counties close at 7:30).

For a list of poll closing times, click here.

Our best guess right now:  The environment has shifted just enough for us to think that 52 Republican seats (plus whatever happens in Kansas) is the most likely outcome. But you could see as many as 55.

The House Re-examined: Is there a wave after all?

For most of the election cycle, the consensus on the House is that Republicans were at their natural limit given the huge successes of 2010 and a re-districting process that left a number of seats out of reach for even the best Republican in the best year.

But slowly over the past few weeks it seems that Democrats are falling back further and further in defense of seats that should otherwise be safe.

Democrats are now spending real money in races like Nevada CD 4 (no recent polling, but the early vote numbers look really good for Republicans) and California CD 4 (no recent polling) to go with earlier defense seats like California CD 52 (Carl DeMaio leads by a point in the most recent poll), Georgia CD 12 (no recent polling), and multiple at-risk seats in Iowa, Illinois, and even one in Hawaii.

That’s not a good sign for Democrats and the math is beginning to look like Republicans could seriously threaten to hit 245.

Our best estimate continues to be just under that, with Republicans likely to win 8 seats and break 240 but not quite get to 245.  

But it will take just a few surprises due to depressed Democrat turnout (we see Nevada 4 as the most likely wild-card) to get a bigger wave going.

What’s going on with Governors?

The federal offices are following a predictable pattern for the second mid-term:  the party out of the White House is absolutely going to make gains and the only open question is the size of the pick-up.

But the Governor’s races are, frankly, a mess.

Both parties could lose a handful of incumbents or open seats that they previously held and there doesn’t seem to be much of a consistent pattern other than that numerous states don’t like their incumbents or same-party candidates running for a de facto “third term.”

Republicans have real challenges in Florida, where the re-litigation of the Rick Scott’s 2010 victory is going poorly (he trails by three and four points in the two most recent polls).

Kansas where Sam Brownback (R) has pushed the liberal wing of the state GOP into the arms of the Democrats (two recent polls show Brownback down three and up three, respectively).

Republican incumbent Tom Corbett will lose his Pennsylvania reelection and it was over long before it started.

But Democrats seem to have real trouble in:

  • Colorado where John Hickenlooper tarnished his outside brand over his four years in office (the latest two polls both show Republican leads),
  • Connecticut (three recent polls show either Tom Foley (R) leading or the race tied),
  • Massachusetts where Martha Coakley is behind and underperforming expectations (which is a sentence I just pasted verbatim from an assessment of her Senate campaign),
  • Maryland where Larry Hogan (R) leads Anthony Brown by 5 pts. in a recent poll from a very reputable firm, and
  • Rhode Island where recent polling is showing Allan Fung closing the gap fast.

Conclusion: who knows?  Your guess is as good as mine here.  The optimist in me says Republicans win in all of them.  But I’m convinced Oklahoma is going to win the national championship every year and the Thunder are always going to win the NBA crown.  So, trust my data, but not necessarily my opinion.

Bottom line: it will be a good night if you’re a Republican.

Sorry this was so long, but there was a lot to cover.  As always, thanks to Bryon Allen for all the help here.  May send one out on Monday, but this is probably my last of the cycle.

And responses come right to me, so I always appreciate any feedback.

Happy voting!