We Still Don't Know What's Going To Happen On Election Day

Everything's at stake, but nothing is certain when the polls are this close.
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With Election Day only a few days away, the emerging consensus within the political class is that things look bad for the Democrats.

As this thinking goes, Democrats are almost certainly going to lose control of the House, with as many as a few dozen seats flipping, and they are probably going to lose the Senate too.

The new consensus is a reaction to some very real trends in the polls, and to signs that Democrats are shifting their resources toward protecting presumably safe districts and states, and away from races where they’d hoped to pick up seats.

Those decisions tell us a lot, because party leaders have access to private information, including internal polling and reports from their staff on the ground. They wouldn’t be moving money to shore up safe seats if they didn’t suddenly think those seats were vulnerable.

But party leaders can be wrong, just as the polls can. And even the polls tell a relatively nuanced story ― about Senate, House and statewide elections that remain very close and could go either way, depending on idiosyncratic factors, last-minute campaign decisions and the always-present possibility of polling error.

So with all of that in mind, here’s a take on the state of the race from one reporter-analyst: me.

It’s based on what I am seeing in the polls, as well as what I’ve observed from my own reporting in a key swing state. It’s also based on what I’m reading and hearing from my colleagues who have been covering this campaign on a daily basis for most of the past year, from locations across the country.

Signs Of Trouble For The Democrats

When it comes to polls and putting them in context, it’s hard to do better than the FiveThirtyEight prediction model, which attempts to weight surveys by recency and track record, then adjusts based on other factors like historical trends.

Its House forecast has been moving in a Republican direction since late September and, as of this writing, pegs chances of Republicans capturing the House at 84%. Its Senate model puts Republican chances of getting the Senate at 54%. On Oct. 30 ― i.e., less than a week ago ― the model still had Democrats as slight favorites to hold the Senate.

And it’s not just an overall trend. The forecasts for specific races are shifting in ways that also suggest Democrats are in trouble.

In the Georgia Senate race, polls now show Republican nominee Herschel Walker pulling ahead of Raphael Warnock, the Democratic incumbent. In the New Hampshire Senate race, surveys are picking up trouble for incumbent Democrat Maggie Hassan, who once enjoyed a comfortable lead.

It’s a similar story on the House side, where seats once thought safe now appear to be in jeopardy. One of those belongs to Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), who is chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The Cook Political Report just shifted its forecast for that district from “lean Democrat” to “toss-up.”

One reason for the change, as my colleague Daniel Marans detailed in a recent dispatch, is fundraising. Maloney’s campaign has raised more money than the committee for his Republican opponent, Assembly Member Mike Lawler. But outside money from Republican super PACs has overwhelmed the money coming from their Democratic counterparts.

That’s also the story nationally, as Daniel and our colleague Kevin Robillard explained in a separate article. The GOP super PACs “have massive fundraising and spending advantages over their Democratic counterparts” in this cycle, they wrote.

Democrats have reacted by putting more money into those suddenly vulnerable districts, which has inevitably meant spending less in more contested districts where they once hoped to pick up seats ― producing what a recent Politico report described as a “shrinking battlefield.”

Signs Of Hope For The Democrats

It’s easy enough to put together a coherent narrative for why Democratic prospects are suddenly looking so much worse than they did just a few weeks ago.

It goes like this: Voters punish the incumbent party when they’re worried about the economy, and polls suggest inflation is the No. 1 issue on minds of voters ― even more so than it was earlier in the year, when the Supreme Court’s decision to overrule Roe v. Wade was fresher in everybody’s minds.

And in the final weeks of the campaign, Republican-leaning voters who’d been describing themselves as undecided are rallying around their party’s candidates, even those who, like Walker, have been dogged by controversies and questions about their basic fitness for office.

But a sensible-sounding narrative can still be wrong, partly or entirely. And so it’s worth considering why the apparent public opinion shifts and reports about party-level decisions might not be such good predictors of the final outcome.

The place to start is with the polls themselves, and a closer look at where they are as of this writing. Pay particular attention to the Senate, where control is likely to come down to the outcomes of four races: Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania. Democrats probably need to win three of those to hold the majority. (I say “probably” because the number could go up or down if other races defy expectations.)

In FiveThirtyEight’s model, Arizona still looks pretty good for the Democrat, incumbent Mark Kelly, with his chances of holding the seat at 66%. And in Pennsylvania, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman remains the slight favorite at 54%. Democrats are now underdogs in Georgia and Nevada, but the Democrats in those races (Warnock and, for Nevada, incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto) still have chances above 40%.

The poll numbers for Georgia and Nevada are the main reason the prediction models are now tipping toward Republican control of the Senate. But the margins in those and several other races are still relatively small, enough so that routine polling errors could change the outcome.

Conversations about polling error frequently focus on the misses in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, when surveys and models underestimated support for Donald Trump. That could certainly happen again. But polling errors can run in both directions, and there are plenty of recent examples of polls underestimating Democratic strength ― a point that a handful of analysts, including Tom Bonier and Simon Rosenberg, have been making on social media.

Bonier is CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic-aligned consulting firm; Rosenberg is CEO of NDN and the New Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank and advocacy organization. But less partisan analysts have also been urging caution in using their forecasts.

“Our forecast emphasizes probabilities, not binary outcomes,” Nathaniel Rakich, a FiveThirtyEight analyst, wrote on Thursday. “Democrats and Republicans are only slightly favored to win many of those seats, and a seat with a 60-in-100 chance of going blue votes Republican 40 out of 100 times ... It’s not unusual for polls to be a few percentage points off the final mark (this is normal and just a reality of our uncertain world).”

Close margins also mean that outcomes can depend on late, seemingly minor swings in public opinion or ticks in turnout. Those swings can go in either direction, so that’s not a reason to assume prospects for Democrats will improve in the final few days before Election Day. But it’s also not a reason to take for granted that every thin Republican margin will hold.

Thoughts From Ground Level

As regular readers of this newsletter know ― or may have guessed ― I work out of Michigan, where I’ve lived for more than 20 years.

It’s a politically divided state that voted for Trump in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020, and where control of state government is now up for grabs. Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic governor, is up for reelection, as are the other statewide offices including secretary of state and attorney general. (HuffPost’s Travis Waldron wrote about that here.) Control of the state legislature is in play, thanks to nonpartisan redistricting that ended a severe Republican gerrymander. (Travis covered that topic here.)

There’s no U.S. Senate race, but there are several closely contested House races ― including the contest between Democratic incumbent Elissa Slotkin and Republican state Sen. Tom Barrett, reportedly the most expensive in the country.

The forecast for Democrats here is brighter than in some other parts of the U.S. Whitmer has been ahead of her GOP opponent, former right-wing commentator Tudor Dixon, in nearly every poll. Slotkin has been the narrow favorite to win again, while another Democratic candidate, former Justice Department attorney Hillary Scholten, is the slight favorite to win in what had (pre-redistricting) been a Republican-leaning area.

The same caveats and cautions about poll misses that apply nationally should apply here. These races have all gotten tighter in the past few weeks, and it’s easy ― very, very easy ― to imagine Democrats losing some or all of them.

But having spent the past few weeks covering the governor’s race closely ― for an article that will appear very soon ― I haven’t seen the kind of indicators I’ve seen in previous campaigns when one candidate was surging. Dixon’s events draw bigger crowds than Whitmer’s, but they’re not overwhelming and Whitmer hasn’t been advertising hers as broadly. The Dixon supporters I’ve met and interviewed (and encountered in daily life) have been longtime Republicans, not recent converts.

A key factor is reproductive rights, which is central to the election here because Michigan has a 1931 law banning abortion in nearly all cases. A series of state court rulings have blocked enforcement for now, but that could change depending on who gets control of state government ― and whether a ballot initiative to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution passes.

There are indications (starting with the record-breaking number of signatures that the initiative’s sponsors collected) that the amendment, and abortion access more generally, will drive up turnout among Democrats, helping them to meet or outperform their poll numbers. And it’s entirely possible the same thing will happen in other states where abortion is a live issue.

Of course, it’s also possible that Michigan voters are souring on the amendment, thanks to a massive (and deeply deceptive) propaganda campaign by its opponents, and that the polls are undercounting Republicans here just as they did before.

For that matter, it’s possible that what I’m seeing and hearing firsthand isn’t indicative of broader trends, here or (especially) in other parts of the country. Things certainly don’t look as promising for Katie Hobbs, currently secretary of state in Arizona and the Democratic gubernatorial nominee there. Hobbs now appears to be trailing GOP nominee and former television anchor Kari Lake, and there’s even concern Hobbs will drag down the rest of the Democratic ticket, as HuffPost’s Liz Skalka recounted last week.

But in many ways, that uncertainty about individual races and the overall national trend is the point ― or my point, anyway. The clues we have about what will happen in this year’s election are real, but we don’t always know what they mean or how important they are.

That’s a good reason not to jump to feeling overly confident about anybody’s predictions. And if you feel strongly about how the election turns out ― as you should, given the enormous stakes ― then that’s also a good reason to keep advocating for your causes, and to make sure you vote.

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