1. Intro. I have to say that I am of two minds about this midterm election. On the one hand, it is great to see the Republican party in resurgence. And not just in terms of raw politics: The Tea Party movement has given the GOP a sense of meaning and purpose in the domestic political debate that it has not really had since 1996 when Bill Clinton outfoxed the Republicans in the budget battle.
On the other hand, as somebody who makes a living discerning trendlines before they develop, this has been frustrating. I’m not going to beat around the bush, my friends: we are in uncharted water here. Consider:
(a) The generic ballot average at RealClearPolitics is predicting a Republican margin of 9.4 points. If that were to happen, it would be the largest Republican margin since 1946.
(b) The Gallup poll, historically the most accurate, is an outlier this cycle. What to make of this? If it is correct, and the margin is 15 points today, that would be the largest margin since 1928, when Herbert Hoover did this to Al Smith.
(c) The political landscape has changed so much since the 1920s. Liberal pundits like to talk about how narrow the Republican Party of today is, but actually it has never been geographically broader. The party of Lincoln, McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Dwight Eisenhower was a regional party, limited mostly to the North. The party of today is a national one. So it’s fair to ask: how far back in time can we go to get a reasonable sense of what happens next? And if the Republican Party’s appeal now is geographically broader, what’s to say a 1928-style election isn't possible?
I mention this up front to tell you that the estimates that follow are my best guesses, but there is a great deal of uncertainty. I’ve done my best to quantify matters, but this is still about 40 percent gut instinct. Keep that in mind.
2. Macro Perspective. For starters, we have to deal with the Gallup generic ballot. It’s showing R +15 right now, higher than any other pollster. But Gallup is also the most accurate historically, while the other polls have historically tended to underestimate Republican strength, often by substantial margins. How to proceed?
I’ve put together a model that predicts the number of seats based on the number of votes. It goes back to 1942, and predicts about 92 percent of the variation in seats every cycle. Models like this have been used in other places, but mine takes into account the annual redistricting process, and it finds the GOP has enjoyed a systematic advantage during the 2000s.
Plug a 15-point Republican victory into this model, and it spits out a Republican gain of about 90 seats. On the other hand, if we take the RealClearPolitics average and plug it into the model, we arrive at a gain of about 70 seats.
I am well aware that these numbers are substantially higher than what just about every other pundit is predicting. And as I noted at the beginning, I am not pleased about this! But look: this is not the “Price Is Right.” The goal here is not to get closest without going over. The goal is to get the closest period. With the caveat that there remains a great deal of uncertainty, here is my take.
Frankly, my gut tells me that Gallup’s R +15 is too high, but then again I think the ABC News/Washington Post poll (R+4) is wider off the mark than Gallup. Mark Blumenthal has noted that there is no real middle in the final generic ballot numbers. They are all either high or low. I’m going high because of the metric’s historic tendency to undercount Republican strength. And while Gallup may be higher than normal this year, it is still the smart bet that Gallup is on the correct side of the ledger.
Thus, my intuition is that the final result will be a Republican share of the two-party popular vote of about 55 percent, with 45 percent going to the Democrats. That may seem like a big margin, but it is not far from 1994 when the Republicans won 53.5 percent of the two-party vote and the Democrats won 46.5 percent. Also, it tracks very closely to Ronald Reagan’s share of the two-party vote in 1980 (55.3 percent).
How many seats will this produce? Again, it’s exceedingly difficult to say. My model suggests a pickup of about 75 seats, give or take. Again, this might seem high, but think of it this way: 1994 saw a GOP victory of 6.5 percent, while I’m hypothesizing a victory of 10 percent, for an increase of 3.5 percent. So if we take 3.5 percent off the Democratic margin in every House race in 1994, the Democrats would have lost 67 seats rather than 52. Factor in district lines that are friendlier to Republicans in this decade, and 75 seats is within the ballpark. Put another way, check out the RealClearPolitics take on the House races. Give the GOP every "Likely Republican" and "Lean Republican" seat, give the Democrats every "Likely Democratic" and "Lean Democratic" seat, and give the Republicans 2/3rds of the "Toss-Up" seats, and you come out with a net gain of 75.
Now, this puts me in a peculiar spot. There is so much uncertainty with the House races that I think it generates a kind of herd mentality. If you’re going to be wrong, it’s best to be among your peers, right? That way, you don’t get singled out and devoured! Well, I could very well be wrong, and I’m out here on the margins. So...yikes! But ultimately I followed Gallup out here, and historically following Gallup is a safe bet in midterm elections. And while I surely have a rooting interest today, I'll say this: if Gallup had come in low on Sunday night, I would have followed it in low, too.
As for the Senate, Republicans will pick up seats in Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Nevada, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. They will win one of these three seats: California, West Virginia, and Washington (with Washington being the most promising). All in all, a total gain of 9 seats.
Let’s break the trends down by region. Here’s a reference map so you know exactly what states fall into what category.
3. Regional Breakdown: The East. The East – once the bastion of conservative Republicanism – is now a Democratic firewall. Gallup currently has the president’s job approval among adults in the East at 50 percent, about where it has been for some time. Accordingly, Democratic losses will be relatively minimal here.
The exception is Pennsylvania, which is the poster child for the damage that Barack Obama has done to the Democratic coalition. Historically Pennsylvania has a pro-Democratic tilt of 3-5 points, but signs strongly suggest that the state will be more Republican this cycle than in a very long time.
Region-wide, Republicans will win Senate races in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. They will lose in Connecticut, twice in New York, and in Vermont.
The governor races are harder to call. The GOP has the edge in Pennsylvania and Maine. The Democrats will win easily in New York. However, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont are all very close. I’ll predict the Republicans win Connecticut, the Democrats win Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont, and independent Lincoln Chaffee wins Rhode Island.
As for the House races, here is how I see things.
4. Regional Breakdown: The South. The South was once the strongest region for the Democrats, but now it is by far the weakest. Generally, the trend in the South today will be very straightforward: the more African Americans in a voting district, the more likely the Democrat is to win. The white vote in the South has moved decisively away from the Democrats.
In the Senate, Democrats will win seats in Delaware and Maryland. Republicans will win seats in Arkansas, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and South Carolina. West Virginia is a toss-up, although at this point the Democrats have the edge.
In the governor races, the GOP will win in Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. Democrats will win in Arkansas and Maryland. Florida is close, but my guess is that it goes Republican.
Here is how I see the House seats breaking down.
5. Regional Breakdown: The Midwest. This is where the Democrats stand to do the worst today. The Midwest has been swinging elections since the early 19th century, when it used to just be called “the West.” It swung the Democrats into power in 2006 and 2008, and now it will swing them out.
The Republicans will sweep the region in the Senate, winning races in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.
The governor races will be almost as brutal for the Democrats. Republicans will win in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. The only bright spot for the Democrats is Minnesota, where a three-way race should give them a victory with less than 50 percent of the vote.
Here is how I see the House breaking down.
6. Regional Breakdown: The West. The West will be the most diverse region in the country.
In the Mountain West, the GOP will run roughshod over the Democrats, winning every Senate race (Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, and Utah) and most governor races (Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming). That leaves only Colorado, where effective Republican Tom Tancredo has the momentum. My gut says he pulls it out narrowly.
In the Pacific West, the Democrats will generally hold the line, winning governor races in California, Oregon, and Hawaii. The GOP will hold the governorship in Alaska. Meanwhile, in the Senate, Ron Wyden will cruise to reelection in Oregon, a race the GOP might have turned into something winnable if it had not been so distracted by weak candidates in Colorado, Delaware, and Nevada. California and Washington remain toss-ups, with the Democrats having slight edges. The Democrats will have an easy victory in Hawaii. And in Alaska…your guess is as good as mine.
Here’s the House breakdown as I see it.
Now, stop reading the blogs and go vote!
Oh, one more thing. Whatever you do today, ignore any and all leaked exit polls. They're put out there with an agenda, which usually does not include making conservatives feel better. And they're not the most accurate data points in the world. Just ask President John F. Kerry!