How Are the Senate Races Breaking Now?

(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
A net GOP gain of one or two seats is likely but not certain.

I looked earlier this month at the polling in the Senate and governors’ races. But in the closing weeks of an election, the polls keep coming. With a week to go, where does the Senate stand now? The news is bad for a number of candidates in both parties; Republican control of the Senate looks fairly good right now, but the party could suffer if it doesn’t hold on to a bunch of slim leads and capitalize on key opportunities.

As I noted earlier, while public polls are far from infallible, they can tell us something about the state of a race, and there are a number of ways to test how much they can tell us, such as:

  • The size of the lead;
  • Whether either candidate has cleared the 50 percent barrier;
  • If not, how many undecideds remain;
  • How many polls have been taken in the race;
  • How many of those polls are recent; and
  • Where the political environment, nationally and in the particular state, stands.

In particular, I find it useful to look at how races “break” in the last six weeks, as the number of undecided voters in the polling averages dwindles.

The Senate Polls

Let’s start with the current RealClearPolitics poll averages in the Senate. Quick notes on the chart:

  • The “DJT” column shows Trump’s approval rating by state according to Morning Consult’s September 2018 polling, which may not be entirely up to date; Trump’s approval rating nationally has recovered to a hair over 44 percent in October after dropping almost to 40 percent in mid September, but shows some signs of dipping back down at the last minute following the “MAGABomber” story, the Pittsburgh synagogue attack, and Trump’s characteristically ham-fisted responses to both.
  • “3” indicates the polling for third-party candidates. In the Senate, this is a factor mainly in Indiana (libertarian Lucy Brenton, who has faded a bit in recent polls) and New Mexico (libertarian and former Republican governor and two-time libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson). In Mississippi’s special election, I listed Republican Chris McDaniel in this column, but assuming he finishes third, we’ll see a two-horse race in the November 27 runoff.
  • “Break” extrapolates what percentage of the remaining undecideds would need to support the Republican candidate to get to 50 percent. As I’ve noted before, this is an imprecise measure; some races end with both sides short of 50 percent, and as even the past month shows, candidates sometimes lose support, rather than simply losing the race to gather undecideds. But as a net measurement, this helps tell us how much room there is to grow left in the poll average, and how much of that one side needs to capture to win.
  • “Last poll” and “Since 10/1” look at the start date of the most recent poll in the race (most polls are conducted over multiple days) and how many of the polls in the average were begun since October 1.

This looks like a field that has sorted itself into four tiers: three almost-toss-ups (Nevada, Arizona, and Indiana); three races that are still competitive but have a distinct favorite (Missouri, Florida, and Montana); four races that are longshots (Tennessee, West Virginia, Minnesota special, and New Jersey); and maybe four more where the underdog is left arguing “the only poll that matters is on Election Day” (Texas, North Dakota, Michigan, and Wisconsin). Nobody is really even able to pretend that the Mississippi special election will be resolved on Election Day, or that races such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia are still in any doubt (even the latest Ohio poll, showing a race narrowed to 49–43, suggests only less of a rout given the remainder of the polling).

Besides the poll averages, we can also consider the trendline of how the poll average trends have broken since September 15. The “Net” column shows what percentage of the undecideds have broken to the Republican since then, which in some cases is above 100 percent or below zero if some candidates have actually lost support. I’ve only listed here the races where there were polls both before and after September 15 and neither candidate was above 53 percent, since trends in those races are pointless and often show movement against the leader.

Four races — Arizona, Indiana, Montana, and New Jersey — have, despite some movement, ended up not far from where they were six weeks ago, which is especially bad news for trailing candidates such as Bob Hugin in New Jersey and Matt Rosendale in Montana. But most of the others have banked one way or the other, and a lot more races moved in the Republican than the Democratic direction, the opposite of what the national political environment would have predicted, but perhaps more consistent with a rise in President Trump’s approval rating.

Let’s look a bit deeper at the races, and trends, by tier.

Tier One: The Toss-ups: The good news for Republicans is that Dean Heller has led in the poll average since late September; Martha McSally surged into a lead in early October as Republicans pummeled Kyrsten Sinema with ads featuring her left-wing anti-war past and her evident contempt for her own state; and recent polls have shown the Indiana race tightening as Brenton fades. But we should take this optimism with some grains of salt. Nevada and Indiana are both famously hard states to poll — Indiana due to legal restrictions on unsolicited phone calls, Nevada because of the demographics and working hours of its population, especially Las Vegas’s Hispanic-immigrant hotel and casino workers. Democrats have often outperformed their poll numbers in Nevada by one to two points, and that could be enough to erase Heller’s slight lead, which was last polled almost three weeks ago.

In Arizona, Sinema has surged in the last two polls, opening a six-point lead in the last NBC/Marist poll (Also the Green-party candidate could matter: NBC/Marist showed Sinema up 50–44 in a two-way race but 47–44–6 in a three-way race.).

Indiana is the only one of the three where Trump remains popular, though Republicans on the whole are faring better in the Southwest than the Midwest at the moment. Republicans need to win at least one of these three races to have a decent Senate cycle and two for a good one, but they shouldn’t get too comfortable.

Tier Two: The Leaners: Republicans can feel better about Missouri and worse about Florida and Montana. Josh Hawley has struggled all year to pull much ahead of Claire McCaskill, and RCP shows only one October poll, but everyone around this race has acted as if he’s finally getting real traction in the home stretch, and Republican-leaning and internal pollsters appear more bullish. A fresh Cygnal poll has Hawley up 49–46, just inside the margin for error, among a voter pool in which Republicans lead the generic ballot 51–45 and Trump’s approval rating is a hair better than his disapproval. (Cygnal also had Braun up 3 in Indiana.)

Florida is the opposite story: Bill Nelson has pulled ahead of Rick Scott, who led him in mid September, and history suggests that the national trends will carry Nelson home. But Nelson has yet to put Scott away, and the incumbent still sits below 47 percent. Florida has been as extensively polled as any race, with nine polls since mid October testing both this race and the governor’s, so Nelson’s lead seems pretty well established, but narrow enough that even a mild bias in the polling or movement the other way at the end could sink him. My gut sense of the race is that Andrew Gillum’s ability to motivate African-American voters in the racially charged governor’s race may be key to Nelson’s survival.

Montana is likely to be Republicans’ most frustrating race this year; it remains Trump country and the president has made multiple campaign swings, but after a lengthy pause in polling, two recent polls have affirmed Jon Tester’s lead and Rosendale’s continuing failure to pull past 43 percent of the vote. Montana is another state that has confounded pollsters in the past, but Rosendale is not a great wager for this seat.

Tier Three: The Long Shots: Republicans have been a lot less worried lately about Marsha Blackburn, though until yesterday, her race against Phil Bredesen hadn’t been polled since early October; an NBC/Marist poll with her up 51–46 suggests this race is still fairly secure, though not the blowout suggested when the New York Times Upshot/Siena poll had her up by 14 points in early October.

In New Jersey, Menendez is probably safe, but the latest polls have shown a tighter race after he had briefly pulled over 50 percent, and Democrats are pouring millions of dollars into the contest, suggesting that their internal polling sees Menendez’s ethical baggage as a continuing drag. We should expect that to drag him over the finish line, but Hugin has at a minimum forced them to play defense on what should have been a safe seat.

The most tantalizing race is in West Virginia, the heart of Trump country, where there hasn’t been a Senate poll since mid September. The conventional wisdom is that Joe Manchin put the race away when he broke party ranks and voted to confirm Justice Kavanaugh, taking away the chief issue in the campaign, and we have no evidence to contradict that. But, as in Tennessee, the lack of more recent data makes me a bit hesitant to put a bow on this one.

Tier Four: The “Forget Polls” Races: Only Texas rivals Florida for the extent of its polling. While Beto O’Rourke looks headed to a respectable finish for a Texas Democrat, the polling has been incredibly consistent in projecting his defeat. Ted Cruz has led in every poll all year, by five or more percentage points in the last eight straight polls, and he’s been at or above 50 percent in the last six straight. Meanwhile, O’Rourke’s 46 percent in the latest Quinnipiac poll is the first time he’s been above 45 percent all year. With Cruz up by six and a half points, the only way this isn’t over is a catastrophic poll failure.

Heidi Heitkamp is even farther back, by double digits; while North Dakota can surprise (she trailed on Election Day in 2012 and won), the latest poll has her down 54–45, and that’s her best poll since early September. If Republicans pick up North Dakota and Missouri, maintenance of their 51-seat majority will be secure no matter what happens in Nevada and Arizona.

At the opposite end of the scale, John James has legitimately surged in Michigan. But like O’Rourke, unless all four October polls are just totally off the mark, James can do no better than claim a moral victory that sets himself up for a run in a better time or place. Michigan had its share of those poll failures in 2016, but it’s a slender hope.

For the short term, anything that holds control of the Senate for 2019–20 is modest good news for Republicans, who can continue to confirm judges and cabinet replacements, and otherwise prevent the Democrats from controlling Congress and rewriting Senate rules. A one-seat gain would make that majority more secure from the unexpected loss of a senator and less prone to being held back by a single dissenter. But it will take at least a two-seat gain for it to be a genuinely good Election Night for Republicans, and three or more for the party to really feel good about extending its majority past 2020. From where we sit right now, R+1 or R+2 looks like a fairly probable outcome, but getting beyond that will take a lot of good fortune and may depend on the election’s final week.


The Latest