The Campaign Spot

The Hard Lesson: Statewide Poll Averages Are Usually Right.

The great revelation of the phenomenally popular Nate Silver is his observation that the polls — particularly the state poll averages — are usually right. Right before Election Day 2012 I went through the recent history of polls, and there were some glaringly bad cases, such as Zogby’s results in 2004 and the mess at Research 2000. But pollsters have attempted to account for low response rates, the possibility that some groups may be less inclined to talk to a pollster, cell-phone-only households, and so on. Conservatives — probably including myself in the past — may have developed a too-skeptical view of modern polling, and built the habit of looking for reasons they could be wrong, rather than recognize that the election isn’t going the way we hoped.

The notion that the polls are usually right, and the bigger the lead, the more certain they are, is pretty obvious. If you lead by 4 points or more, you’re in really solid shape. If you lead by 2 to 4 points, you’re in pretty good shape, but not quite a lock. If you lead by 0 to 2 points, it’s shakier.

By the time you get to just a 2-percentage-point lead in the statepoll averages, you have a 75 percent chance of winning the state.

The fact that it is possible for there to be an upset does not mean you should expect, count on, or fear upsets.

With that in mind, the Campaign Spot 2014 Midterm Senate projections:


Let’s get the Republican holds out of the way:

Kentucky: Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell is going to win. But you knew this already.

Georgia: Here’s the good news for Republicans. David Perdue has led 6 of the past 7 polls, by 2 to 4 points, and that last one was a tie. The bad news is that with Libertarian Amanda Swafford getting anywhere from 1 to 6 points, hitting that 50 percent threshold is a tall order. So look for this one to end on Election Night with Perdue ahead, close to but not at 50 percent, and a heavy favorite for the lower-turnout runoff. Of course, this means Republicans will have to wait until January to claim this seat.

Kansas: The biggest lead for either candidate in the past four polls: “independent” Greg Orman by 2 points. But only one poll had Roberts ahead, and it had a margin of error of 4.8 percentage points, and it had both candidates polling in the 30s. The polls point to a very narrow win for Orman, and that’s my prediction. Having said that, note that on the above chart, a polling average lead of just seven-tenths of a percentage point translates to only a 60 percent chance of winning.

With Kansas lost, Republicans need seven, not six seats, to win control of the Senate.

On to the Republican takeovers:

Montana, West Virginia and South Dakota: Congratulations, Senators-elect Steve Daines, Mike Rounds, and Shelley Moore Capito.

Suddenly Republicans only need four seats to control the Senate.

Arkansas: Republican challenger Tom Cotton is going to win.


Alaska: This one looked safe for the GOP for most of October, and then one poll came along showing incumbent Mark Begich ahead by 6, spurring some eager Democrats to declare the race over. Then two more new polls put Republican Dan Sullivan ahead. Yes, Democrats are promising an epic get-out-the-vote effort here — they’re promising one in Arkansas, too — but Alaska’s a pretty Republican state and Begich won only 47.8 percent against Ted Stevens after Stevens was convicted on seven charges of corruption, and with the Obama wave at his back. Sullivan’s the pick.


Colorado: Democrats seem way too eager about a modest improvement in the early voting numbers. The big turnout boost from Colorado’s new vote-by-mail system is actually working quite well for Republicans; their registered members are outpacing Democrat-registered voters by about 111,000 votes out of 1.25 million so far. As the New York Times’ Nate Cohn lays out, Udall needs about a million fairly Democratic voters to cast ballots by Tuesday.


Iowa: Arguing against GOP hopes is Professor Michael McDonald, who studied the early vote and predicted we won’t know on Election Night who won Iowa. Arguing in favor is the fact that the Democratic advantage in early votes is smaller than in 2010 and 2012, and Ernst’s 7-point lead in the Des Moines Register poll, which was fantastically accurate the past two cycles. Ernst is the pick, but note McDonald’s unnerving warning of a long, drawn-out fight about late-mailed ballots, Election Day voter registration, and provisional ballots.

With the pickup of Iowa, Republicans would win control of the Senate. That leaves . . . 

Louisiana: This one doesn’t get resolved until December, but the polling has been remarkably consistent — Landrieu wins the initial round by a few points in the high 30s or low 40s, and then trails the runoff to Bill Cassidy by a significant margin.

Add it up and it’s a 52-seat Republican majority.

On to the Democratic holds:

New Hampshire: This is probably the shakiest prediction, and it should be close, but Shaheen has led more polls than Brown throughout the autumn.

North Carolina: The polling here has been maddeningly consistent for those who want to see Republican Thom Tillis win — Kay Hagan led by a couple points from September through today. She will probably finish in the mid-40s, Tillis a point or two behind, and Libertarian Sean Haugh picking up a few percentage points.

Virginia: Ed Gillespie did not do badly, and knocking off an immensely wealthy incumbent Democrat in Virginia like Mark Warner was always going to be difficult. But Warner has rarely polled below 49 percent.

Michigan: An oddity this year, as this Senate race looked close into September and then Gary Peters just built a solid, often double-digit polling lead.

New Jersey: Yes, Cory Booker has mediocre numbers for an incumbent Democrat, but GOP challenger Jeff Bell has rarely polled higher than 40 percent.

New Mexico: Allen Weh, who trailed by a large margin for much of the year, will probably settle in to the traditional mid-40s for a Republican in a Senate race in this state. Perhaps GOP governor Susana Martinez’s big win will help him a bit. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gary King, who declared Martinez “does not have a Latino heart”, is a dumpster fire of a candidate.

Oregon: Monica Wehby’s inability to make it a close race ranks among the biggest disappointments for Republicans’ Senate hopes this year.


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