The Toteboard's Latest Take on the Midterms

It is now exactly three months until the mid-term elections, and time once again for the Toteboard to take a look at the summer thermometer and see whether the democratic fall prospects appear to be warm or cool. The short answer is that things are, well, complicated. But certainly interesting, and a little more promising than they were three months ago.


UP TO SPEED:


For quite some time, it had looked like this November would shape up to be a contest between two competing narratives, i.e., on the one hand the senate map slightly favoring the democrats, and on the other the general historical pattern favoring the out-of-office party, where the president’s perceived successes or failures would provide the independent variable to tilt things in either direction. Of course, Biden’s favorability has languished for some time at Trumpian levels, and so one would expect that to signal a republican wave. And that may yet be the case. However, a lot of strange things are happening this year.


For one, there’s Trump, that human version of a rectal monkeypox lesion that just won’t go away. Many of his candidates are indeed winning republican primaries, but they’re not necessarily winning all that impressively in the main battleground states and, as Nate Silver points out, their lack of electoral experience could come back to bite them. Perhaps most importantly, the House committee hearings and forthcoming lawsuits will presumably continue to dampen Trump’s stock, and it will be interesting to see if moderate republicans and conservative-leaning independents will choose not to cast their lots with sycophantic Trumpians running primarily on their advocacy of the Big Lie.


There’s also the fact that however disappointed the American public may be with Biden, there isn’t really a single issue uniting his opposition (like, say, Tea Party grievances), and the republicans – with their disregard for public health, spiteful obstructionist legislative tactics, and, oh yeah, blind support for someone who attempted to overthrow our democracy – are not exactly presenting all that appealing an alternative. It also seems like many Americans, especially young Americans, are finally beginning to grok how frightening the sudden dismantling of abortion rights is, and how responsible the republican party was for the corruption of the independent judiciary that dismantled those rights. If the republicans are assuming that they’ll be the default recipients of popular disaffiliation from Biden, they might want to revisit that assumption.


What this means is that we are really in uncharted territory, where the public has lost confidence in the president, but also mostly blames the previous administration and opposition party for the social and cultural chaos that promises to plague the country for a generation. Because this is all so unprecedented – the Toteboard really can’t recall an analogous situation – it is still not clear what this all means for November, and there’s probably no better indicator of how uncertain everything is than FiveThirtyEight’s tripartite senate election forecast model. On the most basic level, when Nate’s algorithms process only recent polls (accounting for partisan bias, previous poll performance, sample size, and so forth), they show the democrats are better than 3-1 favorites to keep or increase control of the senate, which is pretty astonishing in an evenly divided chamber during what by normal accounting should be a republican year.


But FiveThirtyEight and similar analysts don’t just compile polls to come up with their projections, they also consider what some election wonks call the “fundamentals,” i.e., elements like incumbency, prior voting patterns, candidate fundraising, economic conditions, and anything else that has historically proven to be useful in predicting election outcomes. Once they factor in all that, the democrats taper down slightly to 7-3 favorites.


But then Nate throws in a third variable, and this is where it actually gets kind of weird. Silver also factors into his analysis what a handful of other analysts think, as though he’s acknowledging that he just doesn’t quite believe his own numbers, and hedges his bets by herding slightly with other experts. In a sense, developing an algorithm that somehow mathematizes somebody’s opinion (albeit expert opinion) seems to be a remarkably ­un-statistical step to take for a site that prides itself on following the numbers rather than the pundits. But Nate and Company’s implicit response is that Larry Sabato and Charlie Cook are right so often, that it’s mathematically sound to treat their predictive history as data points. The Toteboard actually isn’t so sure of this, but in any event, the “deluxe” model puts the democrats at just under 3-2 favorites, which amounts to a pretty big difference (but is still a surprisingly positive outlook).


And so perhaps this is the new narrative: Polls indicate that democrats are better than holding their own in the midterms (at least in the senate), conventional wisdom suggests that we should be very cautious about believing those polls, unconventional wisdom suggests that maybe those numbers will be right after all, and the analysts are not quite sure which wisdom to follow. Oy.


UPDATE #1: THE HOUSE


If the democrats are fated to take a brutal Fall beating, the voters seem so far to have missed the memo, as congressional generic ballot polls currently show an absolute dead heat between the two parties. The republicans had taken a modest lead last Thanksgiving, i.e., a few months after Biden’s popularity started sinking, and kept it most of this year, but their numbers starting ticking southward right around the time (surprise, surprise) that the Dobbs decision came down. Again, if this were a normal midterm year, we would all just assume that late-deciders and independents will break toward the republicans – back in 2014, an early August democratic lead of 2% flipped to a 4% deficit a mere six weeks later – but there are just too may signs that this may not be an ordinary year.


The bad news, however, is the problem the Toteboard discussed last month, i.e., that republicans have gerrymandered the congressional maps to the point where the democrats probably have to win the national vote by a solid 2% just to break even in the House. In the district-by-district breakdown, analysts project that if the vote splits evenly, republicans will probably gain at least a couple of dozen seats, more than enough for control of the chamber. So much for a representative democracy, right? In any event, things don’t look so hot at the moment, but the republicans have quite a bit of time to do more stupid things.


UPDATE #2: THE SENATE:


For the most part, republicans are counting on little more than anti-Biden sentiment to propel their (often weak) candidates in purple states, but there is evidence that Biden might have hit his cellar, and that his unpopularity has already done all the damage it’s going to do to democratic candidates. For now, the polling looks surprisingly OK, maybe even better than OK for the good guys, though the pundits are still justifiably hedging their bets. In any event, many of the key races have taken shape over the last few months, and here is the Toteboard’s update on where they currently stand.


First, the democratic-held seats, the ones we really need to hold, listed from safest to most endangered:


New Hampshire. The news cycle hasn’t paid much attention to this one, mainly because the republican primary is not until September 13, more than a month away. And though that primary has been only lightly polled, most analysts are acting as though retired air force general and top-flight conspiracy theorist Don Bolduc has the inside line to challenge incumbent Maggie Hassan. Head-to-head polls show Hassan with a small but consistent lead over Bolduc, who would not have been the national party’s first choice as a candidate, though that’s all water under the Piscataqua River bridge, as there won't be any late-breaking candidates qualifying for next month's primary. Count this one as leaning blue, until there’s any new evidence to the contrary.


Arizona. Mark Kelly is off to a sound start, with good approval numbers (including those among the state’s important Hispanic voters), solid fundraising, and a relatively moderate voting profile. What’s more, the state republican party is still in some disarray, fighting among themselves over whether to keep re-litigating the 2020 election. Kelly’s opponent is the late-breaking Trump endorsee, right-wing billionaire venture capitalist (whatever the hell that is) Blake Masters, who won the recent primary with 40% of the vote in a divided field. This could be one of the best tests of whether Trump still has any substantial pull beyond his base, and whether any of his unqualified hand-picked stooges can make a run in a purple state. The Cook Political Report (CPR), Sabato’s Crystal Ball (SCB) and Inside Elections (IE) still rate this one a tossup, but the Toteboard wouldn’t be surprised if that changes soon, as Race to the White House (R2WH) and (in a new development) FiveThirtyEight (538) both rate this as leaning democratic.


Nevada. The democrats have been winning this state for a while, but not by a whole hell of a lot, and the republicans have anointed one of their best prospects, former state attorney general and political scion Adam Laxalt, to take on one-term democratic incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto, the nation’s first Latina senator. Recent polls show Cortez Masto leading by a nose, which is exactly what she’ll win by if she does manage to pull it out again. At the moment, it’s a tossup, perhaps with a blue-ish tinge. Let’s keep an eye on how Cortez Masto is faring with the state’s large and diverse Hispanic vote


Georgia. It says a lot about how solidly republican the state had been for two decades, and how inelastic the electorate is, that former local football star (and Trump drinking buddy) Herschel Walker, who comes off as legitimately brain-damaged every time he opens his mouth, is polling anywhere near the democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock. While ducking debates, the press, and any forum where he would be called upon to show that he actually understands policy matters (or can form complete sentences), Walker recently dropped a pathetically comical gaffe when he inadvertently referred to Georgia voters as “the fans.” Warnock is up somewhat in the polls, but Biden is down, and the race may end up being tied very closely to the state’s other marquee matchup, i.e., the gubernatorial rematch between the gun-toting incumbent Brian Kemp and the country’s best-known former state House minority leader Stacey Abrams. Except for R2WH, which rates this as leaning blue, the other analysts see a pure tossup.


And now, the democratic targets, listed from most to least flip-able:


Pennsylvania. This is the race that has changed the most since the previous Toteboard update, and the news is mostly (though not exclusively) good. As was the case in Arizona, a divided republican party just barely nominated a flawed, inexperienced, Trump-backed con artist, i.e., Mehmet Oz, who led an uninspiring (but entertaining) field with a whopping 31.2% of the vote. The democratic nominee is the burly, aggressive, plain-talking, everyman (and sometimes wise-ass) lieutenant governor John Fetterman, who has already mounted a clever internet campaign to troll his opponent as a celebrity quack and hapless New Jersey carpetbagger. Recent polls show Fetterman already up by double-digits, but as if to show that somebody up there (or down there) really doesn’t like us, the chrome-domed democrat suffered a stroke just before the May primary, and he has been off the campaign trail ever since. He did surprise his campaign workers a couple of days ago by crashing a Zoom meeting, and he’s going to make his first public appearance at a rally later this week, so this will provide an important indication of whether Fetterman appears to have the stamina (and the patented Fetterman attitude) to grind out a campaign for the next three months (and serve effectively in DC after that). Beltline scuttlebutt suggests the republicans are quietly giving up on this one, but the analysts may be waiting to see Fetterman in the flesh before they change their ratings. CPR and SCB still view the race as a tossup, and IH has it leaning red, though the latter hasn’t updated any of their ratings in more than a month. As with Arizona, R2WH and 538 show this as leaning to the democrat. Don’t be surprised if the ratings turn bluer after the next round of polls.


Wisconsin. This is a contest that hasn’t gotten a lot of national attention yet, even though the primaries are tomorrow. As the Toteboard has noted in the past, incumbent Ron Johnson is theoretically a weak candidate, having won two previous elections in heavily republican years by only modest margins, and he has come off publicly as increasingly out of touch with reality. What’s more, Wisconsin voters have shown a tendency in recent years to turn out multi-term incumbents from both parties if they seem to have overstayed their respective welcomes. Democratic former senator (and truly decent guy) Russ Feingold was once an A-List veep contender, and Republican former governor Scott Walker actually ran for the presidential nomination, and both got tossed while supposedly in their political primes. Johnson’s likely democratic opponent is lieutenant governor Mandela Barnes (who would be the state’s first Black senator), though we won’t know for sure until tomorrow. The analysts still show this one as leaning red, but there haven’t been any polls since June, so they’re probably basing their positions on Johnson’s incumbency, the anticipated republican mid-term mood, and general skittishness after sizeable polling underestimations of republican strength in recent elections. But this is all really hypothetical, and it will be interesting to see if the race heats up once it gets going.


North Carolina. This open seat is another one that has barely penetrated the national radar, though it may be the canary in the coalmine if the national mood continues to turn bluer with the post-Dobbs backlash. The democratic nominee is former state supreme court chief justice Cheri Beasley, who is taking on congressman and Trump protégé Ted Budd who, unlike his compatriots in Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania, actually has political experience. This contest has also been lightly polled over the last few months, with Budd holding a statistically insignificant lead. However, recent elections have gone to the republicans, by small margins that don't look so insignificant once the votes are counted, so the analysts still peg NC as leaning red. But don’t count it out.


Ohio. Polls actually show democratic congressman Tim Ryan leading hillbilly elegist JD Vance, but no one really believes that (or simply attributes the bump to the former's heavy ad blitz), especially after how miserably Clinton and Biden under-performed here in the last two presidential contests. But if independents (and some republicans) do end up souring nationally on politically inexperienced Trump surrogates, Vance may be the next to go, after Bolduc in New Hampshire, Oz in Pennsylvania, Masters in Arizona, and Walker in Georgia. It also helps that Ryan may be a palatable alternative for Ohioans, as he is Sympatico with the state’s labor force and isn’t afraid to give guff to Nancy Pelosi (despite his progressive voting record). It will be interesting to see where this one goes.


Florida. Congresswoman and former impeachment manager Val Demings has yet to demonstrate that she’s making any headway against the vacuous and self-righteous Marco Rubio, but there admittedly haven’t been many polls recently to verify that general perception. Demings is a sharp cookie, but she has an uphill climb, and it’s not clear if she has the organizational infrastructure (of, say, a Stacy Abrams) to mobilize multiple coalitions and gin up the turnout in this Burgundy state. The Toteboard is on the fence about which would be more gratifying: getting Demings in the senate, or driving Rubio out of politics.


So where do things stand overall with the senate? Believe it or not, we’re still very much where we were when the Toteboard took it’s first look back in early 2021. There are theoretically nine (or perhaps ten) potentially competitive contests (note the double qualifiers), divided evenly between the two parties, but it’s very possible that only a couple of seats will actually flip – FiveThirtyEight currently rates at better than 40% that the final result will be either 50-50 or 51-49 one way or the other. It may end up as simple as senate control going to whichever team can win a two-out-of-three contest with Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania, or maybe a three-out-of-five, with Arizona and either North Carolina or Wisconsin joining the mix. But then again, even a slight shift in the national mood could have as much of an effect as where you are on the rain-snow line during a big storm, i.e., the difference between waiting out an inch of rain and three days of recovering from sleet and ice. If things get wavy for the republicans, they may flip Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada, with New Hampshire and maybe even Colorado on the bubble. But if the anti-republican backlash begins to swell, the democrats could find themselves flipping Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and North Carolina, with Ohio and Florida next on the chopping block. Anyway, we may not be able to predict what’s going to happen, but at least we know where to cast our collective gaze.


LOOKING AHEAD:


When (soon-to-be twice) failed presidential candidate Thomas Dewey tried to avoid taking specific positions during his 1948 campaign, he famously (and un-ironically) declared, “You know that your future is still ahead of you” (and Abbott Elementary actress Lisa Ann Walter almost as famously wrote “the best thing about my ass is that it’s behind me,” but that’s another story). And that’s about all the Toteboard is willing to commit about the mid-term elections, i.e., we’ll know what’s going to happen closer to when it happens, and even then we may not be so sure. Right now, the democrats can probably sleep a little better than the republicans can. But they won’t really be able to rest easy until they wake up on November 9 to find that they kept control of the senate, and perhaps even increased their delegation and/or somehow held onto the House.


But stay tuned. The next mid-term update will be on October 8, and in the meantime, the Toteboard will soon have something to say about . . . pronouns!