Category Archives: Arizona

Senate Update: How This Year’s Race Sets Up 2020

Welcome to our Election Update for Thursday, Nov. 1!
According to all three versions of our forecast — Lite, Classic and Deluxe — as of 9 a.m. Eastern, Republicans have a 6 in 7 chance of holding on to the Senate. Every time a new poll fails to show Democrats gaining ground, the party’s window to turn things around closes a little bit further. Their 15.3 percent chance of flipping the chamber (according to the Classic version of our model) is one of the lowest we’ve seen all cycle.
With numbers like that, the Senate may seem like a foregone conclusion. But that would be the wrong way to approach it. Even if Republicans hold the Senate, the margin by which they do so could be decisive for future elections. In contrast to the 2018 Senate map, which presented Democrats with very few opportunities for gains and exposed tons of vulnerabilities, the 2020 Senate map has several possible openings for Democrats. Republicans picked up nine seats from Democrats in the 2014 elections, including in the swing states of Colorado, Iowa and North Carolina. That means Democrats will be able to play offense when those seats are up again in 2020 and may have a decent chance of flipping the chamber — as long as 2018 doesn’t dig them into too deep a hole.

The 2020 Senate battleground
Senators up for re-election in 2020 and their state’s partisan lean*

Incumbent

Name
Party
State
Partisan Lean

Michael Enzi
R
Wyoming
R+47.4

James Risch
R
Idaho
R+34.9

James Inhofe
R
Oklahoma
R+33.9

Mike Rounds
R
South Dakota
R+30.6

Shelley Moore Capito
R
West Virginia
R+30.5

Lamar Alexander
R
Tennessee
R+28.1

Doug Jones
D
Alabama
R+26.8

Tom Cotton
R
Arkansas
R+24.4

Ben Sasse
R
Nebraska
R+24.0

Pat Roberts
R
Kansas
R+23.3

Mitch McConnell
R
Kentucky
R+23.3

Steve Daines
R
Montana
R+17.7

Bill Cassidy
R
Louisiana
R+17.3

Lindsey Graham
R
South Carolina
R+17.2

John Cornyn
R
Texas
R+16.9

Cindy Hyde-Smith†
R
Mississippi
R+15.4

Dan Sullivan
R
Alaska
R+14.9

David Perdue
R
Georgia
R+11.8

OPEN (Jon Kyl)^
R
Arizona
R+9.3

Joni Ernst
R
Iowa
R+5.8

Thom Tillis
R
North Carolina
R+5.1

Jeanne Shaheen
D
New Hampshire
R+1.7

Mark Warner
D
Virginia
D+0.1

Gary Peters
D
Michigan
D+1.3

Cory Gardner
R
Colorado
D+1.5

Tina Smith†
D
Minnesota
D+2.1

Susan Collins
R
Maine
D+4.9

Tom Udall
D
New Mexico
D+7.2

Jeff Merkley
D
Oregon
D+8.7

Dick Durbin
D
Illinois
D+13.0

Cory Booker
D
New Jersey
D+13.3

Chris Coons
D
Delaware
D+13.6

Jack Reed
D
Rhode Island
D+25.7

Ed Markey
D
Massachusetts
D+29.4

* Partisan lean is the average difference between how a state or district voted and how the country voted overall. In our new partisan lean formula, 2016 presidential election results are weighted 50 percent, 2012 presidential election results are weighted 25 percent, and results from elections for the state legislature are weighted 25 percent.
† Assuming the incumbent wins a special election in 2018.
^ Sen. Jon Kyl was appointed to serve out the remainder of the late John McCain’s term but has declared he will not run for a full term in 2020.
Sources: U.S. Senate, The New York Times

As you can see in the table above, Democrats have two obvious targets in 2020: Maine Sen. Susan Collins and Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, the only two Republicans up for re-election in blue states. Four more Republicans sit in states that lean Republican by no more than 12 points,9 and so might be beatable in a favorable election environment or with the right candidates. Of course, it’s not a given that Democrats will add any seats at all to their total in 2020: Sen. Doug Jones faces an uphill fight in deep-red Alabama. What’s more, six more Democratic seats are also plausibly vulnerable.10
Granted, we have no idea what the political climate will be in 2020. (We’re still not sure what will happen five days from now!) But bear in mind that, although Democrats faced a terrible environment in 2010, President Barack Obama was comfortably re-elected just two years later, so even if Democrats prove to have a strong 2018, that doesn’t mean the GOP can’t turn it around in 2020. And if 2020 is a strong Republican year, Democrats probably have no chance at picking up the Senate no matter what happens in 2018. But let’s assume there’s no red wave in 2020 and that, thanks to the power of incumbency, Democrats are favored to hold all their current seats except Alabama in two years. What can they do in 2018 to make their task in 2020 as easy as possible?

Other than picking up the Senate outright, Democrats’ best bet is to make a net gain of one seat (say, picking up Arizona — where Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema currently has a 3 in 5 chance — while holding on to North Dakota or ousting Sen. Dean Heller in Nevada). That would create a 50-50 tie in the chamber11 — and there’s a 14.6 percent chance that will happen, per our forecast. In that scenario, Democrats would have plenty of paths to a majority in 2020: They could hold Alabama and flip either Colorado or Maine; they could flip both Colorado and Maine while losing Alabama; they could even get away with winning just one of those three states if they also win the vice presidency (and therefore the tiebreaking vote).
But according to the model, there’s a very real chance that the Senate’s balance of power will simply stay the same: 51 Republicans, 49 Democrats. If that happens (our model gives it a 17.7 percent chance as of 9 a.m.), Democrats would need to hold on to Alabama and win both Maine and Colorado — or else pick up a seat in one of the four closest Republican-leaning states.12
But our forecast also gives Republicans a 17.3 percent chance to net one seat and secure a 52-48 majority. In this scenario, maybe Republicans win with Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley in that state (a 2 in 5 chance) in addition to Kevin Cramer in North Dakota, while Democrats win with Sinema in Arizona. That would be a big win for the GOP because it would force Democrats to hold Alabama, win both Maine and Colorado, and pick up a Senate seat in a red state in 2020 to gain a majority. Based on states’ partisan leans,13 their easiest target would be Sen. Thom Tillis in North Carolina, which is 5 points more Republican-leaning than the nation as a whole. But we’re starting to get into scenarios where a relatively neutral political environment in 2020 would be enough for Republicans to easily keep the Senate that year.
Let’s say Republicans net two seats in 2018 — something our model assigns a 13.8 percent chance of happening. (For example, if the GOP holds on to Arizona while picking up North Dakota and Missouri.) Then in 2020 Democrats would need to hold on to all of their current seats (including Alabama) and flip four Republican seats. Their most plausible targets would be Collins, Gardner, Tillis and Sen. Joni Ernst in Iowa. Iowa is about as red as North Carolina, so Ernst wouldn’t necessarily be a tougher target than Tillis, but Democrats couldn’t afford to lose even one of those races, so the odds would be stacked against them.
Finally, there’s a roughly 21 percent chance that the dam breaks and Republicans net three or more Senate seats this year. Democrats might lose their grip on seats like Indiana (where former Republican state Rep. Mike Braun has a 2 in 7 chance) or Florida (Gov. Rick Scott also has a 2 in 7 chance) in this scenario. The party would really have its work cut out for it in this case: Democrats would have to win all the seats outlined above plus places like Arizona or Georgia. Arizona may be feasible for Democrats in 2020, since it will likely be an open seat14 in a diversifying state. But that’s true of Arizona this year, too.
This is all speculation, of course. There are lots of moving parts in both 2018 (who will win and where) and 2020 (which incumbents will retire, whether the political environment will improve or worsen for Republicans). But it’s a useful exercise in understanding why Democrats should absolutely be sweating the difference between picking up one seat and losing one. Control of the chamber is at stake in 2018 … and in 2020.
CORRECTION (Nov. 01, 2018, 11:12 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated the number of Senate seats Republicans picked up in 2014. It was nine, not seven.


Election Update: Democrats Need A Systematic Polling Error To Win The Senate

The divide between the House outlook and the Senate outlook continues to widen. Democrats’ chances of winning a majority remain at or near their all-time highs in our House forecast — ranging between 78 percent (7 in 9) and 85 percent (6 in 7) in the various versions of our model. But they’re at their lowest point yet in the Senate. All three versions of our forecast give them only about 1 in 7 shot (about 15 percent) of taking over the Senate from Republicans.
This is normally the point at which you might expect us to give you a throat-clearing “well, actually” about how 1 in 7 chances happen all the time. Indeed, they do. One in seven days of the week is a Thursday. None of us woke up this morning screaming “Oh my gosh, I just can’t believe it’s a Thursday!” And nobody should really be that surprised if Democrats win the Senate next week, or if Republicans keep the House.
At the same time, Republicans have a fairly clear advantage in the Senate (as Democrats do in the House) — clearer than the edge Hillary Clinton had before the 2016 election, when President Trump had roughly a 3 in 10 chance to win the Electoral College. In 2016, a normal-sized polling error (if it worked in Trump’s favor) was probably going to be enough to give him a victory in the Electoral College. And that’s exactly what happened: The polls weren’t great in 2016, but they were about as accurate as they have been on average since 1972. Because the race was close and because Clinton was underperforming in the Electoral College, a small and routine but systematic polling error was enough to give Trump the win.

The difference this year is that a normal-sized polling error in Democrats’ direction would merely make the race for the Senate close. (Likewise, a normal-sized polling error in the GOP direction would make the House close, but Republicans would still have to fight it out on a district-by-district basis.) A sports analogy, for those so inclined: In 2016, Trump was doing the equivalent of driving for the game-winning touchdown with the odds somewhat but not overwhelmingly against him. If enough undecided voters in the Midwest broke toward him, he was going to win the Electoral College. In the Senate this year, by contrast, it’s more like Democrats are driving for the game-tying touchdown; they still have to win in overtime even if they score.
By a systematic polling error, I mean one that occurs in a correlated way across every race, or in certain groups of races — not merely errors that happen on a one-off basis. Our models account for the possibility of several different types of systematic errors, but in this article, I’m going to focus on the simplest type of systematic error, which is a uniform swing that applies to every race. In certain simulations, for example, our model will randomly simulate a 4-percentage-point uniform swing toward Republicans, in which it adds 4 points to the Republican margin in every state and district. From there, it proceeds to consider the other types of error and uncertainty.
What’s clear is that Democrats will very probably need some type of systematic polling error to win the Senate: They’ve fallen too far behind in too many races to have much of a shot at winning just by getting lucky on a case-by-case basis.
Problem No. 1 for Democrats is that they don’t have a clear path to a majority. Even if they were to win all of the “toss-up” Senate races, plus all of the races in which they’re favored, they’d wind up stuck at 50 seats, with Republicans also having 50 seats and Vice President Mike Pence casting the tie-breaking vote to preserve a GOP majority. Instead, Democrats will have to win at least one of the races that our model currently deems as “lean Republican” or “likely Republican” — namely North Dakota, Texas, Tennessee or (less plausibly) the Mississippi special election.
But in certain ways, the no-clear-path problem is overrated. Democrats aren’t favored in any of these races individually, but if you put them together collectively, they have a decent shot at winning at least one. According to the Deluxe version of our model, Democrats have a 23 percent chance to win North Dakota, a 20 percent chance to win Tennessee, an 18 percent chance to win Texas, and a 12 percent chance to win the Mississippi special election.15 Assume for a moment — this is a bad assumption but it’s useful as an illustration — that each Senate race is independent from the next one.16 Under that assumption, there’s a 55 percent chance that Democrats win at least one of those four races.
But here’s Problem No. 2: Even if Democrats manage to pull off a big upset somewhere, they also have to win a lot of other contests in which they’re somewhere between modest favorites and mild underdogs. The most problematic of these races for Democrats are Missouri, Indiana, Nevada, Arizona and Florida. There’s also a smaller but non-trivial chance of a loss in Montana, West Virginia, New Jersey and the Minnesota special election. In fact, if you assume that each Senate race is independent, Democrats’ overall chances of winding up with a majority is only 4 percent or 5 percent, according to our numbers. There are a lot of scenarios in which Beto O’Rourke beats Ted Cruz in Texas but Claire McCaskill loses her race in Missouri, or Dean Heller outlasts Jacky Rosen in Nevada — or Bob Menendez somehow blows it in New Jersey.
It’s the fact that Senate races aren’t independent from one another that gives Democrats a somewhat better chance.
Consider, for example, what would happen if there were a 2.5 percentage point uniform swing in Democrats’ favor. Why 2.5 percentage points? Because according to our model — which is based on how often systemic polling errors have occurred in congressional races since 1990 — 2.5 percentage points represents about one standard deviation’s worth of uniform swing on election night.17 About one-sixth of the time, Democrats will beat their polls by at least one standard deviation (or 2.5 points) in the average competitive Senate race. Another one-sixth of the time, Republicans will beat their polls by at least 2.5 points in the average Senate race. The remaining two-thirds of the time, we’ll wind up somewhere in between. Here’s what the eight most important Senate races would look like with a 2.5-point uniform swing in Democrats’ favor, according to the Deluxe version of our forecast:

Democrats can compete in the Senate … if there’s a uniform polling error in their favor
Forecasted vote margins in eight key Senate races, according to FiveThirtyEight’s “Deluxe” model vs. with a hypothetical uniform swing of 2.5 points toward all Democrats, as of Nov. 1 at 2 a.m.

State
“Deluxe” model
2.5 point Dem. swing

North Dakota
R+5.5
R+3.0

Texas
R+5.4
R+2.9

Tennessee
R+5.3
R+2.8

Nevada
R+0.4
D+2.1

Missouri
D+0.8
D+3.3

Arizona
D+1.2
D+3.7

Indiana
D+2.6
D+5.1

Florida
D+2.6
D+5.1

Democrats must win six of these eight races to win the Senate, assuming less-competitive races go as predicted.

Keep in mind that these projections are not meant to be deterministic. They just recalibrate the numbers in Democrats’ favor based on the hypothetical of a uniform swing in their direction. This is a good scenario for Democrats, but not a best-case scenario: They’d still have to win each race on a case-by-case basis, just under more favorable conditions than we originally expected. In fact, to take the Senate, Democrats would need to win six of the eight races on the list above.18
How easy would that be? With a polling error in their favor, Democrats would still be underdogs in Tennessee, North Dakota and Texas — but lesser underdogs than before, down by about 3 percentage points in each race. They’d be favored in the other five key races, although not by much except in Florida and Indiana. Overall, the Senate would be a lot more competitive than under the status quo, although you’d still rather be in Republicans’ position.
Of course, Democrats aren’t necessarily limited to a 2.5-percentage-point polling error. About 1 election in 40, there will be a two standard-deviation error in their favor, or 5 percentage points’ worth of uniform swing. Even then, Tennessee, North Dakota and Texas would only be toss-ups, but the overall odds would be stacked pretty heavily toward Democrats. There are also various other types of regional or demographic polling errors that could help Democrats. If they outperformed their polls in rural areas, that would be helpful to their chances in the Senate, for example.
If the polls are right, Democrats will lose the Senate. But our model’s job is to consider all these different ways in which polls and other data might be wrong, based on how often the polls have been wrong in the past, and by how much. There’s about a 1 in 7 chance that the polls are wrong enough — and wrong enough in just the right ways — that Democrats win the Senate instead of Republicans.