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5 Reasons Republicans Could Do Even Better Than Expected

Dawn breaks over New York City on Wednesday, Nov. 3. Democrats catching the early train to work are thinking about adding a little whiskey to their morning coffee. Because the headlines they are reading are truly terrible.

Not only did Republicans take over the House, but they also did so going away — winning a net of 78 seats from Democrats. Seven seats in New York State changed hands; so did six in Pennsylvania, five in Ohio and four in North Carolina. Party luminaries like Jim Oberstar and Raul Grijalva were defeated. Barney Frank and Dennis Kucinich survived, but they did so by just 2 points apiece, and their elections weren’t called until 1 a.m. Democrats picked up just one Republican-held seat — the open seat in Delaware — but Joseph Cao somehow survived in his very Democratic-leaning district in New Orleans. Virtually every race deemed to be a tossup broke to the Republican.

The news isn’t much better in the Senate. The Democratic candidates in North Dakota, Arkansas, Indiana, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Illinois all lost, flipping those seats to red from blue. So did Harry Reid in Nevada and Joe Manchin in West Virginia; both of them lost by 7 points, in fact. Washington State isn’t finished counting its ballots, but Dino Rossi has about a 30,000-vote lead over Patty Murray, and looks likely to prevail. California isn’t done counting either, and the race between Barbara Boxer and Carly Firoina remains too close to call. It might not matter anyway: Joseph I. Lieberman has scheduled a press conference for later that afternoon, and is expected to announce that — after seeing the strength of the mandate the voters have given the G.O.P. — he’ll begin conferencing with Republicans when Congress reconvenes in January.

Races for governor provide little respite. Jerry Brown beat Meg Whitman in California — one of the few positives that Democrats can take out of the night. But Democrats lost the close races in Ohio, Florida, Illinois, Minnesota, Oregon and Connecticut, and were blown out in Pennsylvania and Michigan. Rick Perry, while expected to win in Texas, did so by a surprisingly large margin — nearly 20 points — and is making the rounds on the morning shows; the whispers are that he could be a Presidential contender.

Pundits are running out of metaphors to describe what just happened. Not a wave, a hurricane. Not a hurricane, a tsunami! Not a tsunami; a tsunami from a magnitude 9.5 earthquake. Or by a meteor strike!

Democrats knew it was going to be bad. But they didn’t think it was going to be this bad. So, what happened?

* * *

Throughout this election season, I’ve tried to stress that there is a great deal of uncertainty in the outcome. Not necessarily uncertainty in individual races: people probably overestimate that. But uncertainty, rather, in where the House and the Senate will finish over all. People probably underestimate how strongly polling and forecasting errors are correlated from district to district. If Republicans tend to overperform expectations in some races, they will probably also overperform in many, most, or maybe even almost all races. The same holds true for Democrats. (The most recent time something like this occurred was 1998, when polls underestimated the standing of Democrats by 4-5 points nationwide and in almost all individual races.)

If a situation like the one I described above transpires, it’s going to catch a lot of people by surprise. It really shouldn’t; it’s well within the realm of possibility. If Republicans do turn out to do even better than expected — and mind you, expectations are pretty lofty — here are five explanations that we’ll want to think carefully about on Nov. 3 and beyond.

(We’ll do this same exercise for Democrats at another point between now and Tuesday. Both of these pieces are intended to be devil’s advocate cases, so I’m going to raise the arguments, without necessarily giving as much voice to the counterarguments as I might ordinarily.)

1. Downballot and cross-ballot effects. Republicans are poised to win somewhere from 22 to 28 of the 37 United States Senate races on the ballot. There are also 37 races for governor; the picture there is a bit murkier, but Republicans will almost certainly win a clear majority, and could conceivably win as many as about 30.

With a few exceptions, governor and Senate races are higher profile than races for the House. They’re what get people in the door. Once a voter is in her polling place, however, he or she is usually going to vote the rest of the ballot.

Say a Republican-leaning independent turns out in La Crosse, Wis., to vote for Ron Johnson for Senate and Scott Walker for Governor (both candidates are likely to win). She hasn’t thought much about the House race there, which is between the incumbent Democrat Ron Kind and the Republican Dan Kapanke. If a pollster had asked her who she was going to vote for, she would probably say she was undecided.

It’s going to be a lot more natural for her to vote for Mr. Kapanke, however, the Republican, after having voted Republican at the top of the ticket.

Arguably, you can already see some of these effects in the polling. In New Mexico, for instance, the Republican Susana Martinez has run a very strong campaign for governor and seems likely to win. Sunday morning’s Albuquerque Journal poll, in addition to showing Ms. Martinez ahead, also has Republicans gaining ground in key House races in the state’s 1st and 2nd congressional districts. Perhaps these are enthusiastic supporters of Ms. Martinez who are now coming along for the ride on the rest of the ballot.

Likewise, in Iowa, The Des Moines Register poll, in which the Republicans Chuck Grassley and Terry Branstad have a clear lead in the races for Senate and governor, suggests that Republican candidates for the House are also strongly positioned, although they did not break out results for individual districts.

These effects, of course, would be localized ones by definition. They might tend to help Republicans in states like Iowa, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Arizona and Georgia, where they are doing well at the top of the ticket. But it could hurt them in a couple of places like California and New York where the opposite is true.

2. Unlikely voters voted — and they voted Republican! Almost all pollsters apply likely voter models of some kind, which estimate how likely a respondent is to vote based on their degree of interest in the election, their voting history, and in some cases, their knowledge of things like where their polling place is. On average, these models show Republican candidates performing about 6 points ahead of their standing among all registered voters in these surveys.

Most of the people whom the models deem to be “unlikely voters” are Democrats, who appear to be less charged up about this election than Republicans, or who have more scattered voting histories.

But there could also be a group of Republican-leaning voters who are cast aside by these models: specifically, those who identify themselves with the Tea Party. While we’re still struggling to get a handle on exactly what types of voters affiliate themselves with the Tea Party, some group of them are folks who are dissatisfied with “politics as usual” and may until recently have been disengaged from electoral politics entirely. They might not have voted in 2006 or 2008, and perhaps also not in 2004 and 2000; a few might even be people who cast their last ballot for Ross Perot in 1992 or 1996, or who have never voted at all.

These people may also be deemed “unlikely voters” by the models, especially those that emphasize past voting history rather than enthusiasm. But other types of likely voter models make different assumptions: SurveyUSA, for instance, describes voters like these as “uniquely motivated” and makes some accommodation for them; they’ve shown much better results for Republicans this cycle than most other pollsters.

If these “uniquely motivated” Republicans turn out, but Democratic “unlikely voters” do not, Republican gains could be pretty extraordinary — especially for Tea Party-backed candidates.

3. The incumbent rule, or something like it, makes a comeback. The incumbent rule — the notion that undecided voters tend to break against the incumbent — is something that I’ve spent a lot of time debunking. There isn’t really any evidence that it’s been true in recent elections (the period I’ve studied in detail covers 1998 through 2008). Undecided voters in these elections were about as likely to vote for incumbents as challengers.

So, to cite the incumbent rule as a point of fact as wrong. As a theory, however — particularly one that applies to this election and not necessarily to others — perhaps it will turn out to have some legs. Stu Rothenberg, for instance, argues that the incumbent rule is “relevant only for wave elections,” of which this will presumably be one.

I’m still not completely convinced. Among other things, we don’t know that an election is a wave until it actually happens — 1998, for instance, which looked in advance of the election as though it might be a mini-wave for the G.O.P., turned out to completely fizzle. Arguments that this election is a wave, and therefore we can expect such-and-such to happen, tend to put the cart before the horse.

Still, it doesn’t seem that unreasonable to me that in an election in which both Democrats and incumbents are especially unpopular, undecided voters could tend to break against incumbent Democrats — particularly if the reason they were undecided is because they did not know very much about the candidates (something that will apply more to House elections than races for Senate or governor).

Or, forget about whether the Democrat is an incumbent or not — that may be something of a distraction. Undecided voters could simply break against Democrats period, given Democrats’ poor standing on the generic ballot, whether the Democrat is an incumbent, a challenger, or is competing for an open seat. While, technically, this would not be a manifestation of the “incumbent rule” (although it would probably be misinterpreted as such) it would be bad news for Democrats just the same.

4. The Scott Brown effect. Here is a little pet theory of mine.¬†Say that you’re a fairly conservative Republican in Massachusetts. Your senators have been John Kerry and Ted Kennedy for many, many years. Your representative to the House is a Democrat. Your governor is a Democrat. Your state always votes Democrat for President. You feel compelled to vote out of patriotic duty, and you usually do. But deep down, you’re resigned to the fact that your vote won’t really make any difference, and the candidates you want to win never will. And to be honest, you’ve got a little bit of pent-up frustration about this.

Then Scott Brown comes along. He’s a good candidate. The Democrat, Martha Coakley, is a not-so-good candidate. It’s a weird election, a special election, in which turnout could be low — Scott Brown could actually win!

Do you think you’re not going to be — to borrow SurveyUSA’s term — “uniquely motivated” to vote for Scott Brown? And not just that, but also to campaign for Scott Brown, to donate to Scott Brown, and to tell all your friends to vote for Scott Brown, too?

Of course you’re going to be motivated: it might be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to send a Republican to Washington.

I can offer only anecdotal evidence for this, like the performance of Mr. Brown in January, or the performance of Barack Obama in Indiana in 2008, or the performance of some Democrats who won races for the Congress in some ordinarily very Republican-leaning areas in 2006. But if a party nominates a competitive candidate in a place where it hasn’t been competitive in a long while, it might get every last one of its voters to turn out — they’ll just come out of the woodwork. Not only that, but also the other party’s voters might be complacent, and the turnout operations won’t be as sophisticated as they might be in a district where they had to run competitive elections year after year.

If Republicans knock off a few Democrats in some very Democratic-leaning areas, this could be a big part of the reason why.

5. Likely voter models could be calibrated to the 2006 and 2008 elections, which were unusually good for Democrats. In addition to wrongly excluding some Republican “unlikely voters” (see Point No. 2), it’s also conceivable that some likely voter models based on past voting histories are overrating the propensity of Democrats to vote. The reason could be that some of them are based on past voting history, and a common question is whether the voter had participated in the last two elections.

But the last two elections — 2006 and 2008 — were good ones for Democrats, one in which there was little if any “enthusiasm gap,” or it may even have favored Democrats. This is, in fact, quite atypical: Republicans usually do have a turnout advantage, especially in midterm elections. Their demographics are older and whiter, and whites aged 50 and up are the most reliable voters. If likely voter models are benchmarked to 2006 and 2008 patterns, therefore, they could underestimate the turnout gap, giving too much credit to Democrats who voted in 2006 or 2008 but who don’t ordinarily. Sean Trende at Real Clear Politics makes a nice version of this argument.

* * *

You might find these arguments extraordinarily persuasive, extraordinarily unconvincing or somewhere in between. I think some are better than others, and I don’t really mean to “endorse” them.

What we know, however, is that polls can sometimes miss pretty badly in either direction. Often, this is attributed to voters having made up (or changed) their minds at the last minute — but it’s more likely that the polls were wrong all along. These are some reasons they could be wrong in a way that underestimates how well Republicans will do. There are also, of course, a lot of reasons they could be underestimating¬†Democrats; we’ll cover these in a separate piece.

Correction: An earlier version of this blog post misspelled Jim Oberstar’s surname as Obertsar.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.