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Senate Update: GOP Candidates Are Doing Better Than Trump — And May Still Lose

Democrats are still modest favorites to retake the Senate. They have about a 67 percent chance of winning a majority, according to the FiveThirtyEight polls-only and polls-plus forecasts. That advantage comes even as GOP Senate candidates are running ahead of Donald Trump in their states — much more than Republican Senate candidates compared with Mitt Romney four years ago.

Trump, of course, is losing to Hillary Clinton. In the 29 states with a Senate race (and at least one poll),1 Clinton leads by about 2 percentage points in the FiveThirtyEight polls-only adjusted polling average. In those same states, the Republican Senate candidate is leading the Democratic candidate by about 3 points, on average.

Alaska +38.2 +7.5 +30.7
Utah +31.1 +5.7 +25.5
South Carolina +26.9 +7.1 +19.8
Kansas +25.6 +8.3 +17.3
Ohio +13.7 -0.4 +14.1
Iowa +13.6 +0.7 +12.9
Idaho +31.9 +20.9 +11.0
Georgia +13.7 +3.0 +10.7
Arizona +10.1 -0.2 +10.3
Florida +5.9 -3.4 +9.3
Louisiana +24.6 +15.6 +9.1
Illinois -8.9 -17.6 +8.7
New Hampshire +0.1 -8.5 +8.6
South Dakota +20.3 +12.0 +8.3
Pennsylvania -0.7 -6.4 +5.8
North Carolina +1.5 -2.6 +4.1
Nevada +0.0 -2.8 +2.9
Maryland -29.7 -30.1 +0.4
Wisconsin -6.9 -7.1 +0.2
Arkansas +17.4 +20.4 -3.0
Washington -18.9 -14.1 -4.8
Colorado -12.2 -6.5 -5.7
Vermont -35.0 -28.7 -6.3
Missouri -0.9 +6.0 -6.8
Oregon -19.5 -12.1 -7.4
Kentucky +6.7 +14.5 -7.7
Connecticut -22.5 -14.2 -8.3
Indiana -4.6 +7.4 -12.0
New York -40.3 -22.2 -18.1
Average +2.8 -1.7 +4.5
Republican Senate candidates are running ahead of Trump

Data is rounded.

Source: FiveThirtyEight polls-only adjusted polling average

As the table makes clear, it’s not as if one outlier is skewing the data. Nineteen of the 29 GOP candidates are doing better in their states than Trump. Only in blue states like Connecticut, New York and Oregon is Trump running consistently ahead of his down-ballot party-mates. Trump, on the other hand, is running well behind Republican candidates for Senate in traditionally red states like Arizona, Idaho, South Carolina and Utah.

And, most importantly, the same is true in most of the Senate races that will most likely decide control of the chamber: Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Of those key states, only in Missouri (with Democrat Jason Kander’s strong campaign) and Indiana (with Democrat Evan Bayh running for his old seat) is Trump outpacing the down-ballot Republican.

In 2012, in contrast, Mitt Romney did considerably better than Republican Senate candidates. In the 32 Senate races that pitted a Democrat against a Republican,2 GOP candidates lost by about 8 percentage points, on average. Romney lost by about 3 points in these same states.3 And again, it’s not one outlier causing this difference. Romney did better than Republican candidates in 21 of the 32 races.

Trump is doing between 4 and 5 percentage points worse than down-ballot Republicans, on average. Romney did 5 points better.

Skeptical readers might point out that 2012 had more Democratic incumbents running for re-election compared with 2016. Incumbents tend to do better than non-incumbents, so theoretically the difference between 2012 and 2016 we’re seeing here could be because of an incumbent effect. That may explain some of what’s going on, but it doesn’t explain all of it.

Democratic incumbent +10.5 +7.2 -3.3
Open seat +2.2 +0.1 -2.1
Republican incumbent -6.0 -9.4 -3.4
How far Romney and Trump run ahead of the average GOP Senate candidate

Source: Dave Leip’s ATLAS OF U.S. PRESIDENTIAL ElectionS; FiveThirtyEight polls-only adjusted polling average

In all three groups (races with incumbent Democrats, incumbent Republicans and open seats), Romney did better than Trump is doing — relative to GOP Senate candidates. In fact, Romney did at least 2 percentage points better than Trump is doing in all three groups. That could be the difference between Democratic and Republican control of the Senate. Imagine, for instance, if Romney were the nominee in races with Republican incumbents fighting for re-election like New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Although incumbents tend to run ahead of their party’s presidential nominee, Romney wouldn’t be anywhere near the drag that Trump seems to be. Meanwhile, Republicans might not be seeing their chance at winning Harry Reid’s seat in Nevada drop, as the Republican candidate for president’s poll numbers decline in the state.

What has to sting Republican strategists most is that they have the opposite problem in 2016 that they had in 2012. Four years ago, Republican Senate candidates Todd Akin (Missouri) and Richard Mourdock (Indiana) botched what should have been winnable races — Akin with his “legitimate rape” comment; Mourdock by calling a pregnancy resulting from rape “something God intended.” That year, there was talk that down-ballot Republicans were hurting Romney. GOP Senate candidates haven’t had those kinds of issues this year. Instead, their presidential candidate — and his own controversial remarks about women — is the one dragging down their chances.

Given Trump and the rise in straight-ticket voting, it’s actually pretty amazing Republicans are keeping the fight for Senate control competitive.


  1. With a Republican and Democratic candidate.

  2. This includes Bernie Sanders as the unofficial Democratic candidate in the state of Vermont because he caucuses with the Democratic Party. This does not include the Senate race in Maine because a Democratic candidate ran as well as Angus King, who caucuses with the Democratic Party in the Senate.

  3. The states with Senate races in 2016 are different from those that had Senate races in 2012, so we cannot compare the presidential margins directly with each other. Indeed, the states with Senate races in 2012 are a lot bluer in presidential elections than those in 2016. We can only compare the difference in margin between the presidential and Senate races in 2012 and 2016 with each other, so we can understand whether the presidential candidate is underperforming or outperforming the Senate candidates in each state.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.