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House Update: Here’s Why We Need Polls In Red Districts — They Might Not Be So Red

Welcome to our Election Update for Tuesday, Oct. 30! Somehow, some way, there is just one week left until Election Day, and Democrats continue to hold the upper hand in the lower chamber. As of 12:45 p.m., our forecast gave the party a 7 in 9 chance of taking control of the House in the Lite version, a 6 in 7 chance in the Classic version and a 5 in 6 chance in the Deluxe version.

It became a cause célèbre here at FiveThirtyEight to lobby for someone to poll the Colorado 3rd District after we identified it as the most underpolled toss-up district. That article also highlighted that many “lean Republican” and “likely Republican” districts have little polling data. Typically, these districts get little attention, but they could be competitive in 2018’s political climate. If so, that could leave us blind to some major upsets in the event of a true blue wave.

FiveThirtyEight Senate forecast update for Oct. 30, 2018

Well, online pollster Change Research heeded our call, and late Monday night, it tweeted out poll results from 12 moderately red districts. In seven of those districts, it was the first poll we’ve seen all cycle long. Some of the polls, like those in the Illinois 16th and Ohio 2nd, lined up pretty well with other indicators in our forecast, so they didn’t move the needle too much. But other polls opened up the possibility that certain districts might be more competitive than we realized.

Bear in mind that this is only one pollster’s read on these races. Founded after the 2016 election, Change Research is still pretty new as far as pollsters go, and it currently has a C+ pollster rating. So it’s hardly the gold standard. But its online methodology has an upside — namely, that it’s cheap, so it’s easy for Change Research to poll marginal districts. And some data is better than nothing. Here’s where our forecast changed the most as a result of these polls:

  • Based on the number of retweets, the most shocking topline came in the Iowa 4th. Controversial GOP Rep. Steve King led Democrat J.D. Scholten just 45 percent to 44 percent. That margin was way worse for King than in previous polls, and his chances of winning plunged 19 percentage points in the Lite version of our model, which just looks at polls.
  • In the first poll of the Wisconsin 6th, Republican Rep. Glenn Grothman leads Democrat Dan Kohl only 50 percent to 48 percent. Grothman’s chances decreased by 21 percentage points in the Lite version of the model after we posted this poll. However, his decline was less precipitous in the Classic version — largely because the district’s fundamentals already pointed to a close race.
  • In the Michigan 6th, GOP Rep. Fred Upton led Democrat Matt Longjohn 46 percent to 43 percent. We’d previously seen three polls also showing a close race, but they were all internal Democratic polls. Upton’s chances in the Lite version fell to 5 in 7.
  • Republicans got a few good polls, too. Rep. Lee Zeldin’s 15-point lead in the New York 1st was by far his best poll so far, and it improved his Lite-version chances by 12 percentage points.
  • The first poll of the Indiana 9th gave Republican Rep. Trey Hollingsworth a 52-45 edge over Democrat Liz Watson, shaving Hollingsworth’s chances of victory down by 10 percentage points in the Lite version. CANTOR — our system for determining what’s happening in one district by looking at similar districts with more polling — had thought that this was a solid Republican seat, but our “fundamentals” variable implied a much closer contest. This poll seemed to align with the more fundamentals-based interpretation of the race.
  • And finally, in the Colorado 3rd, Change Research gives Republican Rep. Scott Tipton a 53-38 lead over former Democratic state Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush. This was the epitome of a district where the Lite and Classic versions of our forecast had disagreed: The former thought this was a “likely Republican” seat; the latter shouted “toss-up!” The poll broke the tie in favor of the Lite version, and the Classic version has moved 27 points toward Tipton to bring the two into near-agreement.

This was a great start toward the goal of getting more polling in red districts — but it’s still only 12 districts. There are dozens more that might be competitive based on money and other factors, but we don’t yet have the polling to say anything else.1 And who knows, another poll in one of these 12 districts could change what we see happening there now. But just how well Democrats do in those generally red districts could decide just how a big of a wave they get (if they get a wave at all).


  1. Hint, hint, other pollsters …

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.