In the midterm elections for the House and Senate, Democrats are very likely to win the majority of votes, but they face structural barriers to winning the majority of seats. In the House, for instance, we project that Democrats would need to win the popular vote by somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 to 7 percentage points1 to be favored to actually take control of the chamber, a result of partisan gerrymandering after the 2010 election and Democratic voters’ tendency to cluster in dense, urban districts. And, of course, Congress isn’t the Democrats’ only problem: In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million votes but lost the Electoral College.
In gubernatorial races, however, there’s no gerrymandering or Electoral College to worry about. So in some ways, they’ll make for the purest test of whether there really is going to be a “blue wave” this year.
And in FiveThirtyEight’s gubernatorial forecasts, which we (finally!) launched on Wednesday, the gubernatorial news is good for Democrats. They are projected to wind up with governorships in states representing about 60 percent of the U.S. population, compared with 40 percent for Republicans.
True, Democrats will have a hard time winning the majority of states, because the GOP is projected to do well in small states such as Wyoming. But the number of states is a stupid metric: Being the governor of Texas is a hell of a lot more important than being the governor of Vermont. Higher-population states, because they have more seats in the House, will also be more important in the redistricting process that will take place after the 2020 elections, when governors elected this year will still be in office.2
So as our measure of gubernatorial success, we’ll simply be counting up the number of people projected to be under each party’s control. Texas will count 44 times as much as Vermont, because there are 44 times more people there.
Democrats begin with an edge in the population count. Although each party controls seven states from among the 14 governorships that are not up for election this year, the states the Democrats hold are more populous. Specifically, Democrats have about 42 million people under their control — based on the states’ projected populations as of Election Day3 — while the seven Republican states have 26 million people.
In states not on the ballot, Democrats start with a lead
Population in states where governors are not up for re-election
|Democratic governor||republican governor|
Democrats are poised to add to that advantage on Nov. 6, however. Among the nine states with populations of 10 million or more that will elect new governors next month, Democrats are clear favorites in five (California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Michigan) and modest favorites in a sixth state (Florida). Republicans are clear favorites only in Texas, where incumbent Greg Abbott is likely to be re-elected. The Ohio and Georgia races are toss-ups.
Democrats are well-positioned in high-population gubernatorial races
Race rating according to FiveThirtyEight’s “Classic” forecast as of Oct. 17
|State||Population*||Solid D||Likely D||Lean D||Toss-Up||Lean R||Likely R||Solid R|
Republicans will make up ground in small and medium-sized states. Indeed, they’re the favorites (specifically, about 2 in 3 favorites, according to our Classic forecast4) to win a majority of states. But Democrats are highly likely — although by no means certain5 — to govern a majority of the population after the election. Even if Republicans win all the toss-up races and all the races our model currently rates as leaning Democratic, they’d come up a little short of a population majority given the states that Democrats have in hand already. Accounting for each state’s population on a probabilistic basis,6 Democrats currently project to have 194 million people under their control after the election, or about 60 percent of the population, compared with 135 million for Republicans.
Methodology-wise, our gubernatorial forecasts are largely the same as our House and Senate forecasts. There are three versions of our model — Lite, Classic and Deluxe — that blend together different forecasting techniques in different ratios. Specifically, these techniques include
- A polling average, after polls are adjusted in various ways.
- CANTOR, a system that makes projections based on analysis of polling in similar states.
- “Fundamentals,” a regression-based method that evaluates non-polling factors such as fundraising that predict election outcomes.
- Expert ratings, such as those put together by the Cook Political Report.
In all versions of our forecast, however, polling is by far the largest ingredient in states where there’s a lot of polling. For more detail on our gubernatorial forecasts, including how they differ from our congressional forecasts, see here.
Perhaps the most important difference between gubernatorial races and congressional ones is that partisanship is much less of a factor in governorships. Specifically, it’s only about one-third as important — so, for example, a state that’s typically 15 percentage points more Republican than the country overall in congressional races would only be about 5 points GOP-leaning in gubernatorial races. As a consequence of this, incumbents tend to be favored even when they come from “opposite-colored” states. Republicans Larry Hogan of Maryland and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts are heavy favorites to win re-election despite being in deeply blue states, for example — not just according to the polls, which have them well ahead, but also according to the fundamentals component of our forecast.
On the flip side, few things are truly inevitable in gubernatorial races, especially in states without incumbents. Democrats are competitive in Oklahoma, for example, while Republicans have a fighting chance in Connecticut, despite it being a blue state in a blue year.
How different versions of our governors forecast compare
As of Oct. 17
We’ll cover the most interesting gubernatorial races on an individual basis in subsequent updates, but here are a few comments about races that I know people will have questions about. Democrats Andrew Gillum of Florida and Stacey Abrams of Georgia are striving to become the first African-American governors of their respective states and the first elected anywhere in the South since Douglas Wilder of Virginia in 1989. Gillum has had a small but fairly consistent lead in the polls, and our model gives him a 70 percent chance (about 7 in 10) of winning. Abrams is in a toss-up race that tilts ever-so-slightly toward her Republican opponent, Brian Kemp. The race is close enough that voter registration protocols in Georgia, which Kemp oversees as secretary of state, could make the difference. (Check out my colleague Perry Bacon Jr.’s article on these races for more detail.)
Although there generally isn’t a big conflict between polls and fundamentals in our gubernatorial forecasts, there are a couple of high-profile races where fundamentals nudge the forecast toward the GOP. In Wisconsin, incumbent Republican Scott Walker trails Democrat Tony Evers by 5 points in our polling average, but the fundamentals think he “should” narrowly win re-election. The Classic version of our model evaluates this race as leaning Democratic, but with Walker having a better chance than polls alone would suggest. And in Kansas, where the controversial Republican secretary of state, Kris Kobach, is running, polls show a true dead heat against Democrat Laura Kelly, but the model classifies the race as leaning Republican on the basis of the fundamentals.