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Senate Update: Mississippi Almost Certainly Isn’t Going To Bail Out Democrats’ Senate Hopes

Mississippi: It’s not just a long river or a fun word to spell in a grade school bee. It’s also a state with a special Senate election this year, and we just got the first new polls on the race in a month.

But before we get to that, a little reminder of why we’re paying attention to this campaign in a deep red state. In March, Republican Sen. Thad Cochran announced that he would be retiring from the chamber on April 1, and the state’s governor appointed Cindy Hyde-Smith as an interim replacement. But to stay in the seat, she’ll need to win a Nov. 6 special election that is essentially a three-way race between Hyde-Smith, Republican Chris McDaniel and Democrat Mike Espy. (If no one candidate wins a majority, the top two vote-getters will move on to a runoff later in November.)

Right now, the Classic version of the FiveThirtyEight model gives a Republican a 7 in 8 chance of winning the race — and that Republican would likely be Hyde-Smith, based on polling. (This 7 in 8 number encapsulates Republican chances of winning both before and after a runoff scenario.) The Lite version of the model, which is based only on polls, gives a Republican slightly worse chances, at 5 in 6.

Marist College recently published a poll it conducted of the race Oct. 13-18, the first poll that had been done since September. The Marist survey of likely voters shows Hyde-Smith with 38 percent, Espy with 29 percent and McDaniel with 15 percent. The poll isn’t good news for Espy, who in August and September surveys was polling pretty much evenly with Hyde-Smith.

This slip in the polls for the Democrat as Election Day approaches is perhaps to be expected, given that 58 percent of Mississippi voters cast their ballots for President Trump in 2016. FiveThirtyEight’s editor-in-chief, Nate Silver, wrote in September about how polls and fundamentals were giving us slightly different senses of various races, Mississippi included. If you were just paying attention to the fundamentals version of the model, Hyde-Smith’s pull-away lead over the past month would make sense. Mississippi is 15.4 percentage points more Republican than the rest of the country based on how it’s voted in recent presidential and state legislative elections. The state also has political similarities to such deeply red states as Alabama, Arkansas and South Carolina, which pushes the fundamentals in the direction of Republicans.

One interesting snippet from the polling, though: While Hyde-Smith is beating Espy in head-to-head polls, Espy is beating McDaniel in head-to-head polling. Marist showed the Democrat up as much as 8 points on Republican McDaniel. If the election goes to a McDaniel-Espy runoff, there’s still an off chance that Mississippi could surprise us all.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.