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Senate Update: Rubio Is Keeping The Republicans’ Hopes Alive In The Senate

Democrats’ chances of taking over the Senate continue to hold relatively steady — 67 percent in both our polls-plus and polls-only models. Republicans still have a real shot at keeping their majority, and one reason is that Democrats have been unable to put Florida in play. Most Democratic Party money has been pulled from the state, where Sen. Marco Rubio has an 81 percent chance of beating Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy according to polls-plus. That pullback has frustrated Democrats from Bill Clinton to Harry Reid. But a look at the numbers suggests that Democrats were probably right to cede Florida to the GOP.

Simply put: The race in Florida isn’t anywhere as close as those in the states that will be key in determining control of the Senate. Rubio is up by a little over 5 percentage points.1 The margins in Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, in contrast, are all within about 2 percentage points.

Indiana 61.3% +2.0
New Hampshire 59.9 +1.4
Missouri 57.4 +1.0
Pennsylvania 53.6 +0.5
Nevada 52.2 +0.3
North Carolina 35.7 -1.6
Florida 18.9 -5.1
Florida isn’t as close as other key Senate races

FiveThirtyEight polls-plus forecast as of 11:30 a.m. Oct. 27

Democrats need to win three of these six states to win the Senate (if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency and Democrats carry Illinois and Wisconsin, where they are heavy favorites). Because those six races are so close, they dominate our tipping-point rankings, which are based on the chances that a given race will determine which party wins a majority. Florida is down to just a 6 percent chance of determining control.

So if you’re a Democratic operative trying to allocate resources for the national party in Washington, Florida doesn’t come close to topping your list of biggest concerns.

The polling there has also been consistent, showing a Rubio advantage. You can see that in the chart below, which shows the polls-only adjusted polling average since June 15.


Rubio’s lead has never dipped below 4 percentage points and has rarely exceeded 7 points. And there’s a lot of agreement among individual polls. Of the last 50 polls released publicly, Rubio has led in 48. Two surveys showed a tie. That’s very different from the states with close races — like New Hampshire, where in the past three days there have been polls released showing the Democratic candidate ahead, polls showing the Republican candidate ahead and polls showing a tie. The more consensus among polls over time, the less likely the polling average will be way off.

But maybe there’s some Democratic diehard in Miami reading this right now and thinking, “OK, sure, Harry, but 5 points isn’t that big a margin — if the national party ponied up some cash, we could push Murphy over the top.” That’s not unreasonable, but it would make more sense if we were talking about a 5-point race in New Hampshire or Colorado. Those states are more “elastic” — they have a lot of swing voters. Florida is not especially elastic and so responds to national trends about as much as other states. Nor does Florida have a large share of undecided voters compared with the states that have closer races.

Of course, it’s not as though that Florida Senate seat is completely lost for Democrats. Murphy still has a nearly 20 percent chance of winning. If Democrats had unlimited resources, funding the race until the very end would certainly be worthwhile. But funds are limited, and Florida is a huge state with many expensive media markets. Most of the more competitive states have smaller populations — some much smaller. And because of the way our Constitution is written, each Senate seat is worth the same no matter the population of the state.

Murphy’s best chances at victory involve scenarios in which Democrats easily win a majority of Senate seats. And Democratic chances of retaking the chamber aren’t so good right now that they can fret about how big a majority they’ll have. They need to worry about winning a majority of any size.


  1. As of 11:30 a.m. today.

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