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The Problems With The New Republic’s Senate Rankings

The New Republic posted an article by Sasha Issenberg this week explaining the differences between midterm and presidential-year electorates. No doubt such a difference exists: Midterm voters tend to be whiter, older and more Republican-leaning. And no doubt Democrats are trying to eliminate that disparity, as the article nicely illustrates.

Yet I found myself scratching my head at a number of followup points the piece made.

Start with the poll The New Republic sponsored to illustrate the differing opinions of midterm voters and presidential voters. Among midterm voters, Republicans lead the generic House vote (generic Democrat vs. generic Republican) by 22 percentage points. No other public poll this year — even among likely voters, who tend to be more GOP-friendly — has shown Republicans leading by more than mid-single digits. No party has won the national House vote by more than 15 points in the past 80 years, and Republicans haven’t won the national House vote by more than 8 points over that period. Republicans could win well over 300 seats, if the poll is right. That seems highly unlikely.

You can see the same effect on the same-sex marriage question. Only about 40 percent of all voters supported same-sex marriage in the survey. Most national surveys have that support well into the 50s. Even the 2012 exit poll, conducted more than a year and a half ago (when support for same-sex marriage was lower), had it at 49 percent.

Looking at the poll’s demographics, we find a possible reason for at least part of the strange results: The survey sample is too old. Only 29 percent of the poll’s midterm voters were 18- to 49-years-old. The government’s Current Population Survey found that 18- to 49-year-olds made up a little more than 43 percent of midterm voters in 2010, a banner year for the GOP.

The poll wasn’t the only thing that struck me as odd. The New Republic put together Senate rankings, but the rankings didn’t use polling data. Instead, they’re based on how many voters would need to be mobilized in order for each candidate to win. The magazine did this by looking at the partisan lean of the voters, according to voter profiles built from demographic and past voting data.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach (although I’m not sure Democrats have a deficit to make up in Colorado, Iowa, Michigan and especially New Hampshire, as the article states). But I found one thing especially difficult to swallow. The article tells us how many new voters need to be motivated without accounting for how many potential new voters there are. That is, the article makes it seem like finding an additional 69,014 votes in Alaska is easier than finding 144,919 voters in Iowa. Of course, the difference between turnout in 2010 and 2012 in Alaska was only about 45,000. In Iowa, it was roughly 465,000. Iowa is also considerably more Democratic-leaning than Alaska.

There are only so many voters in each state; Alaska Democrats looking for almost 70,000 new voters will have a much tougher time than Iowa Democrats looking for 150,000. The same holds true if we compare other states with big population differences, such as West Virginia and North Carolina.

A better formula is laid out at the end of piece: Take the vote deficit into account, but also consider (among other things) the number of volunteer hours needed to motivated each new voter. In a state such as Iowa, the average hours per volunteer to erase a deficit is likely to be less than in Alaska.

Overall, the reporting in the article on Democratic efforts was intriguing, but I’m not sure the numbers lined up.

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