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What I Got Wrong In 2018

Opening presents, watching the ball drop in Times Square, eating roast beast. To these cherished end-of-year traditions, allow me to add one more: gawking at how bad my predictions were. It’s an exercise that both FiveThirtyEight (thanks to our former senior political writer and analyst Harry Enten) and I (at my old blog) like to do to hold ourselves accountable — and hopefully to make us better prognosticators in the future. Without further ado, here are some of the many things I got wrong in 2018.

A question I obsessed over, especially early in the year, was whether the 2018 election results would fall along the fault lines of the 2012 presidential election or the 2016 presidential election. (Case in point: In a March Slack chat where we were asked to pick the best bellwether district for the 2018 election, I chose two — a Romney-Clinton district and an Obama-Trump district.) The tea leaves were a bit murky, but ultimately I expected the country’s 2012 partisanship to win out. That was based on an article I wrote in April that looked at hundreds of special and off-year elections and tested whether Democrats were doing better1 in more-suburban or less-suburban areas. It turned out that Democrats were doing slightly better in “Trumpier,” less-suburban areas, suggesting a possible reversion to the 2012 map.

But after the dust settled on Election Day,2 it turned out that I needn’t have spent so much mental energy on the question. Democrats did well all over, winning 12 of the 13 Romney-Clinton districts and 15 of the 21 Obama-Trump districts, including both of my bellwethers. To the extent that the 2012-2016 question had an answer, I had gotten it wrong: Instead of reverting to the mean, Democrats built on their 2016 gains in primarily suburban districts. Ryan Matsumoto, a contributing analyst at Inside Elections, crunched the numbers and found that the 2018 election results were about two parts 2016, one part 2012.

While there was no shortage of Republican losses in formerly red areas this year, Democrats didn’t win everything, and they even took losses on some traditionally blue turf where you might have expected them to have a good shot — or at least I did.

In an October Slack chat, I made some of my, um, bolder predictions when I suggested that the three uber-popular Republican governors in New England — Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Chris Sununu of New Hampshire and Phil Scott of Vermont — could be in more danger than people thought. In fact, all three won re-election, and while Sununu did so by only 7 percentage points, Scott prevailed by 15 and Baker won by 34 (a far cry from the 10-point Baker win I predicted). Baker fell just a few thousand votes short of carrying the city of Boston, which shocked me. In fact, it seems that Baker’s coattails were stronger than Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s. At first blush, Warren’s 24-point win looks almost as impressive as Baker’s, but in reality it was almost 15 points worse than what you’d expect. (Massachusetts is 29 points more Democratic-leaning than the nation as a whole3 and the national environment leaned Democratic by almost 9 points, which means that just being a Democrat on a Massachusetts ballot this year ought to be worth about a 38-point advantage4; the fact that she fell so far short of that mark suggests that Baker’s popularity may have dragged her down.)

Some other predictions that flopped: In that same October chat, I also picked Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik’s New York 21st District as a sleeper Democratic flip in the House; Stefanik won by 15 points. And in August, I wrote a piece provocatively titled, “Could A Libertarian Win A Senate Race This Year?” While the article made it clear that this was unlikely, I did posit that Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson might supplant Republican candidate Mick Rich as Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich’s main opponent in New Mexico’s U.S. Senate race. Alas for lovers of third parties, it was not to be: Rich got about twice as many votes as Johnson. That said, Johnson’s 15.4 percent of the total vote represented the third-best performance by any Libertarian candidate for president, U.S. Senate or governor in the party’s history.

Finally, although establishment-backed candidates generally did well in Democratic primaries in 2018, I underestimated the party’s progressive wing at times. Like the rest of the electionsphere, I failed to foresee Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset win over Rep. Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary for New York’s 14th District. I was lucky that I even mentioned the race in my June 26 primary preview; I almost didn’t include it until I decided at the last minute to add a section on long-shot anti-incumbent challengers. In September, I devoted considerably more space to Ayanna Pressley’s insurgent campaign against Rep. Michael Capuano in the Massachusetts 7th District, but only in service of debunking the parallels between Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez. On the bright side for me, Pressley’s decisive win allowed me to write my favorite article of the year, which dissected how exactly she pulled it off.

Other progressive politicians who surprised me included Kara Eastman in Nebraska’s 2nd District and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who became the Democratic nominee for governor of Florida. Immediately after each of their primary wins, I was quite skeptical of their chances in the general election. I thought Eastman was too outspokenly liberal for her Republican-leaning district, and I thought Gillum would be dogged by an FBI investigation into his mayoral administration. But while neither candidate actually ended up winning, I was wrong to dismiss them so early. Eastman lost by just under 2 percentage points despite being written off by Democratic outside groups, who devoted few resources to the district. And Gillum ended up running a very competitive race, leading in nearly every poll taken in Florida after the primary. Those polls turned out to be wrong, but that wasn’t unique to Gillum; Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson also led the polling average but ended up losing the Sunshine State. In the end, both Eastman and Gillum ran about even with5 other Democrats on the 2018 ballot, including those who were more moderate and would theoretically appeal more strongly to swing voters.

One thing I took away from 2018 was that a candidate’s professed ideology didn’t appear to affect his or her “electability” all that much after the primaries. As we kick off our coverage of what’s sure to be a momentous Democratic primary for president in 2020, that will be an important lesson to bear in mind.

Footnotes

  1. That is, overperforming their expected partisan baseline.

  2. Or, to be more precise, in the weeks after it.

  3. According to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric, in which 2016 presidential election results are weighted 50 percent, 2012 presidential election results are weighted 25 percent and results from elections for the state legislature are weighted 25 percent.

  4. Disregarding other factors, like a state’s elasticity or a candidate’s incumbency advantage, which affect candidates’ total advantage or disadvantage in a race.

  5. Although, in both cases, still slightly behind.

Nathaniel Rakich is FiveThirtyEight’s elections analyst.

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