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Will Democratic Senators Lose Despite The ‘Blue Wave’?

Our congressional forecasts reflect a blend of several different methods of prediction. But for the most part, those methods tell a fairly consistent story. In the House, for instance, district-by-district polls, the generic congressional ballot and historical trends in midterm elections all point toward Democrats winning the national popular vote by somewhere in the range of 8 to 10 percentage points, which would very probably be enough for them to take control of the chamber.1 So do what we call the “fundamentals,” non-polling indicators that have empirically been useful predictors of races for Congress, such as fundraising totals, past margins of victory and several factors related to incumbency.2

Likewise in the Senate, the different versions of our model, which blend these methods together in different ways, tell a similar overall story to one another. It’s a reasonably happy story for Republicans because the Senate map, which consists overwhelmingly of Democratic-held seats, is highly favorable for the GOP this cycle. The polling-driven Lite version of our Senate forecast has the GOP finishing with 51.3 Senate seats and having about a 5 in 7 chance (more precisely, 71 percent) of keeping control of the chamber.3 The Classic version, which incorporates fundamentals, has them with 50.8 seats and about a 2 in 3 chance (68 percent) of maintaining control instead.4 If you go down to the decimal point, the Classic forecast is ever-so-slightly better for Democrats than the Lite forecast — which implies that the fundamentals are ever-so-slightly better for them than polls — but it isn’t a big overall difference.

The word “overall” is doing a lot of work in the previous sentence, however, because while the top-line prognosis on who might control the Senate is similar in all three versions of our model, the forecasts differ quite a bit from race to race. In particular:

  • The fundamentals are more bullish than polls for Democrats in several states with Democratic incumbents — most importantly, in Florida, Missouri and North Dakota.
  • But fundamentals are more bearish for Democrats in two important open-seat races: Tennessee and the Mississippi special election.
  • Polls and fundamentals are fairly consistent with one another in states with Republican incumbents — including in Texas, where fundamentals support the notion of a competitive race between Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

In this article, I’m going to focus on the first category only: races featuring Democratic incumbents. We’ll cover the other two categories in an upcoming piece.

The ‘fundamentals’ say it should be really hard for Democratic incumbents to lose

(Warning: Sports analogy ahead.) In soccer, the most obvious advantage of having a man advantage after an opposing player has been sent off on a red card is that it’s much easier to score goals. But what’s nearly as important is that it becomes very difficult for the other team to score a goal; defense becomes a cinch.

So it also goes in congressional races when your party is having a wave election: You’ll win plenty of your opponent’s seats, but — not to be overlooked — you’ll usually also lose almost none of your own seats. The GOP didn’t lose any of its own Senate seats in 1994, 2010 or 2014, for example. Democrats didn’t lose any of their own seats in 2006 or 2008. Between these five election cycles, the “waving” party went undefeated5 in defending its Senate seats.



This year, however, we have a seeming contradiction: The polls are pointing toward a wave in the House, with an average projected gain of 35 to 40 seats for Democrats and a popular vote win of 8 to 10 points.6 And yet, Democrats are at risk of losing several of their own Senate seats, which could offset any gains they may make among GOP-held seats and make it much harder for Democrats to take control of the Senate.

One way out of the dilemma for Democrats is if their incumbents in the Senate aren’t in quite as much trouble as the polls show — and our fundamentals calculation suggests that could be the case. Below is a comparison of polls and fundamentals in each seat held be an elected Democratic incumbent. Note that elected incumbent excludes appointed incumbents such as Tina Smith in the Minnesota special election; we’ll deal with her race in the next installment.

Most Democratic incumbents are doing worse than the ‘fundamentals’ would predict

Forecasted margin of victory for Democratic senators who are running for re-election, according to FiveThirtyEight’s fundamentals and adjusted polls

Forecasted margin of victory
Race Incumbent Fundamentals Adjusted Polls
Florida Nelson +7.7 -0.1
North Dakota Heitkamp +7.9 -2.4
Missouri McCaskill +8.3 +1.0
West Virginia Manchin +9.0 +10.4
Ohio Brown +10.4 +13.5
Pennsylvania Casey +11.6 +13.1
Indiana Donnelly +11.6 +2.8
Montana Tester +13.4 +5.7
Wisconsin Baldwin +17.9 +10.7
Michigan Stabenow +18.8 +18.5
Virginia Kaine +21.3 +15.0
New Jersey Menendez +23.3 +6.9
New Mexico Heinrich +25.1 +20.1
Minnesota Klobuchar +27.6 +23.3
Washington Cantwell +29.3 +16.3
Maine King* +30.7 +30.6
Connecticut Murphy +33.2 +23.3
Delaware Carper +36.6 +9.9
Massachusetts Warren +37.4 +28.0
Rhode Island Whitehouse +38.9 +23.5
New York Gillibrand +39.9 +30.9
Maryland Cardin +40.6
Vermont Sanders* +45.7
Hawaii Hirono +51.8

*King and Sanders are independents who caucus with the Democrats.
The Minnesota special election is not listed because Tina Smith is an appointed rather than an elected incumbent and our model treats races with appointed incumbents as open-seat races. California is not listed because the race features two Democrats and no Republicans. There is no polling of the Senate races in Maryland, Vermont and Hawaii.
Adjusted polling as of Sept. 17; fundamentals as of Sept. 16.

A handful of Democrats, such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown and Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey, are running slightly ahead of their fundamentals, but most Democrats are underperforming them. Florida, North Dakota and Missouri, where polls show near toss-ups in races that the fundamentals suggest should be Democratic-leaning, are the most important cases. Montana’s Jon Tester and Indiana’s Joe Donnelly, although they lead in most polls, also fall into this category, as fundamentals suggest they should have a slightly clearer advantage. Polls also show New Jersey’s Bob Menendez in a somewhat competitive race, when fundamentals imply Republicans should have no business competing in New Jersey in such a Democratic-leaning year — even accounting for Menendez’s corruption scandal.

Before we go further, it might be helpful to break fundraising out from the other factors we include in the fundamentals. Why? It isn’t necessarily because fundraising is the most important or predictive factor, although, it’s one of the most predictive ones. Rather, it’s because we tend to think of fundamentals as background conditions, whereas fundraising is in part a reaction to those conditions. Voter enthusiasm, which by most indications is on Democrats’ side this year, can translate to higher fundraising totals, for instance.

Democrats have a fundraising advantage in every single Senate race with a Democratic incumbent. (Our evaluation of fundraising is based on individual contributions only, not money from PACs or parties or self-financing from the candidates.) This isn’t a huge surprise — the incumbent candidate usually raises more than the challenger.7 But the Democratic fundraising edge is quite emphatic, with the median Democratic incumbent in the Senate having almost a 6-1 fundraising advantage over his or her Republican opponent. This makes a pretty big difference. As you can see in the next chart — which breaks out how much fundraising contributes to the fundamentals calculation in each race — there are several races where the Democratic incumbent’s edge would otherwise be fairly marginal, but where fundraising tips the scales toward them.

Democrats’ fundraising advantage helps buoy their lead

Forecasted margin of victory for Democratic senators who are running for re-election, according to various aspects of FiveThirtyEight’s fundamentals

Forecasted margins by fundamentals inputs
Race Incumbent fundamentals Forecasted margin of victory Fundraising Other Factors
Florida Nelson +7.7 +1.9 +5.8
North Dakota Heitkamp +7.9 +4.3 +3.7
Missouri McCaskill +8.3 +5.0 +3.3
West Virginia Manchin +9.0 +2.4 +6.6
Ohio Brown +10.4 +7.7 +2.6
Pennsylvania Casey +11.6 +4.5 +7.0
Indiana Donnelly +11.6 +4.4 +7.2
Montana Tester +13.4 +5.7 +7.7
Wisconsin Baldwin +17.9 +7.0 +10.9
Michigan Stabenow +18.8 +2.3 +16.5
Virginia Kaine +21.3 +6.2 +15.2
New Jersey Menendez +23.3 +4.5 +18.8
New Mexico Heinrich +25.1 +5.0 +20.1
Minnesota Klobuchar +27.6 +8.1 +19.5
Washington Cantwell +29.3 +7.5 +21.8
Maine King* +30.7 +6.1 +24.6
Connecticut Murphy +33.2 +8.5 +24.6
Delaware Carper +36.6 +7.1 +29.5
Massachusetts Warren +37.4 +8.5 +29.0
Rhode Island Whitehouse +38.9 +5.4 +33.6
New York Gillibrand +39.9 +7.9 +32.0
Maryland Cardin +40.6 +7.9 +32.7
Vermont Sanders* +45.7 +7.7 +38.1
Hawaii Hirono +51.8 +7.8 +43.9

*King and Sanders are independents who caucus with the Democrats.
The Minnesota special election is not listed because Tina Smith is an appointed rather than an elected incumbent and our model treats races with appointed incumbents as open-seat races. California is not listed because the race features two Democrats and no Republicans. There is no polling of the Senate races in Maryland, Vermont or Hawaii.
Adjusted polling as of Sept. 17; fundamentals as of Sept. 16.

It’s also worth describing how our model “thinks” about incumbency — and how the incumbency advantage is a bit more complex than people might assume. For example, were it not for an overwhelming fundraising advantage over his Republican opponent Rep. Jim Renacci, the fundamentals model would actually have Ohio’s Brown as being more vulnerable than West Virginia’s Manchin.

How can that be? Isn’t West Virginia much redder than Ohio? Well, sure.8 (Although Ohio is getting pretty red too.)

But the most important fact about incumbents is that incumbents, by definition,9 won their previous election. So it can help to look at the incumbent’s previous margin of victory for clues about his or her strength. For instance, West Virginia is much redder than Ohio now, but that was also true in 2012 — and in 2012, Manchin won his race by 24 points, while Brown won his by just 6. That’s a hint that the incumbency advantage isn’t one-size-fits-all and that there are some characteristics — either relating to Manchin himself or to his state, West Virginia — that made him a stronger incumbent than Brown.

One clear trend in the data, for instance, is that incumbents from smaller-population states such as West Virginia tend to be harder to beat than those from more populous ones such as Ohio. Look up the historical rosters of senators from Hawaii or Delaware, for instance, and you’ll tend to see the same incumbents getting re-elected every six years until they finally retire or pass away; less so in larger states such as Florida. I wasn’t surprised when we discovered this trend in the data; there are several fairly straightforward reasons why you’d expect it to be the case.10

Another pattern is that more demographically and politically idiosyncratic states tend to be associated with larger incumbency advantages. We measure each state’s similarity to other states by means of its CANTOR score, which evaluates how comparable it is to other states based on a variety of demographic, political and geographic variables. We found that states that have fewer good comparables — say, West Virginia or Vermont, or even California — tend to re-elect their incumbents more often than states whose demographics more closely reflect those of the country as a whole, such as Ohio or Missouri. This also ought to be fairly intuitive; it’s easier for an incumbent to be a uniquely good fit for his or her state if that state is more unique.

Manchin also has a considerably more moderate voting record than Brown, another factor that our model considers. He’s voted with the Democratic Party only 63 percent of the time over the past three Congresses, according to our version of a party unity score, as compared with 89 percent of the time for Brown. Our model finds that incumbents who break ranks with their parties more often tend to do better than those who always vote the party line, other factors held equal.

With that additional background, let me quickly go through the model’s logic on some of the key races with Democratic incumbents.

  • Florida. It might seem surprising that the fundamentals calculation regards Florida’s Bill Nelson as the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent, since Florida is quite purple and there are Democrats up for re-election in some genuinely red states. But Florida is a populous, diverse state — and as I described, those states tend to be associated with a smaller incumbency advantage. Moreover, Nelson has a very good challenger in Florida Gov. Rick Scott; one way our model accounts for candidate quality is by looking at the highest elected office the opponent has held, with races against current or former governors or senators falling into the top category. Scott has also kept a relatively even pace with Nelson in terms of public fundraising — and that’s not even accounting for all the money he’s kicked into the campaign himself. That said, the fundamentals calculation still thinks Nelson ought to be ahead in such a blue-leaning year.
  • North Dakota. Part of why a party’s incumbents are so tough to beat when it’s having a wave election is that they probably won their races under tougher conditions before. For instance, Democratic incumbent Heidi Heitkamp barely won her race in 2012, and North Dakota has grown redder since then. Nonetheless, Democrats are poised to win the overall popular vote for the House by around 9 percentage points this year, a significant blue shift from 2012, when they won it by just 1 point. Also helping Heidkamp is that she has a moderate voting record, that North Dakota is a small state, and that so far she has a significant fundraising advantage over her Republican opponent, Rep. Kevin Cramer.
  • Missouri. Democrat Claire McCaskill would otherwise be regarded as quite vulnerable by the fundamentals calculation — she has a more liberal voting record than colleagues like Heitkamp, and Missouri is a larger and more diverse state. But she’s been prepared for a competitive race since she won re-election in 2012, and she has a 4:1 fundraising advantage so far over Republican opponent Josh Hawley. One factor our model doesn’t account for is who the incumbent beat in their last election; in McCaskill’s case, it was former U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, whose comments about “legitimate rape” undermined his candidacy. That potentially leads the model to overrate McCaskill’s chances slightly; it gives her full credit for her 16-point margin of victory against Akin, when the results would likely have been much closer against another Republican opponent.
  • West Virginia. We’ve already discussed Manchin’s case. He’s a throwback to an older, independent-minded type of incumbent who’s a uniquely good “fit” for his state in a way that usually defies partisan trends. In a red-leaning national environment, Manchin might nonetheless be in trouble — but in a blue year, it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s leading Republican opponent Patrick Morrisey in polls.
  • Ohio. In theory, Brown might be vulnerable, but he hasn’t drawn a very tough challenger — Renacci has raised relatively little money and hasn’t shown much of an independent streak in Congress.
  • Pennsylvania. Casey’s story is similar to Brown’s: Pennsylvania has become redder, but it’s still not an easy pickup for Republicans in a blue year, and Casey’s opponent, Rep. Lou Barletta, is probably not who you’d pick to maximize your chances of winning.
  • Indiana. Donnelly benefits in our analysis from a moderate voting record and from facing a relatively inexperienced opponent in businessman and former state representative Mike Braun. As is the case with McCaskill, however, our model may slightly overrate Donnelly because it doesn’t account for the fact that he faced a problematic opponent, Richard Mourdock, when he won the seat in 2012.
  • Montana. Tester is potentially Manchin-like in being a good fit for a quirky, low-population Montana. He has a considerably more liberal voting record than Manchin or Heitkamp do, but that’s partly offset by Montana being slightly more purple than North Dakota or West Virginia.
  • Michigan and Wisconsin. Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow has had an emphatic lead in polls, while Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin’s advantage has varied more from survey to survey (although with an average lead of around of 11 points in our adjusted polling average). The fundamentals calculation is skeptical that either race will become more competitive. Indeed, the four Rust Belt states that flipped to Trump in 2016 (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin) all seemed poised to easily re-elect their Democratic incumbents this year.
  • New Jersey. Our model actually does account for scandals, and Menendez’s scandal is a significant one — although the federal case against was him dismissed after a mistrial, with most jurors prepared to say he was not guilty. But New Jersey is a blue state, and the scandal penalty to Menendez’s margin would have to be enormous to cost the incumbent his seat in a blue year. This is a risk Democrats could have avoided entirely by nominating another candidate, but probably not one that will come back to bite them.

One final, important note: While several of the Democratic incumbents, such as Heitkamp and Menendez, are underperforming where they “should” be in the polls, our model will give them only so much time to catch up to its expectations. As time passes and as more and more polls come in, the effect of the fundamentals will diminish in our forecast — to the point where they really only serve as a tiebreaker in Senate races that are otherwise too close to call. We’ll cover GOP incumbents and open-seat races, where the fundamentals calculation sometimes helps Republicans, in another article soon.

Footnotes

  1. According to the Lite version of our House model, which sticks to polls as much as possible, a 9-point win in the popular vote for the House would translate to a gain of around 35 seats for Democrats (with a fairly wide margin of error). The seat gains would be closer to 40 seats according to our Classic model, which includes the fundamentals. Either is comfortably more than the 23 seats Democrats need to flip the House.

  2. The generic ballot and congressional approval ratings — the less popular Congress is overall, the worse incumbents tend to do — also roll up into the fundamentals calculation.

  3. The figures from our forecasts in this paragraph are all as of Monday night.

  4. The Deluxe version of our model, which also incorporates expert ratings, is producing a forecast that’s nearly identical to the Classic version right now.

  5. Counting seats held by independents as belonging to the party they caucused with.

  6. Yes, there’s a large margin of error on both calculations, but it cuts in both directions: Democratic gains could easily be quite a bit smaller or quite a bit larger.

  7. However, Republican incumbents don’t always have the fundraising advantage this year in their own races; Republican incumbents Cruz and Dean Heller have been outraised in Texas and Nevada respectively, for example.

  8. At least in terms of presidential voting.

  9. If you exclude appointed incumbents, which we do.

  10. For one thing, a senator from California is liable to face much more competition for her seat than one from Wyoming. Moreover, the senator from Wyoming probably has an easier time of providing constituent services, since she has a smaller number of constituents. The Wyoming senator probably also has an easier time arguing that she should be re-elected as a means of preserving Wyoming’s seniority in the Senate; senators are especially important to low-population states such as Wyoming, which doesn’t have much say in the House of Representatives or the Electoral College.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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