|Can the Democrats "pull a Heidi Heitkamp" to win the majority?|
Real Clear Politics is one of the political sites that I visit religiously-not just every day but throughout the day, primarily because it is a one-stop shop when it comes to articles from around the web and polling averages. This is where I start out when I’m thinking about where the trends are going nationally, and which seats are going up or down (rather than simply relying on one specific poll, as I’ve learned through the years that one specific poll doesn’t really help you at all).
Real Clear Politics will take the average of the polls right before an election to create their political prediction, a pretty solid way to create a prediction, and as a general rule, this is breathtakingly accurate. For all the talk about “upsets,” the reality is that if you look at polling data immediately before an election, it’s almost always correct in predicting the victor. In fact, while frequently the RCP Average will have little to do with predicting the actual margin of victory (someone like Mark Begich dropped nine points in his RCP Average in 2008 and Mark Udall went up eight points that same year), only five times in the past four Senate election cycles has the RCP Average leader lost the actual election.
This is key to understanding why the Democrats have such an uphill battle. If you look at the current averages, four Democrats are currently leading in very close races: Jeanne Shaheen in Hew Hampshire, Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Greg Orman (Independent, but let’s be serious here) in Kansas, and Michelle Nunn in Georgia. All four of these incumbents have RCP Averages that are in the plus-column, but by less than two-points. By comparison, no competitive seat leaning Republican has an average that low (the closest you get is Joni Ernst in Iowa with +2.5).
Let’s assume for a second that Shaheen, Hagan, and Orman all three win (this is a big assumption, for what it’s worth, as only Orman could legitimately claim that momentum is currently in his corner). This would get the Democrats to 48 votes in the Senate, two shy of the majority. Michelle Nunn, were Georgia a state without runoffs, would likely be in the driver’s seat. The David Perdue outsourcing comments were about the best thing that could have happened to her campaign-they hit home with blue collar, lower-income, white voters in Georgia, the sorts of voters who are registered as Democrats but only actually vote Democrat when they don’t like the Republican (this gave Nunn an in to show why they shouldn’t like the Republican, and even if it’s a protest vote rather than one specifically endorsing Nunn, it counts the same on Election Night). However, Nunn needs to hit 50% on Election Night to avoid a runoff, which means she’d need nearly every undecided to go in her favor, a steep task and probably the first “miracle” the Democrats would need to seal the deal with the Senate (the Democrats would be underdogs headed into a runoff, particularly if Shaheen, Hagan, and Orman had just won, as Nunn’s seat could well be the clincher for Senate control at that point).
This, unfortunately for the Democrats, would leave them with 49 votes. That’s where the big challenge is for the Democrats-they are in a position this year where they are hoping that the polls in at least one state are wrong. In fact, they aren’t just hoping (we’re always hoping the polls are wrong when we are losing), they’re counting on it. They have to win four very marginal seats, plus one that isn’t in their column yet, which as I stated above, there’s only about a 4% chance of happening.
Taking a look at the five races that favored the Democrats, there’s a wee bit of hope in that all five of the candidates that beat the odds were in fact Democrats: Al Franken in 2008, Harry Reid and Michael Bennet in 2010, and Jon Tester and Heidi Heitkamp in 2012. As I mentioned above, the closest race currently favored for the Republicans is Joni Ernst’s in Iowa, which has a +2.5 margin in favor of the Republicans. The reason that I’ve been stressing this race as so important throughout the cycle is this is really the only race that is currently on the board that there’s at least a semblance of past precedent for the Democrats to win. Ernst’s margin is actually smaller than all of the margins of the five Republicans who lost despite leading the polls above, with the exception of Denny Rehberg in Montana. The second most vulnerable Republican (Rep. Cory Gardner of Colorado) has an RCP Average of +4.0, which would be a bigger upset than all but one of the above seats. For this reason, despite the national press frequently writing off Bruce Braley while keeping Mark Udall alive, I think that Iowa is clearly the path of least resistance and the most pivotal seat in this election. Can the Democrats win without Iowa? Sure (we’ll get there in just one second), but if history teaches us anything, if the Democrats have the majority in January, it will be with Bruce Braley as a member of that majority.
It is of course worth noting that one of those seats exceeded a 4.0 margin-Heidi Heitkamp’s in 2012. I frequently write about the stunning victory that Heitkamp pulled off in 2012, but that’s because it’s, on paper, the biggest upset victory of the past four Senate cycles. Heitkamp headed into Election Day with a 5.7-point margin working against her. If this were the bar of entry for upsets, we’d have a pretty different playing field: Kentucky, Colorado, Alaska, Louisiana, and even Arkansas all have margins that are smaller than 5.7, and you can bet that all of these incumbents have likely called Heitkamp in recent weeks for advice (if they haven’t, they should). It’s worth noting that Heitkamp did have the momentum going into Election Day; despite Mitt Romney easily winning her state, it was pretty clear that she was gaining on Rep. Rick Berg, though no one expected her to actually win. That’s a problem for most of these Democrats, because with the exception of Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky, none of these Democrats have shown that they are gaining on their opponents in the final days of the campaign. Therefore the Heitkamp path to victory remains an elusive, probably impossible, but still theoretical way that the Democrats could win the Senate.