Friday, October 21, 2016

The 20 Hardest-to-Call Elections of 2016

We are less than three weeks from Election Day!  Huzzah, hooray, this long, national nightmare is finally over.  Yes, soon we will all be casting our ballots (hopefully some of you have already cast yours, in fact), and will be waiting patiently to see whether we'll be grabbing for the champagne or the whiskey.  For me, however, this means that I need to start my gigantic undertaking of writing an Election Night Guide (see here for an example), and unlike some other prognosticators, I think it's cheating to state that a race is a tossup-it doesn't count as "getting them all right" if you have tossups headed into the election night.  However, there are always some races that I have more trouble flipping that coin on than others, so below I've listed out the twenty races that I think are most likely to be decided by a handful of voters on election night in a few weeks, and the ones I'm having the hardest time picking a victor

(Note-I limited myself to races for the White House, Senate, Governor's, and House-I will admit there are a few state legislative races, as well as ballot initiatives, that are also tossups-if you have a favorite of those please share in the comments.  Additionally, these are listed alphabetically).


I'm going to say outright-I think that the presidential race is going to go, in terms of simply winning the Oval Office, to Hillary Clinton.  There's really no question about that to me-the paths she has to win are too great, the paths for Trump are too slim-he hasn't broken through in New Hampshire or Pennsylvania, and she leads in too many states (Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, occasionally Ohio) that I think at this point this has to be assumed.  The question, then, goes to which of the marginal states she might be able to nab away from Trump to increase her mandate (and to end his ridiculous assertions that the outcome is "rigged").  Arizona is the rare state (Georgia and Utah being the others) where Clinton could actually do something that many thought impossible a year ago when a third term for a Democrat seemed preposterous: she could become the first Democrat this century to win the state at a presidential level.  The polls have started to go toward Clinton, quite frankly, to the point where (on-paper) she has a better shot here than Iowa or Ohio.  However, she's reliant upon constituencies that don't oftentimes turnout (she'll need exceedingly strong Latino support), and only once since 1964 has a Democrat won this state, and that was in 1996 by only 2.2% of the vote (and with a strong third-party performance taking votes away from Bob Dole).  The recipe is right for Arizona, but I'm still not convinced it'll be ready in time.


I cannot believe I'm writing this, but Darrell Issa, the longtime thorn in the side of many a Democrat, is in a tossup race.  The frequent critic of President Obama has long been safe in his wealthy Orange County district, but a combination of factors have put him in a strange position where he might actually lose to political newcomer Marine Colonel Doug Applegate.  Issa has tied himself heavily to Trump, but because of his lack of popularity with college-educated white voters, Trump may actually lose Orange County, the first Republican to do so in eighty years.  That, combined with likely depressed turnout statewide for Republicans since the Senate race is between two Democrats, could hurt Issa, who isn't helping himself by sticking with Trump heavily.  Additionally, Applegate is running a pretty good grassroots campaign, and his military background couples well with his progressive stances on a number of issues.  I always have the biggest trouble in calling a race like this-one where the momentum is clearly with the challenger, but history teaches me that the incumbent is the favorite.  I'll decide in a few weeks, but I'm debating either direction, a clear sign that Issa is vulnerable.

Rep. John Mica (R-FL)

It rarely happens, but occasionally a political party randomly selecting a candidate no one has heard of at the last minute results in something other than an underwhelming performance.  That appears to be what's happening here, where a combination of factors (Trump at the top of the ticket, a Republican incumbent caught off-guard, and a challenger that has done remarkably well due to her late recruit) has made the race to see if 13-term incumbent Rep. John Mica (R) can, in fact, hold a seat he's held for decades.  Murphy's performance has been a sharp contrast against Mica's, and she's taking advantage of the district's new voters (Florida-7 became less Republican with the mid-decade redistricting in the Sunshine State), leading with independents in polls.  It's worth mentioning that she's up in general in those polls, though they're released by the DCCC; however, the NRCC hasn't released their internals and outside groups are spending money here, proving that Murphy could be not just a surprise nominee, but in fact a surprise congresswoman before the year is up.


The race for Florida's 18th is a bit of an inverse of Murphy's district, where the Republican Brian Mast is actually doing well in internal polls, while the Democrats have been keeping their numbers close to their vest.  On-the-surface, the race favors Democrat Randy Perkins ever-so-slightly, as the national environment, plus a boosted turnout in Rep. Patrick Murphy's old seat (he's vacating to run for an increasingly unlikely Senate seat), should help Perkins.  However, Perkins has gotten avalanches of bad press locally, and in some cases even nationally, with him being called "the Democratic Donald Trump," and no, Mr. Trump, that's not meant as a compliment.  His recent fumbles on abortion legislation could turn off female voters in the district, and there is a stronger-than-average third party candidate running (though her politics seem to borrow more from Mast than Perkins).  All-in-all, my head says Perkins, my gut says Mast-until they can find a balance, I'm keeping this a tossup.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL)

With the exception of Murphy and the 10th's Val Demings (the party's only surefire pickup in the state), Florida Democrats massively screwed up in House recruitment this cycle, with Charlie Crist in the 13th district (he's never actually delivered a victory for Democrats, but he's issued close to a dozen defeats in his long career), the bombastic Randy Perkins (we had just gotten rid of Alan Grayson!), and worst of all, former Rep. Joe Garcia in the 26th.  The Democrats had a far more palatable choice in Annette Taddeo (non-controversial, and a woman in a cycle where female candidates nationwide with similar profiles to Taddeo's have done quite well), but they went inexplicably for Garcia, making this a much harder pickup against incumbent-Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who beat Garcia two years ago.  Garcia has badly underperformed in fundraising, though it's worth noting that polling is hard to come by.  This district is swing-y enough that if Hillary wins the state by a lot, she may drag Garcia over the finish line, but Curbelo being relatively innocuous has to be a plus for a seat where the last two incumbents have faced ethical quagmires.  Even if he wins, Garcia (unlike Taddeo) will surely fall in two years when the Democrats have a midterm audience.

Iowa President

Since the night of the first debate, where Hillary Clinton got to draw a direct comparison to Donald Trump and saw a remarkable shift in her direction from voters, most of the swing states that had been trending to the Republicans moved back.  You'd have to argue with a pretty twisted view of reality that North Carolina, Nevada, and Florida don't favor Clinton pretty markedly at this point, and I even would wager that, despite the polls being against her as often as they're for her, Ohio is clearly a better option for Clinton now.  The sole Obama 2012 state that's staying an outlier?  That'd be the Hawkeye State, where Hillary Clinton still trails Donald Trump despite gaining everywhere else.  It's worth noting, however, that that could be a result of a lack of polling.  With no really competitive Senate race in the state-Grassley's winning-there's less need to poll here compared to North Carolina or Nevada.  That could mean that Iowa, a state we're all kind of assuming swings slightly Trump could be back to pure tossup status even if the aggregate polling hasn't caught up.  I'm thinking that's the case, but I don't like to buck polls too ferociously, so I'm hoping in the next few weeks we see some numbers here.

Speaker John Gregg (D-IN)
Indiana Governor

Four years ago one of the bigger surprises of the night was State House Speaker John Gregg (D) nearly besting longtime favorite-for-the-seat Rep. Mike Pence in Indiana's gubernatorial race.  Gregg is now positioning himself to do what he couldn't do last time: cross the finish line with an upset victory rather than upset near victory.  Polling against Lt. Governor Eric Holcomb has been hard to come by (Indiana has strict laws about conducting polls that makes it hard for companies to get into the state), but a recent Monmouth survey showed Gregg up by twelve-points, which shocked pretty much everyone who assumed it was a repeat of 2012: close, but not close enough for the Democrats.  Hillary Clinton's Super PAC has started spending money on advertising in the state, likely to help Evan Bayh but with an added affect on Gregg's support, and it now appears likely that Gregg is in the unique position of being able to over-perform Clinton in the state (most Democrats are trailing her nationally).  I would love to see a little bit more direction here, but Gregg may be caught in the perfect storm here to take advantage of a win (it's worth noting that vice presidential nominee Mike Pence gave up this election to run nationally-he may have saved himself a different kind of embarrassment if Gregg ends up winning by a larger-than-expected margin).

Indiana Senate

The other major race in the Hoosier State is a Senate race that most people thought would never be on this list.  It's quite obvious at this point that the Democrats may experience a wave, but not a titanic one that would have won this seat for former Rep. Baron Hill, who feels more in the vein of Patty Judge than Jason Kander.  However, when former Sen. Evan Bayh, sitting on $10 million and decades of winning campaigns from the Indiana electorate, jumped in, it was clear Rep. Todd Young would be in trouble.  Bayh's campaign has been poor-in almost any other circumstance he'd have lost right around the time his lobbying ties, particularly those while he was in the Senate, were exposed-but that may not matter.  While polling in Indiana has been scarce, Bayh has led in literally every single one conducted in the race, albeit with a swing of 1-7 points on that margin of victory.  Young may want to find solace in other candidates that overcame the RCP average (they do exist), but in those cases (think Jon Tester/Heidi Heitkamp in 2012 or Pat Roberts in 2014) they were candidates that were riding a national trend, even though in the case of the Democrats they were in states that Mitt Romney was winning.  Young doesn't have that advantage, nor does he have the advantage of being elected statewide previously (which Tester, Heitkamp, and Roberts all did).  The thing that stands out here is that Young is probably the better candidate at this point, and Bayh is going to have to outrun Trump, which makes me leery to go there with him, but every marker in this race shows he should be headed back to the Senate, albeit by a slimmer margin than when he initially announced.

Maine-2 President

Maine-2 is, like Iowa and Ohio, a place that should lean toward the Republicans slightly more under Trump than under Romney, if only because one of the few demographics that Trump over-indexes in (white men) are a major part of the demographic here.  However, polling in House districts is harder to do and generally less accurate, and it's much more difficult to come by-only one poll has been done here since Labor Day according to RCP, and that only showed Trump up by 1 (it was a D-partisan poll, for the record).  As a result, I'm not quite sure what to do here.  If there was a district that Clinton probably gained in in the last couple of weeks, it'd be here-after all, President Obama won it by over 8% of the vote and it was a seat that regularly sent a Democrat to Congress prior to 2014.  I think on paper this leans Trump, but similar to Iowa or Ohio, I suspect the gusts of wind that keep coming for Clinton may make what could be a first (Maine's never split their electoral votes before) another routine election.

Maine-2 House

In congruence with that race, I wonder if we might be in a situation where the person who is happiest Hillary Clinton has massive momentum and is trying to run the gamut on Electoral College votes is in fact State Sen. Emily Cain.  Cain, for a while there, looked to be one of the most unfortunate House candidates in the country.  After all, she was the favorite to win in 2014 until the massive wave came along ousting her in favor of now-Rep. Bruce Poliquin, and many assumed she'd get the seat back for the Democrats in 2016 since this seat regularly goes blue on a presidential/House level.  When the polls started to roll in for Trump, Cain was still competitive but even I figured she was a goner (and likely, after two straight losses, was looking at the end of her political career at a mere 36), but a Clinton rebound in Maine is a huge victory for Cain, as she was already outrunning Trump.  It's possible, of course, that Trump wins this district or that Poliquin enjoys some advantages as an incumbent, but I'm going to put this out into the world: if Clinton wins ME-2, then Cain comes along with her.

Lon Johnson (D-MI)

There are swing districts where you can't tell who is going to win because the polls tell you nothing or the candidates have personality quirks that make them slightly less electable, and then there are the races where you just would like to see a poll.  A single, solitary poll.  This year that's Michigan's 1st district.  I honestly have no idea what to do with this one.  On paper this district is the slightest of leans for Republicans but is hardly insurmountable for the Democrats, particularly if a wave is building; after all, both Obama and Romney have won the district, albeit in different election cycles.  The candidates (Democrat Lon Johnson and Republican Jack Bergman) aren't really standout, though not necessarily bad candidates, and one of them is headed to Congress, that's for sure.  My hope in the next few weeks is that we see an actual poll or two here, since literally every pundit is listing this as a tossup, but with little indication of how it will turn.  The fundamentals ever-so-slightly favor a generic Republican (Bergman), but the winds nationally favor a generic Democrat (Johnson).  Either way, this is a seat that's probably more important to the Democrats (they can't win the House without it), so expect to see at least some trumpeting of Johnson in the coming weeks.

Missouri Senate

In any normal year, this would be one of those races where we all tipped our hat to it being potentially competitive, and then move along.  After all, while a lot of polls have shown the race closing, it's still assumed that the state once considered a bellwether, but which passed on Obama twice, is now pretty strongly Republican, and Sen. Roy Blunt is an incumbent.  All-in-all, that'd normally be it, even against a formidable opponent in Secretary of State Jason Kander.  However, Kander has made this extremely competitive, and both national committees are acknowledging this, spending heavily to turn this one their way.  Democrats surely have had success in ticket-splitting here (after all, Claire McCaskill and Jay Nixon both did it four years ago and my gut is telling me at least Chris Koster is going to do it again this year in the governor's race), but beating an incumbent senator in a presidential race hasn't happened since the bizarre election of 2000 (where Gov. Mel Carnahan beat John Ashcroft...even though he died several weeks before the election).  The situation here is not similar to Indiana, but mirrors a number of other Senate races on this list, and is the chief quandary for the Democrats.  Most polls show Blunt with a very narrow lead, but the Democrats have national momentum (at least at the very top of the ticket), and seemingly a superior GOTV operation.  Will that translate at the ballot box, or are the polls right and Democrats are in for a series of heartbreaks on Election Day?  Blunt/Kander is one of those races...

Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC)
North Carolina Senate

...And Burr/Ross is another.  Like Missouri, this was a race that was only competitive in theory, but Sen. Richard Burr, after running a non-campaign for months, allowed it to be actually competitive even against a second-tier candidate (at least on paper) like State Rep. Deborah Ross.  Ross has run a fine campaign, one that the national committees may have jumped onboard with a bit late (I think they could be leading right now had they targeted Burr in association with Trump a bit earlier), but Burr is hitting her hard for being too-far left for North Carolina (considering her voting record in comparison to the state, she would be considerably more liberal than recent Democratic Sens. John Edwards and Kay Hagan).  Burr has rebounded and holds a slight edge in the polls, but a couple of things can be relied upon by Ross here.  One, it seems likely that both Hillary Clinton and Roy Cooper (the Democrats' gubernatorial candidate) are going to win-polls are close, but consistently favor both of them, which can only help Ross down-ballot.  Second, history is on her side in that regard-in a state that has famously close Senate elections (which frequently throw out incumbents), no Senate candidate has won while their party's candidate lost the state's electoral votes since 1968-therefore a Clinton/Burr win would be pretty groundbreaking.  And third, and perhaps most crucially, the Democrats' ground game in the state is being repeatedly applauded-this is a state that Clinton invested heavily in, and you can bet her team sees the value in trying to convince her supporters to stand with Ross as well (she doesn't talk about her potential impact on the federal judiciary for nothing).  I think that Ross, based on this ground game, can outperform the polls, but only by a point or two-watch the polls in the next few days to see if that's enough.

New Hampshire Governor

I'm going to be honest-this race is tenuously on this list, as it's started to break in a new direction in the past few weeks than it had been all cycle, but I'm keeping it on for now because New Hampshire's down-ballot polls remain relatively close.  The past few election cycles, the Democrats have seen waves hit the Granite State particularly hard, with surprises like Carol Shea-Porter randomly returning to the House in 2012 again (a feat she's likely to pull off once more this year-can anyone think of the last time a member of congress served three non-consecutive periods in the US House?), followed by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen two years ago, beloved in the state, nearly getting ousted by a former senator from another state.  This year, the question is "can the Democrats hold the governor's mansion after Maggie Hassan is running for the Senate?"  For the longest time, despite momentum building for Hillary Clinton, it appeared like they wouldn't; Republican Chris Sununu, the son of a former governor and the brother of a former senator, had name recognition that his fellow Executive Council member Colin van Ostern couldn't approach.  However, recent polling has shown van Ostern gaining on Sununu, a sign of perhaps him benefiting from a strong up-ballot effect of Hillary Clinton.  Aggregate polling is still close, so it remains a tossup, but van Ostern has the momentum.

Gov. Maggie Hassan (D-NH)
New Hampshire Senate

If I had to pick one race on this list, over all others, that I cannot figure out it would surely be this one, billed as the marquee race of the cycle, I'm giving it that nod from my direction.  Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) has to be commended for keeping this as competitive as she did.  Unlike some of her colleagues such as Richard Burr or Pat Toomey, she was not handed a second or third choice candidate, but instead arguably the best challenger of the cycle, popular Gov. Maggie Hassan.  She's been saddled with Trump in some of the worst ways, having to defend him for months, even calling him a role model (a moment that, if she loses, can be a textbook example of how Trump cost Republicans), and then renounced him, even though the damage at that point was probably done.  And yet, she's still more than competitive in the state-polls had shown her in the lead, but she lost a point or two and is now essentially tied with Hassan.  All of this is to say that Ayotte could, theoretically, be that random person who overcomes pretty much every obstacle and still wins reelection because the state simply likes her (it's worth noting that these politicians, by the standards of two people running a race in October, are still well-liked by the voters-a rarity where the voters don't generally consider it "the lesser of two evils" to use an inane cliche).  I am holding on this one because my gut says that Ayotte is going to do this after running such a massive undertaking (she's defied odds so many times), but the fundamentals of the race clearly show Hassan will win in a very tight contest.

Nevada Senate

While New Hampshire is the state that I'm most reluctant to call for the Senate, Nevada is the state I think will determine who wins the Senate.  If I was forced to call a few races today, WI/IL would go Democratic, as would Indiana (there's no poll showing Young up, which is almost impossible to overcome), and I suspect at least one of NH/NC/MO/PA would swing to the Democrats' way, though it could be more.  Nevada has been, however, the difference between Democrats needing four pickups and five, and as the race has gone on it seems more and more likely that that distinction (in some years it wouldn't matter) could be crucial.  The race here has seen perhaps the biggest blowback to the Trump train, where up until Trump's Access Hollywood videos and poor debate performances Rep. Joe Heck had been roundly beating Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto (D) despite the fundamentals of the race (Nevada seemed likely to go to Hillary Clinton by a slim margin, Harry Reid's machine, strong Latino turnout likely for first Latina senator), favoring her.  The polls, however, have shifted away from Heck in recent days, with her either tied or leading by as many as 7-points in some match-ups.  It's too hard to tell, right now, whether or not this is a blip brought on by a bad Trump news cycle, but there's no guarantee for Heck that Trump has another good news cycle in him before November 8th (all of the debates and the Al Smith dinner he bombed-there's no more chances for him to directly interact with Clinton again).  Plus, Heck has to worry about his right flank-Trump Republicans in the state may be mad he rescinded his endorsement and punish him by voting "None of the Above," an actual option in the state that could devastate Heck as he already has to contend with polling averages in the Silver State being notorious for underestimating Democratic support (Obama, Reid, and Shelley Berkley all did better in their close races in the past ten years than the polls indicated they would).  If Heck can't get a lead in aggregate polling by November 8th, it's hard to see him pulling this off.

Danny Tarkanian (R-NV)

Meanwhile, there's a down-ballot race in Nevada that's equally perplexing.  With Heck vacating his old seat, Republicans were stuck with Danny Tarkanian, the son of a popular former UNLV basketball coach who has made it his mission in life to apparently lose as many races as possible-this is his fifth attempt at elected office, and he has yet to actually win one.  His Democratic opponent is running her first campaign but is well-known in the district, Jacky Rosen.  Tarkanian has led pretty consistently in fundraising, but polling in the district is scarce, and as I mentioned above, it's hard to poll Nevada to begin with.  The Republicans seemed to have the advantage for a while there, despite President Obama having won the state in both of his elections.  After all, it took a while for Nevada to break toward Clinton, and even in the past week internals in the fourth district haven't been strong for the Democrats (and that district more heavily favors them).  That being said, Tarkanian's track record plus a rebounding Clinton (and the fact that this is an open seat, rather than one that has an incumbent as it did when the GOP won this in 2012), leaves a definite opening for Rosen.  Like Michigan-1, this probably favors the Republicans slightly on-paper, but it's a seat with lots of potential and one Democrats certainly have to convert in order to win the House outright.

Pennsylvania Senate

Katie McGinty, more than any other Senate candidate this cycle, has been giving me an ulcer.  After other Democrats in the state (namely Josh Shapiro) turned down the opportunity to run here, McGinty barely glided through the primary against Joe Sestak, with help from the DSCC, and has run an underwhelming campaign.  It's clear that Toomey, who has gotten money from Mike Bloomberg (who isn't really seeing the forest from the trees there), has run the better campaign as McGinty hasn't handled retail politics as well and misjudged some of her "oops" moments.  However, candidates frequently can run poorer campaigns and still come out on top in a wave (just ask Thom Tillis), and that could end being the case here.  Hillary Clinton is McGinty's best friend right now, and Trump is Toomey's worst enemy.  After several moments earlier this year where Pennsylvania looked like it could be a crucial swing state, it now appears certain to go to Clinton, by potentially an impressive margin.  Toomey will outrun Trump, but the question is by how much-it's hard to imagine Hillary being up by eight and Toomey being able to outman McGinty, even though he's rebounded in the polls here.  My gut says McGinty is probably going to take this out of sheer force-of-will from the Democrats in the state (and like fellow Senator Bob Casey, could have easier reelections as a result of incumbency), but Toomey is still in this as long as he can keep some distance between himself and Trump.

Evan McMullin (I-UT)
Utah President

If you'd told me a year ago that I'd be writing Utah's presidential results as one of my twenty hardest-to-call races, I would have laughed you out of the room.  If you'd told me that I was seriously considering calling the state for a third party candidate, the first third-party candidate to win a state's electoral votes outright since 1968, I'd still be laughing a year later.  Except here we are, a situation where we have the rarest of birds in presidential politics: a three-way race between the two major party candidates and Independent Evan McMullin.  I wrote more extensively about the race here, but suffice it to say, I would currently buy almost any direction the election would go at this point.  Part of me feels like, even if it's close, that Trump will probably pull this out, but his lack of support in the state isn't nearly as important as McMullin now being a viable option-while McMullin has no chance of hitting 270 electoral votes, you cannot say "voting for him doesn't matter" in the sense that he can't win the state's electoral votes.  The more Republicans who hear about him, the more who could flip from Trump to him with a pretty clear conscience.  The question there is whether or not one of them will end up on-top, or will they split the vote just enough so that Hillary Clinton, who won't be able to pull much more than 30% of the vote, could end up on-top (keep in mind that Gary Johnson, former governor of a neighboring state, could also pull in 8-10% here making 30% a viable option to win).  At this point, it's the only race on the map I could see going any of three directions.

Vermont Governor

Perhaps the oddest race on this list (save Utah), Vermont, home of Bernie Sanders and likely one of Clinton's largest electoral victories (I could see this easily skating to a 40-point victory over Trump), is also host to one of the most competitive races in the country.  Lt. Gov. Phil Scott (R) has done a better job than any Republican in the country at keeping his distance from Trump (it doesn't hurt that he ran away from him months before your average Republican did), and he's enjoyed a close race with State Transportation Secretary Sue Minter.  Republicans here still can win on a statewide level (Republican Jim Douglas was governor for multiple years before Peter Shumlin, who's retiring, and they occasionally nab a constitutional office), and I honestly could see this going either way as straight-ticket voting in the state isn't as popular as it is other places (hence how Bernie Sanders ended up winning as an independent).  I suspect that Sanders will try pretty hard to keep this race to the left (it'd reflect badly if he couldn't hold this seat with his newfound celebrity), but I honestly could see this going either way on Election Day.

Those are the toughest to call for me-how about yourself?  Share in the comments your guesses for what the closest elections of the cycle might be.

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