Braking Down The Noise

Republicans Are Just A Normal Polling Error Away From A Landslide — Or Wiping Out

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With just five days until Election Day, Republicans are in good shape in the FiveThirtyEight forecast. If each party were to win every race they are currently favored to win, Republicans would have 51 Senate seats and Democrats would have 49, according to our Deluxe forecast as of Wednesday at 3 p.m. Eastern.1 And if the same thing happened in the House, Republicans would win 225 seats and Democrats would win 210.

But those gains would be modest by the standards of midterm elections. In other words, according to the FiveThirtyEight forecast, this likely won’t be a “red-wave” election like 2010 (when Republicans picked up 63 House seats) or 2014 (when Republicans picked up nine Senate seats). Instead, it’s looking like more of a “red ripple.” But that doesn’t mean a red wave is impossible. 

Our forecast emphasizes probabilities, not binary outcomes: Democrats and Republicans are only slightly favored to win many of those seats, and a seat with a 60-in-100 chance of going blue votes Republican 40 out of 100 times. As readers of FiveThirtyEight are undoubtedly aware, it’s not unusual for polls to be a few percentage points off the final mark (this is normal and just a reality of our uncertain world). Since 1998, polls of U.S. Senate elections conducted within three weeks of Election Day have had a weighted-average error of 5.4 percentage points, and polls of U.S. House elections have had a weighted-average error of 6.3 points.2

In the 2016 and 2020 elections, polls famously underestimated Republicans. If pollsters didn’t address the factors that caused this (which are still up for debate), that could happen again. On the other hand, our research has found that you can’t predict the direction of polling error in advance. Historically, polls have been equally likely to underestimate Republicans or Democrats. So it’s also possible that pollsters have fixed the problems that plagued them in 2016 and 2020 — maybe even overcorrected for them — and that the current polls are too good for the GOP. In other words, a wide range of scenarios is possible in this election: everything from a Republican landslide to a world where Democrats hold the House and gain seats in the Senate.

To illustrate this, let’s look at what would happen if there was a normal polling error in favor of either Republicans or Democrats. Of course, in real life, the polling error will be different in every race. But, hypothetically, let’s say that Republicans do 5.4 points better than their current FiveThirtyEight-projected vote margins in every Senate race and 6.3 points better in every House race. This roughly happened in 2020, when polls underestimated the GOP by a record amount. In this scenario, Republicans would win 54 Senate seats. Pennsylvania, Arizona and New Hampshire would fall to the GOP.

Pennsylvania, Arizona and New Hampshire aren’t safe for Dems

Senate seats where Democrats are favored in the FiveThirtyEight Deluxe forecast (as of Nov. 2 at 3 p.m. Eastern) but that they could lose in a hypothetical world where Republicans do 5.4 percentage points better in Senate races than FiveThirtyEight’s forecasted vote margin

StatePartyCandidateDemGOP
New HampshireDMaggie Hassan72%28%
ArizonaDMark Kelly6634
PennsylvaniaROPEN5644

Meanwhile, in the House, Republicans would win 259 seats in this hypothetical scenario — a 46-seat gain.3 Democrats would lose several districts that voted for President Biden by double digits, including New York’s 4th and California’s 9th, as well as several big-name incumbents, such as Reps. Marcy Kaptur, Katie Porter and Henry Cuellar. Even though no one is really talking about the possibility that Democrats will lose these seats, this list below shouldn’t be startling: Most of these districts have a less than 75-in-100 chance of going blue.

Lots of Democratic House seats are vulnerable

House seats where Democrats are favored in the FiveThirtyEight Deluxe forecast (as of Nov. 2 at 3 p.m. Eastern) but that they could lose in a hypothetical world where Republicans do 6.3 percentage points better in House races than FiveThirtyEight’s forecasted vote margin

DistrictPartyCandidateDemGOP
CA-49DMike Levin85%15%
NJ-03DAndy Kim8317
NV-04DSteven Horsford8119
KS-03DSharice Davids7921
CA-47DKatie Porter7723
MI-08DDan Kildee7723
WA-08DKim Schrier7723
OH-09DMarcy Kaptur7525
NY-04DOPEN7525
IL-14DLauren Underwood7525
CA-09DJosh Harder7426
MN-02DAngie Craig7426
TX-28DHenry Cuellar7327
MI-07DElissa Slotkin7327
OR-06*OPEN7030
VA-07DAbigail Spanberger6931
NY-03DOPEN6931
NY-18DPat Ryan6931
MD-06DDavid Trone6832
CA-13*OPEN6733
IL-06DSean Casten6733
CT-05DJahana Hayes6733
NY-17DSean Patrick Maloney6733
NH-01DChris Pappas6436
IL-17DOPEN6337
ME-02DJared Golden6337
NV-03DSusie Lee6238
PA-08DMatt Cartwright6139
PA-17DOPEN5644
MI-03ROPEN5644
RI-02DOPEN5545
NY-19*OPEN5446
TX-15*OPEN5248
NV-01DDina Titus5149

*There is no incumbent party in CA-13, NY-19, OR-06 or TX-15 because these are new seats created by redistricting.

But again, we shouldn’t discount the possibility that polls will underestimate Democrats. So what would the election results look like if Democrats did 5.4 points better than the FiveThirtyEight forecast currently predicts in every Senate race and 6.3 points better in every House race? In this scenario, it would be Democrats who win 54 Senate seats — the ones in which they are currently favored plus Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin.

A polling error could help Democrats gain Senate seats

Senate seats where Republicans are favored in the FiveThirtyEight Deluxe forecast (as of Nov. 2 at 3 p.m. Eastern) but that they could lose in a hypothetical world where Democrats do 5.4 percentage points better in Senate races than FiveThirtyEight’s forecasted vote margin

StatePartyCandidateDemGOP
GeorgiaDRaphael Warnock46%54%
NevadaDCatherine Cortez Masto4258
WisconsinRRon Johnson2179
OhioROPEN2080
North CarolinaROPEN2080

And in the House, Democrats would win 227 seats, while Republicans would win 208. In other words, Democrats would gain seats in the lower chamber, something the president’s party has done only twice since World War II. Those gains would include light-red seats like New York’s 1st and Ohio’s 13th.4 Some endangered Democratic incumbents (like Reps. Tom Malinowski and Tom O’Halleran) would also keep their seats.

Democrats could score surprise victories in the House

House seats where Republicans are favored in the FiveThirtyEight Deluxe forecast (as of Nov. 2 at 3 p.m. Eastern) but that they could lose in a hypothetical world where Democrats do 6.3 percentage points better in House races than FiveThirtyEight’s forecasted vote margin

DistrictPartyCandidateDemGOP
TX-34D/RVicente Gonzalez/Mayra Flores50%50%
VA-02DElaine Luria4951
AK-ALDMary Peltola4951
PA-07DSusan Wild4654
CA-22RDavid Valadao4159
OR-05DOPEN4060
IA-03DCindy Axne3961
CA-27RMike Garcia3466
AZ-02DTom O’Halleran3268
NJ-07DTom Malinowski2674
NY-22ROPEN2377
NC-13*OPEN2179
NY-01ROPEN2179
NM-02RYvette Herrell2179
MI-10*OPEN2080
OH-01RSteve Chabot1783
OH-13*OPEN1585

*There is no incumbent party in MI-10, NC-13 and OH-13 because these are new seats created by redistricting. Two incumbents are running against each other in TX-34.

To emphasize again, these are all hypothetical scenarios. If there is a pro-Republican or pro-Democratic polling error, it will almost surely unfold differently. Hopefully, though, this thought exercise has recalibrated your expectations. Of course, the polls could also be extremely accurate — as they were in the 2018 midterm. But you should be mentally prepared for something resembling the above scenarios too.

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