Friday, October 26, 2018

Uncertainty Remains High Even as Election Day Awaits

Close observers of American politics seem to live in a world of constant suspense and frequent unforeseen plot twists, but the state of public opinion out in the country at large is in fact remarkably stable these days. President Trump's approval rating has varied within a fairly narrow band ever since he took office nearly two years ago, and the "generic ballot" measuring congressional party support in the 2018 election has likewise drifted only marginally during that time. As usual, some commentators have attempted to manufacture drama by treating events such as the Kanavaugh confirmation hearings as electoral "game changers," but the national political climate simply hasn't shifted very much over the course of the 2018 campaign.

Stability isn't the same thing as certainty, however, and the lack of large-scale change in the prevailing partisan trends over the past few weeks and months doesn't mean that the picture is much clearer as we look ahead to Election Day. In some years, what may initially seem like a sprawling national battleground resolves itself into a relative handful of doubtful races as the election approaches. That hasn't happened in 2018. In fact, at least in the House, active partisan warfare seems to be expanding into new territory in the final weeks of the campaign—due in part to the unusually flush coffers of candidates, parties, and independent groups.

The sheer number of highly competitive seats this year is remarkable. Any list of recent House polls—such as the series conducted by the New York Times and Siena College in their "live polling" project—will reveal many districts in which the candidates are separated by a few percentage points at most. In this week's House ratings, 31 seats are classified as "tossups" by at least one of the three most prominent election handicappers (the Cook Political Report, Inside Elections, and Sabato's Crystal Ball), with another 50 seats deemed only "leaning" to one party or the other. As of Thursday night, the "classic" forecasting model projects that 107 House seats will be decided by 10 points or less in the two-party vote—virtually triple the number of seats (36) that produced a margin that narrow in 2016.

Even if that estimate overshoots the final results by a bit, it's likely that the number of close races this year will at least double that of two years ago—and will surely be higher than it was in any congressional election since 2010. Analysts once debated whether the 2018 House election would be fought on the geographic turf that Trump took from Barack Obama, or the turf that Hillary Clinton took from Mitt Romney; today, it seems that the answer is "both." Democrats remain favored to gain a majority, though not prohibitively so, and the range of plausible post-election seat margins is still quite wide.

Of the nine most electorally vulnerable Senate seats entering this year—six (FL, IN, MO, MT, ND, WV) held by Democrats and three (AZ, NV, TN) held by Republicans—in only one, North Dakota, has one party (in this case, the Republicans) established a strong advantage over the course of the past few months. While the probability of a Democratic takeover remains fairly small, the large number of tossup races makes it difficult to forecast the likely outcome, and anything from continued virtual parity between the parties to a 55-45 Republican advantage in 2019–2020 has to be counted as fully consistent with the available evidence at this stage.

State governorships have also contributed some of the most fascinating and hotly-contested races of the year, from Florida to Ohio and from Georgia to Wisconsin. For every state like Michigan or Minnesota where the governor's race appears to be less competitive than originally anticipated, there is another state—Iowa, Kansas, Oregon, even South Dakota—that is unexpectedly tight heading into the final stretch. And with another round of congressional reapportionment awaiting after the 2020 census, these state-level elections will have significant consequences for the balance between the national parties as well.

Some political junkies may be tempted to spend the final days before November 6 hunting through late polling trends and early voting figures for hints of the likely outcome—and perhaps a few such hints will surface over the next week or so, though accurately separating signal from noise at this stage is a very difficult endeavor. Most of the big stories of the 2018 election, however, seem set: the president is especially polarizing, the public is unusually energized, a historic number of women are running for office, and two closely-matched parties are fighting hard for power up and down the ballot. It's enough to inspire feelings of envy in those of us who reside in places where the electoral contests this year are sleepy, one-sided affairs. Here in Massachusetts, at least, we have a World Series to supply some extra October excitement.