Don’t be surprised between now and the midterm elections to see most independent political prognosticators being unusually cautious in their pronouncements (those in the partisan cheerleading roles will exhibit their predictable responses). After all, the trajectory of this campaign has already departed that of any midterm election in modern times. A key component in election analysis is studying past elections, in this case midterm elections under somewhat similar circumstances. But this year is akin to driving cross country with no map or GPS.

With the country at large and many states so evenly divided and with hyper-partisanship so pervasive, the political environment has created high floors and low ceilings for candidates in key races, keeping trailing candidates within striking distance of those in the lead. It takes an unusual circumstance for one candidate to win comfortably in many of these contests, much harder than it was just a decade or two ago.

Take Florida: The once very purple Sunshine State has inched over toward the GOP in recent years. Republicans have swept statewide offices with regularity for a number of years, but usually by slim margins. Witness Gov. Ron DeSantis, who won the open governorship four years ago by less than half a percentage point, 49.6 percent to 49.2 percent. On the same night another Republican, Rick Scott, won an open Senate seat by just two-tenths of a percentage point, 50.1 percent to 49.9 percent. Democrats routinely get close statewide, but as they say, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

In this year’s Florida Senate race, which has not been considered one of the top eight or nine Senate contests of the year, second-term incumbent Marco Rubio is shown in the RealClearPolitics average of public polls to be just 2.3 points ahead, 47.3 percent to 45 percent. Two August surveys had shown him with a lead of 2 and 3 points over Democratic Rep. Val Demings. Another had Demings, a former Orlando police chief, ahead by 4 points. In the gubernatorial race, the same polls showed DeSantis with leads over former Rep. (and former governor) Charlie Crist as narrow as 3 points to as wide as 8 points, averaging out to a 4-point DeSantis lead.

Last week the senior advocacy group AARP released the latest in its series of high-quality surveys of likely voters conducted jointly by the Republican firm of Fabrizio Ward and Democratic firm Impact Research. These are great data from key states, complete with supplemental interviews among those 50 and over, particularly Black and Hispanic voters. A walk through the reports is almost like looking over the shoulder at what a campaign manager is reading.

The AARP Florida poll showed Rubio ahead of Demings in the Senate race by 2 points, 49 to 47 percent, and DeSantis leading Crist by 3 points, 50 to 47 percent. In the generic congressional ballot, Republicans lead Democrats by 2 points, 48 to 46 percent.

Basically, the identity of the candidates didn’t matter: One group was voting only for Republicans, the other for Democrats; there were very few who did anything else. Note the remarkably tight cluster of Republican vote shares of 49, 50, and 48 percent in the Senate, governor, and House races, respectively, and the equally tight 47, 47, and 46 percent for Democrats. Rubio carried Republicans by 82 points, DeSantis by 84 points. Republicans stayed in line on the generic by 86 points, 91 to 5 percent.

Demings prevailed among Democrats by 86 points, while Crist led among fellow Democrats by 85 points. Democrats also stayed home on the generic by 85 points.

Independents sided with Rubio over Demings in the Senate race by 3 points, 48 to 45 percent. Similarly, they went for DeSantis in the gubernatorial race by 4 points, 49 to 45 percent. On the generic, however, they backed Democrats by 3 points, 45 to 42 percent.

DeSantis had a net favorability of 4 points overall, 51 percent favorable to 47 percent unfavorable. Rubio had a net unfavorable of minus 8 points, 44 percent favorable to 52 percent unfavorable. For Democrats, Crist sported a net unfavorable of 5 points, 43 percent favorable to 48 percent unfavorable. Demings had a net favorable of 14 points, 42 percent to 28 percent. Rubio seems to be carrying a bit of a drag among Republicans: 15 percent of those in his own party had an unfavorable view of him, while only 7 percent of DeSantis’s fellow Republicans had a negative opinion of him. Twelve percent of Democrats were unfavorably disposed toward Crist while just 7 percent of Democrats had an unfavorable view of Demings. The good news for Demings is that she is not well known and has a lot of room for growth; the bad news is that she is not well known and a well-funded opponent may well be able to define her in a pejorative way.

Applying this nationally, when looking at competitive states with key Senate and governors’ races, the high floors and low ceilings should keep them in play. The vagaries of voter turnout and the fickle nature of true independents is such that any race with a margin in the single-digits and/or a leader below 50 percent is one to take seriously. Remember also that undecideds rarely break evenly; they tend to move in one direction. These are important things to keep in mind as you do your own handicapping this year.

The article was originally published for the National Journal on September 12, 2022.

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