One thing on which strategists in both parties agree is that next month’s elections will feature a very high turnout level, a continuation of the last two cycles: 2018 featured the largest midterm turnout in 104 years, 2020 the biggest presidential turnout in 120 years. In recent elections it’s become a cliché for partisans to talk about the importance of mobilizing their base, yet in neither of the past two elections have they had much to worry about. This midterm doesn’t figure to end the high-turnout trend.
A hallmark of midterm elections is that those in or leaning toward the party of a sitting president are lethargic, complacent, or at least a little disappointed, and less likely to vote in the general election. True to form, that is the situation Democrats had going into this past summer. Republicans were just more motivated. That gap closed during the second half of the summer and into September. Indeed, the Fox News poll released this week shows Democrats now just as motivated as Republicans.
The extreme partisan polarization in recent years has yielded fewer “true independents,” ones who do not identify with or even lean toward either party, and fewer people voting split tickets. Indeed, few Democrats will now even consider voting for a Republican for anything, nor Republicans cast a ballot for a Democrat. With the party lines so rigorously followed, we now have higher floors and lower ceilings, meaning that in most competitive states and districts, the margins are rarely more than low- to mid-single digits and the trailing candidate usually remains within striking distance of the leader, hoping that circumstances or a key event will enable them to close the gap and surge or just edge ahead.
But just because there are fewer true independents or undecided voters in key races doesn’t mean they are any less important. Indeed, with both parties’ bases so thoroughly motivated, any meaningful growth in support has to come from those non-aligned voters in the middle.
The two closest Senate races in the country are in Nevada and Ohio. The RealClearPolitics average of public polls points to Nevada as the closest and Ohio the second, while the FiveThirtyEight polling average puts Ohio as having the narrower average and Nevada in next place.
According to RCP, former Nevada attorney general Adam Laxalt leads Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto by 1.7 percentage points, while in Ohio, conservative author J.D. Vance holds just a 2-point lead over Rep. Tim Ryan, one of the few remaining moderate Democrats in the House.
What is so interesting about the Ohio contest is that GOP Gov. Mike DeWine sports an 18-point lead in his reelection race while Vance has his 2-point advantage, a sure sign that either Vance is a serious underperformer, Ryan a real overperformer, or more likely, both. While there are fewer ticket-splitters than there used to be, they do still exist, including in Ohio. Four years ago, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown won reelection by a 6.8-percentage-point margin, just over 300,000 votes, the same night DeWine won the gubernatorial race by 3.7 points, almost 166,000 votes. The GOP nominee for state treasurer won by a 3.7-point margin, just over 282,000 votes, almost the same margin that Brown enjoyed. So almost a half million Ohioans split their tickets.
RCP has North Carolina as the third-closest race, with GOP Rep. Ted Budd leading former Democratic state Supreme Court Justice Cheri Beasley by 2.5 points. Wisconsin is fourth with a 2.8-point advantage for GOP Sen. Ron Johnson over Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. In arguably the most closely watched Senate race but just the fifth-closest by RCP’s measuring stick, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock leads football standout Herschel Walker by 3.3 points.
Although it's the sixth-closest by the RCP count, my hunch is that the Pennsylvania contest between Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and TV show host Mehmet Oz is tightening up, with more riding on the Oct. 25 debate than any other this year. Political debates tend to be vastly overrated in their importance, but this is one that will really matter. With fewer early votes cast in the Keystone State than in other places, most voting decisions will be made after that debate.
Having so many races that are so close is the product of those higher floors and lower ceilings. Why so many people offer such confident predictions about the Senate continues to baffle me. The possibility of a 50-50 Senate in the 118th Congress is very real, quite possibly the single most likely outcome. The November election could yield 50 seats in the Republican column, 49 in the Democratic column, and another runoff in Georgia to determine control of the chamber. To the extent that Democrats have an edge in retaining the Senate, it just might be that the status quo works fine for them, with Vice President Kamala Harris in the presiding chair to break ties. Further, candidate quality matters so much more in the Senate than the House, the far more sensitive barometer of the national political climate.
In the House, it is my inclination to defer to David Wasserman, senior editor for The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter, a House race expert without peer. By David’s count, there are 162 seats in the Solid Democratic column, 14 more that are Likely Democrat, and 17 listed as Lean Democrat, for a total of 193 seats where they have an edge. Conversely, 188 seats are in the Solid Republican category, 12 more are Likely Republican, and 11 Lean Republican, totaling 211 seats where they seem to have the upper hand. It is the 31 seats in the Toss Up column where most of the action is.
To hold onto the barest majority possible, 218 seats, Democrats have to win 25 (81 percent) out of the 31 Toss Ups, while Republicans need to win just seven (23 percent) of the 31. If Democrats win every Toss Up race, they would end up with a net gain of one seat, a total of 223. If Republicans win every Toss Up, they would have a net gain of 29 seats. So constructing a bell curve would put the tails around one seat up for Democrats to 29 seats for Republicans, up to 242 seats. Although it is fairly rare for a party to win all of the Toss Ups, keep in mind that in 2020, when the Blue Wave turned into the Dead Sea in the final week, the GOP did just that.
Voters are deeply conflicted this year. Watch for that last gust of wind: Whichever way it goes can make a huge difference in so many of these really close races.
The article was originally published for the National Journal on October 17, 2022. It was edited on October 21 to fix a minor tabulation error.
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