Sabato's Crystal Ball

With 19 Days to Go, Clinton’s Lead Is Bigger Than Ever

Arizona leans HRC; McMullin rises in the west; dark red states take on lighter hue

Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik, and Geoffrey Skelley, Sabato's Crystal Ball October 20th, 2016


The mist is lifting from the map of the United States and the moment of clarity for the 2016 general election campaign has arrived. Yes, there is still uncertainty about some states in the Electoral College. But nearly all of it comes in states that Mitt Romney won in 2012 or a couple of Barack Obama states that Hillary Clinton doesn’t need to win.

With less than three weeks to go, and all of the debates blessedly in the rearview mirror, Clinton is in a commanding position in the contest to become the 45th president.

Clinton has taken a significant lead in national polling and is now up by about six to eight points in two-way and four-way presidential matchups in both the HuffPost Pollster and RealClearPolitics averages. Her leads in the key states that would get her to 270 votes are in some instances smaller than that, but she has a healthy advantage in more than enough states to get her to an Electoral College majority, and smaller leads in states that she doesn’t need but Trump does, including big, typically Republican-leaning prizes like Florida and North Carolina. A few Obama states seem more tenuous for Clinton, including Iowa and Ohio (the latter of which we still lean to her), but if Clinton is up by a fair amount nationally these states get harder for Trump. Clinton’s embarrassment of Electoral College riches may well produce poverty for America’s presidential billionaire.

We doubt the third debate will change all that much. The first part unfolded along predictable partisan lines on the Supreme Court, abortion, and other topics, leading to exchanges that reinforced differences between the parties. Based on the breaking news alerts that came out from several news outlets as soon as he said it, we suspect that the biggest story to come out of the debate will be Trump’s irresponsible refusal to say whether he would accept the results of the election if he does not win. If that’s what happens, the coverage will be negative and will be just another distraction Trump can hardly afford with less than three weeks to go until Election Day.

Our conclusion is simple. As we reassess our Electoral College ratings, we don’t think any new states are moving toward Trump at this point, and there are some surprising conservative places where he is registering very thin, soft support.

A striking development in recent days has been the smattering of polling showing Trump with weak leads in some reliably Republican states. He’s barely ahead in some polls of Alaska, Indiana, Missouri, South Carolina, and Texas — states that shouldn’t be close in any competitive election. We still guess Trump will win all of them, but by significantly reduced margins from Mitt Romney’s 2012 performance. All of these states move from Safe Republican to Likely Republican. The Clinton campaign is set to spend money on Indiana and Missouri, probably as more of an effort to help Democrats Evan Bayh and Jason Kander, respectively, in their Toss-up Senate races.

But perhaps most fascinating of all is Utah, where independent conservative Evan McMullin is dedicating much time and energy. After the release of the Trump/Billy Bush video and the mass rejection of Trump by Republican leaders in the Beehive State, we moved Utah all the way from Safe Republican to Leans Republican. Since then, polls have shown a close three-way race among McMullin, Trump, and Clinton. In a state where neither major-party candidate is spending much time or money, McMullin’s cultivation of Utah (he’s a Mormon who went to Brigham Young University) could bear fruit, and he may have the most room to grow in a state where Clinton and Trump are very unpopular.

Therefore, we have moved Utah to Toss-up. Seriously, did you ever even for a second think Utah would be a Toss-up in late October? If McMullin won Utah and secured its six electoral votes, he would be the first non-Democrat or non-Republican to win any state since the segregationist George Wallace won a handful of states and received 46 electoral votes in 1968.

Utah is about 60% Mormon, and Trump is not the favorite of Mormons in any state, as far as we can tell. McMullin is only on the ballot in 11 states, but among those is heavily Republican Idaho, which has the nation’s second-highest percentage of Mormons (the state is about a quarter Mormon). The only recent poll there did not include McMullin, but it showed Trump at only a weak 40% of the vote, up 10 points on Clinton. McMullin is moving into Idaho as well, holding two well-attended rallies in the state over the weekend. We’re pushing Idaho from Safe Republican to Likely Republican just as a way to flag that the McMullin conservative insurgency has spread there as well. Trump is a much clearer favorite there than he is in Utah, however.

While some typically Republican states are getting closer, the big red-state prize for Clinton is Arizona. Polls there have been close for the entire general election cycle yet Trump has generally held onto a small, persistent lead. Now, though, a few new surveys show Clinton with a small lead, and Trump may be stuck because he doesn’t have the resources to match the firepower Clinton is directing to the state. Later on Thursday, First Lady Michelle Obama is holding an Arizona event. This is deployment of arguably the campaign’s top surrogate, and Team Clinton is targeting the state in other ways.

The Trump campaign’s Arizona crisis reminds us in some ways of how John McCain’s 2008 campaign ended up losing Indiana. Because McCain was at a resource disadvantage against Obama — just like Trump is now outmanned against Clinton — the 2008 nominee could hardly spare any resources to protect Indiana, a typically red state where Obama vastly out-organized and out-spent him. Obama was able to very narrowly flip the state. Four years later, Obama didn’t bother competing for the state, and it reverted to its Republican roots (Mitt Romney won it by about 10 points). Could Arizona work out the same way?

This is something of a leap of faith, but we’re moving Arizona all the way from Leans Republican to Leans Democratic. If we were basing this just on polls, Toss-up would be the designation, but we’re trying to project a little bit here. We just don’t see Trump making a dramatic recovery nationally, and he may not be able to fight off the Clinton ambush in a Latino-rich state where he should be solidly ahead. Of all the states that voted for both McCain and Romney, Arizona appears to be the most vulnerable for Trump.

We’re also moving Iowa and Maine’s Second Congressional District from Leans Republican to Toss-up. Polls aren’t necessarily driving the movement here — Trump still leads in survey averages in both places, although there is scant recent polling. But we believe that if Clinton is truly up half a dozen or more points nationally, then probably Trump no longer has an advantage in Iowa and ME-2, even though both places are demographically favorable to him (they are filled with the white, blue collar voters with whom Trump has the potential to over-perform). Ohio, too, has a lot of these voters, and public polling there has persistently shown Trump doing well (he leads by less than a point in Ohio in the RealClearPolitics average, while Clinton is up by less than two in HuffPost Pollster). As we’ve previously noted, Trump will do better in Ohio — and likely Iowa and ME-2 as well, for similar reasons — than he does nationally, but our sense is that Clinton remains a small favorite in Ohio, and most of our sources agree. Aside from Arizona, Ohio is the most tenuous Leans Democratic state on our map. If Trump recovers to some degree, these may be the first dominoes that fall to him, along with Iowa and ME-2.

Finally, Clinton’s seeming recovery in ME-2 means that Maine’s two statewide electoral votes go from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic. At the very least, we believe that Clinton’s margin in Maine’s Safe Democratic First Congressional District will be bigger than whatever the margin is in ME-2, which means she’s in a good position to carry the state overall even if Trump grabs the northern district and its electoral vote.

Today’s changes push Clinton to 352 electoral votes, the highest we’ve had her in the whole election cycle (her previous high water-mark was 348 electoral votes).

Table 1: Crystal Ball Electoral College ratings changes

Map 1: Crystal Ball Electoral College ratings

Could Johnson Voters Save the Republican Senate Majority?

Also, don’t forget about Florida

Geoffrey Skelley, Associate Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball October 20th, 2016


The watchword for congressional races in a presidential year is coattails, specifically in this election negative coattails from Donald Trump. In the Senate, a number of GOP incumbents are hoping they can run just far enough ahead of their presidential standard bearer to survive. But this is a perilous place to be. As we discussed back in 2015, only eight of 17 Republican incumbents have won reelection going back to 2000 in states where the Democratic presidential nominee carried the state. The median number of percentage points those Republicans ran ahead of the presidential ticket was 5.7 points in the two-party vote. And the smallest margin for a GOP incumbent running ahead and winning reelection was Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) in 2012 when he ran 4.0 points ahead of Mitt Romney in the two-party vote.

Obviously, the fact that a third-party candidate — Libertarian Gary Johnson — will be winning a decent share of the vote (probably at least 5% nationally) affects the two-party vote comparison a bit. Still, the data are helpful for understanding the state of play in this cycle versus recent elections. Tables 1 and 2 lay out the current HuffPost Pollster (Table 1) and RealClearPolitics (Table 2) Senate and presidential averages (in the two-party vote) in states that the Crystal Ball currently projects as at least a Toss-up or better for Clinton.

Table 1: Two-party Senate and presidential HuffPost Pollster polling averages in states with Republican Senate incumbents seeking reelection where Clinton is currently favored to win or in a Toss-up race

Table 2: Two-party Senate and presidential RealClearPolitics polling averages in states with Republican Senate incumbents seeking reelection where Clinton is currently favored to win or in a Toss-up race

Sources: HuffPost Pollster (HPP), RealClearPolitics (RCP)

As things stand, every GOP incumbent in these tables is running at least slightly ahead of Trump in the two-party vote. But note that seven are running behind the aforementioned 5.7-point median in the HuffPost Pollster aggregate and six in the RealClearPolitics average. The exceptions are Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Rob Portman (R-OH), both of whom look secure even if their states go blue in the presidential race. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) is in safe territory, but the other six who make the list in both tables are in some degree of danger. And at least two are below the “Heller Line” — if you will — of running 4.0 points ahead in the two-party vote in both averages, with two others also beneath it in the HuffPost Pollster trend.

This group doesn’t include Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), who is locked in a tight race with Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander (D), nor does it account for the Toss-up open-seat battle in Indiana between ex-Sen. Evan Bayh (D) and Rep. Todd Young (R). Democrats could achieve just a 50-50 tie in the Senate by capturing two of the three competitive Senate seats below the Heller mark in one or both averages (New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania), win the Likely Democratic races in Illinois and Wisconsin, and carry one of the two contests in Indiana and Missouri to win four net seats to reach a 50-50 tie. Granted, they have to hold onto Nevada in this scenario, another Toss-up contest and the only Democratic-held seat in danger in 2016.

The point is, there are still a fair number of paths to Senate control for the Democrats. As Josh Kraushaar of National Journal reported earlier this week, GOP internal polling shows Republican Senate nominees barely ahead in Florida, Indiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, and trailing narrowly in Nevada. It wouldn’t shock anyone if those seven contests split about evenly. So if Democrats won four of the seven, the additional gains in Illinois and Wisconsin would give Democrats a five-seat net gain and a 51-49 majority in the upper chamber. Considering the Democratic-friendly trajectory of the political environment, it could well be more — and even three of those seven might be sufficient to get them to a 50-50 tie, where a Vice President Tim Kaine could break ties in favor of the Democrats.

Who could salvage this situation for Republicans? Gary Johnson voters to the rescue. Based on concurrent presidential and Senate polls taken in the past month, an average of about 4% of the overall electorates in the seven Toss-up and Leaning Senate races are independents who plan to vote for Johnson. (By comparison, nearly 1% are independent Jill Stein voters.) And just shy of 2% of these states’ electorates are Republicans who say they will vote for the Libertarian nominee. The national polls tell a similar story: A larger share of self-identified Republicans in national polls say they’ll back Johnson than self-identified Democrats (Stein voters are more Democratic-leaning, but much smaller in overall number). According to HuffPost Pollster, about 5% of Republicans say they are backing Johnson while 3% of Democrats say they do. Self-identified independents are the most likely voters to say they support Johnson (around 10% of them nationally).

What these Johnson independents and Republicans decide to do in these Senate races will be pivotal. At the moment, independents are giving a boost to Republicans more so than to Democrats in these seven contests: On average, the GOP Senate candidates are running four points ahead of Trump among independent voters (in overall vote share, not two-party), who again are the most likely group to back Johnson. Notably, Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Pat Toomey (R-PA) are all running at least eight points ahead of Trump among independent voters. The only Republicans actually running behind Trump among independents are Blunt and Young, which makes sense: For Democrats to have a chance in these typically red states, they need to have complete backing from their base and win over independents as well. Note that the Republicans in these seven contests are also running an average of 1.5 points ahead of Trump among GOP voters; the difference may well be Republican Johnson voters.

These voters may not like the Republican presidential nominee, but if they show up and vote Republican down the ticket, they may be able to save the GOP’s Senate majority.

Ratings change: Don’t forget about Florida

The only ratings change this week in the Senate is the Sunshine State battle, where Rubio is facing Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-FL). There are mixed signals in this race: Most recent surveys give Rubio a lead of five or fewer points and the presidential race continues to show positive signs for Clinton. But the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has canceled its remaining TV ads in the Senate race. Coattails could still save Murphy, and a new Quinnipiac poll showing Rubio only up two points necessitates caution. Thus, we’re moving the race back to Leans Republican from Likely Republican.

As we have previously pointed out, Rubio could win reelection in part because of his support among Cuban Americans in South Florida. The Quinnipiac poll found Rubio out-performing Trump among nonwhite voters — Clinton led Trump 73%-19% among these voters but Murphy only held a 63%-33% advantage. In 2014, Cuban Americans made up 31% of the voter-eligible Latino population in Florida, making them a significant force in a close election where many may vote for Clinton or someone else not named Trump, but still back Rubio.

Nonetheless, if we see a surprise in the Senate on election night, it could come in Florida — even though Rubio is still the favorite.

Table 3: Crystal Ball Senate ratings change

Map 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings

House 2016: Democrats Gain in Ratings

But the Republicans remain favorites

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball October 20th, 2016


While there has not yet been a major breakthrough for Democrats in the House, their fortunes do appear to be improving, at least marginally. We’re making 11 ratings changes: nine favor Democrats, while two favor Republicans.

Let’s start with the changes that boost the GOP. While Hillary Clinton is going to dominate Donald Trump in their shared state of residence, New York, Trump may marginally improve on Mitt Romney’s margins outside of New York City’s five boroughs. That could help Reps. John Katko (R, NY-24), who occupies an upstate seat that Barack Obama won by 16 points, and Lee Zeldin (R, NY-1), who holds a swing seat on the eastern end of Long Island. Katko beat an incumbent by a remarkable 20 points in 2014, and Democrats have had a hard time truly putting the seat in play. Zeldin also won by a surprisingly large eight-point margin over an incumbent two years ago in one of the more politically balanced seats in the nation. Recent Siena polls showed the incumbents with big leads — too big, perhaps, but there seems to be some agreement that the Republicans are ahead. A wave could still wash away these incumbents but they move from Toss-up to Leans Republican.

We continue to monitor suburban swing districts that have high numbers of college graduates. Given Trump’s potential to perform at historically poor levels with white college graduates, Clinton should over-perform in these districts, forcing incumbents to generate higher levels of ticket-splitting to survive. There’s perhaps no better district in the country for Democrats to use Trump to their advantage than VA-10, a Northern Virginia seat that has the highest median income in the nation and is one of only a handful where more than half of the residents over 25 have at least a bachelor’s degree. There are few harder workers in politics than Rep. Barbara Comstock (R), a first-term member who is a prodigious fundraiser. But she finds herself in a tough race with businesswoman LuAnn Bennett (D). If it weren’t for Trump, Comstock would be a clear favorite. But with less than three weeks to go we see the race moving from Leans Republican to Toss-up.

Republicans have long struggled in California House races, and the potential exists for Democrats to add to their already impressive 39-14 seat majority in the nation’s largest House delegation. Democrats are making late charges against Reps. Jeff Denham (R, CA-10), Darrell Issa (R, CA-49), and Steve Knight (R, CA-25), who all occupy swing districts. The surprising competitiveness of Issa’s race may involve something of an Eric Cantor effect. The former House majority leader shockingly lost a 2014 primary in part because he had high name ID — just not the right kind of name ID for an ornery electorate. One wonders if the high-profile Issa, an Obama administration antagonist who only won the June all-party primary by about five points, is having a similar problem. If so, Issa’s big money advantage — he’s the wealthiest member of Congress — might not help him.

Ultimately, Trump is just a bad fit for diverse California, and Republicans may not have much reason to vote: In addition to an unappealing nominee at the top of the ticket, the Senate race features two Democrats. So, all three of these seats move from Leans Republican to Toss-up.

Additionally, first-term Rep. Pete Aguilar (D, CA-31) appears to be in decent shape, and his race goes from Likely Democratic to Safe Democratic. Republicans do have opportunities in two Democratic-held seats in the open CA-24 and against Rep. Ami Bera (D, CA-7), but we still see Democrats as small favorites in both.

As Clinton’s fortunes improve in ME-2, so too do the fortunes of ex-state Sen. Emily Cain (D). Her rematch with Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R, ME-2) appears to be getting closer — she may actually be leading, in fact — and this race moves from Leans Republican to Toss-up. Even when some polls of ME-2 showed Trump up double digits in ME-2, Cain was typically losing to Poliquin by a smaller margin. It’s not impossible that Cain could outrun Clinton in the district, although Poliquin will also benefit from his incumbency.

Finally, a few other Republican-held seats could be sleeper pickup opportunities for Democrats. Most promising among this trio is the open PA-16, a Republican-leaning district that contains fast-growing Lancaster County as well as parts of Reading, an old industrial town that is now more than half Hispanic. Trump’s weakness in Greater Philadelphia may extend all the way to this district, perhaps providing an opening to Democrats. It moves from Likely Republican to Leans Republican. And coming on the board as Likely Republican are Reps. Mike Bishop (R, MI-8) and Jackie Walorski (R, IN-2). They both should be OK but Democrats are taking an interest in both districts.

Our new ratings show 204 Safe Republican seats, 11 Likely Republican seats, and 10 Leans Republican seats. There are 182 Safe Democratic, one Likely Democratic, and 10 Leans Democratic seats, with 17 Toss-ups. In other words, 225 are at least leaning to the Republicans, 193 at least leaning Democratic, and 17 Toss-ups. Split the Toss-ups nine to eight for the Democrats and that produces a House that’s 233-202 Republican, or a Democratic gain of 14, about half of the 30 seats they need to win control.

Crucially, for Republicans, they could lose all the Toss-ups and still control the House 225-210, although that would leave them with a slim, unreliable majority where, in all likelihood, the conservative House Freedom Caucus could effectively hold veto power over Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R, WI-1) legislative agenda. (Some would contend the caucus already does.) In order to win the House, Democrats need all of the Toss-ups and eight of the 10 Leans Republican seats. Democrats are making progress as the campaign moves to a conclusion, but they still have a lot of work to do, and the Republicans remain clear favorites to hold the majority.

Table 1: Crystal Ball House race ratings changes

Table 2: Crystal Ball House race ratings