Sabato's Crystal Ball

Off to the Races

Our pre-Labor Day midterm assessment, and a handful of Senate, House, and gubernatorial rating changes

Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley, U.Va. Center for Politics August 28th, 2014

Earlier this week we offered a pre-Labor Day assessment of the midterm state of play in the Senate, House, and gubernatorial races coming up in November. The conclusion of that piece, written in Politico Magazine, is as follows:

The overall picture is this: A Republican Senate gain of four-to-eight seats, with a GOP Senate pickup of six-to-seven seats the likeliest outcome; a GOP gain of somewhere around a half-dozen seats in the House; and little net party change in the gubernatorial lineup even as a few incumbents lose. So what could shift these projections in a significant way, beyond candidate implosions that move individual races on and off the board?

For Democrats, the road to a better result than what we’ve sketched out is Republicans’ ideological disunity and their refusal to march together tactically and strategically. (The destructive sideshow over potentially impeaching President Obama is a prime example.) Last October, Democrats saw, briefly, how the government shutdown boosted their numbers. When Congress returns next month, Democrats hope Republicans will act foolishly just before the election, perhaps during consideration of a short-term continuing resolution to fund the government that Speaker Boehner will have to get through the House.

For Republicans, a further curdling of President Obama’s approval ratings would be welcome. Foreign crises haven’t really moved the needle yet, but one wonders if the racial passions unleashed by the events in Ferguson, Missouri, combined with international strife, could have some cumulative effect. The president’s approval rating — though low — has remained fairly stable in 2014, ranging between about 41% and 44%. That could change as crises develop and partisan rhetoric escalates in the campaign’s concluding months.

For political junkies, the election season never ends. But Labor Day, the traditional starting point of the general election for most normal people, draws near. The state of many key races, including enough Senate seats to decide the majority, remains fluid, and it is the Senate that will define this midterm. Given electoral conditions and the red-leaning geography of the map, Republicans have few credible excuses if they don’t take Senate control in January. GOP hopes in the Senate have been dashed in the previous four elections; if there’s a fifth this November, Republicans will have only themselves to blame.

With that in mind, we are tweaking a handful of ratings this week in all three of our categories.


We’ve been noting for months the odd circumstances in the Kansas gubernatorial contest, where Gov. Sam Brownback (R) is in a Toss-up race with state House Minority Leader Paul Davis (D) despite the state’s inherent conservatism. But it’s also become clear that Sen. Pat Roberts (R) is also not exactly as safe as one might think.

Despite facing a weak primary opponent in physician Milton Wolf (R), Roberts didn’t even crack 50% in the primary held earlier this month. The primary campaign revealed Roberts to be rather weak himself, particularly because he basically doesn’t even live in Kansas, a modern-day political no-no. Some recent polls, have shown Roberts leading but under 40% against two main opponents: Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor (D) and businessman Greg Orman, an independent former Democrat who can heavily self-fund.

Let’s be clear: Kansas hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1932, and Roberts’ poor performance as a candidate isn’t by itself enough to change that, particularly because the split field might actually benefit the incumbent in a state with no runoff. But to be cautious, we’re moving this race from Safe Republican to Likely Republican.


A pair of Midwestern Republican governors, Terry Branstad of Iowa and John Kasich of Ohio, have long held strong positions in our ratings, in part because of weak, underfunded opponents. Branstad’s challenger, state Sen. Jack Hatch (D), got the nomination only because it seemed like no one else wanted it. The same could arguably be said for Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald (D) in Ohio, where Democrats have a surprisingly weak bench given the state’s longstanding status as a political battleground. It now appears that the outcome in both races isn’t much in doubt, so we’re switching both from Likely Republican to Safe Republican.

For Branstad, this isn’t in reaction to anything that has happened recently. We were just keeping the race on the board as a precaution given that there is some generic fatigue with the longest-serving governor since the signing of the Constitution. But that’s not nearly enough to keep Branstad from winning a sixth, non-consecutive term in office.

Meanwhile, in Ohio, we were always more bullish on Kasich than others: We never had the race as a Toss-up even though Kasich appeared damaged from a rough start to his governorship. But now it has become clear that FitzGerald, Kasich’s challenger, is an absolute dud. He has raised very little money and the only press he’s gotten lately has been bad: He strangely went for years without a driver’s license, an unhelpful problem that was discovered after another bizarre story emerged about him being in a car with a woman who was not his wife in a parking lot at 4:30 a.m. FitzGerald appears to just be playing out the string now as a candidate: Much of his campaign staff has deserted him and he is using some of his dwindling resources to assist in Democratic field operations to try to help downballot Democrats in other statewide races. One of them is state Rep. Connie Pillich (D), who is running against someone readers will remember: state Treasurer Josh Mandel (R), who failed in his bid to unseat Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) last cycle.

Neither Branstad nor Kasich is assured of winning in blowout fashion, but it’s just nearly impossible to imagine either losing at this point.

Meanwhile, the candidates in a governor’s race that has been a sleeper so far this cycle, Arizona, are now set: state Treasurer Doug Ducey (R) won the right on Tuesday to face former state Board of Regents Chairman Fred DuVal (D). We’re holding this race at just Leans Republican for now: Despite Arizona’s federal Republican leanings, we think DuVal has the makings to be a solid candidate, and he doesn’t have to put his party back together after a tough primary, unlike Ducey.


Speaking of Arizona, Republicans are targeting three House seats there. We’ve known for months that the rematch between Rep. Ron Barber (D, AZ-2) and retired Air Force Col. Martha McSally (R) is going to be one of the top races in the country, and it remains a Toss-up after McSally officially won the nomination Tuesday. Also remaining a Toss-up, with a caveat, is the race between Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D, AZ-1) and, probably, state House Speaker Andy Tobin (R), who is just barely leading in his primary in a race that the Associated Press has yet to call as of this writing (Wednesday afternoon). If Tobin, a favorite of national Republicans who nonetheless has disappointed on the fundraising front, ends up winning, this race stays a Toss-up. If he ends up losing to rancher Gary Kiehne (R), a more right-wing candidate, it goes to Leans Democratic. In any event, the fact that there’s no Libertarian on the ballot this year helps the GOP: A Libertarian got 6% last time, allowing Kirkpatrick to win with less than 50% (49% to 45% for the GOP nominee).

Meanwhile, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D, AZ-9) remains a favorite (Leans Democratic) in her race against Wendy Rogers (R), who like McSally is also an Air Force veteran. This race is closer to Likely Democratic status than Toss-up, but let’s see how it shakes out.

For Republicans to make double-digits gains in the House, they presumably will need to net a seat or two out of Arizona. This is the only state won by Mitt Romney where Democrats control the House delegation (five to four). The Barber-McSally race (AZ-2, formerly held by Gabby Giffords) remains their best chance to pick up a seat here.

One other race of note this week: We’re moving NY-18 from Likely Democratic to Leans Democratic. There’s not a specific development that’s prompting this change in the rematch between Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D) and former Rep. Nan Hayworth (R): Rather, we’re just getting the sense that it’s more competitive than we previously thought, which makes sense in a district where the 2012 presidential results (51%-47% Obama) were the same as the national results (AZ-9, the Sinema seat mentioned above, is another 51%-47% Obama seat). Maloney, perhaps best known these days for the aerial photography at his recent wedding, remains a favorite.

Table 1: Crystal Ball ratings changes

False Hope: Why Libertarians Won’t Help Republicans Win the Youth Vote

Alan I. Abramowitz, Senior Columnist, Sabato's Crystal Ball August 28th, 2014

The Republican Party has a major problem with young voters. According to national exit polls, the GOP has lost the under-30 vote by a wide margin in every election since 2004. In 2012, Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney by a whopping 23 percentage points among 18-29 year olds. Romney’s deficit among young voters was responsible for his entire margin of defeat in the national popular vote. Based on the exit poll results, Romney actually won more votes than Obama among voters who were 30 years of age and older.

Based on demographic trends and data from recent surveys, the GOP’s youth problem is not likely to improve any time soon. The age cohorts that will be entering the electorate over the next two decades include even larger proportions of nonwhites than today’s 18-29 year-old voters. And despite the claim by one scholar that a majority of 18-20 year olds voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, data from the Gallup tracking poll based on thousands of interviews with 18-20 year olds during 2013-14 showed no evidence of Republican gains in this age group.

The GOP’s youth problem has led to considerable speculation by pundits and Republican strategists about what the party should do to increase its appeal to younger voters in the future. One idea that has attracted some support both inside and outside of the party is that Republicans could win over younger voters by nominating candidates who espouse libertarian policies on issues ranging from same-sex marriage and national security to government regulation and health care.

The claim that candidates with libertarian views could help Republicans appeal to younger voters was recently advanced in a lengthy article by Robert Draper in the New York Times Magazine. Draper’s argument is based on the assumption that many younger Americans are attracted to the libertarian philosophy of maximum individual freedom and minimal government. But how realistic is this assumption?

An analysis of data from the 2012 American National Election Study raises serious doubts about the claim that a candidate with libertarian views would have strong appeal to younger voters. In fact, the data indicate that younger voters tend to hold relatively liberal views on social welfare as well as cultural issues. Only a small minority of voters under the age of 30 can be classified as libertarians. Moreover, both younger and older Americans who hold libertarian views already vote overwhelmingly for Republican candidates, so nominating a candidate with a libertarian philosophy would be unlikely to gain many votes for the GOP.


Table 1 compares the liberalism of younger and older voters in 2012 in two policy domains — one cultural and one economic. The cultural liberalism scale measures support for gay rights while the economic liberalism scale measures support for social welfare programs. The gay rights scale is based on two questions — one on same-sex marriage and one on adoptions by same-sex couples. The social welfare scale is based on five questions on issues ranging from the Affordable Care Act to government responsibility for jobs and living standards to government aid to African Americans.

Table 1: Opinions on gay rights and social welfare issues by age

Source: 2012 American National Election Study

The results displayed in Table 1 show that younger voters were considerably more liberal than older voters on both types of issues. The difference on gay rights was somewhat larger than the difference on social welfare issues, but there is no evidence here that younger Americans find the libertarian philosophy of minimal government especially attractive when it comes to the role of government in society. Moreover, these results are consistent with the responses of younger voters to questions asking about their general orientation toward the role and size of government. For example, when asked whether they favored a larger or a smaller government role in dealing with societal problems, voters under the age of 30 favored a larger role by a margin of 55% to 45%. In contrast, voters age 30 and older favored a smaller role by a margin of 59% to 41%.

Table 2: Political orientation by age

Source: 2012 American National Election Study

Based on their views on gay rights and social welfare issues, we can classify voters as consistent liberals (liberal on both scales), moderate liberals (moderate on social welfare, liberal on gay rights), consistent conservatives (conservative on both scales), moderate conservatives (moderate on social welfare, conservative on gay rights), libertarians (conservative on social welfare, liberal on gay rights) or populists (liberal on social welfare, conservative on gay rights). Table 2 compares the proportions of younger and older voters who fell into each of these categories in 2012.

There was a fairly strong positive correlation between liberalism on social welfare issues and liberalism on gay rights among both younger and older voters. The correlation between these two scales was around 0.3 in both groups. As a result, almost half of voters in both age groups were classified as either consistent liberals or consistent conservatives whereas only about one in five voters in both groups were classified as either libertarians or populists. Based on this classification, there were more libertarians (about 15% of voters) than populists (about 7% of voters) but libertarians were no more prevalent among younger voters than among older voters. However, compared with older voters, younger voters were considerably more likely to be classified as consistent or moderate liberals and considerably less likely to be classified as consistent or moderate conservatives.

Table 3: Vote for Romney in 2012 by age and political orientation

Source: 2012 American National Election Study

Our results thus far indicate that younger voters would not be especially attracted to a candidate holding libertarian views. Moreover, the results displayed in Table 3 show that the vast majority of young libertarians in 2012 were already voting for Republican candidates: 76% of younger libertarians, along with 82% of older libertarians, reported voting for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. In addition, young libertarians overwhelmingly identified with the Republican Party and favored Republican House and Senate candidates by wide margins. Among libertarians under the age of 30, those who identified with or leaned toward the Republican Party outnumbered those who identified with or leaned toward the Democratic Party by 74% to 17%. Of these young libertarians, 75% reported voting for a Republican House candidate in 2012 and 81% reported voting for a Republican Senate candidate.


Based on these results, nominating libertarian candidates would be unlikely to improve the Republican Party’s performance among younger voters because these voters are much more likely to be liberals than libertarians and because the vast majority of those who do hold libertarian views already identify with the Republican Party and vote for Republican candidates. In order to increase their party’s appeal to younger Americans, Republicans would need to nominate candidates who are considerably more liberal on both economic and cultural issues than the party’s recent presidential nominees or the vast majority of its current congressional candidates.

One of the most important reasons why the libertarian philosophy holds little appeal for most younger voters is that a disproportionate share of voters under the age of 30 are nonwhite. According to the 2012 ANES, nonwhites made up 40% of voters under the age of 30 compared with 25% of voters age 30 and older. Moreover, the nonwhite share of younger voters is almost certain to increase over the next several election cycles based on the racial composition of the age cohorts that will be entering the electorate in the future.

The libertarian philosophy of limited government holds very little appeal to nonwhite voters in general, and it holds even less appeal to younger nonwhite voters. Only 4% of nonwhite voters under the age of 30 were classified as libertarians compared with 23% of white voters under the age of 30. In contrast, 69% of younger nonwhite voters were classified as consistent or moderate liberals compared with 49% of younger white voters. These results suggest that the limited appeal of libertarian ideas to younger voters is likely to diminish further over time as the nonwhite share of this age group continues to grow.

Alan I. Abramowitz is the Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University and a senior columnist for the Crystal Ball. His most recent book is The Polarized Public: Why American Government Is So Dysfunctional. Follow Alan on Twitter @AlanIAbramowitz.

2014: More Than a Backlash From 2008

Sean Trende, Senior Columnist, Sabato's Crystal Ball August 14th, 2014

The 2014 Senate elections are not shaping up to be particularly favorable for the Democrats. While there are still scenarios where they could walk away breaking even, or even gaining a seat or two, those scenarios are pretty far-fetched. Current predictions vary somewhat, but seem to center around Republicans picking up somewhere between five and seven seats, with the overall range of possibilities a bit wider.

The nonpartisan explanations for this state of affairs have centered around three different factors: the president is unpopular, the president’s party always loses seats in midterm elections, and the Democrats overperformed in 2008, setting them up for a rough year in 2014 (you can see Bill Schneider making all three arguments here). In this article, I’ll briefly discuss all three explanations, and then add a fourth.

Very little needs to be said about the first factor: The relationship between presidential approval and electoral outcomes has been thoroughly explored, and I have little to add. Likewise, the tendency of the president’s party to fare poorly in midterm elections is so well-known as to require only an asterisk here: While the president’s party has lost House seats in all but two post-World War II midterm elections (1998 and 2002), it has gained or broken even in Senate seats in five (1962, 1970, 1982, 1998, and 2002). That’s somewhere between a third and a quarter of the postwar midterms, so our rule here is not really as “real” as it is for House elections.

Evaluating the third factor is a bit dicier. There are doubtless examples of elections where the president’s party is so overextended from earlier wins that losses became almost inevitable: The large Democratic gains in 1986 were certainly a function of the huge Republican gains in 1980. Likewise, in 1958 the Democrats were able to gain 13 seats — the most seats won by a party since universal direct election of Senators began in 1914 — because Republicans had gained two seats in 1952, 12 seats in 1946, and four seats in 1940.

But we also have countervailing examples — including two of fairly recent vintage. In 2012, Democrats managed to gain two seats, their gain of six seats in 2006 (on top of gaining four seats in 2000) notwithstanding. Republicans beat the odds when they captured six seats in 2010 (not counting Scott Brown’s special election win), despite the fact that Republicans hadn’t suffered a net loss of seats with that Senate class since 1986. Big pickups for the parties in 1934, 1938, 1946, 1948, 1958, and 1986 were followed by relatively quiet elections six years later.

If we look at all Senate elections since 1914, it turns out that there actually is an inverse relationship between the number of seats that a party gains (or loses) and how that party fared in the elections six years earlier. The effect is just shy of full statistical significance (p=.06), but more importantly, it is small (b=-.28). If we confine ourselves to elections in the post-War period, the effect remains small (b=-.186), but is not significant (p=.297). If you look at the two prior election cycles, you get a stronger effect (b=-.37, p=.002), but even then, we would only expect Democrats to lose two seats this cycle based upon previous outcomes.

That actually sounds about right for this cycle. Let’s look at this a different way. Table 1 shows the 14 Senate races that are generally considered to be competitive this cycle: Two Republican seats and 12 Democratic seats. I’ve also shown the Democratic vote share in these seats in 2008, 2002, and 1996 (all figures are of the two-party vote, i.e., with third parties excluded):

Table 1: Democratic share of two-party vote in previous Senate contests of states with competitive 2014 races

Source: Dave Leip

What stands out is that, with respect to these particular seats, the Democratic vote shares are actually relatively stable. Alaska, Arkansas, and Montana are the only seats where the Democratic vote share has really fluctuated wildly over the past three elections for this class of senators. In the quite good Republican year of 2002, Democrats won half of these seats, and came close in another three (all three of which fell in 2008). In other words, the seats that are competitive this year are typically competitive.

When you look at it this way, Alaska stands out as the only seat Democrats are defending that is clearly the result of a fluke outcome from 2008. You can make a case for Minnesota, but it is a Purple state with a Blue cast, and that seat is really only on the outskirts of competitiveness right now. Stronger cases can be made for the Democratic wins in North Carolina and Louisiana — both of which probably depended on unusual youth and African-American turnout and the late break toward Democrats — but Democrats had been competitive in races for both of these seats for several cycles. Without splitting hairs too much, I think we can say that the Democrats’ vulnerabilities this cycle are in part a function of their successes in the 2008 elections, but it is a small factor.

To get a better sense of what is going on here, we need to look at a fourth factor: call it “ideological drift.” Table 2 shows these 14 seats, but instead focuses on the partisan index of the state. This measurement subtracts the Democratic or Republican two-party vote share in a state from the Democratic or Republican vote share nationally, allowing us to control for national effects (this is similar to Cook PVI, except that it looks at one presidential year, rather than two).

Table 2: Democratic partisan index in competitive 2014 states, 1996-2012

Source: Dave Leip

We’re comparing the 2012 elections with the 1996 elections here — the Obama reelection with the Clinton reelection. Much attention has been paid to the leftward swing of certain states — Colorado, Nevada, and Virginia come to mind. This is reflected in the chart: We see moves leftward vis-à-vis 1996 in Alaska, North Carolina, and especially Colorado.

The countervailing rightward movements in other states, however, have received little attention. But they play a crucial role in understanding this election. Sixteen years ago, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, and West Virginia were substantially more Democratic than they are today.

Recall too that partisan indices only look at how vote shares for one candidate have moved, so these shifts probably convey an impression that the shifts were smaller than they actually are. The 19-point shift in West Virginia represents a movement from a Democrat winning, for example, 54% of the vote in West Virginia to winning 35% of the vote. So the net swing is the double the shift in partisan index — in this case an astonishing 38 points.

If we look at the three races where the Democrats are in the most trouble — West Virginia, South Dakota, and Montana — the playing field has worsened for them substantially since 1996. West Virginia has moved wildly, while South Dakota and Montana have moved from the outskirts of Purple state status to true Red state status.

Likewise, the two most threatened Democratic incumbents, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and Mark Pryor in Arkansas, also hail from states that have swung strongly toward Republicans in the past two decades. The swing is probably even more pronounced in midterm elections, since they will not be able to count on replicating the surge in African-American voting their states enjoyed in 2008 and 2012. Finally, if Kentucky still had the same partisan orientation that it had in 1996, Mitch McConnell would probably be in very, very deep trouble.

Again, there are countervailing trends that help Democrats. But when we look at the summary numbers at the bottom of Table 2, this batch of states has moved from being a group with a midpoint that is roughly at the center of the country as a whole to one with a distinct Republican tilt.

So if we are trying to understand what is happening in 2014, we should definitely start with the president’s approval rating, before moving on to the fact that the president’s party tends to lose seats in midterm elections. We should look at the fact that 2008 was a good Democratic year, but it is also very important to keep in mind that there are demographic shifts that work against Democrats, and that they play a very substantial role in the party’s precarious position this cycle.

Sean Trende is the senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics and a senior columnist for the Crystal Ball. He is the author of The Lost Majority: Why the Future of Government Is Up for Grabs and Who Will Take It, and co-author of the Almanac of American Politics 2014. Follow Sean on Twitter @SeanTrende.