Sabato's Crystal Ball

Our Final 2016 Picks

Clinton 322, Trump 216; 50-50 Senate; GOP holds House

Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik, and Geoffrey Skelley, UVA Center for Politics November 7th, 2016

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After a nearly two-year campaign — kicked off in December 2014 by Jeb Bush (remember him?) — we’ve come to it at last. Election Day is less than 24 hours away.

And we know why you’re here: You just want the picks.

So let’s cut to the chase. Table 1 shows our final selections for the Electoral College, Senate, House, and the governorships.

Table 1: Crystal Ball 2016 election projections

Let’s start with the presidency:

THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE

Map 1: Crystal Ball Electoral College projection

Despite some wobbles along the way, we’ve favored Hillary Clinton as the 45th president of the United States ever since we did our first handicapping of the Clinton vs. Donald Trump matchup back in late March. The edge we had for her back then has eroded a little bit at the end — we had her as high as 352 electoral votes, and in the final tally we have her down to 322, with 216 for Trump. If this is how it turns out, Trump will fare 10 electoral votes better than Mitt Romney, and Clinton will do 10 electoral votes worse than Barack Obama in 2012 — 11 or 12 if rogue Washington electors follow through on their threat to refuse to vote for Clinton (but we can’t assume that at this time).

The two closest states here are North Carolina and Ohio. For a long time, it appeared that Florida was a shakier state for Clinton than the Tar Heel State, but our sources indicate that the Sunshine State looks somewhat brighter for her now, although both should be tight. Meanwhile, Ohio may be a real Toss-up state. Buckeye history and demography point to Trump, but Clinton’s ground operation could come through for her in the end. If Ohio does vote for Trump while he is losing the White House, it will be just the third time in 31 elections that Ohio will have voted for the loser. We’re picking that to happen, but if Clinton gets any benefit out of James Comey’s final (?) intervention into campaign 2016, it may be that it generates a tiny bounce that allows her to leapfrog Trump in the Buckeye State. Arizona and Iowa seem like heavier lifts for Clinton but her campaign still holds out hope in both. Ultimately, we think North Carolina and Ohio are the hardest calls in the Electoral College, so we think it makes the most sense to just split them.

The buzz in the final days has been about a late Trump play in Michigan. He will likely eat into traditional Democratic margins there, but remember that Barack Obama won the state by nearly 10 points in 2012 (450,000 votes). Trump’s climb there is steep, but out of an abundance of caution we’re moving the state from Likely Democratic to Leans Democratic. We’re doing the same thing in New Hampshire, where some polls were close last week (although many operatives do not believe the state is tied), and Pennsylvania, two states (like Michigan) that have very little early voting. Clinton is focusing on these states at the end, too, and with good reason. If Trump pulls an upset, it’ll probably be because he narrowly fought off Clinton in Florida and North Carolina and managed to spring a shocker or two in the Rust Belt.

Florida may tell us a lot about whether we’re going to have a long night or a short one. About two-thirds of voters will likely have cast their ballots early, so the vote count should not take that long. If Clinton wins the state by two or three points and is declared the victor early on, it’ll be hard to find a plausible path to Trump victory. If Trump captures the state, though, then we’ll have to see if her firewall states, like the aforementioned states of Michigan, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania, as well as Colorado, Nevada, and Virginia, come through for her.

In the prognostication business, what you predict at the end — when the drift of the year is usually fairly clear — is less significant than what you predict months before, at a time when the future is foggy. Starting in March, we have released a total of 17 Electoral College maps in the Clinton-Trump race. Not even on Clinton’s worst campaign days did we ever have her below 270 electoral votes.

THE SENATE

Map 2: Crystal Ball Senate projection

We’re forecasting Democrats to win control of the Senate, but only by the slimmest of margins.

Overall, we’re picking a net gain of four for Democrats in the Senate, which results in a 50-50 tie in Congress’ upper chamber. If we’re right about the presidential contest, that means Vice President Tim Kaine (D) will be breaking ties after Inauguration. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D-VA) would appoint Kaine’s replacement in the Senate (long-serving Rep. Bobby Scott, an African American, is the likeliest choice). If there is an evenly divided Senate, the next important date will be Nov. 7, 2017, when the Old Dominion will hold a special election for the remainder of Kaine’s term in office (that seat also will be up for regular election in 2018). There’s also the potential for a party change that alters the Senate’s leadership if it is indeed 50-50.

The most likely gain for Democrats will be in Illinois, where we expect Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D, IL-8) to defeat Sen. Mark Kirk (R). The incumbent was always going to have a difficult time winning in a presidential year in a safely Democratic state. Although his path appears more difficult now than it did for much of the cycle, ex-Sen. Russ Feingold (D) is our pick to win in Wisconsin over the man who defeated him in 2010, incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson (R). Should Feingold win, he will become the first former senator to win back his old seat against the candidate who beat him since Sen. Peter Gerry (D-RI) in 1934. In Pennsylvania, we project Katie McGinty (D) to defeat Sen. Pat Toomey (R) in a hard-fought race. Toomey strategically tacked to the middle on some issues while in the Senate, notably gun control, but his Democratic opponent has led most polls since mid-October, giving McGinty a small but discernible edge. Perhaps our toughest call where we are picking a Democrat is the New Hampshire contest between Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) and Gov. Maggie Hassan (D). Ayotte should run ahead of Trump, but we think it won’t be quite enough in the end for her to hold on. Count this as one of the races we are least certain about.

As for the seats that we expect the parties to retain, the most competitive ones are in Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, and North Carolina. In Nevada, state expert Jon Ralston writes that the early voting edge for Democrats suggests that the party has an advantage up and down the ticket. If this is right, the day after Election Day will be yet another bad one for many firms that polled Nevada and showed good numbers for Republicans. In light of what we see in the Silver State, we are going with former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto (D) over Rep. Joe Heck (R, NV-3) in the only endangered Democratic-held seat.

We see Republicans retaining the other competitive seats. In Florida, we project Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R) 2015-2016 political journey to end in reelection after running for president and not intending — at least publicly — to run for Senate again if he failed in his White House bid. As we have discussed many times, Rubio doesn’t appear to have suffered much collateral damage among Latino voters in the Sunshine State because of Trump, running well ahead of his party mate among that demographic. Should Rubio defeat Rep. Patrick Murphy (D, FL-18) by only a narrow margin, there will be recriminations in Democratic circles for failing to go hard after Rubio, especially because he still has presidential ambitions that could reignite circa 2019.

When he entered the Indiana race to win back his old seat, former Sen. Evan Bayh (D) had about $10 million in his campaign war chest and was immediately judged a slight favorite. He might manage a narrow win, but we think it’s more likely that Rep. Todd Young (R, IN-9) will defeat Bayh once the votes are tallied. The Hoosier State’s Republican lean, the relatively strong performance expected by the Trump-Pence ticket (Pence is, after all, a Hoosier), Bayh’s troubles on the campaign trail, and the commitment by GOP forces not to give up on the state just because of Bayh’s candidacy led to this projected outcome.

Many national Democrats view Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander (D) as a potential star in the party, but while his strong campaign has made the Missouri race very close, the Show Me State’s GOP lean — with a large margin for Trump creating some statewide pull — is probably going to be too much to overcome. Thus, we are picking Sen. Roy Blunt (R) to win reelection there.

Lastly, in one of the hardest calls of the cycle, we are picking Sen. Richard Burr (R) to hold onto his North Carolina seat in what has become a closely watched contest against ex-state Rep. Deborah Ross (D). Should he win while Clinton carries the Tar Heel State, Burr would be only the second North Carolina senator to win while the opposite party wins at the presidential level.

If we’re off on the total number of seat changes, we think it’s slightly likelier that Democrats get to 51 or 52 than Republicans. That could mean the Democrats pulling out a win in Indiana, Missouri, or North Carolina. If Republicans hold on to the majority, it probably would be because Ayotte survives in New Hampshire.

THE HOUSE

Table 2: Crystal Ball House ratings

Note: Seats shaded in blue are currently held by Democrats; seats shaded in red are currently held by Republicans. We are projecting that Democrats will win 15 seats currently held by Republicans and that Republicans will win two seats currently held by Democrats for a net Democratic gain of 13 seats.

For many months, we have predicted a Democratic gain of 10 to 15 seats in the House, far short of the 30 they needed to take control from the Republicans. While there are quite a few Toss-up style seats, we do not see them falling in one direction, and we’re sticking with our projection. After allocating the Toss-ups based on the opinions of our sources and, frankly, a lot of educated guesswork, we’re projecting a Democratic gain of 13 seats. That’s notable because it would exactly roll back the gains the Republicans made in the 2014 midterm, when they netted 13 seats. If this is how it shakes out, Republicans would have the same 234-201 majority they had after Barack Obama’s reelection in 2012.

A 13-seat gain is also about what we should expect based on the House generic ballot polling, which ranges from Democrats leads of about a point (RealClearPolitics) to a little under four points (HuffPost Pollster). Based on a model by Crystal Ball Senior Columnist Alan Abramowitz, a small Democratic generic ballot edge of a few points roughly amounts to a low double-digit gain, which backs up our projection.

As we’ve noted previously, if Hillary Clinton wins the White House but Democrats do not capture the House, which is what we’re projecting, she could be the first Democratic president ever to face a House controlled by the opposing party during her entire term in office, whether she serves for one or two terms. Democrats would need to net 17 seats to win the House in 2018, but history suggests that midterms almost always break against the president’s party in the House.

THE GOVERNORS

Map 3: Crystal Ball gubernatorial projection

Even though Democrats already face a 31-18 deficit in control of governorships (one is held by an independent, Bill Walker of Alaska), they face a difficult task on this map just making sure they don’t lose any additional ground. Of the seven truly competitive seats this year, just two of them are held by Republicans. So Democrats would be pleased if our projection comes true: that they come out of this election with as many governorships as they held going in.

Of the seven leaning races we have now, we’re only reasonably confident in a few of the picks. Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT), armed with the power of incumbency, has seemed like a favorite all cycle even in a red state. Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott (R-VT), amazingly, appears very well positioned to win the governorship in the Green Mountain State, a one-time GOP state that will give Clinton one of her biggest margins on Tuesday. Vermont is very open to electing Republican governors, though, and outgoing Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) has been a drag on Sue Minter, the Democratic nominee. One caveat about Vermont: If no one gets over 50%, the legislature picks the governor, although past precedent suggests that they would pick the plurality vote winner (and both candidates have vowed to respect the popular vote).

Meanwhile, we’re making a mirror opposite kind of pick in West Virginia: The Mountain State could be Donald Trump’s best state in popular vote percentage, but Democrats still have a pulse statewide, which could help businessman Jim Justice (D) get over the finish line. One small factor that could aid Justice: The state recently did away with straight-ticket voting, which in the year of Trump is probably a good thing for Democrats in West Virginia.

Gov. Pat McCrory (R-NC) has stormed back at the end, but we still see Attorney General Roy Cooper (D) as a narrow favorite. New Hampshire could be a straight ticket state, which might benefit Executive Counselor Colin Van Ostern (D) against fellow Executive Counselor Chris Sununu (R). We see a split in two open red state seats by narrowly favoring former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens (R) in Missouri and 2012 nominee John Gregg (D) in Indiana. Perhaps there’s a “time for a change” dynamic that could provide a tiny boost to Greitens and Gregg: Jay Nixon (D) is leaving the Missouri governorship after two terms, while Republicans have held the office in Indiana for three straight terms (one-term Gov. Mike Pence couldn’t run for reelection after taking the GOP’s VP slot, and he was preceded by the very well-regarded two-termer Mitch Daniels). Voters can tire of one party in the state’s top job just like they can tire of one party in the nation’s top job.

Of these picks, we’re least sure about Indiana, Missouri, and New Hampshire.

CONCLUSION

At the end of the campaign, we believe we owe our readers our best possible judgment on how each race will go, which is why we leave no Toss-ups, even though many of these races truly could go either way. We’ll inevitably miss some calls — just not too many, we hope.

We deeply appreciate all the help we have received in a thousand forms in this latest election cycle. To our readers, sources, and student interns, THANK YOU. The remaining errors are ours alone. As our motto goes, “He who lives by the crystal ball ends up eating ground glass.”