Three weeks out from Election Day, it’s increasingly unlikely that any news event, economic development, or overall party message is going to have a major effect on the outcome. Yes, long-planned GOTV efforts—beginning with early voters—will come to fruition, and actual events, including candidate debates, could swing close individual races. But to an extent that would depress most candidates (who naturally tend to think their fate is in their own hands), a lot of what we are doing now is trying to predict results that are pre-ordained, and even anticipating some of the post-election debates within the two parties.
The exceptions to this predestination rule are close statewide races, for two reasons. First, statewide candidates simply get greater exposure, if not from ads then from media coverage. And second, gubernatorial candidates are affected to some extent by their own political dynamics, particularly if they belong to the party in power at the state level, and thus represent the “wrong track.”
The implications of the first factor are explained by PPP’s Tom Jensen in a post about Democratic prospects in House and Senate races:
I think Democrats are going to lose the House, with Republicans quite possibly picking up a lot more seats than they even need for a majority. At the same time I think Democrats will hold onto the Senate and that it may be by a larger margin than people are expecting, with the party perhaps holding onto its seats in places like Illinois, Colorado, Nevada, and West Virginia where the party lucked out because the GOP nominated weak candidates.
That’s a reminder that candidates matter- but they matter a lot more in Senate elections where voters really get to know them than in House elections that are much more likely to be determined by the national tide. We’ve seen time and again in Senate races this year that the better voters get to know the Republican candidates the less they like them. But unfortunately for Democrats I don’t know that voters ever get to know the House candidates well enough for that same effect to occur.
Jensen’s point reflects past experience, as well. In 1972, 1984, and 1990, one party made gains in one chamber of Congress while losing seats in the other. The most famous example was in 1972, when despite the Nixon landslide over McGovern, Democrats actually gained two net Senate seats. And even where one party has made gains in both Houses, they haven’t always been congruent in size or sweep (e.g., 1982, when the two parties broke even in the Senate even as Democrats gained 27 seats in the House).
The ideological sorting-out of the two parties may have reduced the likelihood of such variable results, insofar as ticket-splitting has become less common, particularly in congressional races. But the higher profile of statewide races does give candidates greater opportunities to make news—or make costly mistakes—and down-the-stretch financial advantages can have a greater impact as well.
Having said all that, the precise results to be expected on November 2 remain unpredictable, not so much because of candidate behavior, but simply because an unusually large number of races are competitive. This is particularly true in the House. As Nate Silver explained at some length in a post on his own and others’ projections of House results:
According to just about every objective and subjective indicator, then, the number of competitive House districts is roughly twice as high as in recent years. This is why the margin of error on our House forecast is very wide. If the polling is off by just a little in one direction or another, it could have profound consequences for the number of seats that Republicans are likely to gain. Likewise, there are a great number of districts in which both parties have viable candidates who could over perform or underperform the trends present in the national environment.
Why are so many races competitive? That could merit an article on its own. I suspect much of the reason is that the deterioration in the political environment for Democrats was evident quite early in the cycle — certainly by around August or September of last year — leaving both parties with plenty of time to prepare. The fact that the Internet has made fundraising much less burdensome, and allowed name recognition to be built through a variety of “nontraditional” means, may also play a role.
With more seats in play, the odds of missing the exact post-election count go up quite a bit. Cutting in the other direction is the fact that there is a lot more public polling data available than in the past, so projections are less likely to depend entirely on past performance or some sort of vague, thumb-on-the-scales estimates of national trends.
As Election Day approaches, the likelihood of major surprises will naturally go down. But there are more than enough razor-close races to ensure considerable mystery on Election Night.