Watching returns on Election Night is an American tradition similar to Super bowl Sunday. On the ballot Tuesday will be federal, state, and local races – our focus will be on the Congressional (House and Senate) and the Governor’s races. So what should we look for?
In any “wave” election, you start seeing unexpected results/an indentifiable trend almost from the beginning. For example, in the 1994 GOP landslide, three Indiana Democrats went down to defeat early in the night. In the 2006 Democratic landslide, Indiana Democrats defeated three Republican incumbents – we are using Indiana as “Exhibit A” because polls close at 5PM Central time. We have attached a map of poll closings by state.
Beyond the “early” (5PM) poll closings in Indiana and Kentucky, we will be watching the following with regards to Congressional and Senate races.
House – The big question about the House is not whether the GOP will gain control, but how large of a wave there will be. We are currently projecting a 82 GOP seat gain. Can we tell early on how large this wave will be ? If only 1-2 Democratic held seats (particularly Democrats elected in the landslide years of 2006 and 2008) in some states flip as the night goes on, that suggests a Republican House, but only by the barest of margins. If more entrenched incumbents, more conservative Southern Democrats, and/or committee chairmen start to lose their races,THAT will be the early sign of a night full of carnage for the Democrats. In other words, we’re looking at the following House races as a sign for what we think will happen: John Spratt (D-South Carolina/6 PM poll closing), Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts/7 PM poll closing), Bennie Thompson and Gene Taylor (D-Mississippi/7 PM poll closing), and James Oberstar (D-Minnesota/8PM poll closing).
There is one other piece of the puzzle here with regards to House races: while the vulnerable House seats are almost all on the Democratic side, there are a handful of Republican seats that the Democrats are targeting. Specifically, we’re looking at 8 GOP held House seats: open House seats in Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, and Illinois, Joseph Cao (R-Louisiana), Dave Reichert (R-Washington), and Charles Djou (R-Hawaii). Democratic pickups of four or less from this group will be par for the course – it’s not generally remembered now that in the 1980 and 1994 GOP landslides, Democrats still picked up four GOP held House seats. If Democrats pick up more than four GOP House seats, that will be another sign of a mild (as opposed to a heavy) Republican wave.
Senate – We will not know who controls the Senate until at least late Tuesday night, with the possibility of not knowing until early December (more on that later). However, as the night goes on, there are key races that will paint a picture for us of how the Senate will look: (1) West Virginia has a poll closing time of 6:30. A Republican victory means that GOP Senate control is a definite possibility, while a Democratic victory means that this will be a long night (in terms of Senate races); (2) Polls close in Connecticut and Delaware at 7PM. A Republican upset victory by either Christine O’Donnell in Delaware or Linda McMahon in Connecticut pretty much guarantees a Republican Senate; (3) Assuming that the GOP has, at a minimum, picked up all four “leans GOP” races (Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, and Pennsylvania) and the four “gimme” races (Arkansas, Indiana, North Dakota, and Wisconsin) by 10PM, we have a 49 Republican Senate. If we pessimistically assume that Democrats win Connecticut, Delaware, and West Virginia, Republicans have to take BOTH California and Washington (while holding on to Alaska) to get to a Republican controlled Senate. And that’s where it gets tricky, because all three states, vote counting is not completed on Election Night, since their election systems are heavily skewed towards absentee voting. In fact, in a tight race, we may not know the winner (and, by implication, Senate control) for weeks. Washington gives its counties until November 23 to turn in their certified returns, while California gives counties 29 days (i.e., December 1) after Election Day to certify their results. Finally, Alaska accepts absentee ballots until November 17, and it doesn’t certify its results until November 29 .
Governorships – Lastly, the GOP is poised to pick up a net of 10 governorships, which is crucial not only for setting state policy, but also because governors have a say in redistricting plans that will determine Congressional and legislative districts for the next 10 years. The picture in these races is not as clear as the House races, because while you have 12 open Democratic seats, you also have 12 open Republican seats, some of which are in Democratic states. On the Democratic side, we see that 11 of the open seats are Republican pickups, as are 3 of the incumbents. The variable in this picture are the Republican seats, and that is where the strength of the Republican wave becomes important. While only one Republican incumbent (Rick Perry of Texas) is even remotely vulnerable, it’s the 12 open GOP seats that will either stay GOP or will flip to the Democrats. We are fairly confident that the GOP will hold on in Alabama, Nevada, and South Dakota. They should similarly hold on in Georgia and South Carolina, but if these races are closer than expected (i.e., the GOP victory margin is 5 points or less), Republicans will not have a good night in the statehouse races. Similarly, Florida is a tossup right now, but intense conservative voting will pull the GOP nominee Rick Scott to the finish line. The remaining 6 states (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Minnesota, Rhode Island, and Vermont) are in more Democratic states, and some or all of those seats may flip to the Democrats unless there is a strong Republican vote.
Election Day Guide
We have attached an Election Day guide with all key Congressional/Governor’s races listed. In this guide, all races in order of the poll closing times are listed – for states in two time zones, we put that state in the time zone with the earlier poll closing time. Furthermore, we have listed all Congressional and Governor’s races that we are watching for that state, with the exception of House races in areas so heavily tilted towards one or the other party that it’s not worth tracking.
As the night goes on, once a race has been called, you can check off the result against our prediction and thus get a feel for how good (or bad) the results were compared to what the pundits were saying. And (we hope) attain a level of expertise at those Election Night parties.