A Blue Wave is still more likely than not

Women’s March, Washington, 2017 (Amanda Voisard, Washington Post)

Trump’s approval rating

The midterm backlash that seems to hit presidents regularly is counterintuitive; a president was popular enough to get elected, but is turned on by the electorate just two years later. But in this case, the president was highly unpopular when he was elected, and only managed to sneak in, despite losing the popular vote, through narrow wins in a few large states. It’s easy to forget just how many things had to go wrong for someone so unpopular to win even as narrowly as he did — Russian interference, massive journalistic malpractice, and the head of the FBI sabotaging Trump’s opponent at the last minute. Everything had to go wrong at once.

Gerrymandering backfire

Utah Congressional districts (National Atlas)

Undecided voters

Many of the polls are still showing large numbers of undecided voters. These voters tend to break one way in a wave election (and even, to some extent, in a normal election). Polls that show a close margin but with undecideds greatly outnumbering that margin should be seen as likely Democratic wins in a year that favors the Democrats. And it’s even possible that a Republican who is ahead by a significant margin, but not above 50%, will lose thanks to a strong break of undecideds for the Democrats. All of this is assuming the polls are accurate in the first place. Polls are already estimating who is likely to turn out. A wave election challenges turnout assumptions.

Special elections

Since Trump’s election, Democrats have been massively overperforming in special elections, held to fill vacant offices. Democrats have only won a couple of the high-profile races — Doug Jones in Alabama, and Conor Lamb in the Pennsylvania 18th. But the won-loss record doesn’t tell much of the story; the federal offices, for example, were mostly vacant because conservatives were tapped for jobs in the Trump administration, leaving behind conservative districts that Republicans should easily have won. What Democrats have done in these elections is greatly exceed the partisanship of their districts. That may not have been enough to win all of the special races, but on November 6, a similar overperformance will win the Democrats more than enough seats.

Daniel Donner, DailyKos

Off-year elections

Two states, New Jersey and Virginia, have already held full statewide elections under Trump, a year ago. Democrats won both governorships by large margins, greatly beating the poll average (Virginia) or effecting a party change (New Jersey); Democrats won the other statewide offices in Virginia; Democrats increased their popular vote share for both houses in the New Jersey legislature, and there was a huge swing in the popular vote for the Virginia House of Delegates, and a sizable popular majority (but narrowly missing a majority of seats, thanks to gerrymandering and voter distribution).


Open seats


Candidate quality is not always objective, but it can be, partially. Candidates with experience in elected office, government, or prior campaigns run better campaigns than those without. (Lack of experience can be a selling point to some voters, it should be acknowledged.) By objective (and subjective) measures, Democrats have had a very good recruitment cycle. Beyond candidate quality, Democrats have done very well on quantity: they’ve successfully recruited for a very large share of seats. Surprise wins are a feature of waves, taking victories in unlikely places. (This is part of the motivation of the fifty-state strategy.) But it is impossible to take advantage of surprising events if there is no opposing candidate. The Democrats have mostly avoided that problem this year. If the electorate turns in unexpected ways, or a Republican candidate falters in some way, the Democrats will have a candidate there to seize the opportunity, and generally a good candidate.

Poll errors

Polls are not completely reliable, of course. 2016 reminded us of this, though the error was not as dramatic as many remember. (Rather, the error was concentrated in states that had disproportionate effect on the Electoral College outcome.) The current New York Times/Siena experiment, of releasing poll results as they are making phone calls, should draw attention to the weaknesses of polls. Not all poll respondents are weighted the same; individual respondents stand in for particular demographics, and if a demographic is responding to the poll at a low rate (compared to the population), then each respondent from that demographic gets a bigger voice in the final result, often making a visible difference in the numbers. Polls are meant to be random, but that means they are random: a few calls to unrepresentative people and the sample is no longer good. With lots of polls, the error might average out. With only one or two, it’s a problem.



Analyst, generalist, rationalist. PhD, geography (world culture/politics), UCLA. Complete archive at http://the-stewardship.org/english/.

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O.T. Ford

Analyst, generalist, rationalist. PhD, geography (world culture/politics), UCLA. Complete archive at http://the-stewardship.org/english/.