A slew of new CBS News/NYT/YouGov polls of Senate races suggest a growing likelihood the GOP reclaims the Senate in elections this fall. Let’s inspect the polling data and methodology of those polls first before examining the results.
Unlike most polls, these were conducted entirely online and not via telephone. Also, these polls surveyed registered rather than likely voters, meaning they probably underestimate the performance of the more motivated political party – the GOP this year. Finally, the pollsters weighted results to align with 2012 voting demographics, which again probably underestimates GOP performance since President Obama’s presence on the 2012 ballot motivated greater numbers of Democratic voters who typically sit out off-year elections.
With those caveats noted, the polls generally produced a margin of error (MoE) in the 3.0% range for any given state, suggesting a reasonable point-in-time poll. Results should encourage GOP leaders that a takeover of the Senate this fall is well within reach. The GOP currently holds 45 seats which means it must capture an additional 6 seats to control the Senate. Let’s consider the likeliest scenario for achieving that number based on these recent polls (I recognize other polls have slightly different results but focused on the CBS/NYT polls since they offer a consistent methodology and occurred over the same time period).
The Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia seats have always been considered the most likely to flip parties and polling in those states certainly support this. In fact, Steve Daines now leads incumbent (by appointment) John Walsh by sixteen points, 56-40. How much Walsh’s recent alleged plagiarism plays a role in these results is unclear, but a sixteen-point deficit at this stage in an election is a nearly insurmountable challenge.
Next, let’s consider incumbents who poll under fifty percent, which generally suggests a seat is in serious jeopardy. Four Democratic Senators currently poll under that threshold: Mark Pryor (AR) who trails Republican Tom Cotton by four points (50-46); Kay Hagan (NC) who is a one-point underdog to state-house leader Thom Tillis (48-47); Mary Landrieu (LA) trails Bill Cassidy by a single point (47-46); and Mark Begich (AK) who leads Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell (47-45). While each of these contests is within the margin of error and is appropriately considered a toss-up at this stage of the race, history suggests that undecided votes break for the challenger on Election Day. The GOP needs to pick-up three of these seats to control the Senate and that seems very possible, perhaps even probable at this moment in time (assuming that Landrieu does not avoid a run-off and Treadwell wins his party’s nomination over his far less electable opponents).
There are, however, two seats Democrats have set their sights on flipping from the Republicans: Kentucky and Georgia. In the former, Senator McConnell leads Alison Grimes by four points (50-46) and in the latter freshly nominated David Perdue (R) leads Michelle Nunn (D) (50-44). Perdue comes out of the gate strong after his recent primary victory and seems well positioned against Nunn who has been an accomplished fund-raiser to this point. It is possible the Democrats could steal one of these seats but the combination of conservative voters and President Obama’s sagging popularity make such a scenario unlikely.
There are a couple states that lack an incumbent and where the GOP candidate has run surprisingly strong: Iowa and Michigan. Joni Ernst leads Bruce Braley in the Hawkeye state (48-47) after a series of verbal flubs by the Democratic Congressman. In the Wolverine state Congressman Gary Peters trails Teri Lynn Land by a point (48-47). Though the two female GOP candidates lead by a narrow margin in both polls, the Democratic lean of both states makes the climb to victory more difficult for these two women. That said, both states are definitely in-play and provide solid evidence of how the GOP has expanded the field of contested seats held by Democrats.
We also ought to consider Colorado a competitive race where Democrat incumbent Mark Udall leads Congressman Cory Gardner (51-47). That is too narrow a lead for an incumbent to feel safe with less than a hundred days until the election, though he is better positioned than his colleagues in the South.
So where does that leave the two parties as we head into the final three months before Election Day? They remain in an intensely competitive race for control of the Senate. Watch where each party spends its resources over the next month to get a sense of where each believes it has the best chance of winning.
If I were advising the two parties I would urge Democrats to cut bait in Montana, Arkansas, and Louisiana and focus on winning Colorado, Iowa, North Carolina, and Alaska. I would counsel Republicans to avoid wasting cash in long-shot races in Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Oregon and focus on the elite eight: Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, and North Carolina.
At this time I would place the odds of a GOP Senate takeover at 65% with a likely pick-up of between 7-8 seats. But much campaigning remains and with it plenty of time for more gaffes – and those can quickly transform a race or two.