When it comes to making political prognostications, you definitely want to look at all the available data. If there are head-to-head polls, that gives you a good idea where the election stands today or at least where it stood in the recent past. Approval numbers for the candidates are useful, especially if there are a lot of people with no opinion. That tells you which candidate has better name recognition, and that can be a blessing or a curse. A candidate with sufficient resources will eventually make themselves known, so it’s important to see how the fundraising is going.
Historical data are also important. How has the state or district voted in the past and is there a large distinction in how it performs in low vs. high turnout elections? Then there’s the more general political climate. How is the president doing? Is he popular? Is he popular in the state or district you’re analyzing? Do people have a preference for which party they’d like to see in control of Congress?
The thing is, with a little training and a list of internet resources, a monkey could look at these kinds of data and tell you if a candidate is currently favored to win, lose or it’s too close to call. There is certainly value in collecting and collating information, but that alone doesn’t make you into a worthwhile political prognosticator. This is the business of telling the future, and that’s as much an artistic as a scientific endeavor.
I mention this I get very frustrated with the rating methodologies that prevail at places like Daily Kos Elections, the Cook Political Report and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball. Today, the Cook Report moved the Texan senatorial matchup between Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke from the Safe Republican into the Lean Republican category. They’re basically saying that they used to think that Sen. Cruz would definitely win but now they’re not so certain. What changed their mind?
They noticed that O’Rourke is campaigning hard, having already visited every county in Texas. They noticed that he has a robust online presence. These are the two best pieces of evidence they offer. Everything else is based on traditional data, especially the fact that O’Rourke has more money on hand than Cruz and that recent polls have shown him narrowing his deficit into single digits. Cruz is still favored because he’s a Republican incumbent in Texas who is ahead in the polls but he’s no longer “safe” because the polls show a close race and Cruz has no financial advantage.
What’s lacking in their analysis?
If you’re in the business of predicting what will happen in an election three months ahead of time, you need to have an idea of what kinds of things are likely to happen in that three-month span. How will a trade war affect the economy of the state or district? Will there be a vicious confirmation battle for a position on the Supreme Court? Will the government shutdown? Will the president’s campaign manager be convicted of crimes in two separate trials? Will his lawyer/fixer become a cooperating witness in the Russia investigation? Will Roger Stone be indicted? Will Robert Mueller issue a report detailing a conspiracy to break into the Democrats’ computers and steal their documents?
The art is in predicting how these things will unfold and how they’ll change the odds in political races from where they stand today.
It’s one thing to say “Wow, Beto O’Rourke is raising a ton of money.” It’s much better to predict this ahead of time: “given the current enthusiasm on the Democratic side, Beto O’Rourke will have no trouble raising money.”
In my estimation, most of the trends are moving against Ted Cruz. Most of what is likely to happen over the next three months is likely to make Cruz’s reelection effort more difficult.
Yes, he still is ahead in all the polls and at or near to the needed fifty percent plus one. Yes, he is an incumbent and a Republican running in Texas. He will undoubtedly get more outside help than O’Rourke, possibly giving him a financial advantage despite raising less money and having less money on hand. But if the polls are this close now, Cruz cannot afford any further erosion.
Perhaps the most telling indicator of all is that last week Ted Cruz requested that O’Rourke agree to do five debates. An incumbent who has a comfortable lead and really any lead at all does not want to risk the uncertainty of debates. Cruz would not make this request if he thought he was on a winning trajectory.
O’Rourke, who had previously proposed debating the incumbent in English and Spanish, promptly accepted the challenge, which may have been a mistake. Ted Cruz was one of the most accomplished debaters in the country during his time as an undergraduate at Princeton University. He is unlikely to hurt himself in debates and probably has a rather large advantage.
Nonetheless, based on the available evidence and a reasonable projection of how political events will unfold over the next three months, this race is too close to call. If the election were held next Tuesday, it would be fair to say that it “Leans Republican.” But the election is not being held next Tuesday.
Cruz has enough innate advantages to prevent me from predicting he will lose, and I can say the same about the inherent uncertainty of how events will unfold. Right now, it’s impossible to say who will win or even that one candidate is more likely to win than the other.
I need to take a fresh look at the Senate race in Tennessee now that the primaries have been decided, but I suspect that race is also too close to call. It’s simply too early to predict who win these races and that’s what the ratings should say.
If forced to make predictions, I’d say that Phil Bredesen in Tennessee has a better chance of winning than Beto O’Rourke does, but that’s mainly because he’s not running against an incumbent and he carried every country in the Volunteer State the last time he ran for statewide election. O’Rourke has more youthful energy and a campaign better suited to the times. He’s new and fresh, which may be the most important thing this year.
Both of these races are going to be contested to the very end and in both cases we’ll probably have to wait for a while after the polls close to find out who won.