July 17, 2016
We haven’t heard very much about Senate races lately. Several weeks ago, there was plenty of speculation Donald Trump could get wiped out by enough in key states to take vulnerable incumbent GOP senators with him. At the time, Trump was staring at a bit of a deficit in the polls, and it’s reasonable to wonder how many voters would still opt for a GOP senator while voting for Hillary Clinton at the same time.
Stats show ticket splitting is more rare than a generation ago. So, bad run for Trump, bad result for senators like Rob Portman in Ohio and Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania. So the two things to watch for are how big a gap the senators might need to overcome and how far (if at all) they’re running ahead of Trump.
Over the past couple weeks, Trump has closed the gap a bit on Clinton, picking up a couple points in the Real Clear Politics average. It’s not a huge gain, and he very likely squandered some of the benefit of having the FBI Director take apart Hillary’s explanations for what happened with her email server, but he’s closer than he was.
If you’re running for re-election down ballot, having Trump down 4 nationally, perhaps even in your state (depending on the survey), is much better than having him on track for a landslide defeat. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where Trump wins and Republicans lose the Senate.
But let’s assume he loses. FiveThirtyEight still figures there’s a 65% chance of that. How much margin for error do the senators have?
Based on recent polls, up to 10%. If you’re Mark Kirk in Illinois, that’s not enough. He’s not on our list of vulnerable incumbents, being more of an endangered species. FiveThirtyEight is projecting Trump will lose by 14 points there. Facing strong competition from Democrat Tammy Duckworth, Kirk is a likely goner.
However, Toomey, Portman, and Marco Rubio are in far better shape. Real Clear Politics is showing a virtual tie in Florida, while FiveThirtyEight currently projects a narrow 1.5% Clinton win. They figure Trump has a 43% chance of victory in the Sunshine State. If Rubio has ten points to play with, his odds are looking pretty good right now.
The latest NBC/WSJ/Marist poll has Trump down 7, Rubio up 3. Ten point spread. Quinnipiac has Trump +3, Rubio +13. Same difference. There is one exception. JMC Analytics shows Trump up 5, Rubio by 7. If you average the three, Rubio has over 7 points to play with. If you just look at his results, he’s up in every July poll. For now, from here, it appears Marco made the right choice in running for redemption.
Moving to Ohio, Clinton leads by 1.8% in the RCP average, and is projected to retain a 1.2% lead on Election Day by FiveThirtyEight. They figure she has a 55% chance of winning the state. Quinnipiac has the two presidential candidates tied, and Portman up 7. Meanwhile, NBC/WSJ/Marist shows a dead heat between Clinton and Trump, Portman and Democrat Ted Strickland.
Portman doesn’t have as much space as Rubio. His opponent is a relatively popular ex-governor. Still, he’s currently leading, and Trump is very close. As long as current conditions hold, he’s better than 50/50 to retain his seat.
What about Pennsylvania? Republicans have chased the Keystone State in presidential elections for years, but haven’t won since 1988. Most Trump victory plans include a win here. He’s finished even or ahead in a couple/few polls, but Clinton has a 3.2% RCP average lead at the moment. FiveThirtyEight expects a similar final margin.
Toomey doesn’t quite have Rubio’s cushion, but he’s running 6 points ahead of Trump with NBC/WSJ/Marist, and eight points ahead according to Quinnipiac. This isn’t enough to clinch things for him, but like his compatriots would likely win if the election were tomorrow.
Democrats need four seats to control the Senate after a Clinton victory (her VP would break a 50/50 tie.) As mentioned above, Kirk is unlikely to retain his seat. That’s one. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin is very vulnerable. In a new Marquette University poll, he’s running one point behind Trump, who trails Clinton by 4. This may explain why Johnson is speaking at the convention, while Portman is staying at home, even with the event in his state.
FiveThirtyEight figures Clinton has almost an 80% chance to win Wisconsin. Combined with Johnson’s inability to run ahead of Trump (he was 5 points short of him in a June PPP poll, so it’s not a fluke), the numbers point to a Democratic pickup. That’s two.
New Hampshire looks interesting. Incumbent Kelly Ayotte is in a tough fight with Governor Maggie Hassan. Clinton leads Trump by a little, and Ayotte is running ahead of Trump by slightly more than his deficit. As long as he can keep it close, she has a good shot.
North Carolina was a safe GOP state at the presidential level until Barack Obama very narrowly defeated John McCain in 2008. Mitt Romney took it back in 2012. So far, Clinton is running ahead of Obama’s pace, leading by a couple points in the RCP average. FiveThirtyEight isn’t quite as sold, giving Trump a 50.4% chance of winning (i.e. coin flip.)
Incumbent Senator Richard Burr is polling a full 13 points ahead of Trump in the latest NBC/WSJ/Marist poll, making him pretty safe at the moment. Overall, it’s a bit closer, but unless Trump backslides into a landslide defeat, he’s very likely to hold on.
Out in Nevada, Republican Joe Heck is attempting to win Minority Leader Harry Reid’s open seat, giving the GOP a crucial margin of error. He’s 6 points ahead of Trump in a recent Monmouth survey. Polling in the Silver State is scarce, but so far it looks like a close race on the presidential side. FiveThirtyEight favors Clinton, but gives Trump more than a 40% chance.
If their estimate of a 2 point Clinton win proves correct, Heck doesn’t have much ground to make up. The Monmouth gap would favor him to win his race. Put this all together, and if the final gap between Clinton and Trump is in the 4 to 5 point range we’re currently seeing in polls, roughly comparable to the Obama-Romney margin, you should figure Republicans will continue to hold the Senate.
They aren’t in the clear yet, but Trump would likely need to lose by a minimum of 6 to 7 points to give Democrats even odds of taking the Senate back.