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Democrats Are Slight Favorites To Take Back The Senate

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Democrats are slight favorites to regain control of the Senate, according to the FiveThirtyEight Senate forecast, which launched today. But the map is wide open, with at least a dozen competitive races — none of which are certain pickups for Democrats — including some states where Democrats are playing defense.

In fact, while it’s possible that Democrats will wind up controlling 54 seats or perhaps even more, the most likely outcome is a much more closely divided chamber, including the possibility of a 50/50 split in which control of the Senate would be determined by whether the vice president is Kamala Harris or Mike Pence. (Joe Biden and Harris currently have a 76 percent chance of winning the presidential race, according to our forecast.1)

Our Congressional model (our forecast for House races will be released soon) is largely the same as the version we built in 2018, which was quite accurate in predicting the number of Senate and House seats that each party would win. We’ve made a handful of changes since 2018, most of which were designed to create more consistency with our presidential forecast, including assuming that uncertainty is slightly higher this year because of an increase in mail voting under COVID-19. But these adjustments don’t greatly change the outlook. For a complete list of changes, see our methodology guide.

As in 2018, there are three versions of the model, which build on one another and become increasingly complex:

The Lite version of the model relies as much as possible on polling. In races that don’t have much or any polling, it calculates the candidates’ standing from other races that have been polled.

The Classic version relies on polling but also incorporates “fundamentals” such as fundraising, incumbency and a state’s partisan lean relative to the rest of the country.

Finally, the Deluxe version takes all of the above and adds in expert ratings from The Cook Political Report, Inside Elections and Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

By default, we’re showing you the “Deluxe” version of the model this year. It’s supposed to be the most accurate one and — given everything going on — we’re inclined to cut to the chase. But you can toggle between the versions using the magnifying glass icon at the bottom of the page:

You might want to get in the habit of doing this, too, because there are some fairly large differences between the model versions this year. This reflects the fact that the polling in individual Senate races is generally quite good for Democrats, while other indicators and expert ratings are more equivocal. For instance, the poll-centric Lite version of the model currently gives Democrats a 68 percent chance of winning the Senate, as compared to a 64 percent chance in the Classic version and a 58 percent chance in the Deluxe version.2

These differences stem from the fact that despite their strong polling, conditions for Democrats are inherently a little challenging in the Senate. They need to gain a net of three or four seats to win control, depending on if they also win the presidency. More likely, though, they will need to flip four or five Republican-held seats, because chances are good that one seat will flip from blue to red: Democrat Doug Jones is an underdog to keep his seat in Alabama, which he won against a very bad opponent in a special election in 2017.

Furthermore, while there are a great many Republicans up for re-election this year, only two of them (Colorado’s Sen. Cory Gardner and Maine’s Sen. Susan Collins) are in states that Hillary Clinton won in 2016. Thus, Democrats will have to pick up seats in states that have traditionally been Republican-leaning, such as Georgia and North Carolina. They also have some more ambitious (but redder) targets in races in Kansas, South Carolina and Alaska.

National conditions are pretty good for Democrats — they lead on the generic congressional ballot by 6.4 percentage points, and President Trump is fairly unpopular and an underdog for reelection — but they are not spectacular. (Democrats won the popular vote for the House by nearly 9 points in 2018, for example, a bigger margin than their current generic-ballot lead.) Moreover, Democrats are mostly aiming to defeat Republican incumbents, and even though the incumbency advantage has diminished in recent years, it’s rare that you can take much for granted in races featuring incumbents.

Still, the sheer number of plausible Democratic pickup opportunities is surprising — and favorable for the party — given that the conventional wisdom in 2019 was that Democrats might have trouble finding enough targets to take the Senate. The table below is a list of Republican-held seats where Democrats have at least a 5 percent chance of winning in at least one version of our model. There are 16 (!) of these. In some cases, the model is being exceptionally conservative because of a lack of polling in the state, but the first dozen on the list are realistic pickup opportunities for Democrats.

Where Democrats are most likely to pick up Senate seats

Republican-held seats where Democrats have at least a 5 percent chance of winning in at least one version of FiveThirtyEight’s model, as of 5 p.m on Sept. 17

Chance a Democrat wins
State Incumbent Lite Classic Deluxe
Arizona (special) McSally 86% 80% 78%
Colorado Gardner 78 71 68
North Carolina Tillis 70 70 61
Maine Collins 75 54 51
Iowa Ernst 48 41 42
Montana Daines 40 32 32
Georgia Perdue 31 27 25
Kansas 33 28 22
Georgia (special) Loeffler 17 19 17
South Carolina Graham 26 19 15
Alaska Sullivan 22 17 13
Texas Cornyn 15 13 11
Mississippi Hyde-Smith 14 11 5
Kentucky McConnell 7 6 5
Louisiana Cassidy 6 5 3
Tennessee 11 <1 <1

Democrats’ single best pickup opportunity is probably in Arizona, where Republican Sen. Martha McSally — who lost to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in the race for Arizona’s other Senate seat two years ago — badly trails Democrat Mark Kelly in polls. Nor is McSally, who was appointed to the seat following the death of Sen. John McCain, likely to benefit much from incumbency, as appointed incumbents typically perform much worse than elected ones.3

Meanwhile, the two Republicans in Clinton-won states, Gardner and Collins, are also behind in polls. Still, it may be premature to write their political obituaries, especially for Collins. She won her last race by a large margin, she has a fairly moderate voting record, Maine only barely voted for Clinton in 2016, and experts continue to rate the race as a toss-up, all factors that help keep her afloat in our Classic and Deluxe models.

The fourth state where Democrats are currently favored for a pickup is in North Carolina, where Democrat Cal Cunningham, a former state senator, leads Republican incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis in polls and is also a slight favorite according to the “fundamentals” our model evaluates. And troubling for Tillis is that he has some of the hallmarks of a weak incumbent: He only barely won his seat in 2014, which was a much better political environment than the one Republicans face now, and he badly lags Cunningham in fundraising.

Indeed, many Republican incumbents, such as Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa, David Perdue of Georgia and Dan Sullivan of Alaska, face some version of this problem, as many of them won by single-digit margins in 2014, a year when Republicans won the popular vote for the U.S. House by about 6 points. But this year, the national environment favors Democrats by 6 or 7 points, so that’s around a 12-point swing, putting Republicans who won by narrow margins last time in the danger zone.

Other Demoratic opportunities are more idiosyncratic. In Montana, they’re hoping to benefit from the personal popularity of Steve Bullock, who is currently the governor there (although the Republican incumbent is favored in our forecast at the moment). And in South Carolina, Democrat Jaime Harrison has run a surprisingly competitive race against incumbent Sen. Linsday Graham, who once had a reputation for moderation but has now become a major defender of Trump, a shift that may mean he’s now not satisfying voters in either camp. In addition to Perdue’s seat, there is also a second seat open in Georgia, currently held by the appointed incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler. (This special election is unusual, though, in that multiple candidates from both parties will face off on Election Day, and if no one gets a majority, two candidates will move to a runoff in January.)

In an average simulation, our forecast has Democrats picking up about six Republican-held seats in the Lite model, around five in the Classic model and about four and a half in the Deluxe model.4 And that would be enough for them to win control of the Senate — even if they fail to capture the presidency.

However, Democrats also have some seats of their own to defend. Most notably, there is Jones’s seat in Alabama. Running for reelection as a Democrat in one of the reddest states in the country puts him at a disadvantage, and this time around he doesn’t have the benefit of running against Roy Moore, who multiple women accused of pursuing sexual relationships with them while they were in their teens. (Instead, his opponent is the former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville.) But like Collins in Maine, whose chances shift significantly depending on which version of the model you look at, Jones might not be completely done for. The polls do make it look like Jones is a goner (hence his low chances in the Lite forecast), but the fundamentals — including the fact that he’s raised a lot of money and has a track record of moderation — give Jones an uphill chance at victory.

Where Republicans are most likely to pick up Senate seats

Democrat-held seats where Republicans have at least a 5 percent chance of winning in at least one version of FiveThirtyEight’s model, as of 5 p.m. on Sept. 17

Chance a Republican wins
State Incumbent Lite Classic Deluxe
Alabama Jones 90% 64% 72%
Michigan Peters 15 15 17
Minnesota Smith 15 14 7
New Mexico 13 8 5
New Hampshire Shaheen 5 1 2

After Alabama, there is a big drop-off in the likelihood of possible Republican pickups, but their next best chance is probably in Michigan, where John James, who ran a surprisingly vigorous race against Demoratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow in 2018, is within striking distance of Michigan’s other Democratic senator, Gary Peters. Minnesota, New Mexico and New Hampshire also represent long-shot opportunities for Republicans, although those seats will likely change hands only if the night is going very badly for Democrats.

So while we know you’re tired of hearing this … the outcome is, at this point, uncertain.

There are plausible upside scenarios for Democrats where tight polling margins against incumbents like Graham prove to be the canary in the coal mine for widespread Republican problems, and Biden and Harris get to craft an agenda with as many as 54 or 55 Democratic senators.

At the same time, though, the Senate is probably a heavier lift for Democrats than the presidency. Let’s imagine, for example, that Biden flipped Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Arizona and retained all the states Clinton won, which would imply a solid but not overwhelming margin in the presidential race. In that scenario, even if every Senate race went the same way as the presidential election, Democrats would still come up one seat short, picking up Maine, Colorado and Arizona but losing Jones’s seat in Alabama.

And while it’s certainly possible that most of the toss-up races will break in the same direction as the presidential race, Senate races can be quirky. Democrats got a mixed set of results in 2018, for example, picking up seats in Arizona and Nevada — but also seeing four of their incumbents lose.

One thing Democrats don’t have to worry about: If they pick up the Senate, it’s very likely that they’ll have retained the House, too; Republicans are starting out with a big deficit there and are playing at least as much defense as offense. There are scenarios where Republicans could win the House, but they involve the national climate unexpectedly turning into a Republcian landslide, in which case Democrats won’t be competitive in the Senate anyway. But we’ll discuss that more when we release our House forecast. In the meantime, please drop us a line if you have any questions about the Senate.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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