Last year's elections may be receding in the rearview mirror, but let's take a brief look back at those halcyon days of November 2012. We know that the Democrats, as a whole, did well, in that they gained seats in both the Senate and House ... but how did they do individually? How did the candidates in the most competitive races fare, compared with the expectations that were set for them?
The unfortunate reality is that the majority of races are utterly predictable from the start. While there used to be a lot more Republicans elected in traditionally Democratic areas and Democrats in Republican areas, the decline in ticket-splitting (as the parties have gotten more nationalized and lost their regional quirks) and the parties' increased skill at gerrymandering has largely wiped that out. The majority of House districts, for instance, are so partisan in one direction or the other that it's a foregone conclusion which party will represent it. (Consider this graph from Daily Kos Elections diarist Xenocrypt, where all the House districts are arranged from worst to best Obama performance. Districts with Democratic reps are blue, those with GOP Reps. are red—and notice how there are almost no outliers at all.)
Even for those races that are in that band of swing districts where a competitive race could exist, only a limited number of those manage not be foregone conclusions. Disparities in candidate recruitment and fundraising—where only a little-known opponent with no money rose to challenge an incumbent—took a lot of races off the table from the outset. In 2012, that left well under 100 House races, and maybe only a dozen Senate races, that were even vaguely up in the air.
So when we talk about "expectations," we're talking about how elections prognosticators expected those remaining races to come out. Even among that small sample of race handicappers—the Charlie Cooks, Larry Sabatos, and, yes, Daily Kos Electionses of the world—there always tends to be a great deal of consensus about each individual race. (There might be some disagreement on whether something is, say, Lean D or Likely D, but none on whether it's Lean D or Likely R.)
It's tempting to blame the Beltway herd mentality for that consensus, but the reality is, they (and we) all see the same indicators. Everybody sees the same polls, the same fundraising reports, the same ad buys, the same confident body language or flailing messaging. They certainly aren't guarantees of future performance, but they are adequate to form, well, "expectations." (For reference, you can see our last sets of ratings from right before Election Day, for the Senate, House and governor's races.)
This look back is partly in preparation for the next round of race ratings from Daily Kos Elections. As refreshing as it was to have a month or two off, the 2014 cycle is now well and truly upon us. And we have enough rudimentary information about retirements and potential challengers, at least at the Senate and gubernatorial levels, to start making some projections for next year. We'll be bringing you those ratings in the coming weeks, but part of the process of getting ready to do that means going back and considering how well we fared in 2012, and asking how we might improve on our performance next time.
And partly, this type of analysis helps with Democratic targeting next time. It helps us spot Republican incumbents who everyone assumed was safe or near-safe last time but who turned out to have something of a glass jaw and barely squeaked by. Also, it alerts us to Democratic incumbents who might be at risk of underperforming again, progressives who, because of a newly modified district or just complacency, had unexpectedly close races.
Follow over the fold for our Senate, House and gubernatorial charts, in that order ...
Prognosticating for the Senate was actually quite easy. It being a presidential year, and with many of the key races located in presidential swing states (like Ohio and Virginia), there was such a critical mass of polls of those states that we could pick winners with confidence, mostly just based on what poll aggregation was telling us. (Unless, of course, it turned out that all the polls were skewed. Which they weren't.)
In the end, all of our "Lean" and "Likely" races went in the right direction. We kept 7 races in the "Tossup" category, which meant that we felt they could go either way. Of those Tossups, the Democrats won 5 and the GOP won 2.
|State||D winner||Margin||DKE rating||State||R winner||Margin||DKE rating|
|NM||Heinrich||5.7||Likely D||MS||Wicker||16.6||Safe R|
|OH||Brown||6.0||Lean D||UT||Hatch||35.3||Safe R|
|MA||Warren||7.5||Lean D||WY||Barrasso||54.0||Safe R|
Even then, with most of the Tossups, there was a pretty clear sense of which way they were likely to go. For instance, aggregated polls put Democrat Tim Kaine up in the three-or-four-point ballpark in Virginia; the same was true of Republican Jeff Flake in Arizona. (We may add a "Tossup/Tilt D" formulation to our ratings next cycle, which some prognosticators already use, for these grey-area races where there's a weak but definite trend.)
There was really only one race where we simply had no idea who would win, and that was North Dakota. (Even the various individual bloggers of DKE were equally divided, if pushed to name who would win.) The majority of public polls gave the lead to Republican Rick Berg, and North Dakota's redness at the presidential level made it likely that any remaining undecideds would lean Republican. On the other hand, the scarcity of reliable polls here (North Dakota is one of only two states that prohibits robocalling) and a long, consistent thread of Democratic internal polls gave Heitkamp the edge. In the end, that uncertainty was warranted: it was the nation's closest Senate race.
Nevada was also a cause for uncertainty, in a similar way. Most public polls gave a small edge to incumbent GOPer Dean Heller, while there were frequent Democratic internal polls giving the edge to Shelley Berkley (many from the Mellman Group, Harry Reid's pollster and one of the few to get the 2010 Nevada Senate race right). The optimistic Democratic internals seemed to stop coming at the very tail end of the race, though, which turned out to be an accurate warning sign: This was the nation's second-closest Senate race, and the narrowest victory for a Republican.
Now let's turn to the House. Here a prognosticator's job gets much harder, because many of these races see no public polling at all, let alone a large enough number of them to average them out with confidence. Instead, you're left relying on whatever internal polls get leaked (which means figuring out what's the agenda of the party who leaked the poll), along with more indirect data. In the early phases of a race, that means fundraising numbers; in the closing months, that means watching where the media buys are, from the DCCC, NRCC, and outsiders like Crossroads or House Majority PAC.
In the end, our predictions held up admirably. We whiffed on only 3 races out of the 86 races on our Big Board, and luckily, all three of those whiffs went in the Democratic direction (in that the Democratic candidate won a "Lean R" race). (In addition, we missed on one of the 7 Democrat-on-Democrat or GOP-on-GOP races that happened under California and Louisiana's unique systems.)
We left 31 D/R races in the "Tossup" category; of those, the Democrats won 24 and the GOP won 7. That's not unusual; one party tends to have the wind at its back going into the election and knocks down the majority of the too-close-to-call races; in 2008 it was the Democrats who got most of our "Tossups" and in 2010, obviously, it was the Republicans.
|Dist.||D winner||Margin||DKE rating||Dist.||R winner||Margin||DKE rating|
|AZ-02||Barber||0.8||Lean D||IN-02||Walorski||1.4||Likely R|
|MA-06||Tierney||1.0||Lean R||NE-02||Terry||1.4||Likely R|
|WA-01||DelBene||7.2||Lean D||MN-02||Kline||8.2||Likely R|
|CA-33||Waxman||7.4||Likely D||IA-04||King||8.6||Lean R|
|CA-03||Garamendi||7.4||Likely D||MI-03||Amash||8.6||Likely R|
|CA-09||McNerney||8.2||Lean D||NJ-03||Runyan||9.0||Likely R|
|CA-16||Costa||9.0||Likely D||MI-07||Walberg||10.3||Safe R|
|HI-01||Hanabusa||9.2||Safe D||MT-AL||Daines||10.3||Likely R|
|FL-22||Frankel||9.2||Lean D||CA-25||McKeon||10.4||Safe R|
|IL-08||Duckworth||9.4||Lean D||CA-31||Miller *||10.4||Lean Miller|
|CA-24||Capps||9.6||Lean D||SC-05||Mulvaney||11.2||Safe R|
|CA-47||Lowenthal||10.2||Lean D||WI-01||Ryan||11.5||Safe R|
|FL-26||Garcia||10.6||Lean D||TN-04||DesJarlais||11.6||Likely R|
|OR-05||Schrader||11.4||Safe D||WI-08||Ribble||11.8||Likely R|
|CA-35||Negrete McLeod *||11.4||Likely Baca||WI-07||Duffy||12.2||Lean R|
|CO-07||Perlmutter||12.1||Lean D||CO-03||Tipton||12.4||Lean R|
|IA-02||Loebsack||12.9||Lean D||VA-05||Hurt||13.1||Safe R|
|NY-25||Slaughter||14.4||Lean D||NJ-05||Garrett||13.1||Safe R|
|IA-01||Braley||15.2||Lean D||ND-AL||Cramer||13.2||Likely R|
|MN-01||Walz||15.2||Safe D||PA-15||Dent||13.2||Safe R|
|NY-03||Israel||15.8||Safe D||PA-08||Fitzpatrick||13.3||Likely R|
|ME-02||Michaud||16.2||Safe D||OH-07||Gibbs||13.4||Safe R|
|WA-10||Heck||16.6||Safe D||NC-10||McHenry||14.0||Safe R|
|CO-02||Polis||17.4||Safe D||NC-13||Holding||14.2||Safe R|
|WA-06||Kilmer||17.6||Safe D||PA-06||Gerlach||14.2||Likely R|
|NM-01||Lujan Grisham||18.2||Safe D||VA-04||Forbes||14.2||Safe R|
|CA-40||Roybal-Allard *||18.8||Safe R-A||FL-06||DeSantis||14.4||Safe R|
|OR-04||DeFazio||19.3||Safe D||NC-02||Ellmers||14.5||Safe R|
|CT-04||Himes||19.6||Safe D||NC-11||Meadows||14.8||Likely R|
|CA-44||Hahn *||20.0||Likely Hahn||NC-05||Foxx||15.0||Safe R|
|AZ-03||Grijalva||20.1||Safe D||SD-AL||Noem||15.0||Likely R|
|RI-02||Langevin||20.5||Safe D||VA-01||Wittman||15.1||Safe R|
|CA-53||Davis||20.8||Safe D||CA-08||Cook *||15.2||Likely Cook|
|MD-06||Delaney||20.9||Likely D||FL-13||Young||15.2||Safe R|
|PA-17||Cartwright||21.0||Safe D||AR-02||Griffin||15.7||Safe R|
|CA-30||Sherman *||21.0||Likely Sherman||CA-01||LaMalfa||15.8||Safe R|
|CA-46||Sanchez||21.2||Safe D||OH-14||Joyce||15.8||Safe R|
|WA-02||Larsen||21.8||Safe D||PA-16||Pitts||16.1||Safe R|
|MO-05||Cleaver||23.6||Safe D||--||Over 20
Safe R races
|TX-15||Hinojosa||24.1||Safe D||OK-02||Mullin||19.1||Likely R|
|FL-09||Grayson||25.0||Likely D||CA-21||Valadao||19.8||Likely R|
(In the table, you'll notice several races with asterisks next to them. These are the same-party races in California, where a Dem beat a Dem or a GOPer beat a GOPer. The closest one, CA-15, was the only one of these oddities that we rated Tossup; the second-closest was the two-GOPer race in Dem-leaning CA-31, which will be the DCCC's highest priority in 2014.)
The three Democrats who pulled it out, despite a "Lean R" rating, were two incumbents, John Tierney in MA-06 and Jim Matheson in UT-04, and one challenger, Sean Patrick Maloney in NY-18. Tierney's victory may have been the most surprising, despite the fact that of the three, he had by far the friendliest district (which went 55 percent for Obama last year). Tierney, however, had some perception problems from a scandal in which his wife was convicted of tax fraud, though he wasn't implicated himself; he then drew about the best option that the MassGOP had on its bench, moderate and openly gay state Sen. Richard Tisei.
The race's one public poll, taken several months before Election Day, had Tierney ahead, but in the race's closing weeks, a Tisei internal gave Tisei a huge double-digit lead. Tierney didn't do what one ordinarily does in that situation, which is to put out a dueling internal that shows "no, I'm winning" (or at least "no, I'm not losing by that much"), and that also coincided with a triage decision by House Majority PAC to stop running ads on his behalf. By all indications, to us that meant that Tierney was DOA, and we downgraded the race accordingly. Neverthless, Tierney went on to win. Maybe that was because Tisei screwed up with his final (offputting and substance-less) TV ad, or maybe it was just a case of a weak incumbent saved by a district's lean.
Jim Matheson didn't have any ethical clouds having over him, but he may have had a bigger problem: One of the reddest districts of any Democratic incumbent running for reelection (it wound up going 30 percent Obama in 2012). In addition, he was up against a highly touted GOP recruit, Mia Love, the African-American mayor of Saratoga Springs who was given a prime speaking spot at the GOP convention. Early polling showed him holding his own, thanks to his Blue Doggishness and the residual value of the Matheson family name in Utah, but a last-minute public poll showed him losing by 12. We figured that was the end for him, but maybe we shouldn't have been taken in: That poll was from Mason-Dixon, a once-decent pollster who had an all-around terrible year in 2012, and was part of a larger Utah sample that was rife with method problems.
The one challenger to win despite a "Lean R" was Sean Patrick Maloney, who beat GOP freshman Nan Hayworth in New York's Hudson Valley. What few polls we saw here had Maloney closing the gap but never actually in the lead; outside committees continued to pour in the money here, as they did in many other second-tier races where the Democrat had a shot, but not in any way that seemed to make this race stand out. So how did Maloney manage to close the deal at the end? It's simply not that clear; the district's lean may have helped (going 51 percent Obama), but isn't so blue that it would clinch it for him. The overall surge toward the Democrats in the greater NYC area, attributed to Hurricane Sandy, may have given Maloney that last boost. That was an even greater factor in Staten Island's NY-11, where GOPer Mike Grimm was expected to cruise (we had it at "Likely R" but Grimm only narrowly won).
Finally, we, unlike most of the other prognosticators, took the extra step of handicapping the competitive Democrat-on-Democrat or GOP-on-GOP races in November, brought about by California's top 2 primary or Louisiana's jungle primary. We missed on one of those—although, in our defense, I don't think anyone in the political establishment saw it coming either. The Democrat-on-Democrat race is dark-blue CA-35, where Rep. Joe Baca faced state sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod, had been rated "Likely Baca," but a last minute ad blitz by Michael Bloomberg, hitting Baca for his NRA-friendly ways, seemed to turn the tide at the end.
What other Democrats wound up falling short of expectations, but still winning? Rep. Ron Barber, elected in a special election to replace Gabby Giffords, certainly stands out on the list at "Lean D." What few polls we'd seen had him holding his own, and he had a financial advantage over veteran Martha McSally; moreover, he'd won his special election earlier in the year in extremely convincing fashion. However, the combination of a not-very-friendly district (48 percent Obama) and McSally's compelling personal story may have undercut him at the end, and he only squeaked by. It's not clear whether McSally will try again, but we'll need to keep an eye carefully on how Barber fares in a non-presidential year.
One surprising name on the list is long-time Los Angeles-area progressive Henry Waxman, who had probably his closest race in most of our lifetimes last year, winning by seven against a free-spending former Republican running under the "Independent" rather than GOP banner. No other prognosticator seemed to notice this race, and we probably would have missed it too if our resident Angeleno, Steve Singiser, hadn't gotten a bad feeling about this race in the closing weeks (we added it as "Likely D" shortly before Election Day). Waxman's shift to a new, much-less-blue district and a lot of new constituents probably explains a lot, but clearly he's got some rust to shake off if he's going to run again in 2014.
Of all the Democrats who were "Safe D," you might expect the closest race to have come in a swing district, but no ... it came in dark-blue HI-01, when freshman Rep. Colleen Hanabusa only won by nine points against Republican ex-Rep. Charles Djou. Rather than worrying about Democratic futures in Hawaii, though, I'd probably chalk that up to the fact that Djou briefly represented the seat (winning a screwy three-way special election and serving half a year until losing in the 2010 general election to Hanabusa).
Of the Democrats who overperformed, I think none overperformed expectations more so than ex-Rep. Bill Foster, who roared back into the House after getting bumped off by Randy Hultgren in the 2010 wave. He took advantage of the Democratic-engineered gerrymander to go up against Judy Biggert in IL-11. While a number of other Democratic challengers also won "Tossup" races in Illinois in newly configured seats, the others won by single digits. Even the hyped Tammy Duckworth beat the odious Joe Walsh by only nine. As for Foster? He defeated the ostensibly moderate Biggert by 16!
Also deserving a tip of the hat is Mark Takano, who won the newly formed CA-41 in Riverside by a surprising 13-point margin. All we'd seen during his campaign was middling fundraising and one 'meh' internal, so we kept the race at "Tossup." But his district's mostly-Latino population and blue surge (62 percent Obama, up from 59 percent Obama in 2008) easily propelled him, and I can't imagine he'll be much endangered in the future.
Finally, we should give some credit to Alan Grayson. Of all the Democrats on the Big Board, he did the best, whomping Todd Long by 25 points. There wasn't much doubt toward the end, given the district's lean and Long's lack of money, but we left him on at "Likely D" given his tendency to go off message. In the end, no need for concern.
What about vulnerable Republicans? The most surprising name may be Tom Reed in NY-23; after some initial high hopes about his challenger, Nate Shinagawa, we moved this race to "Safe R" after Shinagawa made little headway on the fundraising front. However, we never saw any credible polls to back up that decision; maybe the polls would have shown Shinagawa trailing badly, or maybe no one ever bothered polling this district in the first place. At any rate, Shinagawa lost by only 4 points in this 48 percent district in upstate New York; if he runs again with some actual DCCC/House Majority PAC backing next time, we might actually have something here!
Another interesting name is Robert Pittenger, who won the open seat in Charlotte's suburbs, replacing Sue Myrick in NC-09, by only six points (this was another "Safe R" race). He had a decent challenger in Jennifer Roberts, but she too may have suffered from the chicken/egg problem of weak initial polls/no outside money. If she tries again, this could be the Democrats' best opportunity to go on the offense in North Carolina.
Two other GOPers who barely won in "Likely R" races are Lee Terry, who has often underperformed in presidential years in the Omaha-area NE-02, and Jackie Walorski. She's the newly elected frosh in IN-02, replacing Joe Donnelly (who moved up to the Senate); she only barely won against Democrat Brendan Mullen in what started as a competitive race but was on the wrong end of triage decisions by Democratic outside groups.
As for overperforming Republicans, Rep. Tom Latham certainly comes to mind; he had the biggest GOP win of all the Tossups, beating fellow Rep. Leonard Boswell in IA-03 (after their two districts got merged) by nine. Latham's a decent bet to keep holding down this super-swingy district, but Democrats have to like their chances to pick it up if he gives it up for a run for the open Senate seat. Also overperforming a bit was Jeff Denham, who defeated astronaut and netroots fave Jose Hernandez by an eight-point margin, despite a handful of internals giving Hernandez a small edge. Despite CA-10's large Latino population, he'll be a tough nut to crack, especially given off-year turnout in 2014.
Of all the Republicans on the board, who did the best? Helped along by utter Democratic recruiting fail, it's freshman David Valadao, who won the heavily-redistricted CA-21 in the Fresno area by almost 20 points. This district went 55 percent Obama, so there's no excuse for this big a GOP victory here, but after all the Democrats in the state legislature from this area passed on this very winnable race, the task fell to a poorly funded businessman who was one step above Some Dude. Expect this to be at the top of DCCC target lists next time, assuming they can better coordinate the candidate-wrangling process.
Finally, there's not much to say about the governor's races. By Election Day, there was really only one race that was up in the air (Montana), and it wound up going the Democrats' direction. (We also had Washington and New Hampshire as Tossups.) Interestingly, Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire wound up doing much better than Earl Ray Tomblin in West Virginia, whose race we had at "Lean D." That may have a lot to say with the different directions that those two states are headed.
|State||D winner||Margin||DKE rating||State||R winner||Margin||DKE rating|
|WV||Tomblin||4.9||Lean D||ND||Dalrymple||28.8||Safe R|
The only surprise on the Republican side was in Indiana, where hard-right Mike Pence wound up winning the open seat by only three points over affable but underfunded Democrat John Gregg. Polls hadn't shown this a particularly close race, and Barack Obama didn't have the same Indiana coattails as he did in 2008. Whatever the explanation, I'll bet the DGA wishes it had put in some money here instead of pouring all the money it did into North Carolina.