Political handicapping is more than looking at polls and regurgitating who is ahead. Throughout an election cycle, there are signs political handicappers use to understand what is happening at a given moment and to project how races will play out in the weeks or months ahead.
During the endgame, one of the most reliable rules of handicapping is that for incumbents, “what you see is what you can get.” In other words, incumbents won’t get many undecided voters.
The underlying reasoning for that view is pretty simple: Incumbents tend to be better known than their challengers, in part because of the advantages of incumbency.
They traditionally raise more money and have every opportunity to ingratiate themselves with voters, building relationships that will ultimately pay off on Election Day.
Undecided voters late in an election cycle haven’t connected with the incumbent and aren’t even giving him or her the benefit of the doubt. For some reason, those voters are resisting supporting the incumbent.
Of course, some undecideds will be of the same party as the incumbent, and many of them will ultimately support the sitting lawmaker. But undecided voters late in a cycle probably have more reason to vote for the challenger — or not vote at all — than to support the incumbent.
Doing the math
Because undecideds break disproportionately to the challenger, any incumbent who is winning by a point or is in a dead heat in the final 10 days of a campaign ought to be an underdog in the election.
That’s why handicappers view incumbents who are ahead 44 percent to 43 percent or even 46 percent to 45 percent as being in terrible shape politically. (Incumbents who are running even or slightly ahead but are getting 48 or 49 percent of the vote have a better chance to eke out a win.)
So, when I see a New York Times Upshot/Siena College poll showing New Jersey Republican Rep. Tom MacArthur leading Democratic challenger Andy Kim 45 percent to 44 percent 10 days out from the election, I have to believe that MacArthur is in deep trouble.
That doesn’t mean he can’t win, of course. He could have a financial advantage in the final weeks, or the undecided voters could be disproportionally pro-Trump or Republican, which would improve MacArthur’s prospects. Or, the polls could be inaccurate.
But in the past, most incumbents in MacArthur’s situation would not win unless they had a strong political breeze at their backs.
The same goes even more for Republican incumbents like Peter Roskam of Illinois or Jeff Denham of California, both of whom narrowly trail their Democratic opponents in recent public polls.
Using the old “what you see is what you get” rule of thumb, both Roskam and Denham (and Colorado’s Mike Coffman and Virginia’s Barbara Comstock) are likely toast.
Into the unknown
This year, it’s hard to know whether that handicapping rule of thumb will hold.
President Donald Trump is an unusual political figure who has already violated multiple rules of handicapping, and only a fool would assume that all of the old political rules still apply.
Handicappers also look at mood and use it to project both turnout and voters’ preferences.
Normally, controversial presidents lose support over time and have trouble generating turnout. But Trump’s supporters appear to be unusually loyal to him and enthusiastic about voting in November. That could limit the upside of Democratic gains and the size of any Democratic wave.
On the other hand, unusual turnout patterns in next month’s midterm elections could obliterate the traditional electoral signposts.
Midterm electorates have tended to be more Republican than presidential years, but extraordinary enthusiasm among younger voters, minority voters and suburban women could produce an electorate that produces many more Democratic victories than now expected, turning a modest wave of 30-35 seats to one of 40-45 seats.
Handicappers also look at the electorate’s desire for change to understand how the public’s mood will impact midterm voting. Voters who are unhappy with the way things are going normally vote against the president’s party, especially when that party controls the House, the Senate and the White House, as is now the case.
Recent polls show that more Americans believe the country is headed off on the wrong track rather than in the right direction. But again, we aren’t certain how Trump changes the political equation.
Some “change” voters may take out their dissatisfaction on Trump and the GOP, seeing them as in charge and responsible for the direction of the country. But other “change” voters may be Trump loyalists who believe that the “Deep State” and the “establishment” are still in charge.
To those voters, Trump and his political allies are still agents of change, fighting the media and liberals who are still taking the country off on the wrong track.
The current political landscape is very different to the one we saw before 2015-2016. Voters are behaving differently (just look at the early voting), and the amount of money being spent in the midterms is astronomical. And, of course, the president is unlike other American presidents.
In a week, we’ll know whether any of the midterm and late cycle rules of political handicapping still apply.
This column appeared initially in Roll Call on October 30, 2018.