Six burning questions for election night

Updated

After two years and billions in campaign spending, the midterm elections are finally upon us. Republicans are the betting favorites to win the Senate based on polling and early returns in key states, but Democrats still have a narrow path to protecting their majority. The election will put a number of theories to the test about the GOP’s strength, the Democrats’ organization, and where national politics is heading as we move into the 2016 presidential election cycle. Here are six questions we’re eager to see answered on Tuesday night. 

Is this a wave election?

Democrats are almost certain to lose Senate seats this year and Republicans are hoping the election turns into a “wave” year, in which voters around the country turn decisively against one party.  There’s been an unusually high number of these dramatic elections recently: 2006 and 2008 were Democratic waves while 2010 was a historic GOP wave that washed away many of those earlier Democratic gains.

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In each of those races, the writing was pretty much on the wall by this point. This year, it’s not so clear: A major reason Republicans are poised to make gains is because Democrats are defending a large number of seats in red states that they won in the 2008 wave. Republicans could take the Senate simply by winning six of seven Democratic-held seats in states Obama lost in 2012 (West Virginia, Montana, South Dakota, Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina) and holding off Democratic challenges in red states Kentucky and Georgia and an independent challenger in Kansas. Republicans are also threatening Democratic held seats in swing seats Colorado, Iowa, and New Hampshire.

Republicans are clear favorites to win a majority, but many of these races are still in play and several are legitimate tossups. That means there’s a wide range of possible outcomes, from Republicans running the table to Democrats narrowly holding onto the Senate. If GOP candidates sweep the red states and win in places like Colorado and New Hampshire the party can claim pretty credibly that their gains were a lot more than just a friendly map. On the flipside, if Democrats score unlikely wins in conservative states like Kansas and Georgia, things will look a lot more complicated. 

Will we know who controls the Senate on election night?

Are you sick of the election? Can’t wait to get it all over with on Tuesday? Too bad, we’re probably just getting started.

Two competitive Senate races, Louisiana and Georgia, have laws that require a runoff between the top two vote getters if no candidate breaks 50% on November 4th.  Thanks to weaker also-rans in each race, it’s more likely than not that both contests go another round, which would be December 6 for Louisiana and January 6 for Georgia. The latest NBC News/Marist polls, released on Sunday, give Republican David Perdue a 48-44 lead over Democrat Michelle Nunn in Georgia and Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu 44% of the state’s open primary vote versus 36% for Republican Bill Cassidy and 15% for Rob Maness, another Republican. Landrieu trails by 5 points in a hypothetical runoff against either candidate. 

This means Republicans probably have to win a clear majority on Tuesday even without those two states for us to know the outcome. Making things even worse, Alaska’s race between Democratic Senator Mark Begich and Republican Dan Sullivan, where polling has been very weird, doesn’t start counting votes until 1 AM ET and could take days to finish. Extra innings may be the likeliest scenario at this point.

Are there cracks in the Obama coalition?

Broadly speaking, strategists in both parties have tried to manage expectations about what the 2014 elections mean for 2016. Turnout tends to be higher in presidential years, Republicans face a much tougher Senate map, and the Obama-era coalition of young voters, single women, and minorities still pose significant problems for Republican presidential candidates.    

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There are some races, however, where a loss would make Democrats sweat more than others. The most prominent is Colorado, a blue-trending state where Democrats have dominated elections over the last decade thanks to strong performances with women and the state’s growing Latino population. This year, however, Democratic Senator Mark Udall is facing an intense challenge from Republican Congressman Cory Gardner, who has managed to close the gender gap in a number of polls despite constant Democratic attacks painting him as an extremist on abortion. Latino groups are supporting Udall over Gardner, who has been cagey about his immigration position, but there are concerns that the combination of Gardner’s nonthreatening tone and Obama’s disappointing decision to delay executive action on deportations could blunt their impact on the race. If Gardner wins, it would not only send a signal that Colorado is still a swing state in 2016, but that Republicans may be better positioned to chip away at voting blocs that have favored Democrats in recent years than many political observers expected heading into this year. 

Can Democrats expand the electorate?

Democrats have invested millions of dollars in a state-of-the-art turnout operation designed to make the midterm electorate, which tends to skew older and white, look more like a presidential year in key states.

Will it work? The early vote suggest Democrats are turning out a significant chunk of voters who sat out 2010 in states like North Carolina and Georgia, with the biggest gains among African Americans, but it might not be enough to overcome a strong GOP performance and Colorado is looking less promising. In Alaska, Democratic Senator Mark Begich has presided over an unprecedented outreach program aimed at organizing isolated pockets of voters. Polling generally favors his opponent Dan Sullivan, but it’s all over the map and some surveys show incredibly high percentages of voters say they’ve been contacted by Begich’s campaign. 

Which polling universe is the one we live in?

One more thing about that wave business: Part of the confusion over where we stand is that national polling has been exceptionally weird heading into the final stretch.

A number of polls give Republicans a big lead on the “generic ballot,” in which voters are asked which party they would prefer controls Congress next year. CBS News pegged the GOP lead among likely voters at 50-42 this week, an ABC News/Washington Post poll put it at 50-44, and an Associated Press/Gfk survey earlier this month gave Republicans a 40-32 advantage. But a number of polls over the exact same period indicate an essentially tied race. On Sunday, NBC News/Marist gave Republicans a 1-point advantage at 46-45. USA Today released one last week putting them up 43-42, Fox News released another with Democrats winning 45-44, and CNN also gave Democrats 1-point lead at 47-46. There don’t seem to be a lot of pollsters splitting the difference. 

The national numbers don’t necessarily tell us much about the outcome in the individual states, where both sides have spent millions of dollars in advertising and millions more on turnout operations and voter interest is likely to run higher. Nonetheless, the difference between +1 Democrats and + 8 Republicans is historically the difference between an okay night for the GOP and the kind of numbers one would expect from an epic wave year. We won’t know until Tuesday whether either – or neither – of these two polling universes is ours.

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Will the elections affect the 2016 presidential field?

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker could be a top tier Republican presidential candidate if he wins his race against Democrat Mary Burke on Tuesday. If he loses, however, he could go the way of previous rising stars like former Virginia Senator George Allen, who’s surprise loss in 2006 killed any presidential ambitions he might have had.

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who is openly considering a presidential run, is not on the ballot this, but his state’s legislative elections have enormous implications for his political future, however. Under Kentucky law, candidates are not allowed to run for two offices simultaneously, meaning that in order to run for president he would have to give up his seat in the Senate. Republicans are eager to change the law to accommodate him, but Democrats control the state house of representatives and aren’t having it. The GOP has been trying for years to flip the chamber and Paul is doing his part, but if they come up short the senator will have a hard decision to make about whether he wants to abandon his influential perch in Washington for a difficult presidential bid. 

Then there’s Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side. She and former President Bill Clinton have barnstormed the country on behalf of Democratic candidates, including in their former home state of Arkansas. They’ve banked plenty of goodwill from Democrats for their efforts, but will the family brand be strong enough to actually make a difference anywhere? 

Six burning questions for election night

Updated