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Joe Biden and Barack Obama Rally in Philadelphia
Former President Barack Obama and President Joe Biden held a campaign rally for Pennsylvania's Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro and Democratic Senate candidate Lt. Gov. John Fetterman on Nov. 5 in Philadelphia. Lokman Vural Elibol / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The case for cautious Democratic optimism is tough, but not impossible

The day before Election Day, if I were trying to talk a Democratic voter off a ledge, I’d have at least some facts to work with.

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When I have casual conversations with friends — folks who know what I do professionally — I get asked exactly what you’d expect: What’s going to happen in the elections? Who’ll win and who’ll lose? Should they be optimistic or pessimistic?

I tend to avoid publishing predictions, but my expectations are largely in line with the conventional wisdom. Republicans need a net gain of five seats to take control of the House and a net gain of one seat to take control of the Senate. You don’t need a Ph.D. in political science to look at the polls, forecasts, and historical models and realize that the GOP will probably be quite pleased with the election results.

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But if I were trying to talk a Democratic voter off a ledge, I’d have at least some facts to work with.

For example, there’s some recent history to consider. Since Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices overturned Roe v. Wade, there have been five congressional special elections. Democrats exceeded expectations — and overperformed relative to pre-election polls — in all five.

Ahead of the August race in New York’s 19th district, Politico ran a report with a headline that read, “Want to know if a red wave is happening? Watch this special election.” To the surprise of nearly everyone — including the National Republican Congressional Committee, which effectively guaranteed success in this race — the Democratic candidate won.

While we’re at it, progressive turnout in Kansas also stunned much of the political world a few weeks earlier in a statewide vote on abortion rights.

Is the Democratic position as strong now as it was over the summer? Definitely not. But could the polling once again be understating Democratic support? Sure. A New York Times analysis explained this morning:

Just about anything is still possible in this year’s midterm elections. Everything from a Democratic hold in the Senate and a fairly close race for the House to something like a Republican rout is well within the range of realistic possibilities on Tuesday. ... There is also the possibility of more surprising outcomes: a true Republican landslide or a Democratic hold on Congress.

To be sure, when setting expectations, it’s generally best to play the odds and assume the most likely outcome is the one that’ll happen. But if you’re a Democratic voter waiting to be talked off a ledge, note that the aforementioned paragraph in the Times used variations on the word “possible” three times in three sentences.

Around this time six years ago, FiveThirtyEight’s forecast model showed Hillary Clinton with a roughly 72% chance of winning the 2016 presidential election. We all know what happened, of course, but the latest FiveThirtyEight forecast model now shows Democrats with a 44% chance of maintaining a narrow majority in the Senate.

Or put another way, Chuck Schumer’s chances of remaining Senate majority leader are better than Trump’s chances of getting elected in 2016 — and Trump was elected in 2016.

While we’re at it, if I were also trying to talk that hypothetical Democratic voter off a ledge, I’d also note some of the 11th-hour evidence looks at least somewhat encouraging for the incumbent party: The final NBC News poll of the cycle showed Democrats catching up to Republicans in enthusiasm ahead of Election Day, and Democrats now enjoy a narrow lead over the GOP among likely voters on the congressional generic ballot.

The final Politico-Morning Consult poll of the cycle, released this morning, also found Democrats ahead by five points — up from a one-point advantage two weeks ago.

Don’t tell our friend on the ledge, but I still think the smart thing to do is to set expectations in line with the most likely outcome. The most likely outcome is that a whole lot of Republicans are poised to win a whole lot of elections, the merits of their respective candidacies notwithstanding.

But I also think anyone making sweeping assumptions today about what’ll happen tomorrow are making premature leaps.