News & Insights

The Four C’s of Election Prognosticating

The fragmentation of political news sources has created a cottage industry of election forecasting. On any given day, Twitter is full of posts from employees of legitimate news organizations pontificating about what might happen in the 2016, 2018 or even 2020 elections – and to a person, they all have come to rely on exactly one campaign factor in their predictions: the demographic composition of the electorate.

To hear these pundits tell it, every year in which the White House will be contested is going to be a good year for Democrats and every mid-term is likely to be a good year for Republicans. It’s an ignorant simplification and a crutch for the lazy.

The truth is, the two worst elections for Republicans in any of our lifetimes occurred in mid-terms: 2006 and 1974. And Democrats had bad results in a recent presidential year – 2004, in which they lost a net four Senate seats and three House Seats.

The dull instrument of projecting a Democratic year on all presidential cycles and a Republican year on all non-presidential cycles is rooted in a belief that demographics are destiny in politics, that a younger, less-white composition of the voter pool automatically delivers that result.

A smarter toolkit for projecting elections sees COMPOSITION as only one of four relatively equal factors in determining how elections swing. Since so many of these drugstore cowboys projecting elections on Twitter seem to like simplicity, I’ve come up with an easy way to remember the other factors: they all start with “C.”

The political CLIMATE of the country is arguably the most important factor in determining who wins or loses an election. Do voters believe the country, under the leadership of the party holding the White House, is headed the right direction or is it off on the wrong track? In a mid-term, do they believe the President’s policies (separate from his/her personal popularity) need a gas pedal or a brake? If I could only have one “C” in my favor as a strategist, I’d pick CLIMATE.

This may be something out of fashion among pundits, but the quality of CANDIDATES matter just as much as electoral composition does. In the two blue-ish states Republicans gained in the 2014 Senate elections, we won with superior candidates. By November, it was obvious to all observers that Cory Gardner was a helluva lot more likable and inspirational than Mark Udall was and Joni Ernst seemed like someone the average Iowan might sit next to at a church picnic while you’d only be willing to sit next to Bruce Braley in a courtroom. It’s why Tom Cotton never trailed in internal polling against Mark Pryor – something that almost never happens in challenger campaigns. The hard-charging and razor-sharp Cotton was instantly viewed by Arkansans as the Senator more likely to help a small state out-punch its weight in Washington.

After climate, the next most important thing to have is a great candidate – a big enough advantage here is enough to outrun a spending disparity, as Thom Tillis proved in North Carolina, where he edged past the better-funded but less-appealing Kay Hagan late in the race as soon as voters had gotten to know him.

The fourth “C” is CAMPAIGN quality. Gov. Rick Scott has won three statewide races in Florida that every single pundit thought he would lose – the 2010 primary in which he started out trailing by 51 points, and the 2010 and 2014 general elections, both of which trailed until the waning days. He won those races because he was more disciplined and professional than his opponents in the manner in which he ran his campaigns. He assembled great talent from his managers all the way down to his greenest door-knockers. He insisted on a business-like, metric-driven campaign that was accountable for results. He kept his cool. He stayed on message. He made very few mistakes. With just a neutral climate, the better campaign can win even if electoral composition is less than ideal.

It’s worth noting that it’s not just the lazier pundits that have adopted this crutch of counting electoral composition above all other factors. It’s also become the universal operating principle of the Obama-era Democratic consulting industry. They believe that it doesn’t much matter how bad your candidates are so long as the electoral composition is young and diverse enough. That’s why they are begging Kay Hagan to run for Senate again in North Carolina, even after she made the biggest gaffe of the 2014 election cycle and in spite of a double-digit negative image rating in polls today. It’s why Democrats are settling for tired, retread, last-out losers like Ted Strickland and Russ Feingold in key Senate races, candidates who ran un-compelling and undisciplined campaigns last time and got fired by the voters. The Democrats, like so many pundits, just don’t think it matters.

These same analysts and Democrat strategists also assured us that the vaunted Obama turnout machine would hold the U.S. Senate for Democrats in 2014 and re-take the U.S. House in 2012. Even after those two flops, they’re sticking to their formula. How’s the old saying go? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. You’d have to be a fool to fall for the composition lie again.