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Scott Walker's troubles highlight deeper GOP issues in governors' races

First things first: The theme song of the week is ...

Posted: Jul 29, 2018 10:03 AM
Updated: Jul 29, 2018 10:03 AM

First things first: The theme song of the week is Bob James' Angela, the theme song from the television show Taxi.

Poll of the week: A Marist College poll gives Democrat Tony Evers a 54% to 41% lead over Republican Gov. Scott Walker in the Wisconsin gubernatorial election.

This poll is more optimistic for Evers, the most likely Democratic nominee, than the only previous nonpartisan poll of the race. Walker led Evers by a 48% to 44% margin in a June Marquette University poll. The average of the two puts Evers ahead by 4.5 percentage points.

What's the point: Regardless of which Wisconsin poll you're more likely to believe, Walker's try for a third term is in trouble. At no point during his two previous reelection campaigns did Walker trail by anything close to 5 points.

So just how much trouble is Walker in?

To find out, I collected every governor poll I could find for campaigns dating back to 2006. In the more than 120 races I collected polls from, two trends emerged. The first is that large leads early in the campaign tend to revert towards the mean.

The second is that polls taken from January of the election year to mid-summer have tended to overestimate how well the party that controls the White House eventually does. This is the only time a Republican has controlled the White House since Walker first successfully ran for governor in 2010.

Looking at just the average poll, Walker's 4.5-point deficit would be forecasted to result in a 7-point loss in November.

Fortunately for Walker, it's not that simple. Early governor polls aren't always telling. There is a wide margin of error in forecasting.

Gov. Charlie Baker faced a double-digit deficit in early polls in the 2014 Massachusetts governor's race before going on to win. For Walker, this means that although he's projected to lose by 7 points, only looking at the polls suggests he still has a 25% chance of winning. That's as simple as flipping a coin twice and having it land on heads both times. Some might remember that now-President Donald Trump faced similar odds in 2016.

Moreover, race raters from the Cook Political Report and Inside Elections still rate the Wisconsin gubernatorial race as lean Republican despite Walker's poll numbers.

Now, race raters such as Cook and Inside Elections aren't forecasting what will happen in November. They are only rating where they see the races right now.

Even so, ratings at this point are usually quite telling of the November result. Looking at the governor elections since 2006, I compared where the race raters had each individual race at this point and what actually happened. Like with the polling, the White House party's candidates are overestimated in early race ratings. Despite this fade in poll standing for the president's party, races that are solid for one party and even races that are only likely for candidate at this point are almost always won by that candidate. Candidates such as Walker, whose race "leans" in his direction, are favored to win about 70% based upon how previous races like his broke down.

If you were to average the two probabilities (the polling and the race ratings), you would end up with Walker having a 48% chance of winning reelection.

This split between the polling and the race raters is not a Wisconsin specific phenomenon. We can look at all 30 of the 2018 gubernatorial races for which there is at least one poll not taken by one of the campaigns. Then we can see how often candidates in these positions are expected to win based upon the trends of campaigns since 2006. We can do the same for the race ratings in these 30 races (i.e. compare race ratings from prior campaigns at this point to the eventual result and forecast an outcome for this year's races).

I wouldn't read too much into the exact probabilities of each race (e.g. 98% vs. 95% or 70% vs. 75%) because we're only dealing with a few election cycles to calibrate the models. And there is at least one race (Connecticut), which I think is closer than either the public polling or race ratings at this point forecast for November. Still, the broad trends are clear.

There are six races where the current public polling gives the Democrat at least a 24-point greater chance of winning than the probability implied by what the race raters current rankings forecast for November: Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

All of these states were carried by Trump in 2016 and haven't elected a Democratic governor since at least 2006 (and 1998 in the case of Georgia). Kansas, Oklahoma and Tennessee have been especially red recently. Race raters think that they are more likely than not to stay red this time around.

Polls, however, suggest that Democrats have a real shot in all these contests. Given the phenomenon of the president's party's candidate fading down the stretch, the polls actually forecast Democrats are at least slightly favored in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin. In Oklahoma, the average of polls suggests Democrat Drew Edmondson has a 50% chance of winning in a state Trump carried by over 35 points.

On the other hand, there is just one race where the implied probability of a Republican victory by the polling is 24 points greater than by the race raters: Rhode Island. Gov. Gina Raimondo is fighting for reelection and polls show a close race between her likely Republican opponent Allan Fung and her. Both the Cook Political Report and Inside Elections rate the race as likely Democratic. Given how race raters tend to overestimate the chance the party in the White House has of winning a seat, this rating has normally meant an easy Democratic victory in the fall.

The difference between the polls and race raters can perhaps best be seen by what each implies about the the governor's landscape as a whole. The polls suggest Democrats will pick up somewhere between 7 to 8 seats (if we count independent Alaska Gov. Bill Walker as a Democrat), which would give the Democrats about an equal number of governorships as Republicans.

If Democrats swept all the races where they had at least a 33 percent chance of winning as implied by the polling, they would end up with a net gain of 14 governorships. That probably won't happen, though Democrats conceivably could come close if a large wave develops. This would leave Democrats with closer to 30 of the governor's mansions nationwide.

If the trend of past years holds, the race raters current prognostications would forecast something closer to a 5 to 6 seat gain for the Democrats. That's not bad, though would still leave Republicans with a majority of governorships nationwide. The ceiling is also lower for Democrats than the polling implies because parties rarely win governor's races where the other side is rated as at least "likely" to win at this point. Democrats would be lucky to hold a majority of governorships if the trend seen in previous years with race ratings at this point to Election Day holds in 2018.

The good news for Democrats and bad news for Republicans is that, despite their implied differences, both the polls and race raters at this point are suggesting that Democrats are probably going to gain a significant number of governorships in the fall.

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