X Factors That May Decide Key Senate Races

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X Factors That May Decide Key Senate Races

Polls look good for the GOP but ‘low propensity voters’ and undecideds may tip the balance.

Campaigns across the country have reached the stage where everything is about getting out the vote, especially in contests that will decide control of the Senate.

The election’s fundamentals have not changed. President Obama remains quite unpopular, as do his policies. Americans are sour on the economy—65% believe the nation is on the wrong track in an Oct. 16 CBS News poll. Likely voters prefer a Republican Congress by 11 points, 52% to 41% in this week’s Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Annenberg survey. Intensity and enthusiasm are also with Republicans.

Every major news organization prediction model puts the chances of a GOP Senate takeover at 62.3% (FiveThirtyEight.com) or higher, with the Huffington Post at 63%, the New York Times at 66% and the Washington Post at 93%.

In Wednesday’s Real Clear Politics average of recent polls, Republicans led by double digits in three open Democratic seats (Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia), by 5% in Arkansas, 4.5% in Louisiana (which by all accounts is headed to a December runoff) and 3.3% in Colorado. The GOP’s leads are smaller in Alaska (2.2%) and Iowa (2.1%). Similarly, Democrats hold narrow leads in North Carolina (1%) and New Hampshire (2.2%).

Republicans are ahead in two of three vulnerable GOP seats: Mitch McConnell is up in Kentucky by 4.4%, and David Perdue regained the lead in Georgia by half a point. Sen. Pat Roberts trails in Kansas by 0.9%, but has gained 1.5 points in the last two weeks.

With so many close races, the quality of each party’s ground game will be critical. People are already voting by absentee ballots or at early voting locations. Both parties can find things they like in the results.

For the first time, all Coloradoans can vote by mail. Already, 905,500 ballots have been returned, 42% from Republicans and 33% from Democrats, according to the Colorado secretary of state. To overcome the 84,602-advantage this gives Republican Cory Gardner, Democratic Sen. Mark Udall would have to win 63% of the ballots from unaffiliated voters.

In Iowa, Republicans have eroded the Democrats’ traditional early vote edge. As of Tuesday, Democrats had 5,145 more returned ballots than Republicans, but Democrats enjoyed a 17,991-ballot edge at this point in 2010 and still lost the governor’s race 43% to 53%.

In North Carolina, Democrats have a 97,152-vote early voting edge, up from 62,559 in 2010. Good news for them but no guarantee of victory: Republicans won the 2010 Senate race by 313,000 votes. This year’s early vote total of 583,862 so far is down significantly from 2010’s tally of 741,636 votes at this same point.

In Georgia, Democrats have reached their target of 30% of early voters being African-American, up from 20% two weeks ago. So even if the three newest polls—all showing Republican David Perdue ahead—are accurate, early votes by African-Americans could give Democrat Michelle Nunn the lead Tuesday. But the Libertarian candidate is likely to keep both Mr. Perdue and Ms. Nunn below 50%, triggering a Jan. 6 runoff.

Democrats have made much of turning out “low-propensity” voters, part of the 60% of eligible voters who participate in presidential elections but are not among the 40% who turn out for midterms. However, Republicans are similarly focused on GOP low-propensity voters. RNC analysts are tracking two groups of them—those who voted in 2012 but not 2010, and those newly registered or not having voted since 2006.

Of low-propensity voters who cast a ballot through Monday in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana and North Carolina, Democrats were 39% of the first group and 30% of the second, while Republicans were 30% of the first and 32% of the second. This Democratic advantage could be offset by undecided voters, who range from 6% of voters in New Hampshire to 13% in North Carolina, according to RCP averages. In a midterm, undecideds should break for the party out of power in most contests—but by how much?

Republicans are upbeat, but they must remember it’s difficult to defeat incumbents, the GOP’s key task. The Senate flipped from Republican to Democratic in 2006 when Democrats won Montana by 2,847 votes.

Alaska’s polls don’t close until 12 p.m. Eastern time. It will be Wednesday morning before Republicans know just how well it went for them, and it may take until December or January before the contest is finally settled. But watch Kentucky, New Hampshire and North Carolina, which report early. If the GOP does well there, it could be a great night for Republicans, a very bad night for Democrats, and a tipping point for the Obama presidency.

A version of this article appeared October 30, 2014, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline X Factors That May Decide Key Senate Races and online at WSJ.com.

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