Who will win the battle for Congress? Four scenarios.
By Nate Cohn
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.
Why such a wide range? With so many races on edge, it wouldn’t take much for the final outcome to feel very good, or very bad, for either party.
In the Senate, the races likeliest to decide control remain exceptionally close, with the poll averages showing essentially a dead-heat in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arizona and even New Hampshire. With just a few lucky breaks, either party could win control.
There’s a similar story in the House. While Republicans are favored to win the chamber, dozens of races are tossups. It wouldn’t take much for Democrats to keep the race fairly close, perhaps delaying a call on House control for many hours or perhaps even days. On the other hand, it wouldn’t take much for Republicans to pick up dozens of seats, leaving the impression that 2022 was something like a wave election.
There is also the possibility of more surprising outcomes: a true Republican landslide or a Democratic hold on Congress. The polls have been wrong before. The voters, after all, have the final say.
Here’s an overview of what might still happen — how it might happen, why so much remains possible, and what signs to look for on election night.
Scenario 1: The clear Republican win
With five critical Senate races and dozens of House races looking like tossups, even some random breaks could give Republicans something that feels like a rout: control of the Senate and a big gain in the House.
The election could still be fairly close. It might still take days to resolve. But it wouldn’t take much for the final scoreboard to look more like a rout than a close and competitive race.
In almost every critical race, the final New York Times/Siena College polls suggested that voters preferred Republican control of Congress and disapproved of President Joe Biden’s performance, but Democrats often had the advantage of incumbency or Republicans had the disadvantage of an unpopular candidate.
But Republicans could quickly have a great night if even a small share of voters swallows their doubts about unpopular nominees or discards their warm feelings about longtime Democratic incumbents.
Another factor is turnout, especially in the House races in states with less competitive races at the top of the ticket. It might be enough for Republicans to scratch out a few extra wins.
It might take a long time before a clear Republican success becomes a certainty. It might take days before critical races in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Nevada are resolved. Georgia might take until December, if no candidate clears the 50% necessary to avoid a runoff.
But on Tuesday night, the signs of a clear Republican win might start to pile up. Republicans would quickly register comfortable wins in North Carolina, Florida and Ohio. New Hampshire might be close, even if the Democrats pull it out. Wisconsin would be in the Republican column by bedtime. A series of crucial House districts in the Southeast, like North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District and Virginia’s 2nd, might swing into the Republican column. The odds of Democrats holding on in the pivotal but slower-counting states would start to look pretty bleak.
Scenario 2: The feels-like-a-win for Democrats
Democrats cling to a five-seat majority in the House, but if they get a few breaks, the night might leave them with a lot to feel good about — even if the scoreboard shows the Republicans gaining seats and taking the House. It might even feel like a Democratic win, given how the polls have trended toward Republicans in recent weeks.
This feels-like-a-win mainly comes down to holding control of the Senate. To hold the chamber, the party will probably need to win three of the four most critical races: Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada.
Democrats would start to feel a lot better if they could add a few more feel-good wins to the ledger, like beating “stop the steal” Republican candidates for governor in Pennsylvania and Arizona, or a victory for abortion rights in Michigan. It might just be enough for Democrats to take a glass-half-full perspective on the 2022 election, provided the party also holds down its House losses and can save face by avoiding embarrassingly close races in blue states and districts, such as for governor of New York or for the Senate from Washington.
The Democratic path to an acceptable night counts on voters who will back the candidate they know and like most, even if they don’t love the idea of having Democrats control the Senate. Staving off embarrassment will also require Democrats to turn out in states far removed from the national spotlight — the states where the Senate isn’t at stake, where abortion is not on the ballot, and where no stop-the-steal candidate has a realistic chance of winning statewide.
It will take a long time before it becomes clear that Democrats are on track for a feels-like-a-win. There’s a distinct chance that none of the key Senate races will be called on election night. Democrats will start to feel optimistic on Tuesday night if they can stay close in states such as Ohio, Wisconsin and North Carolina, and hold the key East Coast House races.
They might even get outright excited if Mark Kelly opens up a wide lead in Arizona’s increasingly Democratic early mail vote.
Scenario 3: The Republican landslide
If the polls underestimate the Republicans again, the result of this year’s midterms won’t just feel like a Republican landslide — it will be a Republican landslide.
A “red wave” election would not be a surprise; nor would it be hard to explain. Biden’s approval ratings are stuck in the low 40s, a figure as low or lower than Donald Trump’s approval ratings in 2018, Bill Clinton’s in 1994 and Barack Obama’s in 2010. In each case, the party out of power gained 40 or more House seats and won the House national popular vote by around 7 percentage points or more. With Republicans making steady gains in the polls, it does not take any great imagination to see them stretching out a more decisive lead.
It’s tempting to think a decisive Republican victory isn’t possible in such a polarized country, especially because Democrats have won the national vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. But just last November, Republicans won the Virginia governor’s race by 2 percentage points — exactly the kind of showing that would be equivalent to a red wave nationwide.
The red wave doesn’t necessarily require the surveys to be systematically biased in the same ways they were two years ago, although that very well might happen. It may require only that undecided voters decide, as they often have, to use their vote as a check on the party of the president, regardless of their feelings about individual Democratic incumbents. Or maybe it would take an unexpectedly strong Republican turnout on Election Day, while young, Black and Hispanic voters stay home in greater numbers than they did in 2018.
On Tuesday night, if Republicans are headed for a landslide, the signs would be obvious from the start. Not only would Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Ron DeSantis cruise to victory in Florida, where votes are counted quickly, but safe Democratic House incumbents in South Florida — even the well-known former Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz — might find themselves in surprisingly close races. Farther north, Republicans would easily flip the key tossup districts in Virginia and North Carolina, but also advance even further into blue territory — flipping Virginia’s 7th, held by Abigail Spanberger, while endangering the next tier of safer Democratic incumbents, such as Jennifer Wexton. The Senate races in North Carolina and Ohio would not be close.
It might still be a long time until we see a call in the Senate, but in this scenario Herschel Walker would have a chance to clear the 50% necessary to win outright and avoid a runoff in Georgia. A Republican win in the Senate race in New Hampshire would seal the deal.
Scenario 4: A Democratic surprise
A surprising Democratic night — a hold in the House and the Senate — is unlikely. With polls trending toward Republicans, the outcome feels even harder to imagine than the word “unlikely” suggests.
But it does remain within the realm of possibility: Democrats are still within striking distance of a good night. Unlike in previous cycles, they remain competitive in enough races to win control of the House. And not only do Democrats remain competitive in the race for the Senate, but they also have upside potential for a good night: Upsets remain possible in states such as Wisconsin, Ohio and North Carolina, even if Republicans are plainly favored.
By any historical perspective, it would be hard to explain if the Democrats managed to hold both chambers of Congress. No president with an approval rating under 50% has seen his party gain House seats in a midterm election, dating to the dawn of modern polling. But this is not an ordinary moment in American history. Partisan polarization is extreme. Many Democratic voters perceive that democracy is under threat. Others are furious about the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. In another midterm election, these voters might have stayed home. This cycle, they may well vote. And a critical sliver of voters dissatisfied with Biden and Democrats might feel they have no choice but to vote against Republicans.
Democratic strength among highly educated voters would most likely be a critical part of any upset. Not only are these voters well represented in key battleground districts, but they’re also likelier to make up a larger share of the electorate in a low-turnout midterm election. It’s a tendency that might cut against the usual pattern for the president’s party to suffer from low turnout. At the same time, Democrats would need relatively disaffected elements of their party’s base — Black, Hispanic and young voters — to come home down the stretch.
The possibility of the polls erring in this way might also seem hard to imagine. After all, polls have underestimated Republicans in recent cycles. But historically, there isn’t much of a relationship between polling error in one election and the next. The pollsters who did poorly either adjust or drop out. The pollsters who did well one year feel emboldened the next. And that does seem to be happening this cycle.
The traditional pollsters who underestimated Republicans the most in 2020 have significantly reduced their polling this cycle or stopped altogether. Other pollsters are doing everything they can to ensure a more Republican-leaning sample, including by means that would have been scorned a few years ago. And then there’s the flood of state polls by Republican firms, showing eye-popping results such as a Republican lead for New York governor.
All of this may add up to far more accurate polling averages than in 2020. But if pollsters overcorrect — or if the balance of pollsters has shifted too far toward the Republican-leaning outfits — there would be a chance that the polls underestimate Democrats.
Indeed, many traditional polls still show signs of Democratic strength. To take one recent example: Marist College released polls showing Democrats ahead in Pennsylvania and Arizona, and leading among registered voters in Georgia. Siena College showed Democrats faring quite well in several critical House races in New York state that one might have thought were leaning toward Republicans in this national environment.
On Tuesday night, if Democrats are on track to greatly exceed expectations, the signs would show up pretty early. The Senate races in North Carolina, Wisconsin and Ohio will all largely be decided on election night. If Democrats remain highly competitive in all three or even win one, it will be a clear sign that this isn’t the simple Republican win that analysts long expected.