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April 17, 2014 10:43 AM Looking At All the Evidence In Predicting Elections

By Ed Kilgore

In looking at specific upcoming election contests, it’s logical to consider all sorts of contextualizing factors: party registration, prior election results and trends, turnout patterns, primary challenges, fundraising, economic conditions and presidential approval ratings. This last factor (generally thought to incorporate the one just before it), along with a limited history of “six-year” problems for parties holding the White House for two terms, is central to the widespread belief that Democrats won’t be able to hold onto many or even any of the red-state Senate seats up this year in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia.

But the indicators that are often ignored in all the electoral fundamentalism are actual polls comparing the actual candidates—not their parties or their presidents. Today FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enton takes a stab at assessing the predictive value of early Senate polls as contrasted with presidential approval ratings.

More than six months from the midterm elections, current polling and past precedent are competing for our trust. I analyzed which measure is more indicative come November, and it turns out that polls are a more robust metric even though their numbers are still sparse and there’s still so much time remaining before the election.

This is very good news for Arkansas’ Mark Pryor, who has been written off regularly by prognosticators but stubbornly leads in a lot of the polling. As we get closer to Election Day, the significance of current polling increases—but so, too (arguably) do the presidential approval rating numbers and turnout indicators. The bottom line is that in normal circumstances all the evidence should begin to converge late in an election cycle. But when it doesn’t, your best bet, where it’s available in quantity and quality, is current candidate polling rather than this or that “theory” about how things are destined to transpire.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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