Trust the polls: Heidi Heitkamp is in trouble

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

Posted: Oct 7, 2018 1:33 PM
Updated: Oct 7, 2018 1:33 PM

First things first: The theme song of the week is This Is It by Polly Cutter from the television show One Day at a Time.

Poll of the week: A new Fox News poll gives Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer a 53% to 41% lead over Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in the North Dakota Senate race.

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This poll is in-line with another recent poll from the race that also found Cramer with a double-digit advantage.

What's the point: Democrats need a net gain of 2 seats to take back the Senate in November. While Democrats hold small leads in the currently Republican-held seats in Arizona and Nevada, a loss in North Dakota would leave them with a net gain of only 1 seat.

Democrats could try to make up for the loss in North Dakota by winning in Tennessee or Texas, two red states that are much more accustomed to voting Republican. The Democratic candidates trail in both of those races.

The bottom line is that a loss in North Dakota leaves Democrats in a far worse position in the race for control of the Senate.

Perhaps because of the importance of North Dakota, a number of Democrats have argued that the polling in North Dakota may be wrong. Specifically, people like to point out that Heitkamp won in 2012 even though the public polling showed that she was going to lose.

It would be foolish to dismiss the idea that there could be a polling miss in the state, but I don't think it is likely.

There are a number of key differences with the 2012 campaign and this one.

Most of the public polling in 2012 painted a picture of a closer race than the polls do now. Indeed, there wasn't a single public poll that had Heitkamp down by 12 points in that campaign. The final public poll had Heitkamp down just 2 percentage points.

Additionally, Democrats released internal polling in 2012 to counter the narrative that Heitkamp was trailing. In October 2012 alone, the Heitkamp campaign put out two internal polls featuring Heitkamp leads.

When you combined the public and private polling, as Pollster.com did, Heitkamp was actually slightly ahead of her Republican opponent Rick Berg.

This year, there hasn't been a single statewide internal poll released by the Democrats to suggest that Heitkamp is leading. Moreover, it's not as if there has been a consistent pro-Democratic bias in the polling out of North Dakota.

In the last two competitive major statewide races before 2012, the polls, if anything, underestimated the Republicans. The final public poll in the 2010 House of Representatives race had Republican Rick Berg ahead by 10 points. He won by 10 points. In the 2008 presidential election, the final public poll had Democrat Barack Obama leading by 2 points. He'd lose the state by 9 points.

Now, we're still a month away from the election. Heitkamp's decision to vote against Judge Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation to the Supreme Court may help her, though polls suggests the opposite.

But polls can change. Indeed, when I take into account the fundamentals (e.g. the fact that Heitkamp is the incumbent and has raised a lot of money), my forecast is that Heitkamp will lose by 4 percentage points. That's a far closer race and within the margin of error.

But if the polls stay where they are, the forecast will grow worse for Heitkamp and it's quite likely she will lose. That would likely mean Republicans would continue to hold their majority in the Senate come next year.

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