Politics

The Midterms Are Here

Here’s how to stress out appropriately.

A photo illustration with John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz, Herschel Walker and Raphael Warnock, Kari Lake and Katie Hobbs, and J.D. Vance and Tim Ryan.
It’s coming. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Win McNamee/Getty Images, Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images, Spencer Platt/Getty Images, Megan Varner/Getty Images, and Mario Tama/Getty Images.

Today is the midterm elections. Republicans need a net gain of five seats to take the majority in the House of Representatives and a net gain of one seat to take the Senate majority.

If you’re a Republican, perhaps you’ve got your Kari Lake foam finger and pennant set ready to go on the couch; if you’re a Democrat, you’re more likely holding on to the ground to prevent it from slipping away.

Either way, don’t expect to get every election result tonight. Given the proliferation of mail-in ballots in recent cycles, and varying state laws about how quickly mail-in ballots can be processed, we’ll see “red mirages” in some states and “blue mirages” in others. We’ll watch the results from fast-counting states establish national narratives that may not hold up when all is said and done. Those you follow on social media will either be panicking way too much or not nearly enough because of viral tweets that are, almost always, categorically false.

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You can avoid some of this trauma simply by not reading any news for a few da—[Slate editors shoot me a death look.]

I mean, you have to read as much politics news as possible, specifically Slate’s Election Night Live Blog!!! Click, click, click! But let’s go through how to do so while maintaining your bearings.

What’s the quick lay of the land?

Democrats, facing headwinds in the economy and with an unpopular president, are defending far more endangered seats than Republicans are, and Republicans also have had (yet another) another favorable redistricting cycle. While there have been few public polls of specific House races this fall, the FiveThirtyEight generic ballot polling average shows Republicans with a 1.1 percentage point lead and forecasts an 83 percent chance that Republicans retake the House.

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Senate polling is on a knife’s edge, meanwhile, with FiveThirtyEight’s forecast giving Republicans a 56 percent chance of retaking the chamber. Republicans have strong opportunities to pick up Senate seats in Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, and New Hampshire. Democrats’ best pickup opportunity is in Pennsylvania, with Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Ohio dangling out there as less likely opportunities.

There will be close gubernatorial races in key presidential election swing states, including Wisconsin, Michigan, and Arizona.

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What’s the big unknown?

What the polling miss will be.

There’s always some polling error on election nights. Pollsters have to make certain assumptions about the likely composition of the electorate, and they don’t always nail it. (This has worsened in recent cycles.) Say the polls have systematically underestimated Republicans’ advantage by a few points. Republicans could then cruise to gains of 30-plus House seats and four Senate seats. Or, if the polls have underestimated Democratic enthusiasm by a few points, Democrats could hold all their Senate seats or net one. (A complicating factor here: The Senate race in Georgia could very likely go to a runoff, which would have its own dynamics.) No one thinks that this election cycle has the opportunity to be actively good for Democrats. But the extent of the damage will depend on the size, and direction, of the polling miss.

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Should I look at early exit polls when they’re out in the late afternoon?

No. Don’t. Please. They’re terrible metrics that will be heavily revised and reweighted later. They mean nothing.

I’m going to look at them and tweet them and everything.

Me too.

But when do the first real polls close? From which early race can I extrapolate wildly?

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The polls will close the earliest in Kentucky and Indiana, at 6 p.m. EST. The key race to watch in this super-early wave—although it will still take some time to call—is that of Democratic Rep. Frank Mrvan in northwest Indiana. President Biden won the new Indiana 1st District by 8 points in 2022. So, if the goal is to extrapolate wildly, a 2-point win by Mrvan’s GOP opponent, Jennifer Ruth-Green, would mean Democrats were running about 10 points behind Biden’s 2020 pace. If Mrvan wins, on the other hand, Democrats might feel as if they have a chance to beat expectations for the night. Or Mrvan could lose by 15, and we can then just reasonably assume Republicans will take over the world! Anyway, congrats to Frank Mrvan, an anonymous freshman member of the House on whom key first impressions of the evening, and thus the entire narrative of American politics, rest.

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From where should I not extrapolate wildly?

Florida.

Florida polls close at 7 p.m. EST, and the state counts ballots very quickly. It’s always the first big shoe to drop. But it’s also a state that’s been drifting redder, and it isn’t always indicative of how the rest of the evening will go.

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In 2018 polls overestimated the strength of both Democratic governor candidate Andrew Gillum and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. That helped set an early narrative for the night that Democrats had underperformed, and it seeped into coverage the following morning. But by the time everything had been counted days and weeks later, Democrats had picked up 40 House seats and 7 governorships and limited their Senate losses to two in the worst Senate map I’ve ever seen.

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In 2020, similarly, the weak early vote dump for Democrats from Miami-Dade County struck horror into the hearts of all Democrats. While 2020 was worse for Democrats than 2018, they still won the presidency.

Florida is going to be bad for Democrats this year, and that badness will be tallied quickly. But prepare to silo off the Florida results before making impressions of Republicans’ night overall.

Fine, I will let Florida be Florida. When can I go about extrapolating again?

We have a few meaningful House races in Virginia, where polls close at 7 EST. Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria, from Virginia’s 2nd District, in the Tidewater region of the state, got somewhat burned in redistricting; Biden carried this district by 2 points in 2020. If she defeats Republican Jen Kiggans, Democrats have permission to think: Hmm, maybe this night won’t be so bad. In slightly more favorable territory, Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger is up against Republican Yesli Vega, and in slightly, slightly more favorable territory, Democratic Rep. Jennifer Wexton faces Republican Hung Cao. If Wexton loses, then it’s a good bet that Spanberger and Luria will too.

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From there, the rest of the House races across the East will come flooding in to give a clearer picture of the night.

I don’t care about Virginia or the House—a little too small-time for me. I want to know who wins the big Senate races!

Polls close at 7 p.m. EST in Georgia, 7:30 in North Carolina and Ohio, 8 in Pennsylvania, 9 in Arizona and Wisconsin, and 10 in Nevada.

There’s a good chance you’ll know the winners in North Carolina and Ohio by the time you go to bed, or that you’ll know Georgia is proceeding to a runoff.

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The other race calls could take forever, yes?

If they’re close.

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As in 2020, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania cannot start counting mail-in ballots until Election Day itself. Michigan can begin counting them a couple of days prior. Arizona and Nevada can take days to tally mail-in ballots. If these races are close, as polling suggests they will be, it could take until Wednesday, even later in the week, or beyond for there to be calls.

I think I remember the mirages from 2020, but tell me about them. Is a mirage … good, or …?

A mirage is just a mirage, buddy. You don’t need to apply values to it.

A “red mirage” is what we could expect in a state like Pennsylvania. There, day-of, in-person voting results will be posted first, and Republicans will take the lead. Once more mail-in ballots are counted, Democrats will close the gap. This happened in 2020 and was the source of that whole thing where Trump hallucinated that Democrats were cheating and tried to overturn the election.

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A “blue mirage” is what we could see in, say, Arizona, where election officials are allowed to process mail-in ballots as they come in. In other words, Democrats could have already banked a substantial number of votes before Election Day, in-person votes from Republicans come in.

The gist of it is: If you flip on the news at 10:30 on election night and see, whatever, “Dr. Oz” has a 9-point lead on John Fetterman in the Senate race, just ignore it. And, a couple of hours later, ignore the mirror image if Sen. Mark Kelly is comfortably leading Blake Masters.

It sounds as if this is all kind of complicated, with many potential pitfalls, false alarms, and disinformation efforts along the way. Should I just live my life and check in on Friday?

No—Saturday, when this exceptional newsletter comes out.

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