Back in May, I wrote a five-part analysis examining what data tells us about the Iowa Senate race. The conclusion was that the GOP was almost certainly going to lose.
But analysts and party insiders believe the race has completely shifted over the past three months. I went back to take another look at the data to see whether Republicans’ chances have improved.
Bruce Braley’s campaign for U.S. Senate has been nothing short of a disaster. Many expected Braley to cruise to victory. A few months ago, the Republican primary was a circus, as a crowded field battled to flank each other from the right. But then almost overnight, everything changed.
In March, Braley was caught on film criticizing Sen. Chuck Grassley as a “farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.” Then Joni Ernst jumped ahead of the Republican field thanks to an ad that was quintessentially Iowan. Ernst won the primary and has been raising money at a faster pace than Braley.
Meanwhile, Braley continues to fumble. The trial lawyer reportedly threatened to sue his neighbors at his vacation home because their chickens wandered onto his lawn. Litigious trial lawyer, vacation home, anti-chicken—facts that are unhelpful in connecting with Iowa voters.
Beyond the gaffes, Braley’s liberal voting record in Congress inextricably links him to Obama. Obama’s approval rating in Iowa is just 36 percent. As I discussed in May, data indicates that while this is unlikely to boost Republican turnout, it will likely depress Democratic turnout.
Braley started out with the race leaning in his favor, but polling shows Ernst with a slight lead in the RCP average. More importantly—because polling shouldn’t be trusted at this point—the race is now a tossup according to the Cook Political Report, the Rothenberg Political Report, and Larry Sabato’s “Crystal Ball.” These expert qualitative assessments incorporate a lot of knowledge about the race that otherwise can’t be easily quantified. This is why academic studies have shown such qualitative assessments added to quantitative models can improve those models. And for this reason, Cook Congressional ratings were included in the model I published in May–though as I explained then, Senate ratings cannot be included.
So does the model change because the race has shifted so much? In short, no.
In Part 2 of my previous analysis, I explained in detail how I developed a model of voter registration. You can see here the data included in the model, and what you’ll note is that none of these data points have changed. If you review current registration levels from the Iowa Secretary of State, my projections in the table below have trended as expected for Democratic and Republican voters.
No Party registration is currently low. That is to be expected at this point in the cycle. We should see an increase leading up to Election Day, though possibly not to the magnitude projected in May.
Here’s the real problem for Republicans. Democrats have not lost voters as quickly as expected, and more than likely, their registration will remain above 600,000 leading into Election Day. This is not good for Republicans—and it’s one sign of a strong Democratic field operation. Sources in Iowa tell InsideSources that Braley and Iowa Democrats have invested heavily in field resources, and they have already opened 26 field offices.
Perhaps even more important is that Republicans continue to underperform in field operations. Right now, there are 620,446 active registered Republicans in Iowa. My model predicted the GOP would reach 624,365 by Election Day, an increase of 3,919. On average, over the past three midterm cycles, the increase in GOP registration between August and November is 2,130. My original prediction appears to be very accurate.
Republicans remain far behind Democrats in the number of field offices. They have twelve. This ignores some lessons learned in 2012 on the value of a far-reaching field operation—especially in turning out the early vote. It would seem that Republicans have failed to strengthen field operations, which is precisely what my previous analysis made clear was necessary to defeat Braley.
We cannot equate registration and voting, but it is key factor in determining turnout. My turnout model makes clear the importance of registration and money. Concerning both of these factors, the race simply hasn’t changed much.
While Ernst is seeing some growth in fundraising, she is on pace to be about $3 million behind Braley in total receipts by November. Total spending will probably come to about $10.5 million for Braley and $7.5 million for Ernst. Perhaps working in Ernst’s favor is Braley’s high burn rate. Down the stretch, post-Labor Day, those knowledgeable of the race expect Ernst to match Braley in spending.
Still, the model indicates that being outspent by this much makes it extremely difficult for Ernst to win. At this point, Braley can be expected to win by about 3 percent (Braley = 51.5%; Ernst = 48.5%).
There are ways that Republicans can outperform these projections.
As we get closer to Election Day, if polling begins to show that a substantial number of Democrats are leaning toward Ernst, then Republicans may have a chance. In the Quinnipiac Poll from mid-June, Democrats more strongly favored Braley than Republicans favored Ernst. Some of this is lingering primary tensions, but there is no reason at this point to believe that Braley faces a large number of Democratic defections. However, Republicans will exploit Braley’s many weaknesses leading up to the election, and we will likely see these numbers move in Ernst’s favor. As already noted, we can also expect Obama’s weak approval to depress Democratic turnout.
Republicans must shift more of their focus to field. Ernst is unlikely to have the resources for such an operation, but the Branstad campaign, Iowa GOP, and outside groups should fill this void. It’s unfortunate that the Republican Party of Iowa still suffers from the disastrous tenure of A.J. Spiker as its chairman. The Party’s new leadership is bringing in more money, which should be able to help turn out support for Ernst.
Additionally, the importance of fundraising cannot be stressed enough. The chart below, which was originally published in May, makes this clear. National Republicans will need to focus more attention on Iowa to help Ernst close the funding gap.
This race remains far from over, but Republicans must redouble their efforts.