Does new poll show Democrats might keep control of Senate?

A just-released poll shows Democrats tied with or leading Republicans in key red state Senate races, boosting morale on the left. But it's a bit early for election forecasting models to pay much heed.

Timothy D. Easley/AP/File
Kentucky Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes speaks in Louisville, Ky., in 2014. NBC/Marist data survey has Grimes within a percentage point of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky.

Might Democrats keep control of the Senate following this fall’s midterm elections? That question is reverberating through Washington political circles Monday following the surprising numbers of a just-released NBC/Marist poll of key red state 2014 Senate races.

The survey shows Democratic candidates even with or ahead of Republican rivals in Kentucky, Georgia, and Arkansas. If nothing else it’s been a morale boost for left-leaning partisans after months of electoral bad news.

“Today’s new polling is a reminder that maybe, just maybe, all the GOP certainty about their pending Senate takeover is a bit premature,” writes liberal Greg Sargent at his Plum Line Washington Post blog.

For instance, NBC/Marist data survey has Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes within a percentage point of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. Given Kentucky’s Republican lean, many observers have felt that Senator McConnell is the heavy favorite in this race.

In Georgia, the poll puts Democrat Michelle Nunn about even with all possible Republican opponents. That has Democrats dreaming of the return of the Nunn clan to the US Capitol – Ms. Nunn’s father, Sam Nunn, served in the Senate for a quarter century.

And the survey puts incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas – one of the most endangered Democrats on most pundit lists – a whopping 11 points ahead of GOP challenger Tom Cotton.

All the above “are competitive states as far as the general election is concerned,” says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Well, that’s probably true. But it’s still way too early to put too much credence in these numbers. Individual polls don’t tell you that much this far in advance of statewide elections.

Lumping NBC data in with previous polls, the RealClearPolitics average of major surveys has McConnell ahead by one percentage point – essentially tied.

In Georgia, RealClearPolitics has Nunn up by three percentage points. And in Arkansas, it has Senator Pryor up by 4.8 points – meaning the big 11 point lead he enjoys in the NBC poll may be an outlier.

And election forecasting models at this point in the cycle don’t put much credence in poll numbers, if they include them at all. Other factors such as incumbency, candidate quality, the state of the economy, and national trends weigh more in early-stage political prognostication.

Those models have barely budged, in case you’re interested. At the New York Times, their Upshot Senate election model gives the Republicans a 54 percent chance of retaking the chamber. That’s essentially a tossup.

Other math-based forecasts give close to the Upshot’s results – with the exception of the Washington Post’s Election Lab, which has the GOP as 82 percent favorites to gain Senate control.

The bottom line: don’t get too excited about each day’s headlines, one way or another. There are lots of headlines and potentially election-changing events to come.

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