The five P’s of predicting a winner in midterm Senate races

Confused about whether the Republicans can retake the Senate? Never fear. The Feehery Theory offers its foolproof formula for who will win this fall.

Photos by Becky Bohrer/AP
Sen. Mark Begich (D) of Alaska (r.) is the incumbent, but by The Feehery Theory's 'Five P' scoring system, Republican challenger Dan Sullivan is up 6 points to 4.

People ask me how I rate the Senate races. Here is my handy-dandy guide that you can use at home.

Possession is nine-tenths of the law: If you are an incumbent, you are probably going to win. That is the No. 1 factor in predicting if how an election will go. If you are an incumbent, give yourself 3 points.

Population. The demographics of the state are an early indicator of who will win. The more African-Americans in isolation there are in state, the more likely it will be Republican. The more minorities there are in a state (Hispanic, African-American, Asian) the more likely it will be Democratic.

For example, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina have huge African-American populations, but they don’t have big populations of other minorities. California, New York, and Illinois have sizable populations of every minority, making it more likely for Democrats to construct a winning coalition.

The percentage of Catholic voters in a state also plays a role in elections. The higher percentage of Catholic voters usually means the more likely that it will become a swing state.

If you are a Democrat and you live north of the Mason-Dixon line, give yourself 2 points. If you are a Republican, and you are running in the Old Confederacy, give yourself 2 points.

For these purposes, Alaska should be considered part of the Old Confederacy, while Hawaii might as well be assumed to be a Northern state.

Polls. No matter how much we may hate them, polls provide a useful barometer of how a campaign is doing. An incumbent who is below 50 percent in a reelect is usually deemed to be in trouble. It is pretty unlikely for a challenger to overcome a deficit 10 points or more. If an incumbent is below 50 percent but has a lead of 20 points, they will usually win a general election. If an incumbent is below 50 percent, but is up only 8 points, that’s a completely different story.

If you are a challenger, and your opponent is below 50 percent reelect, give yourself 2 points. If you are more than 10 points behind, give those 2 points back.

President.  An off-year election is usually a referendum on the job performance of the president. If more than 45 percent of the American people disapprove of the president, he will likely be a big of drag on the ticket.

In 2010, 48 percent of the American people disapproved of Mr. Obama. The result? Senate Democrats lost six seats. In 1998, President Clinton’s disapproval rating was 30 percent. Democrats held their own in that election, breaking even despite the fact that the president had lied under oath about the Monica Lewinsky affair. In 2006, Republicans lost control of the Senate (and six seats) thanks in part to President Bush’s disapproval ratings of 58 percent.

Given the president’s approval ratings, if you are Republican, give yourself 2 points.

Personality. Candidates do matter, by the way. Heidi Heitkamp was able to beat Rick Berg in North Dakota because she was a better candidate, had a better personality, and ran a better campaign. Hard work, likeability, personal narrative, and an ability to fundraise all help to win campaigns. It also doesn’t hurt if a candidate has name recognition that goes beyond that person. Have the voters heard of you before? Hillary Clinton was able to win in New York despite the fact that she had never lived there before because voters had heard of her.

This is hard to define and hard to measure. So, it’s worth 1 point to whomever is judged to have the winningest personality.

So, add up the scores. If an incumbent sits at 5, he or she is in serious trouble. If the challenger has more than 6, the incumbent is a goner.  If the incumbent sits at 7, don’t waste your money on the challenger.

Let’s try it:

Alaska Sen. Mark Begich (D) vs. Dan Sullivan: Senator Begich gets 3 for being an incumbent and 1 for the winning personality (his dad served in the Senate). Mr. Sullivan is a Republican, so he gets 2 for being in Alaska and 2 for not being in the president’s party. In the polls, Begich is below 50 percent and Sullivan is within 10 points. Sullivan 6, Begich 4.

Arkansas Sen. Mark Prior (D) vs. Tom Cotton: Senator Prior gets 3 for incumbency, and 1 for personality (his dad served in the Senate). Mr. Cotton gets 4 for being a Republican in Arkansas. Prior is below 50 and Cotton is within the margin of error. Cotton 6, Prior 4.

Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) vs. John Cassidy: Senator Landrieu gets 4 (incumbency and personality); Mr. Cassidy gets 4 for being a Republican in Louisiana. She is below 50 and he is within the margin of error. Cassidy 6, Landrieu 4.

North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan (D) vs. Thom Tillis: Senator  Hagan gets 3 for incumbency. Mr. Tillis gets 4 for being a Republican in North Carolina.   Hagan is right around 45 percent and Tillis has a slight lead in most polls. Tillis 6, Hagan 3.

Minnesota Sen. Al Franken (D) vs. Mike McFadden: Senator Franken gets 3 for an incumbent. He has downplayed his previous career, so he won’t get a point for his "Saturday Night Live" career. Mr. McFadden gets 2 points for being a Republican, but Franken gets 2 points for being from Minnesota. Franken is under 50 and McFadden is within 10 points, but those numbers are just on the line. So let’s split the two points, one for each.   Franken 6, McFadden 5. Keep an eye on this race.

New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) vs. Scott Brown: Senator Shaheen gets 3 for being an incumbent and 2 for being north of the Mason Dixon Line. (You can make the case that New Hampshire is a special case, but I won’t here). Mr. Brown is a Republican, so he gets 2. He also gets style points for being a big personality, so he gets 1 for that. Brown gets 2 points because Shaheen is below 50 and he is within 10 points. Shaheen 5, Brown 5. This is too close to call.

Colorado Sen. Mark Udall (D) vs. Cory Gardner: Senator Udall gets 3 for being an incumbent. Colorado is a swing state, so neither side gets the advantage on demographics. Mr. Gardner is a Republican, so he gets 2 points for that. Udall comes from a famous family, so he gets a point for that.   On polling, Udall is below 50 percent and Gardner is within 10 points, so the Republican gets 2 points for that. By my count, that’s 4 to 4. I wouldn’t be comfortable if I were Udall.

Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) vs. Alison Lundergan Grimes: Senator McConnell gets 3 for being an incumbent, 2 for being a Republican opposed to Obama, and 2 more for being from a Southern state. Grimes gets 2 for keeping McConnell under 50 and is within 10 points.  She gets one for personality (McConnell is not well-beloved there). McConnell 7, Grimes 3.

John Feehery publishes his Feehery Theory blog at

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to