"PFONI" is a mnemonic acronym, a shorthand term I've coined to summarize the focus of this year's election. Both the Presidential election and control of the US Senate will be decided in a handful of states, and my new word is composed of their first letters, and in order of priority (specifically for the Presidential election). Technically, it should be PFO3NI, as there are three "N" states that make the cut. It is partially a coincidence that the key Senate races are in these states; a coincidence that they all have Senate races (2/3 have a contest in a Presidential election year), but of course not coincidental that close Senate races tend to be in states that are close for the Presidential contest. And yes, there are some other consequential Senate races outside the seven key states (I'll come back to that later), but these seven have most of those that look to be close at the finish.
The background story is President Obama's 332-206 Electoral College margin vs. Mitt Romney in 2012. To win the election, Trump must net a gain of at least 63 Electoral votes; the states below gave 83 to Obama and 15 to Romney. Let's go through them one at a time:
Pennsylvania (20 Electoral Votes)- This is the single state that I believe will be most determinant of the outcome: if Clinton wins it, it is very unlikely she will lose; if not, she is in trouble. Fivethirtyeight.com (will be abbreviated as "538", but don't use that to check the website) has it at 60% probability for Clinton (their "polls-plus" forecast, which takes all into account and estimates election day likelihood), the same as the election in general. Predictit.org has it at 66% probability for Clinton, the same as her price on winning the election.
If one looks at the demographjcs of the election and of the state, PA will depend on Clinton's ability to draw the votes of the college-educated in suburban Philadelphia and the margins she can draw (turnout) among African-Americans. As in the election in general, it is all there to be won by her campaign. In this regard, the choice of Philly for the site of the Democrats' convention looks smart, as long as it comes off well.
The Senate race promises to be close. Pat Toomey is a Republican that is too conservative for the state; he won in a poor Democratic year (2010) against Joe Sestak (perceived to be a weak candidate by the party elders). Sestak lost the primary to Katie McGinty, who is running neck-and-neck with Toomey in the polling.
Florida (29 EV) - A must-win state for Trump; it is nearly impossible for Trump to win without FL (ignoring the nonsense Trump campaign people offer about totally blue states like NY, CA, CT, IL). Tthe only alternative would be to overturn and sweep states like MN, WI, MI, all of which have been consistent--close, but Democratic--in every recent Presidential election. FL's basic demographics will match large margins for blacks and Latinos for Clinton against those among white non-college voters for Trump; the deciding factor might be the large elderly population, so Trump's positions on Social Security and Medicare (which I haven't clearly heard yet) could be make-or-break--expect him to try to out-pander the Democrats in this area. It's very much 50-50 right now, though I think the longer-term dynamics will favor Clinton.
The Senate race will be one of the highest-profile ones, and the outcome is far from certain. Marco Rubio's late entry, a complete reversal from what he had always said (but still not too surprising), turns it from an uphill struggle to hold his seat to something somewhat likely. Rubio is not particularly popular in his state these days, as evidenced by the trouncing he took from Trump, but the Democrats are not ready to take him on: a fierce primary battle between two Congressmen, one a Blue Dog (Patrick Murphy) and the other a raving, ethically-compromised radical (Alan Grayson). Grayson wins my award for the most consistently amusing emails, but I share the party's doubt that he may be the strongest potential opponent.
Ohio (18 EV) - As always, a key state for the Republicans' hopes, and what should be fertile ground for Trump's appeal to embittered, working-class whites. He would be favored if not for his failure--so far--to make peace with his defeated rival, Gov. John Kasich. Without Kasich's support, or if it comes too late, Trump has to be considered the underdog. (538 has it about 50-50, Predictit 60-40 Clinton).
The Senate race has a lower profile than Florida's, but it is also very close, with each party nominating strong, somewhat bland candidates who are proven winners in statewide elections, Rob Portfman for the Republicans and Ted Strickland for the Democrats. It will likely be a tossup all the way to Election Day.
Next come three "N" states, I'll start with the one with the most Electoral votes:
North Carolina (15 EV) - This is the only one of the seven which went Republican in 2012 (after going very narrowly for Obama in 2008); we are told the demographics are gradually shifting more toward the Democrats in the state, but this year's vote may show a reversal of the trend. It polls very close right now, but I tend more to the 538 view (60-40 Republican) than Predictit's 50-50.
The Senate race has an incumbent, Richard Burr, against a promising woman contender, Elizabeth Ross. Burr is what passes for a moderate Republican outside New England, and Ross is a moderate Democrat. The state's politics have been roiled by the passage of the infamous legislation requiring transgender persons to use the public bathroom of their "birth gender", which is causing great embarrassment to the Republican-dominated state government. Predictit gives the Democrats a 40% chance to pick up this seat.
Nevada (6 EV) - This state has moved from reliable Republican to narrowly favoring the Democrats in national elections; the question is whether the impending retirement of the state's political kingpin, Senator Harry Reid, will change the balance of power. It is polling even, but I would favor the Democrats.
The race for Reid's Senate seat is perhaps the most critical of all; the Democrats need to gain four seats (and keep control of the White House, or five without it) to regain control of the Senate. All of the other seats mentioned are Republican-held and many represent good or great chances for Democratic gains, but losing this one would make the Democrats' task doubly hard. Of course, a smaller state's Senator gets the same vote as the Senators from New York or California. The Democrats' candidate, Catherine Cortez Musto, was previously the state Attorney General; the Republicans', Joe Heck, is a Congressman and party regular. It will be a hugely expensive race and is a true tossup; Cortez Musto will have plenty of support from national organizations.
New Hampshire (4 EV) - The Granite State provides surprises, but usually just in the primaries: it gave Bernie Sanders a large margin, and Donald Trump in the same day. In its polling, third-party candidates are unusually strong. Really alone among the states of the Northeast, there is doubt about the likely outcome, but it is also unlikely NH will make the difference in the Electoral College.
The Senate race is a high-profile battle between two strong candidates, Gov. Maggie Hassan and the Republican incumbent, Kelly Ayotte. Ayotte has tried to maintain some distance from Trump and has avoided being tarred with the brush of the darkest Republican slurs. Hassan is at least at parity in the contest.
Iowa (6 EV) - IA was a great state for President Obama (two general election wins, and a crucial win in their 2008 caucuses) but has been less-than-great for Hillary Clinton. This year she eked out a narrow win over Sanders which would have been disastrous if she had lost. This is not a state where the Democrats' huge advantage with minorities will help her; she will have to win this on her appeal to college-educated whites. In this regard, it is typical of the fulcrum of the which will decide the national race. (See below for the demographics discussion on a national level)
The Democrats are pressing to make the Senate contest here a close one but the odds are somewhat against them. The longtime incumbent Chuck Grassley, is a little vulnerable because, as head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he is single-handedly preventing Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, from getting a hearing (though everyone knows he is fully qualified and actually quite moderate). Unfortunately for Democratic nominee Patty Judge, the issue has not ripened much anger, and it would not convince many Republican-leaning independents to turn against Grassley, who has always won easily in the past.
I must mention three Senate seats for which the Democrats are currently favored to pick up seats, in order of likelihood: Wisconsin, where Russ Feingold seems headed toward gaining revenge for his surprise loss to conservative Ron Johnson in 2010; Indiana, which has suddenly become a great pickup target for the Democrats to gain the seat being vacated by Republican Dan Coats, with the late entry of former Democratic Senator Evan Bayh (this deserves a column in itself); and Illinois, where the expected large Democratic turnout makes Rep. Tammy Duckworth the favorite to defeat the slippery incumbent, Mark Kirk, in a battle of candidates with physical handicaps (Duckworth a veteran amputee, Kirk a wheelchair-bound survivor of a serious stroke). Kirk emails me regularly with his progressive positions on the environment and social issues, is a leader in attacking the Iran deal, and dodges Trump at every opportunity, but I don't think it will save him. These three make the Democrats' task of gaining the Senate very achievable.
There are some other races beside all these where the Democrats have some chance:
Missouri, where they have a strong candidate in Jason Kander, but he will have an uphill battle because of the state's Republican lean in the Presidential race; Arizona, where John McCain is facing his toughest challenge yet and is at odds with the Trump campaign; and Georgia, which is a longshot possibility for the Democrats also in the Presidential race. The shortest route for the Democrats to gain control is winning WI, IL, IN; one of OH, PA, or FL; and holding onto NV.
Demographic Shifts & Final Notes
538 has an interactive tool which I love for this Presidential contest (originally they called it the "swing-o-matic", now it is the more dignified question, "what would it take to turn the Blue states Red?"). It allows the reader to try out shifts in the turnout and party percentage, on a national basis, for five demographic groups (college-educated whites, non-college educated whites, blacks, Hispanic/Latinos, and Asian/Other) from their starting point, which is the 2012 data, updated for demographic changes. Those shifts you choose are then applied on a state level and you can see if they cause a change on the state-level voting outcomes. This was done several months ago and the basis of the projection is static--it's not updated for recent polling, and it doesn't take into account third-party voting. (To adjust for that factor, I would suggest to keep the party vote percentages the same, so as to maintain their relative shares, but reduce turnout--more on the white groups, less on the minorities.)
My own starting scenario for the general election (two-party version) makes the following shifts, which I think are all arguable:
- College-Educated Whites go from 56% Republican with 77% turnout to 51%/71%;
- Non College Educated Whites go from 62% Republican with 57% turnout to 67%/65%;
- Blacks go from 93% Democratic with 66% turnout to 90%/59%;
- Hispanics go from 71% Democratic with 48% turnout to 83%/55%; and
- Asian/Other (includes Native Americans) goes from 67% with 49% to 75%/56%.
So, my feeling is that Tim Kaine is a good pick for Hillary, apart from the fact that she likes him, and that she feels he could do the job: he should help with blacks, Latinos, and college-educated whites.
A different scenario results from leaving all the breaks the same as 2012 but shifting just the non-college educated to the high-turnout, high-Republican level above. That shifts FL,OH, IA,NH, and crucially, CO (by 0.1%) to the Republicans and gives Trump a 272-266 margin.
As for the polls, my suggestion is to ignore them until August 15: once the impact of the conventions has settled, we will see if Hillary has a real lead or not. We should certainly expect that the percentage choosing neither will drop from 20% to about 10%, but it will make all the difference if it looks more like 47-43 Hillary or 45-45.