Red Wave? Blue Wave? No Wave?

We really have no idea how Tuesday's election will unfold.

FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich tells us “Republicans Are Just A Normal Polling Error Away From A Landslide — Or Wiping Out.” Which, of course, is just another way of saying that it’s a close election whose outcome isn’t predictable.

With just five days until Election Day, Republicans are in good shape in the FiveThirtyEight forecast. If each party were to win every race they are currently favored to win, Republicans would have 51 Senate seats and Democrats would have 49, according to our Deluxe forecast as of Wednesday at 3 p.m. Eastern.1 And if the same thing happened in the House, Republicans would win 225 seats and Democrats would win 210.

But those gains would be modest by the standards of midterm elections. In other words, according to the FiveThirtyEight forecast, this likely won’t be a “red-wave” election like 2010 (when Republicans picked up 63 House seats) or 2014 (when Republicans picked up nine Senate seats). Instead, it’s looking like more of a “red ripple.” But that doesn’t mean a red wave is impossible. 

Which, if our democracy is “calcified,” is exactly what you’d expect. There are just fewer undecided voters than there were even a few years ago.

Our forecast emphasizes probabilities, not binary outcomes: Democrats and Republicans are only slightly favored to win many of those seats, and a seat with a 60-in-100 chance of going blue votes Republican 40 out of 100 times. As readers of FiveThirtyEight are undoubtedly aware, it’s not unusual for polls to be a few percentage points off the final mark (this is normal and just a reality of our uncertain world). Since 1998, polls of U.S. Senate elections conducted within three weeks of Election Day have had a weighted-average error of 5.4 percentage points, and polls of U.S. House elections have had a weighted-average error of 6.3 points.2

That’s an absurdly wide margin—a lot more than we see in Presidential elections. It’s just harder to get a representative sample of a smaller area, where turnout is more unpredictable. Indeed, we’re only able to predict House and Senate races as well as we do because most of them are essentially uncontested.

Rakich takes us through several scenarios in which the polls systematically underestimate Republicans and underestimate Democrats to show just how wide the swings could be. But that’s really pretty obvious from the setup. The polls could be essentially right, in which case party control will be a nail-biter. But a modest “wave” in either direction shouldn’t surprise anyone.

FILED UNDER: 2022 Election, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    We really have no idea how Tuesday’s election will unfold.

    It’s really irritating that we still don’t have time travel.

  2. Kathy says:

    “That’s why we have elections. To see who wins. “

  3. daryl and his brother darryl says:

    A hedge is a word or phrase used in a sentence to express ambiguity, probability, caution, or indecisiveness about the remainder of the sentence, rather than full accuracy, certainty, confidence, or decisiveness

  4. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Would you like to go forward or backward?

  5. daryl and his brother darryl says:

    I’d go back and give Trump’s daddy a condom.

  6. CSK says:

    @daryl and his brother darryl:

    Multiple thumbs up on that one.

  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    Oh, forward. I have no interest in 17th century dentistry. You?

  8. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I agree with something George Plimpton once told me about not wanting to live in a world without antibiotics. And novocain.

  9. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Me, I’d pay a small fortune to translate modern history books into ancient Greek, Egyptian, Latin, Phoenician, etc., then go back to various periods and show these books to the local philosophers and intellectuals, and see how hard they laugh at the way we misunderstand their time.

  10. mattbernius says:

    If some of the key races are as close as some polls suggest, I think there are a few (unfortunate) assumptions we can make–the biggest one being that if things are close, we are not going to to know by November 3rd the outcome of key races.

    And if that happens, there is a good chance we’ll have a repeat of 2020’s presidential race where the Republican candidate will have the initial lead and then (because Republican governments did not allow the counting of early voting and absentee ballots ahead of election day) the Democratic candidates will begin to catch up (due to their voters having used early and absentee voting). This means that there will be a number of key races that will be contested if the Democrats win. We’ve already seen a number of Republican candidates already suggesting that on the votes counted on election day count.

    I for one, am not looking to what will follow in the coming weeks (especially in elections for key state positions like Governor and Secretary of State).

  11. Michael Cain says:

    @Michael Reynolds: My only interest is that I have a short list of historical figures I would like to have dinner and drinks and conversation with fairly late in their lives (assuming the language problem is solved w/o me having to do work). Elizabeth I. Genghis Khan. Leonhard Euler.

  12. CSK says:


    I’ve had a fantasy of visiting the past–not living there, just popping in briefly–ever since I was a little kid. I suppose that’s why I read so much history and historical fiction.

  13. James Joyner says:

    @mattbernius: Yup. That was what I was getting at in Monday’s post, “Congressional Control Still Too Close to Call.” Absent a red wave, which is a bad outcome in its own right, every other outcome is likely to be a replay of 2020.

  14. mattbernius says:

    @James Joyner:
    Thanks for the reminder. I totally agree with that analysis.

    Aside: I’m dealing with a head cold and, as a result, I’m not firing on all cylinders. Looking forward to it being over so I can finally start thinking (and writing) coherently again.

  15. grumpy realist says:

    I suspect that the U.S. will have to learn the hard way not to indulge narcissists and other wagahai people.

  16. Kathy says:


    I’d prefer to view the past. The evidence suggests olfactory issues in the past.

    Oh, and who knows what old pathogens no longer in circulation one might pick up.

  17. MWLib says:

    @Kathy: Well, it sort of depends on what you mean by “wins” these days

  18. Michael Cain says:

    Here in Colorado… As of EOB yesterday, 26% of registered voters’ ballots had been returned. That’s a bit below the 2018 level. What’s potentially interesting is a significant decline in the rate of return from voters registered as Republicans compared to 2018. So far, almost no one is voting in person, even though early in-person voting is available. Something under 1%.

  19. Mister Bluster says:

    @Michael Cain:..I have a short list of historical figures I would like to have dinner and drinks and conversation…

    See Steve Allen’s Meeting of Minds.
    Looks like some videos are on You Tube
    (would you settle for Attila the Hun?)

  20. Kari Q says:


    Have you read Doomsday Book by Connie Willis? I immediately thought of it when I read your comment.

    My husband was playing a strategy game based on Renaissance Europe and his monarch died of sweating sickness. He asked if that was a real thing, and I assured him it was, and was a feared disease that appears to have entirely disappeared. I definitely do not want to travel to a period when that one is still active.

  21. Raoul says:

    Polls today (NBC ABC) have the races as a dead heat. Meaning nobody knows what will happen Tuesday. Let me posit some variables: 1-in these high partisan times the mid-year anti-incumbent effect has faded; 2-Abortion may create hidden GOP voters for Dems, after all, almost half (40%+) of Kansas GOP voted pro choice; 3- early voting numbers are reflective of new laws so a comparison with 2018 is sketchy; 4-crime and inflation are basically made up issues with less of an impact than anticipated, people 65+ know what real inflation and crime are, this is not. My feeling all along has been that if polls have the election essentially tied, the Dems will prevail because of abortion. I see a Dem senate and a Rep house. One wild card is the Ukrainian war, especially in Ohio.