Still waiting on California

As you’ve probably heard, further counting over the weekend in the United States confirmed that the Democrats have held control of the Senate, winning the two remaining doubtful seats of Arizona and Nevada. That brings the numbers to 50-49: the final seat, in Georgia, will be decided by a runoff on 6 December, which the Democrats are strong favorites to win.

Even a loss in Georgia would just return the Senate to the current 50-50, with effective Democrat control through the vice-president’s casting vote. But with 51-49 the Republicans will have gone backwards – which is what the polls were consistently tipping until a couple of weeks ago, but which still seems to have surprised the pundits no end.

The real surprise, however, is in the House of Representatives. On the night it looked better for the Democrats than most people had expected, but still broadly in line with the polls. I suggested on Thursday that the Republicans might emerge with something like a 15-seat majority. But as more and more votes were counted from the western parts of the country, it became clear that it would be well short of that, if indeed it was a Republican majority at all.

Unfortunately, even five days after the election counting is well short of complete, with California yet again being the main problem area. And different outlets compile their own lists of doubtful seats, which don’t always agree. As I write, the New York Times has the Republicans leading 212 to 204; the American ABC network says 211 to 206, while the Guardian says 212 to 203. The target for a majority is 218.

So I’ve made my own list. The Republicans by my count have won 212 seats definitely, and look set to win another five (the 3rd, 27th and 45th districts in California, the 3rd in Colorado and the 22nd in New York), for a total of 217. The Democrats have a definite 209 and clear leads in another four (California 21st, 47th and 49th and Oregon 6th), totalling 213.

That leaves five doubtfuls, with the Democrats needing to win all of them for a majority and the Republicans, conversely, needing only one. Three of the five are in California – the 13th, 22nd and 41st districts – and the other two in Arizona, the 1st and 6th.

So the best case for the Republicans, if there are no surprises elsewhere, is a nine-seat majority, the same as the Democrats have in the current House. Best case for the Democrats is a one-seat majority, unless they can pull off something unexpected (maybe somewhere like California 27th). But given expectations beforehand, even that would be an extraordinary achievement.

That said, it should be pointed out that immediately before election day the polls (as measured by FiveThirtyEight’s “lite” model) still gave the Democrats a 25% chance of winning in the House. For a one-in-four chance to get up is hardly a boilover; the problem was that commentators had convinced themselves that they knew better than the pollsters.

Of my five doubtfuls, the Democrats are ahead in Arizona 1st and so close to the lead in California 13th (86 votes at last count) that they must be favorites to take it. The Republicans are ahead in California 22nd and 41st, by margins that look shaky but more likely than not to hold up. (Nate Cohn has an interesting analysis of the late vote in California.) Arizona 6th has a narrow Republican lead (currently 1,773 votes) that has been coming down in recent counting; it’s a genuine toss-up.

The mostly likely outcomes, therefore, look like either 220-215 or 219-216, a five- or three-seat Republican majority. Whether that in turn will amount to effective control depends on how unruly the Republican caucus will be, with Trumpists and anti-Trumpists alternately being able to hold the leadership to ransom. Interesting times ahead.

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