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Why FiveThirtyEight really believes Beto has a chance

Nate Silver explains the reasoning behind the numbers.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

When building a statistical model, you ideally want to find yourself surprised by the data some of the time — just not too often. If you never come up with a result that surprises you, it generally means that you didn’t spend a lot of time actually looking at the data; instead, you just imparted your assumptions onto your analysis and engaged in a fancy form of confirmation bias. If you’re constantly surprised, on the other hand, more often than not that means your model is buggy or you don’t know the field well enough; a lot of the “surprises” are really just mistakes.

So when I build election forecasts for FiveThirtyEight, I’m usually not surprised by the outcomes they spit out — unless they’re so surprising (a Republican winning Washington, D.C.?) that they reflect a coding error I need to fix. But there are exceptions, and one of them came in the U.S. Senate race in Texas between Republican incumbent Ted Cruz and Democratic U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke. I was pretty sure that once we introduced non-polling factors into the model — what we call the “fundamentals” — they’d shift our forecast toward Cruz, just as they did for Marsha Blackburn, the Republican candidate in Tennessee. That’s not what happened, however. Instead, although Cruz is narrowly ahead in the polls right now, the fundamentals slightly helped O’Rourke. Our model thinks that Texas “should” be a competitive race and believes the close polling there is no fluke.


It’s the other factors that push the race toward toss-up status, however. When a challenger has previously held an elected office, they tend to perform better with each level higher that office is. To run for Senate, O’Rourke is giving up his seat in the U.S. House, which is a higher office than had been held by Cruz’s 2012 opponent, Paul Sadler, a former state representative. Strong incumbents tend to deter strong challengers from entering the race, but Cruz wasn’t able to do so this time. Cruz also has a very conservative voting record, one that is perhaps “too conservative” even for Texas. The model actually penalizes O’Rourke slightly for his DUI scandal, but because the scandal has been public knowledge for a long time, the model discounts its importance.

Fundraising is another influential factor hurting Cruz. Ordinarily, you’d expect an incumbent to have a pretty healthy fundraising advantage. Instead, O’Rourke had more than doubled Cruz in dollars raised from individual contributors as of the end of the last filing period on June 30 — an advantage that will probably only increase once the campaigns file their next fundraising reports, which will cover up through Sept. 30. (Our model considers money raised from individual contributors only — not PACs, parties or self-funding.) If fundraising were even, Cruz would still lead in our fundamentals calculation by 4 percentage points, but O’Rourke’s money advantage is enough to bring the overall fundamentals forecast to a dead heat.

All models contain assumptions, and models like the ones 538 create also contain error bars, which is a fancy way of saying that they predict a likely range of outcomes, not just a single outcome. These models are also dynamic, which means they respond in what one hopes is a timely fashion to new information, so what the model says today may not be the same as what it says next week, if it perceives that conditions have changed. You can see with your own eyes the energy and visibility of the Beto campaign, and you can see that it’s different in fundamental ways from campaigns of recent years. You can also see that in the last two non-Presidential years Texas Democrats have been a million votes or more behind Republicans at a statewide level, and that’s a hell of a lot of ground to make up. 538’s model is suggesting that Beto’s campaign has done a good job closing that gap. The rest remains to be seen.

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  1. asmith says:

    GOP internals have it Cruz +8, but have Patrick and Paxton at +5. We’ll see how good the Beto turnout program is in a couple of weeks. Cruz and the superpacs have ran tough ads in the last month, plus the Kavanaugh bounce. I think the inner suburbs and inside the loop areas of the urban counties still look strong, but the exurbs and rural areas are Cruz country.

  2. Bill Daniels says:

    The Kavanaugh bounce is going to bolster Cruz, not Beto.

    Having said that, I’m really interested in the polling on Patrick/Collier, which is the one race I am considering a D vote. I had also considered voting against Paxton, because of his legal issues, but I’m not so sure I want a Texas AG that would be adversarial to MAGA. Maybe better to vote for Paxton and then let Abbott replace him if need be.

  3. Manny Barrera says:

    Bill if there was a bounce for the GOP because of Kavanaugh no one would know for sure.

    Polls suggest there was a slight uptick, but overall it is higher for Democrats when it concerns Kavanaugh. Remember they are polling for enthusiasm for party. There are three groups, Republicans, Democrats, and No Party affiliation, Independents. The largest group is the NO Party people, the most difficult to poll.

    When will you become disappointed in the Russian puppet? When he is behind bars?

    As to whether Beto wins or not, the Democrats have already won as the Republican Party has had to channels tens of millions of dollars to Texas because of the race.

    Here in Harris County they are already drowning their blues and talking about state wide.

  4. asmith says:

    Manny, I agree with you. Here in Dallas the blue wave may sweep most of the gop state reps. There’s polling that shows the Dems ahead in the 5th state district court of appeals which includes dallas, and heavy gop counties like collin, rockwall, and kaufman.

    Emerson has Cruz +5 and CBS has Cruz +6. Ted’s in the driver seat but hasn’t closed the deal yet.

  5. Bill Daniels says:

    This one Beto interview should disqualify him from higher office in Texas.

    Beto needs to explain how he will disarm millions of Texans who own AR-15’s. Will there be house to house sweeps? Does he plan to use federal law enforcement? State law enforcement? What badges will be attached to the people he proposes coming for our guns?

    Ann Richards must be spinning in her grave right now.

  6. Mainstream says:

    Do “millions” of my Texan neighbors own AR-15s? Is there anything in this video where the candidate advocates for confiscation of guns, as opposed to limiting future sales?

  7. Jules says:

    Bill just makes stuff up. I tend to ignore him now.

  8. Bill Daniels says:


    When you include other magazine fed long rifles, the mini-14, AK variants, and plenty of traditional wood stock rifles that accept magazines but aren’t EBR’s, I don’t think millions is wildly overstated.

    As to your question about confiscation, I direct you to Beto-leaning laws in other states, notably the New York ‘Safe Act.’ Registration is always a precursor to confiscation, and outlawing new sales eventually becomes a de facto ban. You guys hoodwinked Reagan into banning new full auto guns to be made for the US civilian market, and now, they virtually do not exist any more, as the service life of the pre-’86 models has ended.

  9. Manny Barrera says:

    Using your argument, or the logic of it, Bill.

    Lies like Trump and Bill espouse always leads to authoritarian governments like Nazi Germany.

  10. Jules says:

    It’s all in Bill’s head, a scary place indeed. Beto does not mention gun registration.

  11. Bill Daniels says:


    More projection and Alinsky tactics from you. The first thing any authoritarian government does when consolidating power is……disarms the populace. That’s your side that want that dystopian, disarmed country, not mine. So if we are looking for an authoritarian government, it certainly isn’t the Trump administration. Trump is not only not coming for your guns, but he wants to ensure that your God given, natural right to own firearms not be infringed on……just like those wise old dead white guys who wrote the Constitution envisioned for the citizens of the USofA.

    This is why Supreme Court justices are so important, and why you should be thanking your lucky starts you got Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. Next up…..RBG’s replacement. She can’t even hold her head up and can barely speak. She’s not long for the world.


    Beto markets himself as some kind of hipster moderate, but that’s not reality. He’s a Chuck Shumer disciple and will vote against gun owners., every chance he gets, including voting against Supreme Court nominees like Kavanaugh, which he is on record saying he would oppose, even before the prevaricating bimbo triumvirate was launched against Kav.

    Beto doesn’t mention registration because he knows he can’t get elected here if he talks about that. Notice he doesn’t mention wanting to ban sales of AR’s either.

  12. Jules says:

    Did you even watch the clip you linked to? You are like your idol in that you lie and lie and lie.

  13. Bill Daniels says:


    “Today, the Senate voted on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. If I were in the Senate, I would have voted no.
    The events of the past two weeks — including Dr. Ford’s courageous, powerful, and credible testimony and Judge Kavanaugh’s temperament in his response — have only added to my concern that he does not meet the bar to serve on the Supreme Court.
    I am disappointed that he was confirmed.”

    He would have voted no BEFORE the sexual assault lies were unleashed. What else do you need a link for?

  14. Bill Daniels says:

    During a pair campaign stops in Houston on Thursday, Democrat Beto O’Rourke jumped right into the middle of the gun regulation debate, saying he fully backs a call for universal background checks and a proposal to ban the sale of assault-style weapons.

    “There is no reason that weapons of war should be sold to people in this country,” O’Rourke told a rousing round of applause from supporters at a town hall meeting at the University of Houston on Thursday.

    Hours earlier, he had a similar message at another town hall in the heart of Houston’s East End. O’Rourke told that crowd that he is a co-sponsor on a bill that would ban the sale of weapons like the AR-15, which 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz used int the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., in February. An AR-15 was also used in 2012 in the mass killings of 27 — mostly children — at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

    So, what would this look like in practice? Let’s say for the purposes of this argument that I own a “weapon of war,” as semi automatic EBR. Beto gets his law passed, and now I can’t sell it to anyone else. It’s a small step to, I can’t GIVE it to someone else, either, meaning that when I die, I can’t pass it on to anyone else. The only legal option is for that gun to be seized by the government. In one generation, tens of millions of EBR’s are lost, and that assumes that an emboldened left doesn’t double down on seizing guns.

  15. Jules says:

    Huh. I thought he didn’t mention wanting to ban sales of weapons. No use talking to a liar.

  16. Bill Daniels says:


    OK, I misspoke when I said O”Roarke doesn’t talk about wanting to ban gun sales. You are correct on that point, obviously, I posted the link that proves he talks about it. That doesn’t change my overall correct characterization of O’Roarke as anti-gun.

    And if we are talking truth telling, would you believe WaPo, when talking about Trump?

    “But when it comes to the real barometer of presidential truthfulness — keeping his promises — Trump is a paragon of honesty. For better or worse, since taking office Trump has done exactly what he promised he would.”