Friday, December 12, 2014

2014 Predictions in Review: A Winning Campaign

It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future. I made my fair share of them in 2014, and now that the year is drawing to a close, it's a good time to revisit them.

This election cycle, I left the big predictions—Senate, House, governor—to the experts. Instead, I tried my hand at handicapping some less celebrated but equally important races: those for constitutional office in the 50 states. By Election Day, I had issued Cook-style race ratings for the nation's lieutenant governor races, attorney general races, auditor races, comptroller/controller races, and state superintendent races. (Final ratings are, for a limited time, still up on my "2014 Ratings" tab but are archived forever at the bottom of this post.) I wanted to provide a guide to elections no one else was really bothering with, to help and encourage people to understand them at a glance—but that isn't much of a help if those race snapshots are totally off the mark.

Here in December, of course, we know who won each of those 72 races, so it's time to go back and see how my inaugural constitutional race ratings turned out. The main takeaway? Politics is easier to predict than baseball. Here's how I did by office:
  • Of the 17 lieutenant governors elected separately from governors, I predicted a post-election breakdown of 12 Republicans and five Democrats. That's exactly where it ended up.
  • I predicted a post-election split among the nation's 43 attorneys general of 22 Democrats and 19 Republicans, with two tossups. It was actually 20 Democrats to 23 Republicans. This was my worst category, but it also offered the most chances to be wrong, with 31 races to handicap.
  • I foresaw Republicans taking a 12–11 lead among auditors, with one tossup. The end result was a 14–10 Republican auditing majority.
  • For the nine comptrollers/controllers in the country, I predicted each party would win four seats, with one tossup. That rubber match ended up going to Republicans, who took a 5–4 lead among this group of officers.
  • Finally, I said Republicans would hold four superintendent jobs, Democrats would hold three, and two would be tossups. All the tossups went to the GOP, as they maintained their 6–3 superintendent advantage.
Not all of those picks were created equal, though; as with Senate or governor, many elections were foregone conclusions, while others were harder to forecast. You get a better picture of where I may have gone wrong when you look at the results of the races in each rating bracket:
  • Democrats won 17 of the 17 races I rated as Solid Democratic, including one uncontested race.
  • Democrats won three of the three races I rated as Likely Democratic.
  • Democrats won just two of five races I rated as Leans Democratic.
  • Republicans won all six races I rated as Tossup.
  • Republicans won seven of the seven races I rated as Leans Republican.
  • Republicans won 11 of the 11 races I rated as Likely Republican.
  • Republicans won 23 of the 23 races I rated as Solid Republican, including four uncontested races.
From this, it's clear that my ratings were pretty good, but not great. I had the right general sense for the spectrum on which races went from Democratic-leaning to Republican-leaning, but I underestimated Republicans across the board. However, I'm in some pretty good company; most election forecasters this year expected Republican gains but were taken aback by the Republican wave that ended up forming. The fact that general punditry, not to mention the polls, were overly friendly to Democrats explains why the GOP took all of my tossup races—and also won three of my Leans Democratic races, something that would normally be a red flag. In this election, though, I think it makes sense—even if I still would have liked to have known better.

This still doesn't tell the whole story, though. It's not just about who won these races, but how much they won by. (This is, after all, what separates the Solids from the Leanses.) There's an important caveat here: a candidate's final margin of victory doesn't necessarily reflect their pre-election likelihood of winning the race; some states or races are more elastic than others. (For instance, the 13-point race that was California lieutenant governor was never even remotely within Republicans' grasp, whereas the 16-point race for New Mexico AG was definitely winnable for the GOP; those last 13 points are much, much harder to scrape together in California than in New Mexico.) However, I do think final margins are important to look at as the most obvious indicator of a race's closeness. The following chart contains the Democratic margin of victory (positive numbers) or defeat (negative numbers) in all the races I handicapped (numbers are unofficial counts from the AP):


The average margins for each category are at least in the right order, from biggest at Solid Democratic (+21.3 points) to most negative at Solid Republican (–46.0 points). Likely Democratic (+9.7 points) is just where you'd expect a generic Likely Democratic race to be, as is Leans Democratic (+3.8 points). Tossup (–9.8 points) and Leans Republican (–14.0 points) are definitely miscalibrated, but again, that's a function of the GOP's overachieving night.

However, those averages mask some pretty wide deviation in some of the rating categories—most glaringly Leans Democratic. In retrospect, none of the five races given this rating were truly Leans Democratic. Rhode Island LG (+20.5 points) and New Mexico AG (+16.2 points) fit better as Likely Democratic, Nevada AG (–0.9 points) should have been a Tossup, and Arkansas AG as well as Delaware auditor (both –8.4 points) should have been Leans Republican.

Of my Tossup races, Arkansas auditor (–19.8 points) and Nevada controller (–14.9 points) look the worst. Most of my Leans Republican races should've been classified as Likely Republican, but especially Iowa auditor (–14.0 points), Arkansas lieutenant governor (–18.5 points), Ohio auditor (–19.1 points), and Nevada lieutenant governor (–25.9 points). And the 33-point Democratic loss for Nebraska attorney general was a real stretch to put as Likely Republican.

What lessons can I draw from my biggest forecasting misses? First, there's a pattern in the races I mischaracterized most badly. The same states keep popping up: Nevada. Arkansas. Ohio. Iowa. These are states where 2014 saw voters turning particularly hard, and particularly unexpectedly, toward Republicans. In Nevada and Ohio, non-serious top-of-the-ticket Democratic campaigns allowed GOP GOTV machines to operate completely uninhibited, turning these usual swing states into what Dave Wasserman called "orphan states." In Arkansas and Iowa, nominally competitive Senate races turned into laughers when polls failed to predict how utterly and completely the bottom would drop out for Democrats among certain voters there. Those Republican currents were strong enough to sweep away even downballot Democrats running separate, often quite capable campaigns, leading to blowouts of candidates who may have deserved better than they got.

To a certain extent, you can't guard against this. Even a constitutional race that is consistently tied or close in polls can fall victim to it and become a landslide. This is because even the best poll of a race like these includes far more undecided voters than your average Senate or gubernatorial survey—people just pay less attention to their state treasurer or insurance commissioner. The race may indeed be as close as it seems if each candidate wins over undecided voters equally—but often swing voters will all break the same way on Election Day. A race that was 38% to 38% in a poll (as Oklahoma superintendent was) thus can easily wind up as 56% to 44% (as Oklahoma superintendent did) without much imagination. Still, these currents are perceptible if you look carefully enough. In Oklahoma, undecideds were likely to break for the Republican given the overall conservativeness of the median voter there; in states like Nevada, there were warning signs that Democrats might roll over. I failed to pick up on the warning signs that the current was developing, and I underestimated how strong these currents would be.

I may have also been too idealistic in thinking that people would cast their votes based on the merits of each individual race. In many cases, I talked myself into seeing idiosyncratic strengths of, say, the Democratic candidate for Ohio auditor, or I banked on the scandal-tarred unpopularity of the South Carolina comptroller, when in fact I'd have been better off looking at the state fundamentals. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this project is that it is essential to hone that sense for when to look at the state or partisanship and when the race is truly important enough to break through and stand on its own.

We had examples of both kinds of races this year. In certain states, it was clear from how closely downballot Democratic performances tracked with one another that bigger forces were at play. In states like Ohio, the race was decided by turnout; more of a certain shade of voter (in this case, red) was simply showing up to the polls than another shade. In states like Arkansas, voter anger at the amorphous scourge of "Obama" or "Reid" or "Pelosi" drove voters to make a statement and vote blindly against Democrats en masse. And in states like Texas and South Carolina, the normal cross-section of normally conservative-leaning voters just showed up like normal and didn't see anything in these lower-level races to cause them to break their Republican-voting habits.

Then there were other states where it was clear that voters were exercising independent judgment on each race. In Maryland, voters made a statement by electing Republican Larry Hogan governor—but my Solid Democratic ratings for Maryland's two constitutional officers proved right on the money. In Idaho, voters comfortably returned their Republican governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general to office, but they almost elected a Democrat as superintendent of public instruction as well. That race gained a lot of independent attention because of how controversial education has been in Idaho in recent years. The key is knowing when a race qualifies as "special" enough that people will vote purposefully for it and not just follow their partisan instincts or the national mood. It's a subjective call to make, and it's why forecasting downballot races specifically can be so tricky.

Overall, I'm pleased with how my ratings turned out. I still pegged most races at their correct level of competitiveness, and I'm not too concerned about my less prescient calls. Constitutional race ratings will always involve a lot more guesswork than the traditional ratings on Cook or Daily Kos; downballot races have few polls or hard data to work off, and the polls that do exist tend to be less accurate than those of better-covered races. That inherent uncertainty will also always cause me to rate more races as "Tossups" or "Leans" than probably will deserve it in the final analysis. This year, only 13 races were within single digits, but considerably more than that were plausibly up for grabs, simply because no one knew enough to say otherwise. Some races I rate as close will inevitably be those 15-point routs, but that's a feature, not a bug. I stand by a couple of my "bad" ratings from this year for this reason: with as little as we knew about it, Nevada controller (–14.9 points) was indeed anyone's game.

Having tried my hand at race ratings for both Senate/governor/top-of-the-ticket races (in 2012) and downballot races (this year), I've definitely found these to be more of a challenge—and that's the way I like it. I plan on continuing to handicap and provide ratings for constitutional races in 2015 and 2016. I ran out of time in 2014, but with fewer seats on the ballot in the next two years, I hope and expect to branch out to secretaries of state, treasurers, and more, in addition to the offices I test-drove this year. My New Year's resolution to Baseballot readers: to preview every non-gubernatorial statewide office for you on these very pages. Stay tuned.

Archived 2014 Ratings


Lieutenant Governor


Attorney General


Auditor


Comptroller/Controller


Superintendent

Saturday, December 6, 2014

2014 Predictions in Review: A Swing and a Miss

It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future. I made my fair share of them in 2014, and now that the year is drawing to a close, it's a good time to revisit them.

Everyone thinks they know exactly how the baseball season is going to go down every spring—and then everyone is proven totally and completely wrong every fall. (Exhibit A: the Giants-Royals World Series.) I've long since resigned myself to the fact that my preseason picks will never come true, and 2014 was no exception. At this point, it's simply entertaining to go back every winter and see what I expected the MLB season to have in store. Back in 2012 and 2013, this little exercise turned up a few gems, both good and bad. Now let's turn some 20/20 hindsight to my 2014 American League and the National League predictions.

Prediction: The AL playoff teams would be the Rays, Red Sox, Yankees, Tigers, and Rangers. The NL playoff teams would be the Nationals, Braves, Cardinals, Reds, and Dodgers.
What Really Happened: I got four of the 10, including just one in the AL but all three division champs in the NL. As a general rule, my NL projections were better than my AL ones. I picked 60% of the AL East to make the playoffs, so of course its one representative, Baltimore, wasn't among them. I actually correctly picked the order of finish in the AL Central (Tigers, Royals, Indians, White Sox, Twins), but almost totally inverted the AL East and AL West. Here's how my predicted win totals for each team matched up with reality:


Prediction: Miguel Cabrera would hit more than 44 home runs en route to a third straight MVP, with competition from a 30/30 season by Shin-Soo Choo. In the NL, Clayton Kershaw would cruise to a Cy Young Award, while Bryce Harper and Ryan Braun would compete for MVP.
What Really Happened: Cabrera's physical ailments finally caught up to him, as he hit "only" 25 home runs, ceding the MVP to a deserving Mike Trout. Harper, Choo, and Braun dealt with power-sapping injuries all year long; while they all managed above-average OPSes, Harper hit just 13 homers, Choo also had only 13 (and stole three bases), and Braun slugged just 19. Meanwhile, Kershaw won not only the Cy Young (which, come on, was a gimme), but also the MVP.

Prediction: Despite moving Cabrera off third base, the Tigers defense would not improve from 2013; in fact, it would get worse at catcher, first base, and right field. Nevertheless, Brad Ausmus would win Manager of the Year.
What Really Happened: Ausmus showed real growing pains in his first year as a manager, especially with his nonsensical bullpen management. The Detroit defense improved at catcher and first base but took a nosedive at third and right field. Overall, the team that totaled –66 Defensive Runs Saved in 2013 ended up at –64 DRS in 2014.

Prediction: José Abreu would be an instant hit and slug 30 home runs, but it would be Xander Bogaerts who would carry home the AL Rookie of the Year award with a .342 OBP, 30 home runs, and 98 RBI.
What Really Happened: Abreu actually mashed 36, validating my faith and then some. But his .317/.383/.581 line led him to walk away with Rookie of the Year after Bogaerts' tough first season, at a .297 OBP, just 12 home runs, and 46 RBI. He didn't even get a vote.

Prediction: Miami's Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich, no longer eligible for Rookie of the Year but still mere youngsters, would out-WAR the NL Rookie of the Year winner in a weak class.
What Really Happened: Ozuna broke out with a .338 wOBA and 3.7 fWAR. Yelich did even better, with a .362 OBP, 21 steals, and a 4.3 fWAR. At 23 and 22 years old, they were both younger and better than Rookie of the Year winner Jacob deGrom of the Mets (age: 26; fWAR: 3.0).

Prediction: The Marlins would have a surprisingly awesome rotation, with ERA champion José Fernández, Henderson Álvarez, Jacob Turner, and Andrew Heaney—although Nathan Eovaldi would blow out his arm.
What Really Happened: Fernández was the one who blew out his arm, although his 1.74 ERA in his seven healthy starts would indeed have led the NL. Álvarez had a breakout season, posting a 2.65 ERA and earning Cy Young consideration, but Turner and his 5.97 ERA were deported to Chicago while Heaney was only given seven games in which to post his 5.83 ERA. Meanwhile, Eovaldi led Miami with 33 games started and 199.2 innings pitched.

Prediction: The Dodgers would "be in the mix with the Nats and Reds for best rotation in the league," and Dan Haren would "thrive at Dodger Stadium." LA's outfield might be another story, with André Ethier and Carl Crawford playing more games than Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp.
What Really Happened: Haren had a 3.32 ERA at home and a 4.75 ERA on the road. The Dodgers' rotation did indeed have the second-best ERA in MLB—sandwiched between the Nats at number one and the Reds at number three. Finally, in the games-played sweepstakes, I basically reversed the truth: Kemp played the most at 150, then Puig at 148, Ethier at 130, and Crawford at 105.

Prediction: The Phillies would drop to last place in the NL East—behind even the hapless Marlins!—thanks to a bottom-five offense and the worst defense in baseball.
What Really Happened: Philadelphia didn't lose the 102 games I predicted, but they hit bottom in pretty much every other respect. The Phils' .295 team wOBA was third-worst in MLB, and while they didn't have the worst defense in all of baseball, their –39 team DRS was the lowest figure in the Senior Circuit.

Prediction: Grady Sizemore would reinjure himself in April, ending his season and possibly his career.
What Really Happened: One prediction I'm glad I got wrong. Sizemore got 381 plate appearances, his most since 2009. Although he was a below-average player, he already has a guaranteed contract for 2015.

Prediction: The number of starts Miguel González makes will match his ERA: six.
What Really Happened: So close! González made six appearances—no starts at all—and ended with a 6.75 ERA.

Prediction: Lots of people would sleep on the Angels, especially their potent offense. Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton would combine for 10 wins above replacement, and Kole Calhoun would prove more valuable than the traded-away Mark Trumbo, with his sub-.300 OBP.
What Really Happened: Pujols and Hamilton weren't quite that good, but Pujols did register a 3.9 rWAR, and Hamilton was worth 1.5 rWAR in half a season's worth of games. As for Trumbo, he was miserable for the Diamondbacks, with a .293 OBP, a mere 14 home runs, and a –1.1 rWAR. Calhoun was worth a full 5.2 wins more, at 4.1 rWAR. All these things helped the Angels to a far better record (98–64) than even I pegged them for.

Prediction: The 2014 season would be a breakout for Marco Estrada, who would pair his typical 4.0 K/BB ratio with a lowered home-run rate to become one of the NL's elite pitchers.
What Really Happened: Home runs had always been a problem for Estrada, but they spiraled out of control in 2014. He gave up a stunning 1.73 HR/9, although some of that was bad luck, with a 13.2% HR/FB ratio. His K/BB ratio also fell to 2.89, his lowest since 2010, and he lost his job in the starting rotation. Meanwhile, the two Brewers starters whom I was lukewarm on, Yovani Gallardo and Wily Peralta, posted ERAs around 3.50.

Prediction: The Cubs' offense would be stagnant—until September, when a set of callups would lead to their best hitting month. Darwin Barney's great glovework would be worth more than any batsman's offense, even top OPS-er Junior Lake (.755).
What Really Happened: Anthony Rizzo happened. Other than his monster .286/.386/.527 year (with 32 home runs), only Chris Coghlan and Luis Valbuena produced more offensive runs above average than Barney's defensive runs above average (7.8, including his time with the Dodgers). Junior Lake's .597 OPS was second-lowest among Cubs with enough at-bats to qualify. And September was actually Chicago's worst offensive month, although many of the "callups" (like Javier Báez) had made it there by August, which was their scoringest month.

Prediction: The Astros would take a step forward this year—with George Springer hitting 10 homers and stealing 10 bases in limited time—despite the majors' worst starters' ERA.
What Really Happened: Houston improved by 12 games more than I thought it would. Springer was indeed excellent; although he stole half the bases I expected, he hit double the dingers. The main difference was that 11 teams had a worse starters' ERA than the Astros' 3.82, including the Tigers and Red Sox.

Prediction: Derek Jeter would have an injury-marred and subpar final season, as the Yankee infield's best player would end up to be Brendan Ryan. Jacoby Ellsbury, Mark Teixeira, and Brian Roberts would all spend long stretches on the DL.
What Really Happened: Jeter was healthy all year long, but his .617 OPS was his worst ever, apart from his injury-shortened 2013. Ellsbury, too, stayed healthy, but Teixeira and Roberts were more battered than a Yankee Stadium fried dough. New York's most valuable infielders turned out to be two guys who only played half a season each in the city (Chase Headley and Martín Prado), so although I was wrong on Ryan (–0.7 rWAR), I got the gist of how badly things would go.

Prediction: Brandon McCarthy would return to his prior effectiveness, and Chris Owings would play well enough to drive Didi Gregorius out of Arizona in a trade.
What Really Happened: It took the Yankees to make both sides of this prediction come true. McCarthy had a 2.89 ERA for New York after the Diamondbacks traded him and his 5.01 ERA at midseason. And just a few days ago, my Gregorian prophecy also came true, as Didi was shipped to the Bronx to be Jeter's replacement.

Prediction: "As a team, the O's will slug at the second-highest rate in the AL—but get on base at the second-lowest rate," while the Ubaldo Jiménez signing would pay off thanks to his dangerous new slider. Rookies Jonathan Schoop and Henry Urrutia would play key roles, but Kevin Gausman would fall flat.
What Really Happened: At .422, the Orioles did indeed have the second-highest slugging percentage in the league, but they were only fifth from the bottom in OBP at .311. However, Jiménez proved the free-agent class's biggest bust—and according to FanGraphs data, his slider was among his weakest pitches. Instead, Gausman stepped up to be a reliable starter with a 3.57 ERA in 20 starts. Schoop was an out machine with his .244 OBP, and Urrutia didn't play a single game all year.

Prediction: The Padres would have an excellent rotation thanks to a healthy Josh Johnson, a return to form by Ian Kennedy, and a full season of Tyson Ross, who would register a strikeout per inning. However, Jedd Gyorko, Carlos Quentin, and Chase Headley would all take big steps backward.
What Really Happened: Johnson missed the whole season due to needing a second Tommy John surgery, but Kennedy did return to form in a big way. His strikeout rate of 9.3 was a career high, and he lowered his walk rate from his aberrant 2013, resulting in a 3.63 ERA. Ross started 31 games and pitched 195.2 innings—with 195 strikeouts. And it was kind of predictable in PETCO Park, but Gyorko (.210 average) and Quentin (.177 average) dropped off badly, while Headley was traded at midseason while hitting .229.

Prediction: A halving of Jayson Werth's WAR would epitomize the general blahness of the Nationals offense. However, DC's top four starting pitchers would all get Cy Young votes, while Drew Storen would finally step out from Rafael Soriano's shadow.
What Really Happened: Per FanGraphs, Werth's WAR actually improved from his phenomenal 2013—up to 4.8 from 4.6. But that pitching staff really was as special as advertised: Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, and Doug Fister all got well-deserved awards consideration (and heck, Tanner Roark probably deserved a throwaway vote too). And, by pretty much any available metric, Storen (1.12 ERA, 4.18 K/BB, 2.6 rWAR) did indeed outpitch Soriano (3.19 ERA, 3.11 K/BB, 0.8 rWAR), even though Soriano was still better than he appeared.

Prediction: Cleveland would be held back from contention with down years from Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis, while Santana would contribute to a porous left side of the infield defensively. The AL's worst bullpen would turn the team's barely winning Pythagorean record into a sub-.500 one in real life.
What Really Happened: Indeed, Santana's average dropped to .235, although he remained a steady source of power and walks. Kipnis looked lost at the plate, turning in a .240/.310/.330 line. The Indians also clocked in at –19 DRS at third base and –5 DRS at shortstop. The bullpen, however, was a revelation—at 3.12, it sported the AL's fourth-best ERA, and the team did even better than its 83–79 Pythagorean record.

Prediction: "If the Indians don't have the league's worst bullpen, the Mariners will," and Seattle would boast the majors' worst record in either one-run or extra-inning games.
What Really Happened: The Mariners had the AL's best bullpen. At a 2.60 ERA, they were a full 0.31 runs better than the runner-up. This was a big part of why Seattle was the team I underestimated the most going into 2014. They won 18 more games than I expected. Bizarrely, though, they still struggled in one-run games, to the tune of an 18–27 record.

Prediction: The Braves would stumble out of the gate but have a hot September to just barely snag a Wild Card berth. Following this pattern would be Mike Minor and Julio Teheran, who would improve as the summer wore on.
What Really Happened: The Braves instead epically collapsed—or would have, if they had had a lead to protect going into August. The team's best month was April (17–8), and they just looked like they didn't care anymore by their 7–18 September. Minor had a 3.07 ERA entering June 10 but had a 5.51 after that point. Teheran was great all year long, but he was at his best in April (1.47 ERA) and May (2.21).

Prediction: The Rockies' key players would again succumb to injury. Jorge De La Rosa, Brett Anderson, and Jhoulys Chacín would combine for 300 innings. The one Rockie whom everyone agreed wouldn't last long, closer LaTroy Hawkins, actually would not get replaced by Rex Brothers like everyone was assuming.
What Really Happened: Sure enough, Hawkins saved 23 games, and Brothers could save nothing with his 5.59 ERA. Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos González played a full season—between them (161 games total). The three pitchers combined for 291 innings, most of which were De La Rosa's.

Prediction: Phil Hughes would take to his new home in Minnesota, posting a career year with a 3.99 ERA that would make him the Twins' best starter.
What Really Happened: Phil Hughes took to his new home in Minnesota, posting a career year with a 3.52 ERA that made him the Twins' best starter. The part that I would've found unbelievable in March is the fact that Hughes set a new major-league record for best strikeout-to-walk ratio of all time.

Prediction: With a full season of Tony Cingrani, the Reds would set a franchise record for strikeouts for the third consecutive year. However, only Jay Bruce and Joey Votto would be above-average hitters for them. A silver lining would be Billy Hamilton's leading the league in steals—by double digits.
What Really Happened: With a full season of Cingrani (who only started 11 mediocre games), the Reds would have broken that strikeout record. As it was, their 1,290 strikeouts were just six shy of the franchise record, set in 2013. The offense was even worse than I envisioned; Votto may have been above-average (127 OPS+), but he only had 272 plate appearances. Bruce had a terrible year with an 84 OPS+, and Hamilton finished second in the majors with 56 steals. (Maybe if he hadn't been caught 23 times...) Instead, Todd Frazier (123 OPS+) and Devin Mesoraco (149 OPS+) carried the Cincinnati offense (such as it was).

Prediction: Prince Fielder (40 home runs) and Geovany Soto (.280/.370/.490) would be the Rangers' MVPs, with the latter leading the club to a division title after his return from the DL.
What Really Happened: The virtual opposite. Fielder and Soto were among the biggest victims of Texas's injury bug in 2014. Fielder hit just three home runs, and Soto slashed .237/.237/.368 before getting shipped out in a trade to Oakland. In a way, though, they were among the most important players... to the team's last-place finish.

Prediction: The Royals offense would surprise, with four of Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Pérez, and Billy Butler hitting 20 home runs. Kansas City would suffer for its overreliance on the poor performances of Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas, who would combine for more starts than the superior young trio of Danny Duffy, Yordano Ventura, and Kyle Zimmer.
What Really Happened: Yes, Guthrie and Vargas combined for 62 starts and a 3.93 ERA, while Duffy and Ventura combined for 55 starts (Zimmer was injured) and a 2.90 ERA. No, the Royals offense did not roar to life—in fact, none of the five reached the 20-homer plateau. The Royals nevertheless finished with three more wins than I predicted—and they came within two runs of winning the World Series. As a friend of mine predicted, it was just the Royals' year.

Prediction: The St. Louis Cardinals would be 2014 world champions, thanks to a much-improved defense and the postseason heroics of Shelby Miller, who would start three World Series games and win series MVP honors.
What Really Happened: The Redbirds did improve their defense by a remarkable +103 DRS from 2013 to 2014, but Miller only got them as far as the NLCS (and in fact Miller's poor Game 4 start played a role in St. Louis's loss in that series).

Prediction: Sergio Romo would cough up the Giants' closer's role, and Pablo Sandoval would have an outstanding season in an effort to break the bank in free agency. Madison Bumgarner would throw a no-hitter.
What Really Happened: Romo did indeed start the year with uncharacteristic awfulness, and Santiago Casilla took over as closer. Sandoval had an above-average year, although it continued his pattern of slightly declining every year since 2011. (And, of course, he did break the bank.) Bumgarner did not throw his no-hitter, instead settling for 21 innings of one-run ball spread out over three games of the World Series, which he singlehandedly won for San Francisco.

Prediction: This would be the year that Ben Revere finally hit his first career home run.
What Really Happened: He hit two. I was even there for the second one. There's video proof and everything.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

In #MAgov, Blame Everybody—Springfield, Super PACs, the Wealthy—Except Martha Coakley

"I guess some mistakes you never stop paying for," says Roy Hobbs in The Natural—and, one imagines, Martha Coakley on Wednesday, November 5. The Democratic Coakley, as you surely know by now, had just lost her second high-profile election in five years in my home state of Massachusetts, supposedly the bluest state of them all. A figure of national ridicule for "blowing" (scare quotes definitely required on that one) Massachusetts's special US Senate election in 2010, "Martha Chokely" cemented her place as this century's biggest political loser when she fell, 48.5% to 46.6%, to Republican Charlie Baker in this year's open-seat race for Massachusetts governor.

Or so goes the narrative. And if there's one thing you should take away from following this blog, it's that narrative—in politics, baseball, or wherever—tends to obscure more factual, data-driven analysis. In this case, the nation's first impression of Coakley from 2010 refused to step aside for the 2014 truth: Coakley ran as strong a campaign as Massachusetts Democrats could ask for. From day one of the primary, she polled better against Baker than her even more flawed Democratic foes. Even as outsiders crowed about editorial boards' support for Baker, the endorsements they didn't read almost unanimously took pains to praise Coakley as an outstanding public servant and a solid candidate. And an 11th-hour survey of Massachusetts political insiders noted that Coakley successfully "reversed two key perceived flaws of her 2010 US Senate campaign: she worked impressively hard, and she built a superb field organization." A local perspective makes it abundantly clear: this loss wasn't Martha Coakley's fault.

Rather than assign blame, it's more productive to give credit: in this case, to Charlie Baker, who ran an incredibly impressive campaign—the strongest by a Republican in the Bay State in at least a decade. Baker, too, learned from his own 2010 defeat (in this case, a winnable gubernatorial race in a Republican wave year), retooling himself as "Charlie Baker 2.0": a more compassionate, more accessible, happier warrior than his aggressive 2010 self. The campaign also had a strong message ("Charlie Baker's no ideologue; he's a moderate retooler of a status quo that needs retooling") that passed the critical test of making fair-weather Democrats comfortable voting for, and publicly supporting, him. And, crucially, Baker had the means to publicize that message. Thanks to ample outside support from the Republican Governors Association (RGA), Baker and his allies far outaired Democrats on broadcast TV. The former CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and a fixture of Boston's financial elite, Baker also had little trouble lapping Coakley in fundraising.

The easiest way to slam Coakley is to say that it's really really hard for a Democrat to lose in deep-blue Massachusetts. But with these headwinds, and the rising Republican tide nationally, there was no way any Democrat was going to hit the comfortable performance benchmarks the party has grown accustomed to seeing in presidential years. Compared to the average top-of-the-ticket Democrat since 2008, Coakley ended up underperforming by 9.5 points statewide.

That's important context—but it's not the whole story. The dropoff Coakley experienced was hardly uniform across the state. She actually succeeded at holding onto usually Democratic votes in certain areas—yet her dropoff in other regions was especially steep. Apply a knowledge of the state's political geography to the town-by-town election results (a level of electoral detail I'm proud to say is available only in New England), and it becomes clear that the Republican takeover of the corner office was thanks to Baker's strengths, not Coakley's weaknesses.

The Rising Massachusettsan Electorate


There is a widespread assumption among the other 49 states that Massachusetts is a hand-holding liberal assimilated collective. It's not. Massachusetts is rife with the same internal divisions of socioeconomic status, geography, race, and, yes, party as exist in other states. And, like other states, it is changing. One of the defining struggles for power in Massachusetts in recent years has been between the clout of the white elite—who, in many differing forms, have dominated state politics for centuries—and the increasingly diverse, and growing, population of the state's cities. These newest Bay Staters don't much resemble the Beacon Hill gentry, racially or economically, gender-identity-wise or age-wise. They are immigrants, from Brazil, Cape Verde, Vietnam, Puerto Rico, or elsewhere; they are the next generation of the state's longstanding and long-suffering minority population; they are the city-dwelling urbanists, gays, hipsters, and yuppies who have settled in the state since Boston's renaissance as one of America's "cool" cities.

While the state's business elite was once frequently able to convince the overwhelmingly white electorates of the 1990s to elect like-minded, business-oriented Republican governors, today the "rising Massachusettsan electorate" has made that increasingly difficult. Minority voters specifically have gone from a drop in the bucket (5% of the 1998 electorate) to a critical voting bloc (21% in 2008) almost overnight. According to an excellent analysis by CommonWealth magazine, these new voters are making Massachusetts's cities, in particular, more reliable Democratic vote banks than ever before. Boston, as well as the equally important "Gateway Cities" that ring around it (Worcester, Lowell, Fall River, and more), have shifted left by double-digit margins in just the past decade or so, coinciding with the emergence of the new electorate.

The potential Republican path to victory has narrowed accordingly. Governors Weld, Cellucci, and Romney skated into the State House on some very thin ice (consistently, margins of three to five points), but Republicans fell right through when the Bay State's new faces started adding their voices beginning in 2006. Urban voters were instrumental in twice electing Deval Patrick the state's first African American governor; then, in 2012, Elizabeth Warren used a powerful GOTV operation in cities to topple Scott Brown and earn election to the US Senate. For Coakley and the Democrats, then, the 2014 campaign was all about proving that the GOP's window in Massachusetts had closed completely—that the urban coalition was the permanent new kingmaker of state politics.

Baker, of course, had other ideas, and much ink was spilled about his unusual strategy to reverse Republican losses in cities: he spent most of his time campaigning in and talking about them. For much of the fall, Coakley and Baker went head to head for urban voters; everyone, including Coakley herself, knew that the Democrat could not win without a strong performance in the cities. It would certainly be reasonable to declare her campaign a failure if it had fallen short of this goal—and, when Baker won statewide by cutting into her metropolitan margins of victory, many outlets and observers did just that. But this is the wrong way to look at it. As mentioned above, any discussion of Coakley's regional or factional dropoff must be qualified with the 9.5 points better that Baker did overall thanks to his built-in advantages. Accounting for this, Coakley actually did what she needed to do in cities.

For this post, I calculated the average Democratic performance in all 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts in presidential, gubernatorial, and senatorial elections since 2008 (the era since the awakening of the "Obama electorate"). Based on how Democratic or Republican each city is relative to the rest of the state, we can easily calculate how well Coakley "should" have performed given her 9.5-point drop from average statewide. As it turns out, Baker's urban strategy did not have much of an effect beyond his overall statewide momentum. In fact, Coakley overperformed her expected percentages in most of the state's largest and most diverse municipalities:


In Boston and Worcester, the state's two biggest cities, Baker and Coakley essentially fought to a draw, as Coakley's actual performance was quite close to 9.5 points below the Democratic average. But in liberal strongholds like Cambridge and Somerville, as well as Gateway Cities like majority-Hispanic Lawrence, heavily African American Brockton, and Asian enclaves like Lowell or Quincy, Coakley did not bleed as many votes. In fact, Coakley improved upon her own 2010 performance in 10 of Massachusetts's 11 least white communities.

So despite conventional wisdom, in most cities, Coakley hit the win numbers she would have needed to eke out a narrow victory—if the rest of the state had gone along. By winning the urban vote, Coakley held up her end of the bargain. Who can Massachusetts Democrats point the finger at who didn't?

Damn Yankees


On October 6, 2014, Martha Coakley released a Spanish-language TV ad emphasizing her outreach to the Hispanic community and showing her talking to Hispanic business owners. The same day, Charlie Baker was hobnobbing with businessmen of his own: at a fundraising dinner at Boston's L'Espalier, the fanciest restaurant in the city. From just 40 Boston CEOs, including Hill Holliday's Jack Connors and Suffolk Construction's John Fish, Baker raised $200,000.

If the Coakley campaign's goal was to assert the superiority of a new generation of voters, the Baker campaign's goal was to show that the state establishment still held the leverage to determine an election. And the Massachusetts elite loved Baker, who seemed to be custom-made for them at Brooks Brothers. A successful businessman, generous political donor, and policy-oriented health-care executive, he didn't just fit their profile; he was one of them. Baker's championing of welfare reform and lower taxes was music to their ears, and there was no pro-life or anti-gay rhetoric to scare off these usually Democratic powerbrokers. In 2010, when Baker challenged an incumbent governor, this cautious crowd wasn't quite ready to take the plunge. But in 2014, against a pro-worker attorney general whom many had soured on after 2010, the Massachusetts high society flocked to Baker. It was a flood of support epitomized by Connors and Fish; by the Boston Globe editorial board; by party-line-crossing Democratic officials who endorsed him. But all that symbolic support can't be said to matter unless raw votes followed suit.

Even if the Beacon Hill elite have lost their influence on the urban vote, there is still an identifiable voting bloc over which they retain the ultimate sway: their own. Massachusetts is home to the fourth-largest concentration of so-called "Super Zips"—America's top 5% most educated and richest communities—in the country. In presidential elections, these wealthy Boston suburbs usually vote Democratic, turned off by the national Republican agenda—but they are where Yankee Republicans get elected governor of Massachusetts.

For all the talk about Coakley ceding ground to Baker in cities, he actually won the same well-worn way that Weld, Cellucci, and Romney dispatched their own Democratic opponents: he did extremely well among the state's upper crust. According to WBUR tracking polls throughout September and October, wealthy voters (those making over $150,000 a year) broke sharply for Baker in the race's closing weeks. A full fifth of the projected electorate, they preferred Baker 52% to 35% in the final poll.

This translated to Baker doing even better than we would have expected him to in Super Zips, based on the same historical Democratic averages as above. Search the town-by-town election results for a geographic region where Coakley underperformed by even more than her 9.5-point drop statewide, and you'll quickly notice a cluster of Baker strength in the towns immediately west of Boston. Not coincidentally, these commuter suburbs are the homes of Massachusetts's intellectual, cultural, and economic elite. In the western suburbs with the highest incomes in the state (median household income exceeds $100,000 in almost all of the localities listed below), there is a clear pattern of Coakley underperformance due to Baker's strong connection with these voters:


The list's biggest offenders included the three Ws. Weston, one of the richest towns in the United States and home to Red Sox legends David Ortiz and Jerry Remy, embraced Baker to the tune of 5.3 fewer points for Coakley than expected. Wellesley, location of the eponymous college, shunned Coakley by an extra 4.5 points. Even relatively liberal Wayland, hometown of Jonathan Papelbon as well as your humble blogger, scored 3.8 points below expected for Coakley. Overall, a WBUR analysis found that Coakley ran behind her 2010 self in every normally Democratic community with a median household income over $90,000. (Tangentially, this may also explain why Coakley dropped off more in Boston than in other cities; unlike the Gateway Cities, Boston has a handful of extremely wealthy neighborhoods, such as the Back Bay and West Roxbury, which defected heavily to Baker in 2014.)

Democrats were betting that their new urban base meant this wouldn't matter. But Baker's win showed that, in a head-to-head matchup, rich suburbs could still hold their own. More than that, in fact: as Dave Wasserman observed at FiveThirtyEight months before the election, Super Zips, where they exist, remain a dominant electoral force. Wasserman deconstructed the results of Virginia's own gubernatorial election in 2013 and came to an instructive conclusion: despite Democrats' boasts that higher minority turnout had won Terry McAuliffe the executive mansion there, the real difference-makers were the rich Washington suburbs, which saw McAuliffe as one of them and disdained his Tea Party opponent. In the end, Super Zips decided both Virginia and Massachusetts—for different parties, but for the same type of candidate.

Massachusetts Democrats could have learned from this, had they looked past Virginia's final result and seen that minority voters alone wouldn't have elected McAuliffe. Democrats in either state couldn't win without minorities and city-dwellers, to be sure, but in low-turnout elections like 2014, the elite are still disproportionately decisive. This could change in 2016 and later as the Massachusetts electorate grows even more diverse. But for 2014, Coakley lost the same way Democrats have been losing Massachusetts for decades. For now, in the Bay State's great power struggle between cities and suburbs, the suburbs lived to fight another day.

That was good news for Baker this year, and it will be good news for him in 2018 and for future Republican candidates in Massachusetts. It's undeniable that Baker couldn't have won without his unusually strong support in the hometowns of the privileged, and it was his own strengths as a candidate—not anything Martha Coakley did or didn't do—that he has to thank for it. However—and yes, there's even more to this saga—in my opinion, the Boston suburbs weren't where Baker truly clinched his win. With one win apiece (urban areas for Coakley, suburbs for Baker) in the Boston area, an often-underappreciated part of the state provided the rubber match.

Last Exit to Springfield


There was one last part of Massachusetts where Baker did exceptionally well—where Coakley, had she met expectations there, could have still scraped out a statewide win despite everything else: Western Massachusetts. The denizens of Western Mass will thank you not to forget about them the next time you equate Massachusetts with metro Boston; here, the TV is broadcast from Springfield or Albany, the bluest towns are the smallest towns, and you might even be able to dig up a Yankees fan or two. Given the region's sensitivity to its place in the state, campaigns absolutely must give it the attention it deserves, and both Coakley and Baker spent plenty of time out here in 2014.

Berkshire and Hampshire Counties are strong Democratic strongholds, and Coakley won them with minimal dropoff in 2014. But the real prize in Western Mass is Hampden County, home of Springfield, the state's third-largest city. Greater Springfield may be the one place that Baker's urban strategy did pay off, as he embarrassed Coakley with his performance in this metro area. Even factoring in Coakley's expected 9.5-point drop, the Democrat underperformed in Hampden County's nine biggest municipalities even worse than she did in most of the western Boston suburbs:


I'm not as familiar with Western Mass as I am with the areas around Boston, so I can't quite account for this. However, I'd be remiss if I ignored the potential impact of the hot topic in Springfield from 2014: casino gambling. A city in need of revitalization, Springfield is banking on a proposed downtown casino to create jobs and pump money into the regional economy. However, a ballot measure to ban casinos in Massachusetts was on the 2014 ballot, which could have affected turnout in Hampden County—although not necessarily to any one candidate's benefit. True, Baker had promised to still push the Springfield casino even if gambling was outlawed in the state, but so did Coakley. Other explanations for the discrepancy could be that Baker just had a particularly strong field effort around Springfield, or perhaps his television-advertising advantage was more pronounced here.

Regardless, something inspired Springfield and all of its major suburbs to tack even more Republican than the state as a whole this year. Although I was able to find ready explanations for all the variations from average in the rest of the state, this one truly surprised me. Yet it is perhaps the most notable variation, in terms of votes it was worth. For all the Boston-centric chatter about Eastern Massachusetts cities and the Boston suburbs dueling to pick the next governor, there's some poetic justice to the fact that Western Massachusetts was probably the clincher in 2014.

~~~~~

Something Martha Coakley's detractors ignore is how close she came to becoming Massachusetts's next governor. Eight of the final nine polls of the race spelled out, unambiguously, how Baker was the clear favorite: leads of six, seven, even nine points. Unlike 2010, when complaints of a Coakley "collapse" were better founded, the Democrat actually did better than expected: from a final polling average that showed Baker up by almost four points, she cut his eventual winning margin to less than two. That's not something an incompetent campaign does.

Sure, Coakley could've done better in cities—but she did well enough. Coakley could've done better around Springfield—but we don't know what in the world went wrong there. And... well, no, she probably couldn't have done better in Super Zips. Baker simply had too much of a built-in advantage. She couldn't stop donors from giving huge checks to Baker. She couldn't prevent the RGA from making its huge ad buys. She couldn't take away the free will of Democratic VIPs to throw their support to Baker. None of these things were her fault.

Instead, the "blame" for a Coakley loss—if you even want to frame it that way—probably lies with the people she needed in her corner turning their backs on her. One of Coakley's biggest problems this year was raising money, but many of Democrats' usual high rollers had decided instead to give their money to Baker. To many Beacon Hill lobbyists and Boston businessmen, Coakley was already damaged goods. The same was true of the DC establishment, whose super PACs did not give Coakley nearly as much air cover as the RGA gave Baker. Coakley will always be viewed inside the Beltway as the person who did what Washington considers impossible: lose in Massachusetts as a Democrat. And finally, there was a subset of Massachusetts voters who never came to fully trust Coakley after 2010: for lack of a better categorization, Steve Grossman primary voters. The Democrats who backed Coakley's main rival in the gubernatorial primary mostly did so not because they loved Grossman, but because their motto was "anybody but Coakley." It's a baffling motto for any Democrat to have, given Coakley's sterling record and liberal credentials; it can only be derived from disgust at the person who once thought Curt Schilling was a Yankees fan. That and other missteps in late 2009 and early 2010 were bad, but they are also ancient history. In 2014, the only misstep you could say Coakley made was not earning enough forgiveness, not eliciting enough sympathy, not inspiring enough support.

Maybe you could say that about any candidate. In fact, they do. It's the default for most campaign autopsies. But Martha Coakley doesn't get that benefit of the doubt, solely because of her history. Hopefully, the data, and the anecdotes, can exonerate her this time. No, Martha Coakley didn't lose because she's such a terrible candidate. She lost because she never stopped paying for five-year-old mistakes.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

2014 Race Ratings: Command of Comptroller

At Baseballot, we answer the hard political questions. One of those questions is, "What is the difference between a controller and a comptroller?" Actually, nothing—not even how they're pronounced. Yet, for some reason, four states insist on spelling it one way (controller) and nine insist on the other (comptroller). (Twenty-four states spell it A-U-D-I-T-O-R; the duties of an auditor and a comptroller, to ensure transparency and responsibility in state finances, are essentially identical.)

Of the 13 state controller/comptroller positions in the United States, nine are elected, and wouldn't you know it, all nine are up in midterm years like 2014. Party control sits on a knife's edge, with five Democrats and four Republicans. It looks like each party has four of the seats in hand, but one race is entirely unpredictable—and thus one lucky state will determine if Democrats keep their majority.

Regrettably, this will be the last in my series rating downballot races (Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here)—sorry, secretaries of state, treasurers, and labor commissioners! In 2016, I'll attempt to be more comprehensive—and it should be a less ambitious project, with only a handful of states electing constitutional officers that cycle. That means that my final 2014 downballot race ratings are as they currently appear on my 2014 Ratings page. They'll remain up through the election and then archived forever in a post-mortem article evaluating how the ratings fared.

For now, of course, here are my race ratings for the 2014 controller and comptroller races; more in-depth explainers can be found after the jump. For a rundown of my methodology, see my September 26 post.


California: Likely Democratic
Republicans almost wrapped up the controller's office on primary night, when a fractured Democratic primary field came close to being shut out of November thanks to California's top-two system. However, Democrat Betty Yee snuck onto the ballot as the runner-up and became the race's instant favorite. However, Republican Ashley Swearengin is the party's strongest candidate in the Golden State this year. The successful mayor of Fresno, Swearengin has refused to endorse the Republican candidate for governor, come out in favor of gay marriage, and endorsed the progressive fantasy that is the California bullet train. A lack of cash, though, has turned Swearengin's promising start into an eight-point polling deficit. She hasn't aired a single TV ad, while unions have spent six figures helping Yee.

Connecticut: Solid Democratic
Incumbent Comptroller Kevin Lembo (D) was the first openly gay official ever elected statewide in Connecticut. In 2014, he'll become the first openly gay official ever re-elected statewide in Connecticut, as he faces Republican sacrificial lamb Sharon McLaughlin. The most interesting part of the race might be Green Party candidate Rolf Maurer, who wants to "transition to a hemp-based economic infrastructure" and actually pulled 12% of the vote in one poll.

Idaho: Solid Republican
This year saw a close race for Idaho controller—in the Republican primary, when incumbent Brandon Woolf pulled out a narrow win over Todd Hatfield. In the general, though, Woolf is unopposed, so he's guaranteed to win his first-ever election (he was appointed to the job in 2012 after the previous controller was so badly injured in a car accident she had to step down).

Illinois: Solid Republican
You'd think the lieutenant governor of Illinois would be overqualified for comptroller, but the voters of Illinois don't see it that way. Incumbent LG Sheila Simon opted off the ticket with Pat Quinn to run waaaay down the ballot in this race, but, perhaps because of her association with an unpopular administration, her campaign has fallen flat. Republican incumbent Judy Baar Topinka has mastered the art of winning Illinois as a Republican; she is popular in Chicago and has courted the support of the state's powerful unions, getting endorsements from the Illinois Education Association and AFL-CIO. With Topinka up 49% to 31% in the latest poll, this should-be clash of the titans is barely even a contest.

Maryland: Solid Democratic
Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot is seeking a third term, and there's no reason to think he won't get it. He is facing the same Republican, William H. Campbell, whom he beat 61% to 39% in 2010, except Campbell now has the "birther" label hung around his neck after a Facebook post questioning President Obama's citizenship and comparing the president to Trayvon Martin. That's a good way to only raise $1,655 in two months. (Another is running for office in Maryland as a Republican, but that's beside the point... Wait, no, actually, it is the point.)

Nevada: Tossup
This is a tough one—simply because we don't have very much data. As pollsters have queried Nevadans on races like lieutenant governor and attorney general, they haven't asked about the controller's race all cycle. Democrat Andrew Martin has spent over twice as much as Republican Ron Knecht for the open seat, but it's been a very under-the-radar campaign, suggesting this race will ride the coattails of whichever party does best with the gubernatorial and overall electorate. In Nevada right now, that looks like Republicans, but there's just too much uncertainty. This is one of those tossups that Democrats could win by 5 or Republicans could win by 15.

New York: Solid Democratic
Although I'm tempted to pick the Rent is 2 Damn High candidate for this race, incumbent New York Comptroller Tom DiNapoli (D) has this locked up. Even Republican Bob Antonacci knows it, as they spent their only debate swapping compliments and calling each other "gentlemen." Perhaps a moral victory for Antonacci, though: he is the first major-party candidate for statewide office from central New York in 60 years.

South Carolina: Likely Republican
This is Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom's (R) fourth election for the office, although he hasn't exactly coasted in any of them (winning between 53.3% and 56.5% of the vote). Clearly Eckstrom's outlandish personal life—including romantic drama, an out-of-control family, inappropriate personal use of campaign funds, and casually racist comments—has held Eckstrom back, but he's still become a mainstay in South Carolina politics (maybe because, with nine constitutional offices, he'll never run out of jobs to run for). Especially since the two are roughly on par in fundraising, Democrat Kyle Herbert has a chance to be competitive, but the smart bet is on another mildly close Eckstrom win.

Texas: Solid Republican
Only in Texas can the guy who's the former CFO of an oil company be the Democrat, but that's Mike Collier. If the last poll is right, he'll lose by 15 points to State Senator Glenn Hegar (R) for the open seat. Texas's as-yet impermeable red and Hegar's $2.1 million in the bank for an office no one has ever heard of (comptroller of public accounts, as it's officially known) is an unbeatable combination.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Teaching the Far Right a Lesson: 2014 Race Ratings for Superintendent

"Education" is the issue voters will tell you they care more about than any other—yet "superintendent of public instruction" is lucky to be the sixth-best reason someone casts a ballot. You should reconsider that, at least this year, if you live in one of the surprisingly many states where that office is up for grabs. This year, the office is on the ballot in seven of the 13 states that elect superintendents, although only six of the elections are partisan. All six are taking place in deeply Republican states, and all six are currently held by Republicans... Yet Democrats are seriously contesting arguably every single seat.

How is this possible in a year when the national mood seems so dour for Democrats? It's easy when the lineup of Republican incumbents is the following all-star team of the most unscrupulous, outlandish, and unhinged politicians in the country. One turned her office into a war zone where people feared for their safety; one exploited special-needs kids for political gain; one had a secret, xenophobic online identity. Even the ones who behaved themselves have often left behind unpopular legacies of funding cuts and lower-quality schools. Although none of the six incumbents is running again (two lost in the primary), their memory lives on in these unexpectedly close races.

In many cases, the candidates to replace them are no peaches themselves. What is it about state superintendent that seems to attract the craziest "wacko birds" to the job? Education has become the newest culture war in America, with debate especially raging around the Common Core standards, which, depending on who you listen to, are either an attempt to make an American education meaningfully similar across geographic and income lines or a conspiracy to indoctrinate kids with a liberal worldview dictated by the federal government. While the Common Core controversy is new, the thought that our kids are our most vulnerable and controllable assets has been around forever. Those drawn to the position of superintendent are often not professional politicians, but activists around this very issue. My personal theory is that the GOP's inattention to these downballot races has allowed the right wing to hijack many of them, which here in 2014 is coming back to hurt the party. (Although, it should be noted, an equal factor in making these races so competitive this year is the inherent strength of many of the Democratic candidates themselves, widening the gulf in candidate quality so much that even staunch partisans have had to take notice.)

Below are my race ratings for the 2014 superintendent races; more in-depth explainers can be found after the jump. For a rundown of my methodology, see my September 26 post; for full downballot race ratings as they become available, surf to my 2014 Ratings page.


In sum, Democrats have an excellent chance to cut into the six-to-three Republican advantage among school chiefs who affiliate with a political party (those in California, North Dakota, Washington, and Wisconsin are elected nonpartisanly).

Arizona: Tossup
The award for worst candidate of the cycle has to go to Arizona Superintendent John Huppenthal (R). During his primary against Common Core opponent Diane Douglas, he claimed he "never" supported the standards—despite speaking on record about the need to implement them two months before. And apparently never didn't mean never, since the following week he insisted he had been misrepresented and actually did support Common Core. Oh, but what really killed him politically was probably making anonymous discriminatory comments on a blog. In a tearful news conference, Huppenthal admitted that he wrote that welfare recipients were "lazy pigs" and lobbied for Spanish-language media outlets to be banned. Douglas swept him away in the primary, but then Republicans faced a new problem: they had a no-name, single-issue crusader as their superintendent candidate. Democrats, meanwhile, nominated well-respected professor David García, who has gained traction even in this red state with establishment Republicans, such as the local Chamber of Commerce and past Republican superintendents. García is well funded, too, with almost $800,000 in independent expenditures (mostly by Stand for Children and Restore Education Funding Now) having been spent to help elect him.

California: Tossup
This unique race doesn't make the table above because it's technically a nonpartisan election. Even if we acknowledged that we all know better, though, this race is actually between two Democrats—a product of California's top-two primary system. Incumbent Tom Torlakson faces a spirited challenge from former charter-schools executive Marshall Tuck in what is, for my money, the most interesting superintendent race in the nation. Rather than focusing on Common Core like most of the races on this page, the election is over the identity of the Democratic Party's education plank: should it protect teachers and unions, or should it support charter schools? Tuck is in the latter camp, but many of the state's old-guard Democrats are fiercely resisting. The state's powerful unions are spending millions to re-elect Torlakson, who has fought the recent Vergara v. California court decision that struck down teacher tenure in California. In the closing days of the campaign, $5.5 million will be spent by independent-expenditure groups on both sides. The last poll taken in the race showed that it was still anyone's game, with Tuck at 31%, Torlakson at 28%, and 41% undecided back in September. Given that both sides have shown that no price is too steep for this seat, it would be crazy to say this race is anywhere near predictable. (However, after this video, it was tempting to say the campaign was over, everyone pack it in, we're done here.)

Georgia: Tossup
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "If you want to lay a wager on the Democrat who might be celebrating election to a statewide office on the first Tuesday in November, don’t place your money on Michelle Nunn or Jason Carter"—bet on Valarie Wilson, the Democratic candidate for state superintendent. Wilson checks every box for the Democratic base: she is African American; she has deep community ties across the state as the former president of the Georgia School Boards Association; she has a good relationship with teachers as a former school board member in Decatur. She's even been endorsed by the outgoing Republican superintendent, John Barge. Republican candidate Richard Woods has staked his campaign on opposition to Common Core, but with only $9,094 in the bank, he can't get that message out. Georgia is still Georgia, so Wilson isn't running away with it, but ample polling in the race has shown (a) this is a race people are engaged in, with few undecideds, and (b) the candidates enter the final week statistically tied.

Idaho: Leans Republican
In former deputy Idaho superintendent Jana Jones, Democrats have pretty much their best possible candidate—at least for someone who hasn't waged a winning statewide campaign before. Jones ran for the job before, in 2006, and lost to Republican Tom Luna. If you've heard that name before, maybe it's because of the "Luna laws"—a series of education reforms that Luna shepherded through the legislature in 2011 that basically read like a how-to manual for destroying teachers' unions. Even in this deep red state, voters were outraged at the attack on teachers, and they voted to repeal the laws via popular referendum in 2012. Luna is retiring this year in semi-disgrace, but that hasn't stopped Jones from linking him to GOP candidate Sherri Ybarra. Ybarra wasn't even supposed to be here; just your run-of-the-mill high-school principal, she somehow emerged the winner of a Republican primary that featured three better-known, better-funded candidates. Ybarra has run the kind of rocky campaign you'd expect from a political novice—plagiarizing her website (off her opponent, no less), claiming to have forgotten key details of her past marriages, and admitting she has voted in just two of the last 17 elections. ("My brain doesn't operate in the past," she offered as her excuse.) She normally wouldn't be in the same league as the well-connected Jones, who has raised five times the cash—but this is Idaho, remember. It's difficult for any Republican to blow an election here, although with her lead down to 41–38 in an October PPP poll, Ybarra seems to be doing the best she can.

Oklahoma: Leans Republican
Republican Superintendent Janet Barresi was first elected in 2010 as a supporter of Common Core. Then Oklahoma became one of the first states to banish the standards. Awkward. Although Barresi "evolved" to oppose Common Core, she was vulnerable in 2014, and she finished third in a three-way primary. (Don't feel too bad for her—Barresi allegedly shared the personal information of special-needs students she had gotten scholarships for with her campaign team in an effort to curry political favor with their families.) Instead, Joy Hofmeister, a former member of the state board of education, is carrying the Republican mantle. Hofmeister is the best Republican candidate we've met thus far: though anti–Common Core, she is an accomplished woman—a CEO who raised a solid $771,434 for her campaign. I'd be comfortable listing her as the favorite... if it weren't for actual, honest-to-goodness polls showing her tied with or losing to Democrat John Cox, the superintendent of the Peggs school district. Cox has effectively combined discontent with education cuts with a local-control-is-best approach popular with conservatives. However, I give the nod to Hofmeister as the candidate in better position (and on friendlier turf) to close the deal.

South Carolina: Likely Republican
Finally, a race that behaves like it's supposed to. The election for South Carolina superintendent of education has unfolded pretty typically: Democrat Tom Thompson supports Common Core; Republican Molly Spearman opposes it; the Republican's message resonates better in a state where Newt Gingrich won the presidential primary. However, the race's only poll doesn't foreclose the possibility of an upset—Spearman led by 10, but the pollster claimed her support was soft. However, Thompson still hasn't posted a third-quarter fundraising report on the South Carolina website, suggesting he hasn't raised enough money to trigger a report; if so, you can stick a fork in this one.

Wyoming: Solid Republican
Politics has plenty of eccentric characters, but I'd put Cindy Hill up against anyone. The outgoing superintendent was first elected in 2010 and immediately set about making her office a living hell. Hill struck fear into the hearts of her employees with incidents like waving a knife around as she was cutting an office birthday cake and holding "cultish" loyalty meetings. Employees became so paranoid that she was listening in on them that they began to speak in code words. Baseball bats and bear spray were brought into the office for protection; one veteran said he preferred serving in combat to under Hill. When these allegations went public, Hill was suspended from the department, setting off a constitutional crisis that ended with Hill unsuccessfully primarying Governor Matt Mead. To continue on her legacy at the state education department, Hill endorsed her deputy, Sheryl Lain, in the 2014 election while non-insane Republicans preferred Bill Winney in the primary. Naturally, then, a third candidate, teacher Jillian Balow, won the GOP nomination. She's enough of an outsider that voters appear to trust her to rebuild the department, as she leads 45% to 26% in the race's only poll. However, Democrat Mike Ceballos is a strong candidate who has the support of two popular ex-governors—and who has a bipartisan history of working with the state's Republican government. The former CEO has raised twice as much money for the race as Balow. Still, he doesn't have much time left in which to spend it; his best shot might have come and gone when Lain lost the primary.