What You Need to Know About How Election Race Ratings Work

With less than 3 months to go before the general election, you can expect to see a lot more articles diving into specific election races. And that means that there’s some lingo you’ll want to know.

Election experts are so used to using their own language like “that district is R+4” or “we’ve moved that race to Lean Democratic” but they don’t stop to explain what it means. I’m here to help.

Both of these types of ratings will help you understand how competitive, or not competitive, a race is. But they are calculated a bit differently. Here’s a quick primer.

The Sliding Scale

You’ve likely heard that a Congressional race is in the “Toss Up” column, or has moved to “Likely Republican.” But what does the full scale look like?

Imagine in the middle, you have Toss Up. This means that a race could go to either party. As you move away from Toss Up along the slide, and the race becomes more competitive, you travel to these places:

Toss Up –> Lean –> Likely –> Safe/Solid

Where Toss Up means the race could be won by either party, Lean means that the race is still very competitive, but one party has a slight advantage. Likely means that the race is still competitive, but one party has multiple advantages. And Safe/Solid means that the race is not competitive at all. (In one audit, one of the ratings organizations calculated that a Safe rating found that party winning 99.8% of the time.)

So, let’s say that during the course of the election, new information (like polling) is showing that the Democrats are gaining the advantage. A particular race may have started in Toss Up, but then gets moved to Lean Democratic. Or perhaps it starts in Lean Democratic but moves to Likely Democratic.

Of course, things can move the other way. Like what happened to Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina. At the start of the election cycle, his re-election was considered to be in Likely Republican. But then it softened to Lean Republican. And then a month or so again moved into the Toss Up column. What that tells us is that public opinion and other factors are indicating that his race is becoming far more competitive than it was originally deemed to be.

The full scale looks like this:

At the start of an elections cycle, every major race is placed somewhere on this scale. And then, as new information comes to light, a race may move one way or the other, usually one spot at a time.

The three main outlets whose race ratings are usually cited in elections articles are Cook Political Report, Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, and Inside Elections.

So how do they determine each rating?

Although none of the 3 big outlets explain on their websites what goes into their ratings (I think they think of it as their secret recipe), we know from interviews that they use a mix of the following factors:

  • past election results for that district/state
  • polling
  • strength of a candidate
  • incumbency
  • fundraising
  • national political climate
  • breaking news that affects the race

They also use a lot of different sources, both data and information from strategists and others, to determine the ratings.

So you can see that while some factors are static (like past election results), a huge scandal breaking or a major fundraising haul or a big shift in polling can move a race along the sliding scale.

The Partisan Voter Index

Explaining the partisan voter index (ex. R+4 or D+12) is much simpler. Cook Political Report came up with this idea in 1996 and it is a simple calculation. They make these calculations only for Congressional districts and statewide offices (like Senator or Governor.)

They look at the voting results from the past two presidential elections and then compare that number to the national average. So let’s say you find that your Congressional district is a D+3. That means that your district voted 3 points more Democratic than the national average.

Any race under 10 points is considered to be pretty competitive, whereas when you see R+33, you can bet that you won’t be seeing a flip anytime soon.

If you’d like to see the Partisan Voter Index for your district, you can find it HERE.

How to Use This Info

For starters, knowing the race rating or index helps to explain why certain races are covered more by the media than others. Competitive races are more “exciting” because the results are unknowable.

Also, when you hear that an election result was an “upset” you now know why. It was a race that did not conform to the expected results.

Some people use the competitiveness of a race to determine where to make their political donations or volunteer.

If you are working with a campaign or simply amplifying a favorite candidate on social media, letting folks know the competitiveness of that race can indeed motivate people to help you. People are far more likely to get involved if they think it’s worth the effort.

One final note: Money and time and attention only go so far. So while a lot of people use these ratings to direct one of those 3 resources, by no means do I want to leave you with the impression that there are certain districts or races that don’t deserve support. I believe that every voter in every district should have options when it comes to choosing who to represent them, and they deserve a meaningful discussion about issues that affect them. If it just came down to ratings, no one would have ever stepped up to help Doug Jones (D) shock the country when he won the special election in 2017 to become the senator of ALABAMA.

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