What to watch for as the votes roll in — advice from a Berkeley expert

A group of people protest politics. One holds a sign about a blue wave

A group of political demonstrators gather in Chicago. Voter engagement will key in today’s election, according to UC Berkeley politics expert Jack Citrin. (Courtesy photo by Charles Edward Miller)

Turnout models. Prediction algorithms. Twitter. Facebook. CNN maps. Fox News. New York Times mobile alerts. With Election Day information overload, how will one of UC Berkeley’s top voting experts be sussing out trends, and what advice does he have for anxious – if not nauseated – voters looking to make sense of the news?

Berkeley News sat down with professor Jack Citrin, an expert on political behavior and California politics who has taught at UC Berkeley since 1970, to talk about how he’ll spend election night, which races matter and where politics go from here.

What are you doing tonight? Will you be in front of a computer? The TV? Checking Twitter? Or will you ignore it all until tomorrow?

 I won’t ignore it. That’s for sure. I usually watch PBS Newshour, but I like to switch between Fox and CNN just to see how different perspectives are reading things and whether they are reading the numbers in the same way.

I don’t start at the opening gun. I wait a little bit until there is some meat on the bone. I have a checklist of things to watch out for, both in terms of seeing if the standard predictions are holding up and whether there are signs of a strong tide flowing one way or another. You can often get that from the earlier returns.

What are you watching for?

 The main prediction is that the Democrats will take control of the House. That’s by far the dominant and most confident prediction. How big those gains will be are a little bit uncertain.

But there are a lot of open seats due to retirements, and there are a bunch of seats labeled close. For the Republicans to do well, they have to start winning a lot of those close seats.

Jack Citrin

Jack Citrin has taught politics at UC Berkeley since 1970.

For the Senate, that’s a different story. The Republicans are likely to retain control. There could be very little change, maybe no change at all. There are some outcomes where the Democrats maybe won’t get control, but end up in a 50/50 situation.

If you really wanted to be a junkie and follow this closely, identify in advance what those seats are: North Dakota, Arizona, Nevada, Tennessee and others.

But remember in the Senate, each state has a unique electorate, so it is hard to get results from one state and infer what that might mean for other states. I wouldn’t project a race in Nevada from results in West Virginia, for example.

Reports on state-by-state turnout is another thing I will be watching. Turnout is going to be a major issue in this election. A higher level of turnout will help Democrats; that’s the conventional wisdom, at least, which is probably correct in this election.

The final thing I’ll be watching is the races for governor. I think Democrats are poised to make some significant gains in important states: Wisconsin is in play, Michigan is in play; there are more. Florida and Georgia are particularly interesting because they have African American candidates on the Democratic side. Those would be historic wins.

Those races matter because who controls the state controls 2020 redistricting, which has incredibly important implications for future House races. And in many cases these gubernatorial candidates can emerge as presidential candidates.

One thing I like do, if you get interested in a particular state, is go to the website of the state’s biggest newspaper for coverage. Not every race will get much attention on television.

President Trump has tweeted that he thinks the race isn’t about him. Is it?        

 It is about President Trump, but it is about other things as well. I don’t think any election is ever about one thing. In the Wisconsin governor’s race, for example, other issues will enter in. But certainly, Trump and feelings about him on the Democratic side are very prominent in this election.

He is a major factor in this election. He’s made himself the spokesman for what the Republican issues are, whether it is jobs, taxes, Kavanaugh or illegal immigration. He’s focused people’s attention on those issues.

It’ll be called a referendum on him, whether he calls it that that or not.

You’re also an expert on California politics. What are you watching here at home?

 California is essentially a one-party state at the statewide level. So, I think there are two races worth watching: insurance commissioner and state superintendent of public instruction. Those are two races where you can imagine the candidate anointed by the Democratic Party losing, which would be very interesting to see.

Similarly, I’m wondering how well Dianne Feinstein will do against her progressive challenger, Kevin de León. A lot of Republicans don’t want to vote for either Democrat, but if they did vote I think they might go for de León, not because he’s more moderate, but because there’s a lot of resentment about how Feinstein behaved in the Kavanaugh hearings. That could cost her some votes.

The other question is: Will the Democrats regain two-thirds majorities in both the State Assembly and the State Senate?

As for the propositions, I’ll be watching 6, 8 and 10. Six repeals the gas tax. Eight would regulate dialysis clinics, and 10 is about rent control. Prop. 10 is endorsed by the Democratic Party, and it  looks like it could lose. A lot of money has been poured into all three of those, so it would be interesting to see how it turns out.

When is this going to end? Do you think we’ll know who won control of the House by the end of Tuesday?

If there’s a big Democratic wave I think we’ll know the results of the House election before the polls close in California.

At the Senate level, that could take longer. Some of the important states — Nevada and Arizona — are on the West Coast, and we may end up with recounts in some of those races, and some of the races for governor too. It could be a few days.

Reporters interested in speaking with Jack Citrin should contact Will Kane at willkane@berkeley.edu