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10/26/2018 12:01:00 PM
LaPlante predicts Democrats will come up 6 seats shy of U.S. House takeover

Mark Bennett, Tribune-Star

Once Brooks LaPlante explained the political science and statistics behind his projection that Republicans will retain control of Congress in the Nov. 6 election, he added one disclaimer.

"It's all about voter turnout," LaPlante said.

If any segment of potential voters shows up at the polls in unexpected numbers, high or low, the upcoming midterm election could turn out different than LaPlante's research projects.

The former Terre Haute state representative and longtime political observer created a database for all 435 districts in the U.S. House of Representatives. It's central factor, not surprisingly, is Donald Trump. LaPlante compared the size of incumbent House members' victories in 2016 with Trump's winning margin among the same voters in each district across America.

LaPlante didn't stop there. In districts with no incumbent seeking re-election and those with statistically competitive races, he studied candidates' websites, polling data and news reports.

His conclusion: Democrats will gain 17 seats, six shy of the 23 they need to overtake Republicans as the majority party in the U.S. House. As for the Senate races, LaPlante expects Republicans to hold on to that majority, and even expand their edge from the current 51-49 to at least 56-44.

Of course, some other political analysts anticipate a "blue wave" of Democratic voters, energized to express their dissatisfaction with Trump and Congress at the polls and determined to vote for the party's candidates. Statistician Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight website sees an 83.2-percent chance Democrats will win the U.S. House, for example. 

And, it should be noted that LaPlante is a conservative who served one term in the Indiana House of Representatives as a Republican in the early 2000s.

That said, the depth of LaPlante's research deserves notice.

He categorized the electorate, district by district, based on 2016 votes for Trump and for the incumbent member of Congress. The groups include districts Trump won by 10 percent or more; those Trump lost by 10 percent or more; those Trump won by less than 10 percent; and those the future president lost by less than 10 percent. LaPlante separated a fifth category for the 18 House districts in Pennsylvania, where a federal judge's ruling this month forced a redrawing of those districts. He called Pennsylvania the election's "wild card."

Districts where Trump won or lost by 10 percent or more are unlikely to flip, party-wise, in the congressional races, according to LaPlante's calculations. Trump won 177 House districts by 10 percent or more in 2016, and the Republicans won all but three of those House seats. "That's an amazing statistic," LaPlante said. Likewise, in the 167 districts Trump lost by 10 percent or more, Democrats won 163.

The districts where Trump's 2016 outcomes were narrower could decide the House majority in 2018. For Democrats to "run the table," as LaPlante put it, they'll need to gain five seats among the 41 districts Trump won by less than 10 percent. Republicans won 33 of those House races. And, Democrats will need to avoid losing any House seats in districts Trump lost by less than 10 percent.

LaPlante's charts indicate Democrats are unlikely to pull off big wins in those tight-race districts.

His projection goes beyond mere vote numbers, though. LaPlante studied the local nuances of key congressional district races and can site voter turnout stats for an August special election in the district ("90 percent, a phenomenal turnout") that gave Republican Troy Balderson a 1-percentage-point victory over Democrat Danny O'Connor and set up a rematch in the Nov. 6 election.

"You've got to look at these individual districts and do some digging," LaPlante said. 

Politics and numbers have long fascinated LaPlante, who grew up in Long Island, N.Y., lived in Europe and California for several years and then moved to Terre Haute in 1984. "I was always a math guy growing up," said LaPlante, who's now 65, semi-retired and living in Brownsburg.

On a family reunion in Florida once, the group was buzzing about the mounting jackpot in that state's lottery. "Someone said, 'We should all go out and buy 100 lottery tickets,'" LaPlante recalled, chuckling. He then started charting the statistical unlikelihood of that idea paying off, but resisted making a big deal out of it. "I didn't want to rain on their parade."

LaPlante started digging into national political outcomes after the contested 2000 Bush-Gore election. LaPlante accurately projected Trump's 2016 win over Hillary Clinton based on the Electoral College.

Data, campaign statements and news reports reveal only the potential outcome in his calculations. The variable, as he pointed out, is voter turnout. LaPlante believes Republicans are motivated by the controversial Senate confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Trump's handling of the economy, immigration, law and order and national security. By contrast, Democrats, he believes, "didn't foresee things turning out as well for the Republicans and Trump."

He added, "If things had been a disaster for Trump in the last two years, all these [Republican] candidates would be in trouble."

Democrats, no doubt, would disagree with his assessment. Voters on either side, or in the middle, will have the final say.

"We'll find out in a few days," LaPlante said.

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Editor, John C. DePrez Jr.; Executive Editor, Carol Rogers; Publishers: IBRC and IAR

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