Saturday, July 17, 2010

Congressional Election Predictions

There's been quite a bit of talk about what party will take over congress this year. Everyone is getting asked and giving answers, from the press secretary to the Veep himself. And they've been giving some brutally honest answers--though, as politicians, they are simply playing the game of "setting expectations." Normal political analysts are trying to get predictions on record, but a few non-standard factors--such as the Tea Party and the seemingly unusual number of high-profile deaths and party switches--is making things a bit difficult.

First, the House--it's entirely possible that the GOP could take over the House, but it's a tall order. Historically, the president's party is bound to lose seats, so losing some of their 70-ish seat majority is more or less a forgone conclusion. The House, in my opinion, is going to be the true barometer of support for Obama. In 2006 and 2008, a lot of marginal seats flipped from the Republican to the Democrat. When the opposite happened in 1994, it more or less coincided with a true shift in America's political ideology; the country as a whole had drifted rightward, and the Democrats didn't have a game plan to adapt to the new political environment. Now, we shall see if the opposite has happened--is there a true shift back towards the center-left, or is this still a gut reaction to the last years of the Bush administration and the economy? It's been two election cycles and the GOP has lost ground.

So far that I've been able to tell, about 10 seats may flip from GOP to Dem, and 40 look likely to flip from Dem to GOP; this is a net 30 gain for the Republicans, who need 39 to gain control. There are (give or take) about 50 additional seats where the GOP has an outside chance of picking up. So unless there is a major shift between now and November, the GOP looks to gain 35-55 seats. Yeah, that's a wide estimate, but I would peg it 50/50 whether they gain control. (I say the Dems retain control--a lot of people are mad, but they're mad at everyone, and it's likely many will sit on their hands. All the Tea Party angst that is soaking up the news is from people who were going to vote anyway, and they are exhibiting exactly the sort of behavior that turns fickle and moderate voters off--which in this environment would most likely going to vote Republican. Their loss.)

The Senate is more fun, mostly because there's fewer to examine and so can be looked at in greater detail. It is unlikely that the GOP can gain control of the Senate--they have to convert 10 seats, which is a third of those up for election--and only 16 of them are Democrats. That means that every Republican seat has to be retained, and they have to pick up all but six of the remaining 16 contests. That simply isn't going to happen. However, it's entirely possible they can get the Democrats down to about 52 or 53, which is low enough to change things.

As for the Republicans--well, they're probably safe, but the seats they could possibly lose are David Vitter in Louisiana, John McCain in Arizona, a new Senator in Florida, Rob Portman in Ohio, the New Hampshire seat, and Rand Paul of Kentucky. The latter three I think are holdable; Paul's mouth may cost him some votes, but Kentucky doesn't seem ready to vote Democrat just yet and the Tea Party is quite strong there. Ohio seems solid--while the state went for Obama, that popularity hasn't stayed particularly strong--but Portman was a Bush administration official, and that's still a potent stink in the Buckeye state, so we'll see. And the New Hampshire seat is still up for grabs; the only reason it's up in the air is that it's New England, which has been hostile territory for Republicans for a few cycles now.Vitter's is an odd case--he survived a scandal so far, but that doesn't mean it won't come back to haunt him. On the other hand, getting caught with a prostitute might actually help in Louisiana.

McCain and Rubio are special cases. McCain will hold on to the seat easily--if he can hold on to the nomination. Last I checked it looked like he would, but the primary is still months away. If Republican challenger J.D. Hayworth wins, it instantly changes to a tossup. Florida is an odd case because as of right now it's a three way battle between the conservative Marco Rubio, the now-independent governor Charles Christ, and relative unknown Kendrick Meek. Normally I would think that Rubio and Crist would split the vote and Meek would win, but Meek so far has been a mild and lackluster candidate. And--again--Florida went for Obama, but his popularity hasn't been sustained for very long there.

So that's it for the Republicans. I'd say the only seat truly in danger is Florida. Obviously it matters how strong the wave of discontent is, but I'd say at most one loss. How about the Democrats? What seats might the GOP pick up?

One thing to remember is that it's all about the margin--some elections are going to be lost outright, but if voter discontent creates, say, a smallish 2% shift in support for the GOP from the Democrats across the nation, even nominally "safe" districts may still flip. So if there are five or six reasonably close but otherwise considered safe seats open, the rising tide of GOP support will chip away at the bottom few seats.

Connecticut: Unlikely. Chris Dodd is retiring. While the candidate, Richard Blumenthal, has made some embarrassing gaffes (mostly misrepresenting his military service), Connecticut is still a very deep blue state. About the only thing that might help is that if the new financial regulation bill is too tough for them to swallow--this state has more than its share of finance HQs. Unlikely to matter in the long run, though.

Illinois: Unlikely. This would be a huge embarrasement for the Democrats, but Illinois is a strong party-run state, and I can't imagine it flipping. However, they've elected Republicans fairly recently, and with the debacle that was Rod Blagojevich and some issues with the current candidate, there's an outside chance this might me a marginal seat.

Indiana: Possible. Popular Senator Evan Bayh is retiring, which leaves an opening; while Indiana did go for Obama, I maintain that's one of the more surprising outliers of the campaign. Indiana's still quite red, though; the state isn't too happy with the administration, and without Bayh's family name propping up a candidacy, it's possible the GOP could pick it up.

North Dakota: Likely. Another retirement, only this one is in a red state with a popular governor running for the GOP. Aside from a major meltdown I can't imagine the GOP not picking this up.

Arkansas: Possible. Blanche Lincoln has made a lot of headlines and positioned herself appropriately in this race, but Arkansas is just the exact sort of state to vent their frustrations out on the Democrats. While the Republican candidate is lackluster, this could be an easy pickup for the GOP.

Pennsylvania: Unlikely. Another strange case. Arlen Specter was defeated in the primary by Joe Sestak, a not unknown quantity but hardly a 40-year veteran of the political arena. Former representative and Club for Growth president Pat Toomey is the GOP candidate. While I would normally consider this a tossup, Toomey has run before (in a primary battle) and lost, and there is a lot of baggage from the Club for Growth that can be used against him. If Philadelphia sits on their hands, Toomey has a chance. Otherwise, this increasingly blue state looks unlikely to flip.

Nevada: Unlikely. A few months ago, Harry Reid looked like a dead man walking. Then the Tea Party got one of their own nominated, and now Reid seems safe. Sharron Angle may be a decent candidate but she has huge PR problems, and I can't possibly imagine Reid losing unless he really screws something up in the Senate that outrages Nevada voters. Not impossible, but unlikely.

Colorado: Possible. Colorado is become more and more Democratic, but I'm not convinced the transformation is near completion: it was too reliably conservative for too long. They have a well-organized progressive population that I think amplifies their usefulness. That said, there's nothing particularly outstanding about either candidate, but Colorado is exactly the sort of place where disillusioned liberals sit home and gun nuts flock to the polls, so I say possible.

The rest of the seats are, for the most part, forgone conclusions. It's possible that, as primaries get settled and events transpire, more seats may become in play. If discontent for Obama becomes palpable--something I doubt but is not outside of the realm of possibility--other states, such as Washington, Oregon, and Wisconsin, suddenly become more important. Even California may be in play--while it's still reliably Democratic, a state that big always has lots of money and effort put into it.

A re-evaluation a few weeks before the election may be in order. If the anti-Obama fever dies down, I can't imagine the GOP winning more than 3 or 4 seats at best. (I can't imagine them (on net) losing seats in this environment.) If it's a groundswell of opposition, I could easily see a 7- or 8-seat gain. I can't imagine any of the big game (read: NY or CA) being bagged, but you never know.

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