Current Election Projections (*Not* Predictions): The Triumph of Politics

There are a lot of election handicappers and poll aggregators out there; I’ve been holding off on offering a forecast for a while now.  Like all forecasts, this is not a prediction but simply a temporary offer of a prognosis based on the moving parts–and the various qualities and degrees of significance–we perceive at a given moment.  I like the term “projection” better than “prediction.”  Prediction implies that one knows what’s going to happen next.  There is, at all times, a fundamental problem with applying the term “prediction” to our best guesses even about the near-future in politics.  Those fields which pertain to politics, war, and finance both demand some level of predictive confidence and are constantly subject to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s problem of the “black swan.”  In all 3 of these fields there are full-time professionals committed to bucking the trends you see, hoping to change the game being played to the advantage of their dark-horse cause.

You can’t always read about these attempts at break-out moments.  Sometimes it’s too time-consuming to follow the story (or stories), sometimes there’s no written story to follow.  You’d think telecommunications technology would mitigate this problem; it has observably made it far more-serious.  In an information-saturated environment, campaigns that appear to be behind try to manufacture moments to re-shuffle the deck–and leaders do the same…as do unaffiliated supporters on both sides.

But this is no cause to shirk that old game of election handicapping!  Just because I’m going out on a statistical limb doesn’t mean I can’t stand on the shoulders of professional statisticians!  Let’s not mess around with all of this “tossup” stuff; let’s get some damn election calls in here!

Note: I fully expect some of the actual November 6th election results to trump the calls made here; after all, if the pollsters, analysts and reporters I’ve relied on in arriving at these judgments were always right, that would mean political consultants and campaign advisers were helpless to deliver a come-from-behind win to their cause-celebre–and that’s something we know isn’t true from experience.  Just ask Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) after the 2010 Midterm Elections.  Actually, on that point it’s worth noting that series of unanticipated events at the beginning of this year have made it highly likely that the Democratic Party will keep its Senate majority, when it had been widely believed that they would lose it in the massive Republican wave year of 2010.  That proviso being given, without further ado let the Liberal Ironist speak above his pay grade about an important election that is certain to have some surprises in store for all of us somewhere.

President (electoral vote): Obama 303 (281-332)–Romney 235 (206-257)

President (popular vote): really, really close

There was a strong movement in the polls in Governor Romney’s favor in the first 2 weeks of October, but this appears to have stabilized and even reverted somewhat in the past week.  On October 12th, head modeler Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight forecast President Obama’s odds of winning re-election on November 6th at about 3:2; now he’s putting it around 2:1 with a slight positive outlook.  Those odds have slid enough that we shouldn’t rule-out further abrupt movement in the polls, as from October 4th (the Night of the Living Debate) to October 12th the FiveThirtyEight forecast model calculated that President Obama’s odds of winning re-election in November slid from 7:1 to 3:2.  Suffice to say that that the Presidential race is far more-competitive now than it was in the 3 weeks following the Democratic National Convention.

But you know what?  A close race does not an unstable race make.  Missouri was called a “competitive” State in Presidential Elections for years, and on the eve of the Presidential Election in 2008 no less-seasoned a political adviser than Karl Rove called Missouri for President Obama.  But Missouri remained in the Republican column, as it had in every Presidential Election since 1996, when Ross Perot was still a significant spoiler for Conservatives; meanwhile Indiana, anticipated by almost no one, turned out for President Obama in his electoral blowout.  The Commonwealth of Virginia, previously (but no more) a component in the Republican electoral base, turned-out for President Obama by the same margin as the country as a whole.  Missouri was very close that year, but it voted for Senator John McCain for President in a year when it seemed no one was doing it.

What’s my point?  Just because a State polls close–even regularly–doesn’t mean it’s actually a good target for the trailing Presidential contender.  Of course pollsters and pundits (and the presidential campaigns and the major party organizations) tend to focus on the States that poll close; don’t you get more bang for the buck campaigning in the State where you aren’t so far-behind on votes?  Thing is, that depends; some votes are harder to move than others.  What if 51% of likely voters in a high-turnout Missouri election year were committed Republicans?  Is that a top-tier Democratic campaign investment prospect?

If the elections were to be held tomorrow, I’d still call them for President Obama, with about 303 electoral votes to Governor Romney’s 235.  Most of the polls and poll aggregators reflect a consensus in which Florida is polling in Romney’s favor; a few show Romney in the lead in Virginia, Colorado and New Hampshire as well.  Romney’s prospective lead was not well-corroborated in New Hampshire, and I’m still siding with the recent Quinnipiac/CBS/New York Times poll over the other (often Republican-affiliated) polls saying President Obama still has an edge in Virginia.  Colorado had a deeper tilt away from, and a more-emphatic return to, President Obama than either Virginia or New Hampshire–but there now seems to be agreement among the more-sophisticated poll aggregators (FiveThirtyEight, Pollster) that President Obama is (slightly) favored there.  Virginia has gone back and forth in the polls a lot lately; I still think the President has an edge there.

Meanwhile, Governor Romney’s lead in the polls in Florida has received some attention, but Romney often polled well in Florida before President Obama’s post-Convention bounce, even while the President enjoyed a slow climb in the electoral forecast throughout the summer.  This suggests to me that, while many States that a Republican needs to win a Presidential election have been trending Democratic, Florida has actually been trending Republican.  Considering its 29 electoral votes this might sound like great news for Governor Romney; yet FiveThirtyEight calculates that Ohio (by far #1), Virginia and Wisconsin are the 3 States most-likely to determine the Electoral College winner this year.  That’s a bad sign for Romney; if smaller States where President Obama tends to poll in the lead are calculated to have a higher probability of casting the decisive electoral votes for President, this means President Obama’s “Electoral firewall” of support from a decisive combination of swing States is holding strong.

Other States which have shown notable poll trends towards Governor Romney since the October 4th debate are Ohio, Nevada and Wisconsin (though I still don’t think Romney will closely-contest Nevada or Wisconsin in the end).  To a lesser and ultimately-inconsequential extent, Romney also gained in the polls in Oregon and Pennsylvania–though this gain has begun to reverse itself, especially in Oregon.

If Governor Romney were to win Florida, Colorado, Virginia, New Hampshire and Ohio–which I have listed in roughly the order I believe he could win them, from greatest to least–he would have 279 electoral votes to President Obama’s 259–a very close save considering he was unambiguously behind in the polls until October and continues to trail in the swing States, but enough to win.

Silver, blogging at FiveThirtyEight, argued last week that the previous weekend’s polls foreshadowed the restoration of President Obama’s electoral standing (though less-so in Colorado and Florida, the States where he had lost the most ground in the polls).  The President has not made up the polling ground he has lost since his very-defensive performance in the October 4th debate–indeed, he hasn’t quite made up the ground he lost in a particularly bad day of polling last Friday–but the reversion to the mean in the polls has meant that Governor Romney is now trailing in the polls again, with only next Monday’s foreign policy-themed Presidential Debate to go.

Governor Romney lost his cool and had a few embarrassing fumbles during Tuesday’s Town Hall debate in the New York suburbs.  I’m sorry to draw your attention to cosmetics, dear reader, but the fact remains that this election continues to appear competitive, as it has all this month, and it has been subject to a kind of hyper-focus.  In a Gallup poll released Friday, respondents judged President Obama the winner of the 2nd debate, 51%-38%.  Independents judged the President the winner of the debate, 54%-33%.  While Gallup admitted that the impact the Town Hall Debate would have on the election was unclear, Governor Romney needed to add to his momentum of the previous debate, and between this and the Vice Presidential Debate the week before, he failed to do this.  Romney has tried very hard (and millionaires and billionaires have spent millions of dollars on super-PACs attacking the President), but it’s doubtful he can turn the tables and win this race with 17 days to go.  Governor Romney is out of ammunition.

US Senate: 53 Democrats (52-55)–47 Republicans (45-48)

Considering Republicans were favored to narrowly win control of the Senate in 2010, they should take a long, hard look at themselves as the Democrats are almost certain to maintain their majority in the Senate, quite possibly by their current 53-vote majority.

I expect an independent pickup in Maine and a Democratic pickup in Massachusetts.  Everyone expects a Republican pickup in Nebraska and it is likely (though not certain) in North Dakota.  If Angus King, the independent former Governor of Maine, wins, he is expected to caucus with the Democrats (though he has not yet committed to).  With the exception of a narrow but likely win by Republican Rick Berg over Democrat Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, I expect the current party to retain control of the other Senate seats this year–but Indiana (R), Montana (D) and Arizona (R) could go either way.  So, the likely Democratic range is 52-55 seats in the Senate (the lower end being more-likely), the likely Republican range 45-48.

The Republicans were badly-hurt by Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME)’s retirement decision, which made a sure Republican seat a solid bet for a Republican-hostile independent gain, and by Tea Party candidate Richard Mourdock’s 61%-39% primary win over Senator Richard Lugar in Indiana, which made another safe Republican Senate seat a tossup.  Senator Snowe retired because she felt rising partisanship had made it too difficult to do her job; so, since 2010 if it weren’t for the Tea Party the Republicans might be starting the 113th Congress with a 53-seat majority instead of a probable 47-seat minority.  Meanwhile Richard Mourdock, the Indiana Treasurer, is enough of a Conservative that loyally-Republican Indiana may vote to send a Democratic Congressman to the Senate.  Even if Mourdock wins, the Republican Party and the many pro-Republican super-PACs funneling cash into this election will have invested a lot in defending a seat, when they had thought they would be able to make a bid for the upper chamber of Congress.

These developments reinforce a suspicion I’ve had since the 2010 Midterms: The further you go up the ballot, the less the Conservative “Tea Party” movement has helped the Republicans and the more-manifestly it has hurt.

I haven’t written much on the subject to-date, but I think this is the implicit story of the Republican Presidential Primaries and the 2012 Presidential Election as well.

US House of Representatives: 239 Republicans (235-244)–196 Democrats (191-200)

Finally, there are the House races…Sigh.  I can only anticipate marginal Democratic gains in the House of Representatives, even with what the Gallup poll finds to be the most-unpopular Congress in history (which, in agreement with Ezra Klein, I attribute to the crass and obsessive behavior of House Republicans.)

Frankly, I just think we’re living through a phase of American history in which it’s easier, for several reasons, to elect Republicans to the House of Representatives.  Congressional reapportionment and redistricting continue to reflect the population shifts which have dominated the previous 3 rounds of reapportionment.  The Northeast lost 5 Congressional Districts (of which New York lost 2) and the Midwest lost 6 (with Ohio also losing 2); the South gained 7 Congressional Districts (with Texas gaining a recent record 4 and Florida gaining 2, though Louisiana lost 1 due to the post-Katrina exodus) while the West gained 4 (though economically-depressed and cash-strapped California bucked its own recent trend in failing to gain an additional District).  However, unlike in the past 3 reapportionments, Republicans were not able to engineer a natural increase in Congressional Districts for themselves.  This was all the more-noteworthy as Republicans gained about 700 seats in State legislatures nationwide, taking control of a net 15 State Legislatures as well as 6 governor’s offices in 2010.  Once again, Republicans were in unitary control of redistricting in many strategic States–Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina (where the Democratic Governor had no input in the process), South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas.

On yet the other hand, there are several reasons for Republicans’ relatively-disappointing performance in redistricting.  1st and most-obviously, following the 2010 Midterm Elections, the Republicans had a larger House Conference than they had at any point in their entire 1995-2007 period of control of the House.  Nationwide, roughly 53% of the 2010 popular vote for the House was for the Republicans.  This was a high that, in our highly-partisan and information-saturated political environment, Republicans could not hope to improve.

On a related count, Republicans had already squeezed almost all the water out of the stone in partisan gerrymandering.  The 5 best States for Republican gerrymanders for the 2002 and 2004 House elections–Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Florida and Texas–will in aggregate almost certainly yield a net shift of House seats to the Democrats this year, and bipartisan redistricting commissions yielded surprising projected gains to the Democrats in Washington State, California, and Arizona.  Even the very bright redistricting spots for Republicans in Republican-dominated North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia might be almost completely neutralized by the Democratic gerrymanders in Maryland and Illinois.  (In Illinois, Democrats have a shot at converting an 11-8 Republican Congressional delegation into a 13-5 Democratic delegation, which if borne-out would be the most-successful partisan redistricting of this cycle.)  Republicans do have a possible consolation prize in a surprising prospect of a net Democratic loss of 2 seats and a Republican pickup of 1 in the Boston metropolitan area; Massachusetts Democrats eliminated the District of the unpopular Congressman Barney Frank, only to see John Tierney, the Congressman from H.P. Lovecraft’s old stomping ground north of Boston, embroiled in scandal.  Making cautious judgments based on current polling, recent partisan voting indices and a few assumptions about a Congressman’s ability to run in their District, I expect somewhere around a 3-seat loss to Republicans from their current 242-193 House majority.

Of course, a few of these races are quite dynamic; while I have tentative calls for each close House race, I will be genuinely-surprised if they all turn-out as I’m calling them in November.  These are my best current guesses among campaigns that are doing their best to be both visible to the public and invisible in their movements to their opponents.  While there are just over 2 weeks to go until the election, I may nonetheless offer an update.

Governors: 31 Republicans (30-32)–19 Democrats (18-20, including 1 pro-Obama independent)

The Governor’s races are also a bit dull, especially compared to the 2006-2010 period.  This is the only place nationwide where the polls unambiguously point to further net losses for the Democrats.  4 races–North Carolina, Montana, New Hampshire, and Washington–are currently considered competitive; all are currently held by retiring Democrats, though only in Washington does Governor Christine Gregoire have a Democratic legislature to work with at present.  The Democratic candidate is polling in the lead in Washington and narrowly ahead in New Hampshire.  Contested wins in New Hampshire and maybe Montana are possible, but only in New Hampshire will President Obama’s coattails help, and in North Carolina a Democratic hold of the Governor’s Mansion is almost out of the question whatever happens up-ballot.  Come January I expect Republicans to have a 31-19 majority among Governors, counting independent Governor Lincoln Chafee among the Democrats due to his endorsement of President Obama.  This would be the largest number of Republican Governors serving at 1 time in American history.

State Senates: 30 Republican (27-31), 19 Democratic (18-22)

State Houses/Assemblies: 28 Republican (27-30), 21 Democratic (19-22)

State Government Trifectas (Governor and both chambers of the Legislature): 25 Republican (25-26), 15 Democratic (13-16), 9 split (7-11), 1 Nebraska

(Nebraska has a unicameral State Legislature in which party affiliations are prohibited.  Yes, that is odd.)

OK, we might as well do State legislatures.  I certainly don’t know how partisan control of State legislatures is going to shake-out in November, but in this age of massive private financing of campaigns and programmatic political parties–with their consequent very low levels of split-ticket voting–the partisan thrust of the anticipated Presidential vote and the local popularity of the Governor will likely make a huge difference in determining control of several State Legislatures.  Considering the tense balance between elected Democrats and Republicans in the Federal Government, control of State governments is a real prize in impacting policy.  In any case the current trend favors greater partisan consolidation of State governments–though not everywhere.

Note: There aren’t many places I’ve found to get a good nationwide view on the electoral prognosis throughout the State Legislatures.  The best I have found is Ballotpedia (whose projections are more up-to-date) and Governing.com (which actually provides context for its calls).

At present there are 29 Republican and 19 Democratic State Senates; Alaska’s is evenly-split, and Conservative Republicans in Virginia have taken the “nuclear option,” leading their evenly-split Commonwealth Senate by way of their Republican Executive Branch.  There are 30 Republican and 18 Democratic State Houses, with Oregon’s evenly-split.  Nebraska doesn’t factor-in because it has a unicameral State Legislature in which candidates run and serve without partisan affiliation–a completely-unique situation in this country which effectively prevents the Nebraska Senate from having stable policy positions.  The Republicans netted about 700 seats in State Legislatures in 2010, following modest gains in 2009 and preceding modest gains in 2011; in 2010 alone Republicans gained control of a net 15 State Legislatures.  Republicans cleaned up so massively in the greater Midwest region (by which I mean the traditional mining and manufacturing region from Pennsylvania to Kentucky, and northwest to Minnesota) that Illinois and West Virginia retained Democratic governments, Minnesota and Kentucky retained a Democratic Governor, and Kentucky retained a Democratic State House and Wisconsin Democrats gained an inactive Senate majority in June while the entire rest of the region currently has unitary Republican State Government.

There have been, and shall be, corrections to this somewhat-inflated result.  Most prognosticators doubt Democrats will be able to hold their 1-vote majority in the State Senate even while Democratic President Obama and Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin are favored to win the Badger State in their respective races.  As much as it hurts Liberals to say this, Republican Governor Scott Walker is pretty popular there.  Then there is the evenly-divided Alaska Senate: Republicans are widely expected to win control of it.  So, Democrats start out with a likely loss of 2 State Senates.

Massive outside spending in the Arkansas media market on State races could combine with Governor Romney’s projected massive win in that State to deliver 1 or both chambers of its State Legislature to the Republicans.  This would have to happen in spite of Governor Mike Beebe’s popularity–which gives the Democrats a chance.  The Democrats might have a better shot of holding the State House–the Governor was able to pull-off a favorable redistricting plan there, and the Republicans would have to pick up more seats.  In any case, either chamber could go either way.

Republicans also hope for pickups of the Nevada Senate and the New Mexico House.  It appears that redistricting was unkind to New Mexico’s Democrats, and Republican Governor Susanna Martinez is quite popular there.  In Nevada the Democrats have a 1-vote majority in the small State Senate, and this year many of the State Senate races are apparently both heavily-funded and idiosyncratic.  Handicappers have no consensus on what’s going to happen in Nevada’s upper chamber, although they call the lower one for the Democrats; I’d think Republicans are narrowly-favored to win the Nevada Senate, owing partly to Republican Governor Sandoval’s popularity, the likely weakness of President Obama’s lead there relative to 2008, and the surprising strength Republicans are polling with in 3 out of the State’s 4 Congressional Districts in what has recently been a Democratic-trending State.  So, be on the lookout for 2 Democratic-controlled Southwestern State Legislatures to become split Legislatures.

On the other hand, there are 3 State Legislatures that could go from being split to having Democratic majorities–Oregon, Colorado and New York (from most- to least-likely).  This result would give Democrats a trifecta of unitary government in each of these States.  In Oregon a Democratic takeover of the split State House is probable based on the State’s undeniable growing Democratic trend; in Colorado it is aided by a more-subtle trend towards the Democrats, the popularity of Governor John Hickenlooper, legislative redistricting and the gradual decline of social Conservatism in that State.  In deep-Blue, Liberal New York State, the only reason why dinosaur Republicans maintain their majority in the State Senate is because it has the most population-unequal districts of any State legislative chamber in the country–a dated holdover from 1898 and the fear of newly-incorporated New York City’s natural majority of the State population.  So New York’s Republicans, often beholden to the State’s Conservative Party line, continue to cling tenaciously to their 32-30 majority in the State Senate, a place where Progressive legislation goes to die.  The end of their majority in that chamber is both inevitable and just; it is only a question of how long until it happens.

Finally, there are 2 States where I think Democrats have a better-than-even chance of taking control of currently-Republican State Legislatures, both because of the strength of President Obama’s support at the top of the ballot and the unpopularity of Republicans there.  Those States are Maine and Minnesota.  In Maine, Democrats are aided by the unpopularity of Tea Party-backed Governor Paul LePage, elected by a plurality in a 3-way race in 2010 and who has since governed from the far-right; in Minnesota, Republicans appear to have been badly undermined by legislative redistricting, and Democratic Governor Mark Dayton is more-popular than the Legislature.  While Democratic takeovers of the legislature in either State are not inevitable, all indicators seem to favor it in both cases.

Without Compromise, It Isn’t Going to Work

In short, after historically-dynamic national elections in 2006, 2008, and 2010, the most-likely outcome of the 2012 Elections is a big win for the status quo.  The re-election of the President–by a strong electoral margin but a competitive popular vote majority–is fairly likely.  A Democratic majority in the US Senate is highly-likely, and it could easily be as big as it is right now; the Republican House majority is even safer, and it will probably remain at roughly its current size.

Well, all those dreams partisans on both sides have of their favored man passing their favored plan expect too much.  I’m not trying to tell people to temper their expectations but to check their arrogance.  We face a roughly $500 billion default tax increase and blunt automatic budget cuts, controversially to Defense spending, if President Obama, Senate Democrats and House Republicans cannot work-out an agreement by the end of this year.  Going forward into next year, this basic partisan alignment of the Federal Government looks like it will not change.  For the last  3 1/2 of President Obama’s first 4 years in office emotions have been intensely-charged, initially by Republicans and since the 2010 Midterms almost equally among Democrats.  Stonewalling of President Obama by Congressional Republicans has not availed them and has actually yielded them fewer legislative accomplishments in the 112th Congress than the President; for his part, ducking controversy during Congressional debates may have been politically-effective but it has not endeared the President to his base and it has not mollified Republicans.  We face automatic tax increases and spending cuts, a 2013 fight over raising the debt limit and a 2014 debate over how to pay for the multi-year highway bill, a popular but expensive spending program.  If an election this polarized, this emotionally-charged, this overshadowed by upsets and attack ads and this closely-watched by the public can produce divided government almost identical to the one we have now, that means we are going to have to work together, regardless of what anyone says.

Would all those lacking the discipline to talk about politics or government without calling members of the opposing party evil, criminal or stupid kindly leave the room?

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One thought on “Current Election Projections (*Not* Predictions): The Triumph of Politics

  1. Pingback: The 2012 National Elections: What Just Happened | The Liberal Ironist

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