Go Home Can the Republicans Win Back the Senate? I Do the Math.

AUGUST 10, 2010

## Can the Republicans Win Back the Senate? I Do the Math.

Last month I published a piece suggesting that while the odds of a Republican takeover of the Senate were not high, the possibility could no longer be ignored. My article was not well received. Critics argued that (among my many sins), I had cherry-picked surveys, given credence to the (allegedly) fatally flawed Rasmussen results, and worst of all, ignored Nate Silver’s superior methodology.

In the ensuing four weeks, a number of articles arguing roughly what I did have appeared. The publication today of a new survey from the conservative group American Crossroads offers an opportunity to revisit the issue.

Because the American Crossroads poll uses samples of only 100 from each of thirteen key Senate races, we can learn little about the individual contests. Of more significance is the overall finding, which essentially replicates Stan Greenberg’s, that respondents find various versions of the generic Republican narrative more persuasive than the competing Democratic arguments. The Republicans this year are campaigning with the wind in their sails. If some Democrats in tight races survive, it will be because they have managed to tack skillfully in these adverse conditions.

So what of the individual races? The overall picture is this: Democrats begin with 44 safe and 4 likely seats, for a total of 48, while Republicans begin with 34 safe seats and 4 likely. That leaves 14 seats in play that will decide the control of the Senate. If Democrats win just 2 and Joe Lieberman continues to caucus with them, Vice President Biden’s tie-breaking vote will enable them to maintain control. Conversely, Republicans need to win at least twelve out of 14 (with a complication I’ll return to).

The following table summarizes where we are now as we await the results of the Colorado primary contests.

It’s hard to imagine that Republicans won’t prevail in the first five states listed, which moves their total up to 43. That leaves nine truly pivotal seats, of which Republicans would need to win eight. Four are open—Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Illinois. The remaining five—Nevada, Colorado, Washington, California, and Wisconsin—all feature hard-pressed Democratic incumbents. Each is averaging well below 50 percent support—a parlous position for any incumbent.

Yes, dear readers, I’ve treated Rasmussen surveys on all fours with the others. To justify this, I turn to … Nate Silver (his site’s modest motto: “Politics Done Right.”) Silver ranks 63 surveys for the accuracy of their results. He ranks Rasmussen in the top quartile—15th, to be precise. Using his preferred metric of “pollster-induced error,” he finds that Rasmussen missed the mark by an average of 1.74 percent—a bit worse than NBC (1.53), Pew (1.60), or Gallup (1.66), but better than either CNN or CBS/New York Times (both 1.94).

So what are the odds of a Republican takeover? Basic probability theory says very low—if these races are truly independent events. But history suggests that they aren’t. Recent elections in which control of the Senate shifted—namely those in 1980, 1986, and 2006—featured a number of close races, nearly all of which narrowly went to the eventual new majority. The reason is simple: while candidates and state issues matter in Senate races, so do the underlying national tides, which can pull even weak challengers to victory (remember John East).

Now for the promised complication. I’ve assumed that Rubio would have to beat Crist in Florida. But it’s entirely possible that despite a bitter break with his party, a lifetime Republican like Crist would end up caucusing with them. He could also adopt a purely independent stance and withhold his vote from either party. If so, a 50-49 Republican edge would allow them to organize the Senate. The Vice President can break ties, but he can’t make them.

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Why does everyone forget to put Connecticut on the list of another possible Democrat loss? Do not underestimate the weakness of, as the NYTimes said, "Martha Coakeley in pants" Blumenthal. Or the incredible anger (nice graphic, Mr. Galston). I am going to vote GOP in New York solely to vent my anger, and I have never done that before. We need two years of total gridlock to teach BOTH parties a lesson in how to nominate their Presidential candidates. One party rule is how we got into this mess.

August 11, 2010 at 1:52am

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As suggested for his inane and incorrect posts on economic matters, Galston should stick to posting on matters he knows more about and in which his math and reasoning skills might come in handy-- like, say, the mathematical underpinnings of string theory. I suspect Nate Silver will have something to say on Galston's lack of math, reasoning, and reading comprehension skills as applied to Senate predictions. As one example, Rasmussen tends to be WAY off outlier pushing many results on many races. Until the election is a few weeks to days away. Then, wonder of wonders, Ras comes in line with other polls. Months away from elections, Ras [and Gal], are basically engaging in Repub/Blue Dog push polling. As twits, they deserve each other. One more example of the editorial decline in the last 10-15 years at was once a leading Progressive publication.

August 11, 2010 at 6:07am

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"It’s hard to imagine that Republicans won’t prevail in the first five states listed" Actually, it's not hard at all. NC will be tough for Democrats but Marshall is within striking distance of the not-popular Burr. Hodes in NH trailed by more than he does now when he ran for his House seat. Coons in DE has halved a sizable gap in the polls, which still leaves a substantial gap but has been impressive for a candidate who is still not yet well-known in a traditionally blue state. Conway is a very good candidate in KY against a candidate who has committed gaffe after gaffe. And many observers expect the MO race to be close. While Galston is right that elections aren't truly independent events, neither are they completely dependent events. Galston seems to have erred by assuming that since they're not independent, they must instead be highly dependent when the truth is probably somewhere between the extremes. So yes, Republicans may prevail in all these races. But it's certainly not "hard to imagine" Democrats winning at least one, or maybe more. It's still early in the campaign season, and many voters haven't even started paying attention. And what of his conclusion that the probability of a Republican takeover of the Senate is "not high," but "could no longer be ignored"? That depends on what one's threshold of "can't ignore" is. Some people might say it's at 3%, some might say 12%. Without putting a number on it, that statement doesn't really say anything; after all, even a 1% possibility is still a possibility. My understanding is that droftnats is absolutely right about Rasmussen.

August 11, 2010 at 9:18am

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August 11, 2010 at 9:35am

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Yes it was the President and his party’s profound political stupidity to delude themselves into believing that Obama’s election in 2008 meant that there had been realignment in political philosophy of the American people. The realignment was suppose to have been brought about by working class white men changing their minds about loathing the Negro (except when they are on a basketball court or football field); and by the supposed emergence of a post race-hating white youth into the electorate in states like North Carolina and Virginia. This belief was the sheerest fantasy. But ultimately, it was/is the President and his Party’s failure to push through a change in the economic climate (a simple failure in political strength and courage) which left the President groveling at the feet of Congressional Republicans who despise him; begging them to embrace his and his Party’s economic philosophy and programmatic agenda. From the outset Republicans were only interested in destroying this President and his Party. And they knew the strategy which would achieve their purpose. They also correctly understood that failure to “cooperate” with this President and his party would never be politically costly. Obama never had that kind of relationship with the American people. If the American people were or are asked to believe either the Negro in the White House, his Party, or the Republican opposition to him over any issue of national policy, when they, middle and lower middle class whites are threatened; they will never go with the Negro. It’s that simple. From January 2011 President Obama will be President in name only, and his Party will effectively no longer exist in any border state; or in any Congressional district outside of the majority minority districts.

August 11, 2010 at 9:36am

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"It’s hard to imagine that Republicans won’t prevail in the first five states listed" Sorry, but I have to go after this statement again. Galston's own chart gives Democrats the chance of Democrats prevailing in three of those five states at more than 1/3. So why is it "hard to imagine" that Republicans won't? The claim doesn't even comport with the presented data. I'm not denying that Democrats face a tough environment and face substantial losses. But Galston has to do more to show a substantial (whatever that means) probability of Republicans taking the Senate. As an aside, Democratic prospects probably improved slightly with the primary outcome in Colorado.

August 11, 2010 at 10:11am

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I'll do Galston's math for him, based on little more than free time, intuition and some knowledge of political dynamics in most of the state listed in Galston's chart: NC: Burr beats Marshall in a race that isn't that close. He's unpopular, but the off-year electorate in NC skews conservative to his advantage. NH: Hodes pulls off an upset and takes the seat, out-hustling Ayotte in a close race. MO: Blunt wins a close race due to national conditions favoring Republicans. DE: Castle wins a really close race, again due to national conditions -- but this could go either way in my view. KY: Rand Paul self-destructs and only pulls in 45% of the vote, as swing voters in Louisville/Lexington corridor and south-central KY stay away from him and his Crazy in droves. OH: Fisher wins narrowly, as Portman is successfully tied to Bush and a lackluster gubernatorial campaign by Kasich pulls him down. PA: Sestak wins by a healthy margin, as Toomey is successfully branded as responsible for deficits and the economic downturn due to his boosterism for past tax cuts and Club for Growth connections. Sestak has plenty of working-class cred for older PA voters, and Toomey is Santorum without the veneer of Catholic social values that could get some inner-city and Reagan Dem votes in Santorum's two successful Senate campaigns. NV: Reid pulls through by a healthy margin (though his vote share is under 45%), as Sharron Angle is wiped out. Remember that NV law allows people to vote "none of the above" and there are third party candidates on the ballot as well. These come out of Angle's hide more than Reid's. CO: Bennet wins by a hair, largely due to a really bad showing by R's in the governor's race. Colorado Republicans toss Dick Wadhams to his doom off Crested Butte on November 3. IL: Giannoulias wins a lackluster contest with low voter turnout, as people no longer trust Kirk and he can't change perceptions in time. A lost opportunity for Republicans. WA: Murray cruises to re-election by reminding everyone that Rossi is a shyster who was making money off sub-prime investments as late as last year. CA: Carly Fiorina goes down in a giant ball of flames, even though Californians don't like Boxer much at all. WI: A close race, but Feingold prevails on the strength of liberal turnout (for him, if not for Obama). FL: Crist wins big, and decides not to caucus with either party -- which gives Senator Joe-Mentum the excuse to caucus with Crist. In other news, I would put some dough on Charlie Melancon in LA at least making a decent showing if not beating Senator Pampers. The solicitousness toward BP will hurt Vitter even more than the whore-mongering and girlfriend-beating staffers. Oh, and Blumenthal cleans Crazy Linda McMahon's clock in CT and neither incumbent Democrat loses in NY. Sorry K2K, stop projecting your unhappiness onto mainstream tri-state voters. Most of them don't know from Likud. Over to you, Chet!

August 11, 2010 at 2:23pm

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wildboy, I think most of your calls are on the mark and Republicans won't come that close to retaking the Senate But Galston's claim isn't that Republicans will take the Senate, or that they'll likely take the Senate; it's that the chances, while still low, are too high to ignore the possibility of it happening. That he won't tell us what that threshold is makes it impossible to evaluate his assertion.

August 11, 2010 at 5:27pm

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