Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Midterm Madness

Well, August has been a long and frustrating month of ‘made-for-media’ controversies and equally irrelevant prognostications on the likely outcomes of the upcoming midterm elections.  It would seem, from all the headline-mongering and talk show bloviating, that Democrats are in for a whuppin’ along the lines of 1994 but the polls don’t lie, very often, and things may not be what they seem at first glance.

Are Democrats going to lose seats?  Pretty bloody likely.  Are they going to lose control of the House and the Senate or both?  Hard to say but probably not.  Sound counter-intuitive given the current conventional wisdom, such as it is?  Lets take a closer look, it’s pretty clear that things have been headed the Republicans’ way recently, no argument.  But how much?:

We could obsess further over the consistent differences among pollsters, but what is far more important, is that the averages show a GOP lead that has been trending in the Republican direction all summer. That trend is consistent with the historical pattern identified here on Friday by political scientists Joe Bafumi, Bob Erikson and Chris Wlezien, the “electorate’s tendency in past midterm cycles to gravitate further toward the “out” party over the election year.”

Moreover, you see the same trend even if we drop all Newsweek and Gallup polls, plus all of the Internet-based surveys and automated surveys (including Rasmussen), and focus only on the remaining live-interviewer telephone surveys, as in the chart [shown here]. The margin for the Republicans is virtually identical (46.6% to 41.4%).

So while the “unprecedented 10-point lead” reported by Gallup probably exaggerates the Republican lead, any result showing a net Republican advantage on the so-called generic ballot is bad news for Democrats. Bafumi and his colleagues estimated their 50-seat gain for the Republicans assuming a two-point advantage for Republicans on the generic ballot, which they project will widen to a six-point lead by November.

Mark Blumenthal – Gallup vs. Newsweek on the Generic Pollster 30 Aug 10

Fifty seats is a shocker, to be sure, but trends away from the incumbent majority seem to also be unexceptional, historically, in American politics.  And since the cited post was written the generic ballot gap has apparently narrowed again slightly to 3%.  How determinate is the generic ballot polling to a large number of specific races?  And what are the issues affecting polling at this stage for a midterm election in both houses?

Most predictive analysis, like the one which suggests a 79% likelihood of a Republican House takeover, is based on historical modelling and the generic congressional ballot, with the following caveats:

Applying our model to 2010 assumes that the forces at work in 2010 are unchanged from past midterm elections. However, we should be wary of the possibility that the underlying model of the national vote works differently in 2010 or is influenced by variables we have not taken into account. Because the 2010 campaign started to heat up earlier than usual, the usual tilt toward the out party may already be complete, with no further drift to the Republicans. It is also uncertain how voters will react to the tea-party movement as the public face of the Republican Party.

The key will be to follow the generic polls from now to November. If the polls stay close, the Democrats have a decent chance to hold the House. But if the polls follow the past pattern of moving toward the “out” party and move further toward the Republicans — even by a little — the Republicans should be heavily favored.

Joseph Bafumi, Robert S Erikson and Christopher Wlezien – A Forecast of the 2010 House Election Outcome Huffington Post 28 Aug 10

The short answer?  It’s still a craps shoot.  The aforementioned esteemed political scientists are betting the farm on their model which successfully predicted a Democratic victory in 2006.  But politics is local.  As Al Giordano points out, ‘If there are 50 or 60 or 70 congressional districts where one party might wrestle the seat from the other, that means that 80 to 85 percent of Americans live in districts where the incumbent party will almost certainly retain control.’  Which also implies the generic ballot polling of those districts is completely irrelevant:

In those closer contests, a lot depends on the individual candidates and the competence of their campaigns. Organizing for America – Obama’s grassroots political army, now part of the Democratic party – has made lists of all the first time voters from 2008 in each of those contested districts and a lot will ride on whether they can be inspired or pulled by the ear to actually vote. That’s not going to happen because of duplicitous scare tactics. That kind of thing only happens the way it did in 2008: through person-to-person recruitment, effective door knocking, phone banking and the deployment of community organizers in social networks, and not just the online variety.

Al Giordano – A Primer on the 2010 US House and Senate Elections The Field 1 Sep 10

Not to mention the difficulties presented to pollsters in developing predictive ‘likely turnout’ models for an arguably exceptional midterm election.  For my money until we see some detailed and comprehensive analysis of polling results from specific toss-up House seats the outcome remains elusive.

As for the Senate, where the polling has been more comprehensive, the issue remains in doubt but the early returns don’t currently favour a change in the majority:

There are 29 Senate contests in which the Republicans have at least a 5 percent chance of winning, according to the forecast: Republicans would need to win at least 28 of these in order to head into the 112th Congress with an outright majority. They must not only sweep essentially all of the Democratic-held seats, but also successfully defend all or almost all of their own. And in some of those, like Florida, Kentucky and perhaps North Carolina, Republicans remain quite vulnerable.

Nate Silver – New Forecast Shows Democrats Losing 6 to 7 Senate Seats NYT 25 Aug 10

I could live with that but we might as well save the hand-wringing and bedwetting for mid-October when the battle lines are more clearly drawn and the results are more clearly defined by accurate polling.  As Nate Silver points out:

Certainly, if Democrats were to have another month as bad as the one they endured in August – one characterized by poor economic news and ethics scandals – the possibilities for a Senate takeover would rise further. But the reverse could also be true. It is not out of the question that the polling could shift back toward the Democrats: many voters do not begin paying attention in earnest to Congressional campaigns until after Labor Day, and the parties’ messaging strategies have yet to solidify. The Democrats retain long-shot chances – about 3 percent – of actually gaining one or more Senate seats and restoring a 60-seat majority.

Nate Silver – New Forecast Shows Democrats Losing 6 to 7 Senate Seats NYT 25 Aug 10

For the Netroots punditry now decrying the Obama presidency’s failures, largely and predictably ascribed to a lack of ‘progressive’ policies and virtue, one can only hope they keep their powder dry and do what they claim they are destined to do, get out the vote and provide local organisational support to progressive Democrats nationwide.  But the ‘I-told-you-so’ temptations run deeper than ideology, it seems.  And Al makes another good point:

In this sense, a political parody site like Wonkette has become more relevant to the 2010 midterm elections than the entirety of the so-called Netroots, which in 2006 became a kind of kingmaker in the Democrats’ midterm electoral triumphs. I tuned out completely on the Netroots blogs since June and only started browsing them again recently, and its as if they’re stuck on autopilot, still debating “Obama, good or bad” and blissfully disinterested in the midterm elections, certainly compared to where they were in 2006. On the eve of the 2010 elections, they’re still infighting like it’s 2009!

Al Giordano – A Primer on the 2010 US House and Senate Elections The Field 1 Sep 10

So it looks like it is up to us.  Those who worked with Organising for America during the Obama campaign will find the infrastructure still in place to make a difference if they choose.  There are plenty of opportunities remaining to ignore the national media and turn around specific precincts.  And it’s not like the Republicans don’t have a cross to bear, if you will excuse the phrase, with their giddy assumptions of victory and the divisive and ridiculous candidates their ‘grassroots’ movement has hoisted into national prominence and who are currently sucking up all the scarce ideological oxygen of their party’s electoral rhetoric:

Another factor that cuts somewhat against GOP chances to retake the House or Senate is the dysfunction in its own party ranks, between the Republican establishment and the in-house radicals broadly painted as “tea party” factions. Think Progress has a very interesting story that reveals seven congressional and three senate elections where the Republican candidate defeated in that party’s primary has not endorsed the party’s nominee: there is a lot of internecine bad blood flowing inside the GOP ranks. And in cases where the more radical “tea party” associated candidate won many primaries, the sheer battiness of the nominee produced is going to scare some voters away.

Al Giordano – A Primer on the 2010 US House and Senate Elections The Field 1 Sep 10

¡No pasarán!  We haven’t lost this one yet and by framing this as a watershed Republican victory for the whack-a-doodle Right our opponents have gifted us with a situation where merely retaining control of both houses by a slender majority will be a major victory.  Watch the Republicans savage each other like rats in a basket then…  Worth working for.


  1. Hollede

    ¡No pasarán!  We haven’t lost this one yet and by framing this as a watershed Republican victory for the whack-a-doodle Right our opponents have gifted us with a situation where merely retaining control of both houses by a slender majority will be a major victory.  Watch the Republicans savage each other like rats in a basket then…  Worth working for.

    The expectations for Democrats are so low right now, all we can do is improve. So let’s improve!

    Oy two more and I have to do a tube diary…

  2. The news-cycle wisdom commonly isn’t very wise, I’ve seen some reviews on how accurate the Media Prognostication has been and I don’t seem to recall it being an impressive hit-rate.

    I made my intentions clear on the radio last week – Boxer will get my vote (though frankly between her and Fiorina I’d choose  my mail carrier).

    Dems have to care enough to show up to have a good chance of “winning” (iow, not losing control of House and Sentate).  The Tea Party has to knock it out of the park. I’ll be more surprised if Palin and Beck have anything to crow about in November than the opposite.

  3. My first cross platform, cross diary comment, continued from here in your other diary Shaun

    As I was saying about the negativity/naivete on some lefty blogs…

    All of which makes me wonder that, apart from the semi-professional troupe of wannabe pundits, whether the US vocal left isn’t dominated by academics and students with too much time on their hands. It certainly would explain the intellectual one-upmanship and nasty needling – that’s how academia operates: the high drama of low stakes.

    It would also explain the pushback in recent days. Now the real people start blogging and paying attention: after all they have jobs, kids etc.

    I really do think these polls will narrow, and the result will not be as bad as the Cassandras predict. We’ve been here before with the dog days of ‘game changer’ Palin in 2008. Once people look over the abyss, once the professional left have run out of bullets for their circular firing squads, the real possibility of a vaguely triumphant tea party led Republican Party should scare a lot of Americans back to their senses.

    Talking of which, I met a fellow resident of my apartment block in the gym today. He’s of the directors of the freehold company, and a Tory, but a nice guy despite that.  He started talking about left wing bias in the BBC, and stuck in my blog mode I mentioned something about being ‘liberal’. He piped up. He considers himself a liberal though a Conservative.

    It might seem just like a confusion in nomenclature (liberals were the first free marketeers) but like many British Tories, he’s a social liberal. He hates republicans because, as he put it, they’re all religious and obsessed with God. He said in the US he’d be a democrat.

    Just goes to show how far right the US has drifted compared to Europe, where most our right wing parties are well to the left of the current GOP.  

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