10 in ’10

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I see her in the distance running toward me on the beach. It’s really her – Divided Government. I’ve missed her. She looks so great, so tempting, so desirable, yet so far away. She appears to be getting closer, but… why is she running in slow motion? Is she real or is it all a dream?

Divided Government occurs in the US federal government when the party that controls the executive does not command majorities in both branches of the legislature. To restore divided government in the mid-terms, Republicans would have to retake the majority in either the House of Representatives or the Senate. That means a shift of 40 seats in the House, or 10 seats in the Senate or both. A tall order.

A few weeks ago, Justin invited predictions for the 2010 midterms. With Labor Day around the corner signaling the official start of the fall political election campaign season, I thought I’d throw my entry over the transom. Of course, this is strictly my opinion, your mileage may vary, and mangement is not responsible for the content of this post. I am also predicting an outcome I’d like to see – so there may be some wishful thinking embedded in this analysis.

Last time I looked, the answer was “no” – divided government was out of reach in 2010. It was the same conclusion I arrived at shortly after the election in 2008. Conventional wisdom also said “no”, but conventional wisdom has taken some surprising turns in 2010.

Conventional Wisdom
In January, the expectation was that the GOP would make gains in both houses of Congress, but fall short of retaking a majority in either. It just looked like the GOP was buried too deep in the sand to dig themselves out in one cycle. The Scott Brown “Massachusetts Miracle” eclipsed that particular ray of conventional wisdom, and since then CW has cautiously settled on a partly cloudy forecast with a chance of heavy Republican rain. The current political weather report gives the GOP a good chance to retake the majority in the House of Representatives, but the Senate is still considered by most to be out of reach. Conventional wisdom is not unanimity, so you can find some grasping at straws, others fearing the worst, and a few wondering how bad it could get. To many on the right, it looks like a done deal. We’ll start our analysis by narrowing down the range of possibilities.

Every Possible Scenario
The entire universe of possibilities can be distilled to these four outcomes – listed in order of Current Conventional Wisdom:

  1. Democrats retain Senate, Republicans win House
  2. Democrats narrowly retain House and Senate
  3. Republicans win House and Senate
  4. Republicans win Senate, Democrats retain House

The best way to evaluate this would be a bottoms-up analysis looking at detailed polls and statistically correlating demographics and voting history on a district by district, state by state, and election by election basis. I’m not going to do any of that. For one thing, it is beyond my ken, for another, I can get all that from the usual suspects doing the polling and Nate Silver’s blog doing the quant work. Instead, I’m going to look at the election through the prism of two “rules of thumb” and look for similarities and differences to historically analogous elections. And steal from Nate.

Maxims and Thumbs
The first rule of thumb does not get much publicity, but is an interesting fact that I’ve dubbed “The 100 Year Rule”. In the almost 100 years since we have been been electing Senators directly (only since the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913) the House of Representatives has never flipped majorities unless the Senate flipped first or at the same time. If conventional wisdom is correct and the Republicans take the House but not the Senate, it would be an historic first. So my first prediction is that this is not going to happen. Conventional wisdom is wrong, and the scenario where the GOP takes only the House is the least likely of the four.

The second rule of thumb is Tip O’Neil’s maxim All politics is local. To the degree that O’Neills maxim is true, it is true about the House. This is just another way of saying (as is the first rule) that it is extremely difficult to flip majorities in the House of Representatives. House incumbents, (frequently aided by gerrymandered districts) enjoy extraordinarily high re-election rates. Even when voters tell pollsters they despise Congress in general, they’ll say they love their specific representative who is often the conduit by which federal services are delivered to individuals, municipalities, and businesses in the district. House elections are almost always “local.” Almost.

Looking Back
1994 and 2006 were two midterm election cycles where elections were decidedly not local. They turned on national issues and the House of Representatives flipped majorities simultaneously with a flip in the Senate. These two mid-term elections shared several characteristics: We were under One Party Rule (Democrats in ’94 – Republicans in ’06); There was widespread dissatisfaction with the party in power; The opposition party was energized; The base of the incumbent party was disillusioned with a palpable lack of enthusiasm; There was a widespread perception that the party in power was arrogantly pursuing policies opposed by a majority of Americans; Finally, major corruption scandals were in the headlines for the party in power throughout the election year (Rostenkowski in ’94, Abramoff and Foley in ’06).

Now, without a doubt, all of these elements are present in 2010. However, I don’t believe the 2010 corruption stars (Maxine Waters and Charlie Rangel) rise to the level of the corruption superstars we had in ’94 and ’06. In both of those elections, the corruption scandals were the last straw and triggered the “throw the bums out” gag reflex in the voters. Unless there is an October surprise and more corrupt Democratic pols make it into the headlines, I just don’t believe there is enough animus to overcome the huge House of Representatives incumbent advantage to get the massive 40 seat shift. Plus, one should never underestimate Nancy Pelosi. My conclusion on the House: Close, but no cigar. 2010 will not be quite like 1994 or even like 2006.

Miracles Happen
So if we are to see divided government restored in 2010, the best chance will be the Senate. In January this looked like an impossible hill to climb. The Democrats held a 60-40 super majority and the tie-breaker in the person of Joe Biden. To gain the majority the Republicans would have to win 11 seats. Nobody in either party considered that realistic. But – then something remarkable happened. Republican Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. You might not think that one seat would change the complexion dramatically, but it does.

Thanks Nate
Time to rip Nate Silver’s work. His chart on the left is remarkable. It shows Nate’s stack ranking of the Senate seats most likely to change parties. Of the top 12 seats most likely to switch parties, 11 of them are currently held by Democrats. All either have the Republicans leading in the polls or are within the margin of error. The one seat of the top 12 currently held by a Republican is the Florida Senate, and it is only there because Independent Crist is in a dead heat with Republican Rubio. The Democrat has no chance in Florida. And if Crist were to win, he would likely caucus Republican for reasons that I’ll outline shortly. Now – this still appears to be a very tough climb as the Republicans need 10 of the 11 Dem seats in play to secure an outright majority. But wait! – there is another scenario – they may need to win only 8 or 9 of the 11 seats to take control of the Senate. How? the answer can be discerned by looking to the 2012 election.

2012 effect on 2010
This year the structural playing field is even for the Senate races. There are 37 Senate seats yet to be decided, with 19 currently held by Democrats and 18 held be Republicans (it was 19 and 19 including Massachusetts). In 2012 the Republicans will have a huge structural advantage in the Senate elections. Of the 33 seats contested, 23 are held by Democrats and 10 by Republicans. The Democrats will be on defense with many more seats to defend, the Republicans will have a target rich environment. If they don’t already have the majority, it is a lock the GOP will take the majority in 2012.

Why is this important in 2010? Because Senators Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman can count. If the GOP gets within 1 or 2 seats of an outright majority, Nelson and Lieberman will be in play. They’ll have one shot to cut a deal to guarantee their committee chairmanships for at least another 4-6 years (if re-elected), whereas they will be out as Committee chairs after two years if they continue to caucus Democratic. This also applies to Crist should he knock off Rubio in Florida. My take – these guys like the power and perks that come with committee chairmanships and will not be inclined to give them up too quickly. It just would not be as much fun for them, being in the Senate without that chair. And let’s be honest – its not like you liberals have been particularly nice to either of them over the last couple of years.

MW Prognosticates
My 2010 election prediction: The GOP wins 8 or 9 more Senate seats outright, then takes majority control by flipping Lieberman and/or Nelson. They fall a few seats short in the House and Nancy Pelosi continues as Speaker of the House.

Stack ranking of all possible election scenarios in order of likelihood:

  1. Republicans win 8-9 seats flip Lieberman,/Nelson take Senate, Democrats narrowly retain House
  2. Democrats narrowly retain House and Senate
  3. Republicans win House and Senate
  4. Republicans win House, Democrats retain Senate

We’ll be tracking this dirty dozen of Senate races in posts between now and the election to monitor our last best chance of restoring a perfect “10” in ’10 and once again gaze upon a beautiful, desirable, smoking hot divided government in 2011.

Takeover Chances

N. Dakota
Hoeven v. Potter +40
Boozman v. Lincoln +32

Coats v. Ellsweorth +14
Castle v. Cook +9
Toomey v. Sestak +8

Buck v. Bennet +5
Angle v. Reid +1
Rubio v. Crist +1
Kirk v. Giannoulias +0

Rossi v.Murray -1
Fiorina v. Boxer -2
Johnson v. Feingold 3
Paul v. Conway +4

(chart from Nate Silver’s 538)

Nevada is arguably the most interesting race among the dirty dozen. Given the weakness of Sharron Angle as a candidate, I am astonished that she remains in a virtual dead heat with the Majority Leader in the Senate. There are signs of panic on the left. The problem seems to be that Nevada voters really do not want either Reid or Angle to represent them in the Senate. Throw in the wild card that Nevada is one of the few states where “None of the Above” is a ballot choice, and this gets really hard to predict. Unfortunately for Nevadans, “None of the Above” cannot win. The closeness of the Nevada race may be the single clearest indicator that this may be a bigger GOP tsunami than Conventional Wisdom has yet to acknowledge.

Cross-posted from “Divided We Stand United We Fall“