Nate Silver warns the political class that it could still be a GOP wave year
posted at 1:21 pm on August 4, 2014 by Noah Rothman
Public opinion polls, as they say, are a snapshot in time. And a glance at the polls today suggests that the 2014 midterm elections are shaping up to be good for Republicans, but a landslide does not appear to be in the offing.
As of this writing, Real Clear Politics puts nine of this year’s 19 even competitive Senate races in the tossup column. Many of those races poll so tightly that it is impossible to make an accurate prediction about how they will shape up but, as RCP notes, the GOP is set today to pick up six net seats for a slim 51-49 majority in the 114th Congress.
The New York Times election modeling feature The Upshot comes to a similar conclusion. As of today, the Republican Party has a 53 percent chance of taking control of the upper chamber of Congress. “[T]hat doesn’t mean we’re predicting the Republicans to win the Senate,” The Upshot clarified, “the probability is essentially the same as a coin flip.”
Of those same nine tossup races, The Times only gives Republican candidates better than even odds of winning four of them. With two of those races, Kentucky and Georgia, representing holds for the Senate’s minority party, and with three pickup opportunities for the GOP in Montana, West Virginia, and South Dakota now appearing to be Republican locks, this would also leave the GOP with a one-seat majority.
The consensus opinion is clear: A good Republican year, but no tsunami.
But FiveThirtyEight statistics analyst Nate Silver has some advice for elections analysts that cuts against the grain. He noted on Monday that the polls do not show a Republican “wave” is forming, and it is clear that the GOP can still retake the Senate even in a “wave’s” absence. It would, however, be folly to make any firm predictions about the political landscape even with less than 100 days remaining before voters head to the polls.
“It’s still early,” Silver wrote, “and we should not rule out the possibility that one party could win most or all of the competitive races.”
It can be tempting, if you cover politics for a living, to check your calendar, see that it’s already August, and conclude that if there were a wave election coming we would have seen more signs of it by now. But political time is nonlinear and a lot of waves are late-breaking, especially in midterm years. Most forecasts issued at this point in the cycle would have considerably underestimated Republican gains in the House in 1994 or 2010, for instance, or Democratic gains in the Senate in 2006. (These late shifts don’t always work to the benefit of the minority party; in 2012, the Democrats’ standing in Senate races improved considerably after Labor Day.) A late swing toward Republicans this year could result in their winning as many as 10 or 11 Senate seats. Democrats, alternatively, could limit the damage to as few as one or two races. These remain plausible scenarios — not “Black Swan” cases.
Based, however, on the data available today, Silver sided with the majority of polling analysts who note that Republicans are favored to pick up the bare minimum of seats they need to retake the Senate.
“Summing the probabilities of each race yields an estimate of 51 seats3 for Republicans,” he observed. “That makes them very slight favorites — perhaps somewhere in the neighborhood of 60-40 — to take control of the Senate, but also doesn’t leave them much room for error.”
If Republicans manage to retake the Senate without a significant cushion, the party will likely only be renting the majority leader’s seat. While a Republican Party in control of both chambers of Congress would certainly blunt President Barack Obama’s agenda for the remainder of his presidency, Democrats would remain the favorites to retake that chamber in 2016 when those GOP senators elected in 2010 face their state’s voters in a presidential year.
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