This article was first published at The McAlvany Intelligence Advisor on Wednesday, March 26, 2014:
On February 2, Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, signaling six more weeks of winter. He also signaled to pollsters that it was time for them to light up their crystal balls to discern the future after the November elections, specifically the future of the United States Senate. At present Democrats hold commanding control there, 55-46.
Those crystal balls have proven to be remarkably accurate in the past. Sid Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report and accurate predictor of the 2010 congressional races, said “the Republicans are at least even money – maybe a little better than that – at taking over the Senate.”
Sam Wang, who blogs at his Princeton Election Consortium website and who accurately predicted the 2012 election outcomes, said “It’s too early to make a precise prediction, except to say that Democrats are nearly certain to lose [some] Senate seats” in the November election. He added: “Basically, the odds are 50-50, and anyone who makes a more precise prediction is out on a limb.”
There’s Alan Abramowitz, a longtime successful pollster going back to the 1980s, who joined the chorus:
You could almost predict the day after the 2008 elections that the Democrats would be likely to lose some seats in the Senate six years later….
His models are showing that “some” could mean as many as five or six, threatening to turn control of the Senate back to the Republicans.
The Democrats had, like Punxsutawney Phil, crawled back into their burrows, right up until the big kahuna himself, Nate Silver, offered up his prognostications on Sunday. It will be remembered that Silver correctly predicted the presidential election in 2008 along with the winner in 49 of the 50 states. In addition, he correctly predicted the winner in all 35 Senate races that year.
That wasn’t any fluke. In 2012 he not only predicted Obama’s reelection, he also correctly called the winner in all 50 states. In addition, he accurately predicted the outcomes in 31 of the 33 Senate races that year. In other words, Silver is the 500-pound canary: when he sings, people listen. Especially Democrats.
Silver now writes at his blog, FiveThirtyEight under the auspices of ESPN, and his report on Sunday morning woke up every Senate Democrat:
We think the Republicans are now slight favorites to win at least six seats and capture the chamber.
The Democrats’ position has deteriorated somewhat since last summer, with President Obama’s approval ratings down to 42 or 43 from an average of 45 percent before.
Furthermore, as compared with 2010 or 2012, the GOP has done a better job of recruiting credible candidates … with some exceptions.
His 13-page analysis revealed his thinking in every state, in every race, about how the Senate will look on Wednesday, November 5. Knowing that everyone was watching, Silver was careful with his words, and allowed himself considerable wiggle room:
There are still more than seven months for news events to intervene and alter the national climate.
There are 10 races that each party has at least a 25 percent chance of winning, according to our ratings. If Republicans were to win all of them, they would gain a net of 11 seats from the Democrats, which would give them a 56-44 majority in the new Senate.
If the Democrats were to sweep [all of them], they would lose a net of just one seat and [still] hold a 54-46 majority.
So our forecast might be thought of as a Republican gain of six seats – plus or minus five….
The response from the Democrats was immediate. Guy Cecil, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), sent out a lengthy email the very next day to his troops, tamping down any concerns they might be having after reading Silver’s musings, and ramping up their enthusiasm for writing checks and entering the fray:
Nate Silver and the staff at FiveThirtyEight are doing groundbreaking work, but, as they have noted, they have to base their forecasts on a scarce supply of public polls. In some cases more than half of these polls come from GOP polling outfits.
This was one reason why FiveThirtyEight forecasts in North Dakota and Montana were so far off in 2012. In fact, in August of 2012 Silver forecasted a 61% likelihood that Republicans would pick up enough seats to claim the majority. Three months later Democrats went on to win 55 seats.
He went on to hype the Bannock Street Project, named for the street in Denver where Senator Michael Bennet’s office was located and out of which he rescued his foundering bid for reelection with the help of a squishy Republican opponent. Wrote Cecil:
There’s no question that one of the greatest challenges facing Democrats in the midterm [elections] is turnout. We are dealing with this challenge head-on by preparing an unprecedented investment in a national field and get-out-the-vote program.
The Bannock Street Project is DSCC’s 4,000-person, $60 million, data-driven field and voter contact program that will register, turn out, and persuade voters for the midterms.
Bannock Street, named after the Denver office location of Senator Bennet’s field operation in 2010, is the most aggressive effort waged by Democrats in a midterm election and will be run in concert with our targeted campaigns.
The DSCC has sent at least 11 email blasts to financial supporters with Silver’s name in the subject line, hoping to raise concerns and cash to fund the project and keep Bennet in place for another six years.
History is not on the Democrats’ side. Of the 36 seats open, 21 of them are held by Democrats while just 15 are in Republican hands. Secondly, since World War II there have been 17 mid-second-term elections, and in 12 of them the party occupying the White House lost ground in the Senate. For example, in 2006, six years into George W. Bush’s presidency, Democrats won control of the House and the Senate, while in 1998, in the middle of Bill Clinton’s second term, Republicans held onto their majorities in both houses. In the middle of Ronald Reagan’s second term, Democrats won control of the Senate.
In addition, support for the president and his signature piece of legislation, ObamaCare, has been dwindling while Republicans in generic polls are now even with Democrats.
None of the pollsters have made any mention of the key issue in November: It’s not which party will control the Senate, but what kind of people will hold office. Liberal Republicans can be just as dangerous to the health of the republic as moderate Democrats. If pollster Abramowitz is right, however, the political stance of those breathing easier on that Wednesday in November will be much more favorable to that health. Said Abramowitz:
The Democrats who are retiring, plus the ones likely to lose, tend to be more moderate Democrats. [Those replacing them] are going to be very conservative.
FiveThirtyEight Senate Forecast: GOP Is Slight Favorite in Race for Senate Control
Huffington Post: Nate Silver Predicts GOP Senate Win, Democrats Promptly Freak Out
National Journal: Democrats to Nate Silver: You’re Wrong
Washington Post: DSCC pushes back against Nate Silver