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Three Key Questions Will Determine What Direction Election Winds Are Blowing

The political environment usually is "set" in midterm elections around midsummer. At that point, it's generally easy to see which direction the partisan winds are blowing, and one usually has an idea as to whether those winds are light, moderate, or heavy. By this time in the cycle, now a week from the election, you can have a much better idea of the velocity of those winds, though it's still admittedly impossible to know precisely how many seats will fall to those winds. This degree of uncertainty is what keeps elections—even in fairly predictable years—interesting, along with, of course, the occasional unexpected outcome.

Here are the three key questions of this cycle:

1. Can Democrats save one or even two of the six Senate seats in states that Romney won by 14 points or more? These include the open seats in Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia—all three highly unlikely seats for Dems to win—as well as incumbents Mark Begich (Alaska), Mark Pryor (Arkansas), and Mary Landrieu (Louisiana). Important to note: The outcome in Louisiana will probably be settled on Dec. 6, rather than Election Night, as no candidate is likely to get the ...

The Trench Warfare Begins

With just a little more than two weeks to go before the midterm election, Democrats are increasingly in need of a break or two to salvage their Senate majority. In my National Journal Daily column a month ago (September 14), after suggesting that Republicans had a 60 percent chance of scoring the six-seat net gain necessary for a majority, I asked what might go wrong for the GOP that could derail that outcome. It's useful in my business to ask, "If I am wrong about this, why am I wrong?"

There are two potential problems for Republicans that could cost them the majority in an election that certainly seems highly stacked in their favor—after all, the party just needs to get voters who normally vote Republican and live in Republican states to vote for Republican Senate candidates. Democrats are defending seven seats in states carried by Mitt Romney—six where the former presidential nominee won by margins of 14 points or more—compared with Republicans, who are defending just one seat in an Obama state (Susan Collins in Maine, who is safe). All three endangered GOP seats are in states comfortably won by Romney. This is not the ...

Stacked Deck

While the outcomes of presidential races are pretty much decided by how the swing, or "purple," states split, in the fight for control of the U.S. Senate that is not always the case. The challenge for Democrats in this election is having so many seats up in very Republican states. Seven of those seats are in states carried by Mitt Romney, and—tougher still—six of the seven are states Romney carried by 14 points or more.

The challenge currently facing Democrats will likely be mirrored on the GOP side in 2016, when the Republicans have 24 Senate seats up, to only 10 for the Democrats. Seven of those 24 GOP seats are in states that President Obama won in 2012, and five are in states that he won by 5 points or more.

In Illinois, Mark Kirk will face voters in a state that Obama won by 17 points. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin will be running in a state where Obama prevailed by 7 points. Both Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire and Chuck Grassley in Iowa will have races in states that Obama won by 6 points. Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania will be running in a state Obama ...

Is It Real, or Is It a Political Head Fake?

 In the early 1970s there was a classic television commercial for Memorex, a company just entering the consumer market for high-quality audio cassettes. In the commercial, jazz great Ella Fitzgerald would hit a high note, shattering a wine glass. Then, they would play her back on tape, shattering the glass again. The tagline on the ad was, "Is it live, or is it Memorex?" Sometimes in politics, we see or sense something happening and wonder if it is real, if it is a new trend, or if it is just a noisy event or aberration. It seems that during most national elections, at some point between Labor Day and Election Day, there is a political head fake that takes place, something that briefly makes you wonder or starts to convince you that there has been a change in direction. Usually though, things just revert to where they were before.

Over the last couple of weeks, we've seen this happen again. Most independent analysts and astute observers were giving Republicans the edge in the fight for the Senate majority in the November elections, but then a few polls and the weirdness taking place in Kansas began to suggest that maybe ...

A Razor-Thin Lead for the GOP

Are things getting better for Senate Democrats? Certainly many of the better (more reliable) statistical models seem to suggest they are. Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight moved from a 64 percent chance of the GOP gaining a majority, predicted on Sept. 3, to a 54.7 percent chance on Sept. 15. As of Sept. 16, The New York Times' Upshot model, nicknamed Leo, put GOP chances at 51 percent; they were at 67 percent on Aug. 26. The conventional wisdom also appears to have shifted over the past week. What, if anything, has happened to cause this shift?

A little bit of the change can be attributed to methodological shifts among forecasters; as statistical modelers add new elements to their computations, the new data affect the output of their models. But that does not explain all of the shift. The most significant reason seems to be that in this year's competitive Senate races in purple states—those where either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney won by narrow margins—Democrats are, for the most part, holding their own or even improving their odds.

In North Carolina, for example, Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan has now built a lead over GOP state House ...