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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 ...

How Awful Will the Midterms be for the Democrats?

In bad midterm-election years, members of a president's party often find the political climate challenging. In some ways, it is like a swimmer encountering riptides or facing strong undertows. The degree of the danger varies from location to location, and in many cases, weak swimmers struggle in this environment; occasionally, even an Olympic-level swimmer perishes.

In 2010—President Obama's first midterm election—Democratic congressional candidates struggled mightily. The party suffered a net loss of six Senate seats and 63 seats in the House. That was the worst loss for either party in any election since 1948, and the largest loss in a midterm election since 1938. Fallout from the health care debate and the Affordable Care Act contributed heavily to Democratic losses, but that legislation was hardly the sole reason for them.

The shoe was on the other foot in 2006—President Bush's second midterm election—when, between an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq and the administration's mishandling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the election was a total horror show for GOP candidates. It was like watching a car wreck in slow motion. I vividly remember conversations with key GOP campaign committee strategists who began ...

Explaining Barack Obama's Terrible Political Summer

Now that Labor Day is behind us, the most remarkable thing about this midterm election is how little has changed since Memorial Day. In the closest and most crucial contest, for control of the U.S. Senate, only the race in Kansas looks fundamentally different than it did three months ago. Strategists in both parties have been asking, "What's the matter with Kansas?" The Democratic nominee's sudden decision to withdraw from the race this week will make it more competitive. Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, who sustained some damage in his primary, will now face independent candidate Greg Orman. Orman has the backing of some of the moderate GOP leaders in the state. But that's the only major change of the summer, despite more than a billion dollars already spent in what the experts at Kantar Media/CMAG estimate will end up being $5.5 billion to $6.5 billion in total campaign expenditures on all levels this election cycle.

One question has become more pressing as Election Day nears: Where is the Republican wave? For Democrats, the good news is that there doesn't appear to be an overwhelming Republican tide this year; the bad news is ...

Why Incumbents Shouldn't Feel Safe

Relatively few members of Congress have lost primaries this year, and so far, no senators have. But that doesn't mean they feel safe.

And they shouldn't.

Notably, more members of Congress, especially on the Republican side of the aisle, are doing worse in primaries this year. By one measure, the party's incumbents have had more competitive primaries in the three even-year elections from 2010 onward than in the five such elections of the 2000s.

The tea party may not be ending many incumbents' careers this year, but the movement is clearly still potent.

A review of every congressional party primary from 2000 onward shows that relatively few incumbents faced even marginally competitive primaries from 2000 to 2008. Only 100 House incumbents out of 1,929 finished with less than 70 percent of their primary vote in those five elections, a rate of just over 5 percent every election.

But with this year's primaries still ongoing, the number of incumbents dropping below 70 percent has already reached 120 (out of 927 contests) from 2010 through 2014, a 13 percent rate. Over the past three elections, more than twice as many House incumbents per year have been bleeding ...