Numbers Don’t Lie: It’s a Tough Year for Democrats

No matter how you look at it — qualitatively or quantitatively — Senate Democrats face quite a fight in November.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-LA, participates in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing titled "Gulf Coast Catastrophe: Assessing the Nation's Response to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill" on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 17, 2010. 
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Charlie Cook
March 24, 2014, 6:15 p.m.

There has been a grow­ing sense in re­cent weeks that the odds of Re­pub­lic­ans pick­ing up a Sen­ate ma­jor­ity in Novem­ber are not only grow­ing, may well have tipped over to bet­ter than 50-50.

The num­bers, geo­graphy, and tim­ing for Sen­ate Demo­crats have been chal­len­ging from the be­gin­ning of this elec­tion cycle. They have great­er ex­pos­ure, de­fend­ing 21 seats com­pared with only 15 for the GOP. Even worse, the ex­pos­ure comes in tough places for Demo­crats, who have four seats up in states that Mitt Rom­ney car­ried by 15 per­cent­age points or more, two in states that he won by 14 points, and an­oth­er in a state Rom­ney took by 2 points.

The tim­ing is par­tic­u­larly bad in that the party’s ex­pos­ure comes dur­ing a midterm elec­tion, when the elect­or­ate is usu­ally older, whiter, and more con­ser­vat­ive than dur­ing pres­id­en­tial elec­tion years, when turnout is more di­verse. Fi­nally, the polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment for Demo­crats is bad; the party cur­rently has a pres­id­ent with a na­tion­al job-ap­prov­al num­bers av­er­aging in the low forties, and con­sid­er­ably worse in at least half the Sen­ate battle­ground states. Plus, the Af­ford­able Care Act, his sig­na­ture le­gis­lat­ive ac­com­plish­ment, is dis­tinctly un­pop­u­lar.

All in all, it’s not a good situ­ation for Demo­crats.

Re­pub­lic­ans have helped them­selves with a strong re­cruit­ing year. The GOP ex­pan­ded the play­ing field in re­cent weeks with former Sen. Scott Brown’s de­cision to chal­lenge in­cum­bent Demo­crat Jeanne Shaheen in New Hamp­shire. The party has also traded up can­did­ates in Col­or­ado, re­pla­cing prob­lem­at­ic 2010 Sen­ate nom­in­ee Ken Buck for Rep. Cory Gard­ner.

If you had to bet today on the out­come, the odds would strongly fa­vor Re­pub­lic­ans get­ting halfway to their goal of a net gain of six seats in Demo­crat­ic open seats: GOP can­did­ates are fa­vor­ites in South Dakota, West Vir­gin­ia, and, to a slightly less­er ex­tent, Montana. Four Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents are em­broiled in very tough races: Mark Be­gich in Alaska, Mark Pry­or in Arkan­sas, Mary Landrieu in Louisi­ana, and Kay Hagan in North Car­o­lina. All are run­ning roughly even, slightly ahead, or even be­hind their GOP rivals. The races, in our view, are ab­so­lutely in the Toss-Up column.

Con­ven­tion­al wis­dom has labeled Pry­or as the walk­ing dead, even though mul­tiple private Demo­crat­ic polls (by dif­fer­ent poll­sters) have nev­er showed him down as much as a single point. The one high-qual­ity pub­lic poll where all the de­tails are avail­able — con­duc­ted by the Demo­crat­ic polling firm of Hick­man Ana­lyt­ics for an en­ergy-in­dustry group — had Pry­or ahead of Rep. Tom Cot­ton by 3 points among all likely voters, and 2 points be­hind among def­in­ite voters; both are mar­gin-of-er­ror vari­ances. This is an ex­ample how the per­cep­tion of a race of­ten can be driv­en by sketchy polling.

After those four Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate in­cum­bents (in Alaska, Arkan­sas, Louisi­ana, and North Car­o­lina), we still have an open seat in Michigan, where two little-known can­did­ates are bat­tling in a very close race. Yes, the Iowa open seat is worth watch­ing, spe­cific­ally be­cause the odds of the con­vo­luted GOP nom­in­at­ing pro­cess pick­ing an exot­ic and po­ten­tially prob­lem­at­ic can­did­ate for the gen­er­al elec­tion are good. Demo­crats dis­pute our Toss-Up des­ig­na­tion of the race in Michigan, but cur­rent polling sug­gests that is in­deed where things stand. In the two “new races,” Col­or­ado and New Hamp­shire, one or both could end up in the Toss-Up cat­egory, though not enough num­bers have been re­leased to jus­ti­fy that in the former, and num­bers in the lat­ter cur­rently show Shaheen with a lead well bey­ond the mar­gin.

Then there is the mat­ter of the two vul­ner­able GOP seats. The con­ven­tion­al wis­dom in Ken­tucky con­tin­ues to dis­count the mag­nitude of Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell’s per­il. His poor fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ings in the state should dis­ab­use any­one of that no­tion, but ap­par­ently they haven’t. The per­cep­tion of his tenacity is giv­en great­er cre­dence than that the data in­dic­ate.

My good friend and com­pet­it­or Stu Rothen­berg puts the broad range of po­ten­tial out­comes at four to eight seats gained by the GOP, num­bers that make sense to me. Nar­row­ing it down a bit to a five-to-sev­en-seat gain, while ris­ki­er, is prob­ably an equally lo­gic­al con­clu­sion. Nate Sil­ver’s ter­rif­ic web­site Fiv­eThirtyEight puts the broad range of GOP vic­tory from plus one for Re­pub­lic­ans to plus 11, with a net gain of six seats the most likely. While I can quibble with some of the odds that Nate puts on in­di­vidu­al races, just as Stu and I dis­agree here and there, we are all in the same ball­park. The dis­agree­ments with Fiv­eThirtyEight are in some cases the dif­fer­ence between look­ing at things purely quant­it­at­ively, as Nate does, or a bit more sub­ject­ively as Rothen­berg and I do. Larry Sabato’s Crys­tal Ball is a little less ex­pli­cit in its weight­ing of qual­it­at­ive versus quant­it­at­ive ana­lys­is, but over­all looks to be in about the same ball­park as well.

Some people ask if there is room for a Charlie, Stu, or Larry in a world with Nate’s quant­it­at­ive ap­proach. It is a le­git­im­ate ques­tion, and I con­fess to be­ing a big fan of Sil­ver’s, even if we some­times dis­agree on the de­tails. But, as the ter­rif­ic book and movie Money­ball sug­gests, while there is not a Ma­jor League Base­ball team that does not em­ploy stat­ist­i­cians us­ing saber­met­rics, neither is there one that has fired all of its scouts. Smart teams em­ploy both.