Crystal-Ball Gazing on the Senate Races

Data-crunchers and political pundits are coming to largely the same conclusions about the battle for control.

Wizard gazing into a crystal ball.
National Journal
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
July 28, 2014, 6:15 p.m.

Every elec­tion cycle is dif­fer­ent. Each has a unique polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment and set of cir­cum­stances, all of which keep elec­tions in­ter­est­ing. Aside from the ex­tremely com­pet­it­ive fight over the Sen­ate, the biggest change this time around is the mul­ti­tude of Sen­ate fore­casts us­ing quant­it­at­ive elec­tion mod­els of vari­ous types; these new play­ers are join­ing the game along­side the more tra­di­tion­al qual­it­at­ive — or maybe a bet­ter term is “mul­tidiscip­lin­ary” — ap­proach that has been around forever.

While polit­ic­al sci­ent­ists, oc­ca­sion­ally joined by eco­nom­ists, have modeled elec­tions for years, their find­ings were largely ig­nored out­side aca­demia. In the last dec­ade, however, stats whiz Nate Sil­ver — who shif­ted his Fiv­eThirtyEight.com site from The New York Times to an af­fil­i­ation with ES­PN — turned his sights from ana­lyz­ing base­ball to polit­ics with con­sid­er­able suc­cess, start­ing a cot­tage in­dustry of polit­ic­al mod­el­ing for pub­lic con­sump­tion. This was fol­lowed by The Wash­ing­ton Post team­ing with a group of polit­ic­al sci­ent­ists on the Mon­key Cage and The New York Times cre­at­ing its own in-house team with a fea­ture both in the pa­per and on the web­site called The Up­shot un­der the dir­ec­tion of Dav­id Leon­hardt. The mod­els gen­er­ally in­cor­por­ate past elec­tion res­ults in each state, the value of in­cum­bency, and in some cases cam­paign fun­drais­ing and pub­lic polls, all based on past his­tory, to pro­ject what may hap­pen.

Already on the scene was my good friend and com­pet­it­or, Stu Rothen­berg, and his col­league Nath­an Gonzales at The Rothen­berg Polit­ic­al Re­port. Join­ing them are our friends and com­pet­it­ors down the road in Char­lottes­ville at the Uni­versity of Vir­gin­ia, Larry Sabato and his col­league, Kyle Kondik, and their team at Sabato’s ” Crys­tal Ball,” as well as my team at The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port. These lat­ter three ob­vi­ously look at polls, money, and past elec­tion res­ults, but — re­ly­ing upon ex­per­i­ence and judg­ment rather than num­ber-crunch­ing alone — they also more sub­ject­ively look at can­did­ate and cam­paign qual­ity and oth­er unique cir­cum­stances that might be dif­fi­cult to quanti­fy.

Rothen­berg, as well as Sabato, Kondik, and their Crys­tal Ball team, are cur­rently pro­ject­ing a GOP gain in the Sen­ate of between four and eight seats. The Times‘s Up­shot uses the same four-to-eight range, then nar­rows it to a six-seat gain as the most likely out­come. The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port says that a GOP gain of between four and six is most prob­ably but ex­pects the fi­nal num­ber to more likely go high­er than lower. Jen­nifer Duffy, The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port‘s seni­or ed­it­or, is put­ting Re­pub­lic­an chances of tak­ing a ma­jor­ity at 50-50. Per­son­ally, I am a bit more bullish on the GOP’s chances, put­ting it closer to a 60 per­cent chance. Sil­ver and Harry En­ten at Fiv­eThirtyEight will switch to the al­gorithm-driv­en mod­el later this sum­mer, but their Ju­ly 15 in­form­al as­sess­ment, based on ba­sic­ally the same factors that go in­to their full-blown mod­el, point to a GOP gain of 5.7 seats, which rounds up to a six-seat gain, the min­im­um gain ne­ces­sary for the GOP to achieve a ma­jor­ity this year.

As I look through the un­der­ly­ing fore­casts in in­di­vidu­al races, my hunch is that the quant­it­at­ive ap­proaches work very well in the ag­greg­ate, in terms of com­ing up with over­all fore­casts — al­though I won­der about some of the fore­cast­ing at the level of in­di­vidu­al races. One fore­caster might rate a Demo­crat’s chances a bit high­er than I would in one race, and a Re­pub­lic­an’s bet­ter than I per­ceive in an­oth­er. Av­er­age it all to­geth­er, though, and they pretty much make sense and don’t dif­fer greatly from the as­sess­ments of vet­er­an elec­tion-watch­ers or from what most party strategists for each side privately say.

The out­lier, however, is The Wash­ing­ton Post‘s Mon­key Cage fea­ture, the Elec­tion Lab. As of Monday, it rates the Re­pub­lic­ans’ chances of tak­ing the Sen­ate at 87 per­cent, and it is giv­ing a num­ber of races that the oth­er fore­casters ex­pect to be very close or at least reas­on­ably close some aw­fully large odds of go­ing Re­pub­lic­an, al­though in a couple of cases Demo­crats are rated far bet­ter off than they are by oth­ers. Mon­key Cage gives Re­pub­lic­ans a 79 per­cent chance of win­ning the Iowa open seat, an 81 per­cent chance of beat­ing Mark Pry­or in Arkan­sas, an 82 per­cent chance of de­feat­ing Mary Landrieu in Louisi­ana, and a 98 per­cent chance of win­ning the open Geor­gia seat.

Go­ing the oth­er way, the Mon­key Cage es­tim­ates Kay Hagan has a 97 per­cent chance of win­ning reelec­tion in North Car­o­lina, Jeff Merkley a 99 per­cent chance in Ore­gon, Al Franken an 89 per­cent chance in Min­nesota, Jeanne Shaheen a 99 per­cent chance in New Hamp­shire, and Mark Warner a 99 per­cent chance in Vir­gin­ia.

We’ll see what hap­pens. But as pro­fess­or Sabato is fond of say­ing, “Those who live by the crys­tal ball end up eat­ing ground glass.”

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