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February 25, 2014 Midterm Signals and Noise

Why Democrats Could Do Better in November Than Everyone Thinks

By Curtis Gans

It may be that the greatest contribution in Nate Silver’s young life is not the PECOTA system he developed for evaluating baseball players and projecting their future contributions, the accuracy of his 2012 election forecasts or his new ESPN-housed enterprise, but rather his book The Signal and the Noise.

The book is an elegant, intellectually omnivorous, well-researched and disciplined assertion of the need for prediction and for prognostications to be as accurate and useful as possible. He looks at the egregious failures of predictions - not considering the possibility of an air attack on Pearl Harbor because of a belief that any Japanese attack would come via sabotage by U.S. resident Japanese; not seeing the possibility of an Al Qaeda attack using hijacked airplanes to ram buildings - failures due to blind spots in imagination. He also notes that in some fields, notably in predicting major earthquakes, forecasting has not made major advances because all scientific models have so far led nowhere.

But his main thesis, grossly oversimplified, is that when predictions tend to be wrong, it is because those making them do not distinguish between the signal and the noise - between information, data, events that are necessary building blocks toward accurate prognostication and other data, information, events and commentary that may appear relevant to some but essentially lead one astray. This is a good framework for looking at the early predictions for the 2014 election.

The current consensus in Washington is that 2014 will be a Republican election - that they will gain some seats in the U.S. House, that they have a realistic chance of recapturing a bare majority in the U.S. Senate and that they will continue to enjoy a sizable edge among the nation’s governors and hold their own in the state legislatures.

This common wisdom is based on a series of premises that may be more noise than signal.

Among them: An historical record of a two-term president’s party losing legislative and executive seats in almost all previous mid-term elections following his re-election; polls showing a majority opposes the president’s signature achievement - the Affordable Care Act (ACA); other polls showing Obama’s favorability rating at low ebb; missteps in the roll-out of the ACA and promises made that citizens would be able to retain their existing health care policies if they liked them that were inaccurate and could not be kept.

The record will show that the Democratic Party sustained no net losses in the U.S. Senate and gained five seats in the House in the 1998 mid-term during President Clinton’s second term and after Monica Lewinski and impeachment dominated the news for the majority of the year. The record will also show that January polls tend to be irrelevant to November results or President Muskie would have been elected in 1972 and Hillary Clinton would have been the Democratic nominee and probable president in 2008. Foibles from a year earlier will only be remembered around election time if nothing has changed to render them obsolete. All of these are noise.

What could be either signal or noise in the Republican election scenario are two factors. First, the mid-term electorate is substantially smaller (by as much as 20 percentage points) than the presidential year electorate, and it tends to include fewer young voters and minorities. Second, there are twice as many Democratic as Republican Senate seats up for election in this cycle and, according to the Cook Political Report there are only 77 House districts that were won by a 55-45 margin or less in 2012, only 33 by 52-48 or less— and those nearly evenly divided between Democratic and Republican winners.

Elections are not decided by how many turn out, but rather who turns out, and it is at this point not at all clear whether the deep divisions within the Republican Party will reduce GOP turnout by a greater amount than the likely lower turnout of some key Democratic constituencies.

At this juncture the Democrats are defending several more U.S. Senate seats that are competitive than are the Republicans. They face challenges in Iowa, Montana, West Virginia and South Dakota to replace senators who have moved on, and in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina where incumbent Democrats have only a precarious hold on their seats. It is conceivable that they could lose all of these seats and no seat that the Republicans now hold, such as in Georgia where the daughter of the revered Sam Nunn is challenging a GOP in disarray or Kentucky where Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell is viewed unfavorably, would swing to the Democrats. It is not likely.

Thanks to the “shellacking” of the Democrats as Obama called it in 2010, the Republicans not only gained six seats in the U.S. Senate, but 68 seats in the House, more than 600 seats in state legislatures and a net of six governorships. Those results allowed the GOP to control the House, control both the legislatures and governorships in 29 states and made it virtually impossible for the Democrats to overcome filibusters in the Senate. Perhaps of greater long-term import, the control that the Republicans had in the 29 states allowed them to favorably gerrymander House and state legislative districts, a redistricting which will be in place until after the 2020 Census. All of which makes it unlikely that the Democrats can garner the 17 net seats to regain control of the House or substantially reduce the degree of control the GOP has in the state legislatures - unless the 2014 election becomes a pro-Democratic wave election.

Despite current conventional wisdom, such an election is not only possible but probable, but only if three signals occur - if September polls, the polls taken when people are paying attention to the upcoming election, show a substantial improvement in Obama’s approval rating and an equally substantial increase in public support of the Affordable Care Act, and if the economy does not relapse into recession.

There are many signals pointing to Republican vulnerability, including:

The 2013 Elections: Chris Christie was the only statewide office-holder win for the Republicans, and the defeat of the larger of two tax-increase proposals in Colorado was the only victory for Republican ideas. But Christie had no electoral coattails. Not one seat in the state legislature changed parties. And Colorado passed a more modest tax increase measure on the same ballot. In Virginia, Democrats hold every statewide office and now, as a result of this election, control the state senate.

The Congresses of the Past Three Years: For most of the past year, Congressional performance approval ratings have wallowed in the high single digits to the low teens, the lowest for any institution and the lowest ever for Congress. For the past three years, Congress has been the least productive of any in recent memory and perhaps in its history. The public, by modest majorities, puts the blame for the low approval and lack of production squarely on the Republican controlled House of Representatives and their intransigent right-wing.

Curtis Gans has been a student and analyst of American politics for the past 38 years as director of the non-partisan Center for the Study of the American Electorate. Prior to that he challenged the conventional wisdom of the time by providing the theory for and helping to organize the "Dump Johnson" movement and serving as staff director of Eugene McCarthy's 1968 presidential campaign.

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