Revisiting Earlier “Specter-lations” on the Eve of the Pennsylvania Senate Primary

One advantage political scientists have over the media or pundits is that we have the luxury of revisiting earlier projections/explanations in light of new data or theorizing.  This is an advantage when writing a blog that tries to focus on the fundamentals driving political events rather than simply opining on the latest topical event.  In particular, when my projections prove wrong (a not infrequent occurrence as long time readers know), I see that as an opportunity to learn in the hope of increasing our understanding of political processes and outcomes.    At least that’s the goal.

In this vein, with voters scheduled to go to the polls in tomorrow’s crucial Democrat Senate primary in Pennsylvania (and in Senate primaries in three other states) , I thought it worthwhile to revisit several posts I wrote almost two years ago regarding Senator Arlen Specter’s decision to switch from the Republican to the Democrat party.  At the time I suggested that Specter’s switch was driven by electoral considerations, not ideological ones.  He was reacting to polling data indicating he would lose to the more conservative Pat Toomey in the Republican primary, so he changed venues to run in the presumably less challenging Democrat primary.  That switch, I suggested, would not appreciably change his Senate voting habits.  Here’s what I wrote:

“If I’m right, Specter’s voting record should keep him somewhere in the middle of the Senate pack, ideologically, over the course of the next two years.  If my poli sci colleagues are correct, he should move sharply left closer to the middle of the Democratic Senate voting ranks (say, into Dianne Feinstein/Harry Reid territory).   So we can revisit this issue in two years!”

Almost two years have passed.  How well did my prediction turn out?  Not very well at all.  In fact, based on Jeff Lewis’ roll call data, summarized in this chart by Simon Jackman, Specter’s voting record eventually shifted Left after his party switch, toward the middle of the Democrat Senate caucus, very close to Feinstein territory.  (Yes, this chart summarizing ideological placement based on roll call votes does not differentiate between significant and less significant votes, but it is a widely-used marker of relative ideological placement nonetheless.)


Why did I suggest Specter’s voting record would not change very much, and why was I wrong? When in the days after his switch Specter was one of four Democrats to vote against the Obama-backed budget resolution, thus appearing to validate my initial projection, I wrote: “So far, his biggest fear is not from the unknown candidate in the Democratic primary (he’s evidently counting on the Democratic Party clearing the field for him) – it’s from his likely Republican opposition in the general election.”

In my defense, then, at the time I made my initial projection that Specter would not change his voting spots, I assumed he was primarily focused on a challenge from the Right, not the Left.  As I warned at the time:  “Of course, if he gets a credible challenger on the Left in Pennsylvania, then all bets are off!”  However, I discounted a primary challenge in the belief that the Obama administration had negotiated a deal with Pennsylvania Democrats to give Specter an open field to the Democrat nomination.

That assumption turned out not to be true.  Since Specter’s switch, we have been reminded just how little clout presidents have in local party affairs, and  how the decision to run on the party label for a Senate seat in American politics is no longer controlled by party leaders.  Specter in fact faces a very credible challenger on the Left in the person of Joe Sestak. At the same time, my projection was made before the full scope of the anti-incumbent wave that now appears building in the run up to 2010 became evident. Not only does Specter face a primary challenge – if the latest polls are to be believed, he is in danger of losing! Although Obama has kept his promise to back Specter (and has even run ads on Specter’s behalf), the latest composite polling graph has the Democrat Senate primary in a virtual dead heat between Specter and Sestak.

Now, there are between 10-15% of undecided voters in these polls, so Specter may yet pull this primary out. Nonetheless, this is a far cry from the “open Democrat field” on which I premised my earlier projection. The irony is that Specter’s move left did nothing to dissuade Sestak from opposing him, and yet has likely made it more difficult for Specter to win the general election; even if he beats Sestak in the primary, polls indicate he will lose the general election to the Republican Pat Toomey.  It would have been far better for Specter’s electoral fortunes, I think, had he maintained his traditionally moderate voting record.

There are two important points to take home here. First, Specter’s potential demise – either at the hands of a Liberal Democrat or a Conservative Republican – is another reminder why we have a polarized Senate.  It’s not because voters in a general Senate election are more polarized – it’s because they often are forced to choose between two relatively polarizing candidates.  One could argue that neither Sestak nor Toomey are as broadly representative of the median voter in Pennsylvania as is Specter, but that may not matter if Specter’s not on the ballot in the general election.

Second, the signs continue to suggest that the anti-incumbent sentiment is shared by enough voters – not all of them Tea Party supporters – to make 2010 a potential “wave” election year.  Of course, as I have continually cautioned, it is easy to make too much of individual races. If Specter loses, pundits will undoubtedly suggest this is another indication of Obama’s weak political influence. Given the general anti-incumbent trend, and the historical inability of presidents dating back to FDR to influence midterm races, I’m not sure it’s accurate to lay the blame at the White House’s doorstep.

Nonetheless, after tomorrow’s Senate primaries (along with Pennsylvania, there are primaries in Kentucky, Arkansas and Oregon), and the Special Election to fill the U.S. House  seat in Pennsylvania’s 12th district formerly held by Representative John Murtha, Jr. (Murtha died last February), we will have a bit more information with which to try to assess the lay of the electoral landscape.  If I can, I’ll try to summarize the results when the polls close Tuesday night.

Meanwhile, with only four predictions in, I’ve extended the window on forecasting the Kagan confirmation vote for another week.  Remember, if you are a graduating senior, your job prospects will undoubtedly be helped if you nail this projection.  I am told that Mike Norris, a previous contest winner, used his victory to get a lucrative (six figures) job working for Bill Gates as a technology forecaster.


  1. Hulloh, Professor,

    Can you elaborate on this…

    “The irony is that Specter’s move left did nothing to dissuade Sestak from opposing him, and yet has likely made it more difficult for Specter to win the general election; even if he beats Sestak in the primary, polls indicate he will lose the general election to the Republican Pat Toomey.”

    …in light of the fact that Sestak runs closer to Toomey than Specter does?

    In my universe, the explanation is that Specter went Democratic because his base did — moderate GOPers and GOP-leaning independents swung into the Dem column in November 2008, and he was much, much less likely to win a GOP primary as a result. But he’s having trouble putting together a similar coalition in the Dem primary…partly because of Sestak’s brutally effective ad tying Specter to then-president Bush.


  2. Olivier,

    According to Michael McDonald, there are currently 4,311,206 registered Democrats (as of May) in Pennsylvania. This is down 3.8% from 2008. The Republicans now number 3,119,250 – also down 3.8% from 2008. So McDonald’s figures suggest there’s been no overall movement toward either party since 2008. (Interestingly, “unaffiliated” voters now total 1,013,903 which is down about 1.9% in that same period.) Keep in mind that unaffiliated voters cannot vote in the Pennsylvania Senate primary.

    Now, one might argue as you do that Specter’s “base”, however defined, shifted Democrat in 2008. If I get a chance, I’ll try to break down his partisan support in 2004, when he last ran for election although I’m still not sure it will fully get at your question. But right now I don’t have evidence to fully assess your assertion.

    More broadly, however, I don’t think we are disagreeing on why he switched parties: he wasn’t likely to beat Toomey in the 2010 Republican primary. Indeed, he barely beat him in 2004.

    I’ve only begun looking at Pennsylvania polling data, so this is less precise than I’d like, but my initial read is that the polling data supports my anti-incumbent hypothesis. In a Specter-Toomey matchup, Toomey wins in part because of the anti-incumbent sentiment. In a Toomey-Sestak matchup that lacks a statewide incumbent, we see the normal political landscape, in which Pennsylvania Democrats outnumber Republicans, reassert itself, so Sestak runs closer to Toomey. Keep in mind that many general election likely voters – particularly independents – still have little familiarity with either Toomey or Sestak beyond a vague name recognition. So head-to-head matchups between those two are much more likely to break down according to general partisan lines than is a matchup with the better know Specter.

    If I can, I’ll try to get data on party registration in Pennsylvania dating back to 2004 and revisit your hypothesis.

  3. EJ Dione had a good piece today on the different sources of anti-incumbent sentiment within each party:

    Is there really a debate about whether Kagan will be confirmed? The opposition will try to draw it out as long as possible, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason to think that they would actually filibuster – they admitted as much today. I prognosticate confirmation with 56 votes in favor. No GOP votes. Dem’s lose a few from moderate states, including, of course, Ben Nelson.

  4. Orion – Since I put the over/under on Republican opposition to the Kagan nomination in the 30’s, it’s pretty clear that I don’t think there’s much doubt that she will be confirmed. Nor do I hear any one else saying otherwise. In fact, you are the most bullish on Republican opposition that I’ve seen to date. (I’m putting you down for 44 nay votes, btw.)

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