The Senate Forecast: Place Your Bets, Please

It’s time (actually past time!) for the midterm forecast/”It’s the fundamentals, stupid” t-shirt contest. As always, please, no money wagering at home. This should only be done by professionals.  All that’s at stake here is a t-shirt and, of course, my professional pride – oh, and control of the legislative agenda for the next two years.

Let me begin with the Senate. I should note that most political scientist forecast models focus on the House, not the Senate. (For example, among the five midterm forecast models presented in the recent issue of Political Science and Politics, only one includes a Senate forecast.)  In previous years the Senate forecasts have not always been very accurate.  I’m not sure why this is the case, although I can suggest explanations. Senate races are usually more competitive – they attract stronger challengers, who are often well funded (think Carly Fiorina or Linda McMahon). State populations – especially in large states – are more heterogeneous, making it difficult to assess how the population is reacting in the aggregate to the fundamentals.  There are fewer Senate races in any cycle, so perhaps it’s easier simply to assess each race individually, a la Charlie Cook or Stuart Rothenberg.

For whatever reason, the science of forecasting Senate races is not as well developed.  As a result, unlike the presidential forecast I’ve done in previous years (or the House one I will present later) this Senate forecast is not based on any specific model; there’s no underlying theory on which the projections are based.  It’s all seats-of-the-pants, race-by-race assessments which, frankly, you can find on a dozen other websites.  Nonetheless, we have a tradition to keep at the Presidential Power blog, so here goes.  Just remember – if my predictions go horribly wrong, it’s not an indictment of political science forecast models – it’s simply a reflection of my own lack of political insight.

Drum roll please!

I’ve set the over/under for the Republican gain in the Senate next Tuesday at 8 seats.  (Yes, for those of you who attended my talk last night, I’ve changed the prediction again. This is the real one. For now.)   Note that this is almost twice the Republican gain than what Alan Abramowitz’s Senate forecast model indicates based on the current generic ballot results, although Alan is careful to note the large margin of uncertainty surrounding his Labor Day Senate prediction.

Because there are only about a dozen competitive Senate seats (of 37) during this cycle, I can list the predicted Republican pickups, in rough order of likelihood (from most likely to I’m basically guessing).  They are:

1. North Dakota.  Democrat Byron Dorgan stepping down. Republican John Hoeven to beat Tracy Potter.

2. Arkansas.  Incumbent Democrat Blanche Lincoln to lose to John Boozman.

3. Indiana. Democrat Evan Bayh stepping down. Republican Dan Coats to beat Brad Ellsworth.

4. Wisconsin. Incumbent Democrat Russ Feingold to lose to Ron Johnson.

5. Pennsylvania. Incumbent Arlen Specter lost in the primary. Republican Pat Toomey to beat Joe Sestak.

6. Nevada.  Incumbent Democrat Harry Reid to lose to Sharron Angle.

7. Illinois. Democrat (and Blagojevich appointee) Burris stepping down. Republican Mark Kirk to beat Alexi Giannoulias.

8.  Colorado: Incumbent Michael Bennet to lose to Republican Ken Buck.

For what it’s worth, in the other closely contested Senate races, I think West Virginia stays Democrat with Manchin beating Raese, Murray retains her seat in Washington, Boxer holds on in California, Rubio keeps Florida’s Republican seat, Blumenthal holds Connecticut for the Democrats, Ayotte keeps New Hampshire’s seat Red, and Miller beats Murkowski in Alaska (with no party change in either case).

A word of caution with these Senate projections.  For races numbered 5-8 (and for that matter the Washington state and West Virginia races), the uncertainty surrounding the outcomes make my estimates not much better than what you would get with a coin flip.  The races are that close.  In the end, I went Republican on most of them because I think the fundamentals are heavily in Republicans’ favor this cycle.  It goes without saying (so why do I say it?) that much depends on who turns out, and in what numbers. Here the Democrat fundraising advantage may help at the margins although frankly I think that advantage – which is dwindling – will be worth more in the House races.

Ok, there you have it. If I’m right, the Democrats will retain control of the Senate, 51-49, although the working margin will be smaller than that on some issues. Let the betting begin.  As always, the person who comes closest to predicting the actual outcome wins this t-shirt.  In cases of ties, everyone wins or I’ll go with the first person who submits an entry.

Tomorrow, schedule permitting,  I’ll present the House predictions.  By way of preview, I think the situation is much worse for Democrats in this chamber.


  1. My predictions (all in hopes of a lovely new T-Shirt) — changes to the Dickinson model are in all caps:
    SENATE MAKEUP: 53 – 47 (46+Murkowski)
    ND: Hoeven
    AR: Boozeman
    IN: Coats
    WI: Johnson
    PA: Toomey
    NV: REID
    IL: Kirk wins in the closest race of election night.
    I also think West Virginia stays Democrat with Manchin beating Raese, Murray retains her seat in Washington, Boxer holds on in California, Rubio keeps Florida’s Republican seat, Blumenthal holds Connecticut for the Democrats, Ayotte keeps New Hampshire’s seat Red, and MURKOWSKI beats Miller in Alaska, but she continues to caucus with Republicans, so no real party change

    Ready to go district by district for the House predictions…

  2. The final outcome will be a loss of 7 seats for the D’s, for a 52-48 “advantage” in the upper chamber. I caution, however, that while many moderate Dems will act like moderate Republicans over the next two years, this will be countered by moderate Republicans acting like extreme Republicans to ward off primary challenges such as those that knocked off Mike Castle and Lisa Murkowski. Moderate Dems will be hesitant to capitulate to the “extreme” ideas coming out of this Republican faction, and so the climate will remain divisive as opposed to resting slightly right of center. Just one man’s opinion, albeit one formulated without much sleep in the heart of the Colorado Senate Race.

  3. Well, my prediction was going to be 52-48, but since that’s already taken I’ll go with 50-50, with Republicans picking up either WV or CA. And my fear with this scenario is that Lieberman will defect.

  4. Zach – I can put you down for 52-48, if you prefer. I can hand out multiple t-shirts (up to a point).

    Yes, that’s the fear among Democrats – that Lieberman will caucus with Republicans in the event of a split. But I don’t see it. He’s actually quite liberal on social issues, although a hawk on foreign policy. I think he stays with the Democrats.

  5. I’m going with the Republican’s gaining 7 seats, 52-48. Hailing from Pennsylvania’s Fightin’ 7th District, I have to keep believing that Sestak will pull this one out. He’s big into the come from behind victories (i.e. vs. Weldon and Specter) and I’m hoping for another.

  6. I’ll say 53-47 Dems for the Senate.

    Republicans to pick up 6 seats:


    That means Dems hold on to five close ones –
    PA (Sestak)
    CO (Bennet)
    WV (Manchin)
    WA (Murray)
    CA (Boxer)

    I agree that the House looks far worse for the Dems and look forward to the next post! Assuming the inevitable, I’d be interested in hearing what you think is likely to happen in the next couple of years with a divided Congress and a slim Democratic majority in the senate. Common sense dictates that nothing will get done, but I’m wondering whether the academic literature confirms that presumption.

  7. The problem I’m having is that I largely agree with you. But in the efforts of trying to win a shirt I am going to say that the Democrats lose 9 seats, thus making it a 50-50 tie with Biden casting the deciding vote in split decisions (then again with this senate it is unlikely it would ever come to that). The only state that I am changing from Prof. Dickinson’s predictions is that Manchin loses in West Virginia.

  8. Wow, I guess I didn’t realize Feingold was against the wall this year. That’s a genuine bummer.

    I’ll say 52-48. I’m counting on late returns from Cook County to save someone’s seat.

  9. Dems lose 6, 53-47. Would say 7 (ND, AR, IN, PA, WI, and 2 of the three: IL, CO, NV), except I believe Feingold will pull off an upset (has narrowed the gap this week and has the momentum and grassroots support, you heard it here first.) Unless Meek drops out in Florida this weekend, which I think would go for Crist… also predicting Murkowski over Miller. Heart over mind? Perhaps.

  10. I think I’ll go with 50-50. IL, AR, IN, PA, NV, WI, CO, ND, NH and WA all go Republican. Rubio and Miller win in Florida and Alaska. Boxer keeps her seat in California. Manchin and Blumenthal win, maintaining the Dem status of their respective seats.

  11. I’m kind of late so I’ll have to go with the following bet:
    51(Republicans) – 49 (Democrats)

    (Previous comments have filled up the other ‘slots’).

  12. I think its going to be a very interesting night/early morning and I’m bummed I won’t be able to hear Professor Dickinson doing his election talk, which of course I assume he’s doing. Perhaps you could webcast it? Anyways, I’m going to go with a gut feeling and say, 50-50. Although, I do like Peter’s thoughts on how things will run in the Senate. In the end, I feel little will change unless the Dems somehow find away to go down 49-51 (which certainly is possible with the way they’ve played lately.) The tides are rapidly changing – the economic downturn/recession is a huge “X” factor that is hard to judge.

  13. I’ll go with Dems retain control at 53-47. Colorado and Illinois swing to Bennet and Giannoulias and they keep California, Washington, and West Virginia. Unfortunately Reid will lose in Nevada.

  14. I have the GOP picking up 7 seats, so that the Senate goes to 52-48
    1. ND: Hoeven beats Potter
    2. AR: Lincoln loses to Boozman
    3. IN: Coats beats Ellsworth
    4. WI: Feingold loses to Johnson
    5. PA: Toomey defeats Sestak
    6. NV: Angle defeats Reid
    7. IL: Giannoulias beats Kirk
    8. CO: Bennet holds his seat against Buck
    9. WV: Manchin beats Raese
    10. WA: Murray loses to Rossi
    11. CA: Boxer edges out Fiorina
    12. FL: Rubio beats Crist and Meek
    13. CT: Blumenthal wins Connecticut
    14. NH: Ayotte defeats Hodes
    15. AK: Miller beats Murkowski, but only after a lengthy recount.

  15. Charlie wins the shirt, right? I was pretty darn close though. And I have a witness to attest that I came very close to predicting that Reid would win. I really wanted that shirt… oh well. THE GIANTS PREDICTION WAS RIGHT!!!!

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