Monthly Archives: November 2010

Trustee or Delegate? The Impact of Controversial Votes on Democrats in the 2010 Midterms

Trustee or delegate?  It is the classic dilemma every elected official faces. Political scientists are fond of reminding their students that Edmund Burke once explained to his constituents that as a member of Parliament he would be a trustee, not a delegate; that is, he would vote his conscience,  rather than simply doing what his constituents wanted.  “Your faithful friend, your devoted servant, I shall be to end of my life, [but] a flatterer you don’t wish for.”  Burke promptly lost his bid for election.

It is not clear whether House Democrat Dan Maffei, who conceded his race in New York’s 25th district to Tea Partier Ann Marie Buerkle on Tuesday, knew of Burke’s fate. As Jeff Garofano reminds me in an email, Maffei’s seat had been reliably Republican for several decades – as had been much of upstate New York – until Maffei won it for the Democrats in 2008.  Once in office Maffei supported the Democratic leadership on a number of controversial votes.  In his concession letter,  Maffei – much like Burke! – expressed few regrets:  “Not only do I not apologize for my positions on the stimulus, the health care bill, financial reform, and the credit card bill, but my only regret is that there were not more opportunities to make healthcare more affordable to people and businesses and get more resources to the region for needed public projects – particularly transportation and public schools.  I am also deeply proud of my commitment to energy reform and mitigating global climate change.”

Maffei may be proud of his votes – he was no flatterer! – but in the end his seat became, by my unofficial count, the 63rd lost by Democrats in this election cycle, pushing the overall House totals to 242 Republicans and 192 Democrats. And, as I discuss below, there is evidence suggesting that the votes about which Maffei expresses such pride may have cost him – and Democrats more generally – their seats.

To be sure, as I argued in my last post, the size of the Republican wave that washed so many Democrats like Maffei out of office was largely due to the unprecedented nature of the economic recession.  In that vein, Mo Fiorina passes along the following chart:

As you can see by the red line, the depth and duration of the current jobless cycle is unprecedented in the post-Depression era.  I also suggested in that previous post, however, that some Democrats, like Maffei, paid a price for their votes on a number of high profile issues, such as health care. In this vein, Bill Galston finds based on polling data that 17% of midterm voters cited health care as the biggest influence on their vote. “Of those voters, 58 percent had an unfavorable view of the health-reform law, 58 percent thought it would make the country worse off, and 56 percent thought it would leave them and their families worse off. Not surprisingly, health care voters went for Republican over Democratic candidates by a margin of 59 percent to 35 percent. (Non health-care voters were divided 44 percent to 44 percent.)”

But can we be sure that support for health care, or other controversial high-profile issues like TARP, the stimulus bill or cap and trade, really cost Democrats seats? A number of political scientists have sought to look more systematically at the electoral effect, if any, in 2010 on Democrats who supported these issues.  One such study by Eric McGhee and John Sides analyzed the estimated impact of a Democrat’s support for cap and trade, the stimulus bill and health care, and the impact of supporting only health care and cap and trade, while controlling for the district’s previous House vote, presidential support in 2008, and campaign spending by candidates. As the following two charts indicate, they estimate that in the aggregate  support for the stimulus bill, health care and cap and trade cost the Democrats 35 seats, while a vote for just health care and cap and trade cost 24 seats. (The charts compare the actual results with the estimated results if Democrats had voted against the controversial bills.)

They calculate the average loss of support for Democrats per controversial vote as follows: 2.8% for the stimulus, 2.1% for cap-and-trade, and 4.5% for health care. Of course, the estimated loss varies across each district, although it tends to increase as districts become progressively more Republican. They conclude that the net impact on Democrats of just these three controversial votes might have been enough to cost them control of the House. These estimates,  of course, are subject to a large margin of error (the red lines in the charts above).  Moreover, as Jonathan Bernstein points out,  we can’t really be sure what would have happened in the absence of the health care vote, or the absence of any of these votes for that matter, because the context of the election most assuredly would have changed without these votes. Finally, one might conclude, as Maffei evidently did, that passing health care or the stimulus package was worth the political cost of losing one’s seat, not to mention majority control in the House. In the case of the stimulus bill, or TARP, one might argue that Democrats had no choice but to support both pieces of legislation – otherwise the banking industry might have collapsed and the economy might have gone into a deeper recession.  As McGhee and Sides remind us, however, Democrats certainly had the option not to push for health care reform, or cap and trade legislation.

In short, although profiles in voting courage may provide material for Pulitzer prize-winning books, it is likely that because of these votes Republicans now control the House, and are poised to take the Senate in 2012.  If they also win the presidency, who knows whether health care will even survive?  So, were these votes worth the electoral pain they inflicted?  Unfortunately, elected politicians don’t have the luxury of hindsight when trying to estimate likely voter reaction to how they vote.  Maffei may now tell his constituents that he is proud of his votes, and he may even believe it.  On the other hand, what else can he say?  “Wait! I want a do-over!  Health care was a horrible piece of legislation!”  My guess – and it is only a guess – is that if he knew these votes would cost him his seat, he would have voted no on several of them. Instead, his district is now represented by a Tea Partier who is certain to try to undo all the legislation Maffei supported.

That brings me to the final element in my post-election analysis: the impact of the Tea Party. I’ll address that in my next post.

Why Did Political Scientists Miss the Midterm Wave?

After a period of post-midterm decompression, it’s time to return to the blogging salt mines. Picking up where I left off in my last post, let me start with a simple question: why did every political science forecast of the midterm election of which I am aware underestimate the size of the Republican wave that hit the House (the few that predicted Senate results were off as well)?  To be sure, the results did fall within the confidence interval of some of the models, and most political scientists foresaw the Republican House takeover, but none of the predicted point estimates came very close to the final results. As of today, it looks like Republicans picked up about 62 House seats (four races are still pending) and 6 Senate seats.  To refresh your memory, here’s John Sides’ chart with the Labor Day political science projections.

So, the most  pessimistic forecast from the Democrats’ perspective – Campbell’s – still had Democrats holding more than 200 seats, or a dozen more than the actual 190 they now possess (with four races pending). Note that even with the advantage of several additional weeks of data, I didn’t fare much better; my “tweaking” of the projection models led me to forecast a 49-seat Republican pickup, considerably short of their actual gain.

In addition to the thrill of giving out Presidential Power t-shirts (yes, I will announce the contest winners in a separate post), the reason why I am interested in these forecasts is because they are a measure of how well political scientists understand midterm elections.  Unlike someone like Nate Silver, we aren’t only interested in getting the final numbers right – instead, we want to understand what explains those results.  (By the way, Silver’s prediction – he’s “538” in the chart – as of Labor Day fell, as you can see, in the middle of the pack.  That’s not too shabby – for an economist!)

What most interests me about this last midterm is not that the forecast models were off – it’s that they were all off in the same direction.  Political scientists systematically underestimated the Republican seat gain.  In one respect, of course, this is perhaps not surprising; as I noted in several of my pre-election posts, political scientists are inherently conservative folk. They tend to assume that future iterations of an event will unfold much as it did previously, so prior patterns should be a reasonably reliable predictor of what’s to come. Evidently, this assumption did not hold true for this latest midterm. But why not?  I can think of four related answers: the unprecedented depth of the economic recession, the nationalization of midterm elections, the role of the Tea Party and the collective impact of the controversial legislation – particularly TARP, the stimulus bill and health insurance – passed by the Democratically-controlled Congress during the last four years.  Let me start by exploring a couple of these factors: the economy and the nationalization of elections.  I’ll deal with the Tea Party and the controversial votes issues in a separate post.

As I’ve explained in previous posts, most forecast models incorporate some measure of the economy, such as quarterly growth in GDP or disposable income, or changes in the unemployment rate.  As my colleague Bert Johnson surmised during our election night coverage, it is possible that forecast models constructed from previous years’ economic data may have underestimated the relative importance of the current economic downturn to voters.  In other words, models based on “normal” economic conditions may not do particularly well when the economy is an historical outlier, as this one certainly is.  Consider that during the last six decades, as this charts shows, monthly unemployment levels have only approached the current rate once before, during Reagan’s first term.

During the 1982 midterm, of course, Reagan’s Republican Party only controlled the Senate, not the House; the divided government may have prevented voters from holding Reagan and the Republicans solely accountable for the dismal economy in that election which may partly explain why Republicans only lost 26 House seats. (Note that they also had fewer House seats to lose.) In 2010, by contrast, Democrats controlled all three branches and thus were more likely to suffer retribution from voters concerned about persistently high unemployment.

Of  course, unemployment is only one facet of how voters’ assess the economy, and the economy is not all they assess during midterms.  Nonetheless, it is an important component – perhaps the most important component that goes into a voter’s calculus. Now add to the mix concern over record post-war budget deficits, spending on TARP and the stimulus, uncertainly about health care costs and you have the setting for a midterm election driven to a much greater degree than in previous years by economic worries.   Moreover, as I’ve noted in previous posts and as this table shows, House elections have become increasingly nationalized since the mid-1980’s.

This means individual House races are more likely to be influenced by factors outside each district – factors less amenable to individual candidate’s control.  I’m currently putting together the numbers for the 2010 midterm, but I have no reason to believe it was any less nationalized than recent midterms.   That means the impact of economic factors was likely even greater during this last election cycle.

My point is not that the forecast models totally ignored economic factors – it’s that economic factors weighed more heavily in midterm voters’ minds this time around than is typically the case.  With Democrats viewed as the party in charge, and with Democrats holding more vulnerable seats, they were extremely susceptible to getting washed out of office in a “wave” election.  To capitalize on these conditions, Republicans needed to both run good candidates and to get voters to show up at the polls. As it happened, the Tea Party stepped in to assist with both conditions. I’ll address that topic in the next post.

Addendum:  The initial post showed the wrong unemployment data – I’ve corrected it above.

Is It Tea Time In America? A Qualified Yes

Let me begin the initial post-election analysis by thanking Rachel Pagano, Ben Wessel, the Republican and Democratic student groups, Owen Witek and Sarah Pfander who manned the computer all night, all the media staff, everyone who bought me beer, Wenbo for the food, and of course my colleague Bert Johnson for his usual astute insights and commentary.  It was another great night at the Grille – greater for some than for others- and we also broke a record for participation on the Presidential Power website – thanks to all the commentators, particularly Conor, Tarsi and Chris, who kept the updates coming.  Kudos to all.

Now on to the Results. We wake up to a Republican-controlled House, as Republicans gained – so far – 60 seats, the biggest pickup for any party since 1946, which puts them at least at 239 seats, with the likelihood as of this writing that they will reach 243, far more than the 218 needed for a majority. The Senate remains under Democratic control, despite at least a 6-seat Republican gain there. As I expected, Colorado is simply too close to call, and results are pending in Washington and Alaska, although the latter should stay Republican (it appears Murkowski might win there as write-in candidate!).  So we are probably looking at a 4-to-5 seat Democrat margin in the Senate, 53—47 or 52-48, pending the results in the remaining three states. The split outcome in the Senate and House is not a surprise, but the absolute size of the Republican seat gain in the House exceeded the Labor Day mean projections of all political scientists, although it fell within the confidence interval of most of their projections.  As I noted in an earlier blog, political scientists are an inherently conservative lot when it comes to forecasting unusual electoral outcomes and, at least in the House, this was an unusually large gain by historical standards.  My quick look at the data indicates that there have only been three greater swings in the House since it achieved its current size of 435 in 1913 – those occurred in 1938, 1942 and 1946.  The Senate Republican increase of 6-7 seats is more modest, historically speaking, having been eclipsed most recently in the 1980 Reagan election, but still a significant gain.

What explains the massive size of the Republican wave?  In retrospect, I think the source of the wave dates to the end of the Bush administration, with the initial bank bailout. The decision by the Bush administration – one ratified by Democrats – to stabilize the banks that were viewed by many taxpayers as a victim of their own bad judgment did not sit well with voters and – as the economic crisis worsened – it triggered a populist backlash that we’ve seen frequently in American history. The most visible manifestation of this movement was the Tea Party. Many on the Left initially dismissed the Tea Party movement because they were partially misled by the media coverage that disproportionately focused on its fringe elements. But, at its core, the Tea Party was driven by a deep concern and even anger over the growing size of government, as reflected in TARP, the auto bailout, the stimulus bill and finally, health care, and the idea that government was more interested in colluding with big business – banks and financial centers, the auto industry, insurance and pharmaceutical companies, etc. – than in protecting voters. The Tea Party, however, was only the most visible manifestation of this dissatisfaction – a dissatisfaction that grew larger when the economy showed little job growth well into the Obama administration.  At its heart, this election turned on the economy.

At least that’s my first read.  As evidence, let’s take a look at the House exit polls,  keeping in mind John Sides’ warning that the reasons people give for why they voted as they did are not necessarily accurate.  We should note at the outset that turnout was down among those groups – youths, Latinos, African-Americans – that formed a core part of the Obama coalition in 2010. At the same time, it was up from 2008 among older voters and they skewed heavily Republican. Indeed, Republican turnout at 36% of the voters was more than the proportion of all adults who call themselves Republicans, and equal to Democrat turnout on Tuesday, despite the Democrats’ registration advantage.  However, independents (28%) were the key here, as they broke decisively for Republican candidates 55%-39%.

Note as well that self-professed conservatives, at 41%, were the biggest voting bloc, with moderates coming in second at 39%.  Liberals, by contrast, constituted only 20% of the voters. Obama voters constituted only 46% of House voters, not much more than McCain voters (45%) – another change from 2008.  Republicans regained their support lost in 2008 among suburban voters, and broke even with Democrats among voters in the West, while retaining their dominance in the South and, to a lesser extent, the Midwest.

So, the composition of the midterm electorate, as I expected, favored the Republicans.  This is consistent with the surge and decline thesis that explains the president’s seat loss in the first midterm more generally and which I’ve talked about extensively in previous posts.

A second factor affecting midterms is that, for some voters, the election is viewed as a referendum on the president. There is evidence that this dynamic was at play yesterday. Among House voters, fully 39% strongly disapproved of the job Obama is doing, while only 23% strongly approved.  Those disapproving went almost entirely for Republican candidates. Thirty-seven percent of House voters said their vote was meant to express opposition to Obama – only 24% said they voted in support of Obama. By a margin of 52-44%, House voters thought Obama’s leadership had hurt the country.

Both these factors – the composition of the electorate, and attitudes toward Obama – were shaped by voters’ dominant issue concern: that government was growing too large against the backdrop of a stagnant economy. By a 56-38% margin, voters thought government was doing too much, and the “doing too much” crowd voted overwhelmingly Republican, 76-21%.  By an almost equally overwhelming 74-24%, voters expressed anger/dissatisfaction with the federal government, and the angry/dissatisfied crowd went Republican 64-33%.

What about the Tea Party movement?  Forty percent of voters supported it – higher than the average support I was detecting among all registered voters across numerous polls – while 31% opposed and 25% were neutral. Neutral voters went slightly (49-47%) for Republicans, but Tea Party supporters broke strongly for Republican candidates 86-11%.  However, more than half of the voters (56%) said their vote was not meant to send a message, for or against, the Tea Party.  In short, the Tea Party movement was not the issue for most voters in this election – the economy was.  Fully 62% of voters said the economy was the most important issue facing the country – far more than any other issue, and they went Republican 53%-44%.  A plurality of voters want the next Congress to cut the deficit (39%) and another 37% want it focus on creating jobs – core Tea Party issues.  Interestingly, voters were divided roughly into thirds on whether the stimulus package had helped, hurt or made no difference to the economy.  Most voters blamed either Wall St. 35%, or George Bush (30%), for the state of the economy more than Barack Obama (23%).  But the Democrats still felt the repercussions of a bad economy.  Efforts by pundits like Frank Rich and E.J. Dionne to make the Tea Party an issue in this election went nowhere.

Interestingly, 48% of Americans want to repeal the health care law, 16% leave as is, and 31% expand it.  Given the divided control of government, I fully expect that no changes will be made to health care, if at all, until after 2012.

Finally, by a slim margin, a plurality of voters (39%) wants to extend the Bush tax cuts for all Americans.

Exit polls offer a first, albeit potentially misleading look at what voters were thinking on Tuesday, so we need to be careful in extrapolating from the results.  Nonetheless, the picture they paint is one consistent with political science forecast models more generally: the midterm electorate was less favorable to Democrats in general (surge and decline), and to Obama specifically (referendum).  To this we might add a third factor, although I have less data on this: the tendency for a more moderate electorate to split government control between what they view as two relatively extreme parties.  By my count, the next two years of divided government means that voters have chosen to split control 38 of the last 68 years, or more than half the time.

The biggest factor driving the vote on Tuesday, however, was the one that incited the Tea Party movement back in late 2008: concern over the size of government against the backdrop of a stagnant economy.  Simply put, with unemployment hovering above 9%, voters were in the mood for change, and they took their frustrations out on the party in power.  The Tea Party was simply a manifestation of this deeper, more widespread voter dissatisfaction – not a cause of it.

If I get a chance, I’ll do a separate analysis of the Senate exit polling data. For now, however, we face divided government again.  The difference is that this time we have a Democratic President and Senate, but a Republican House – a combination we’ve not seen since before the Civil War, if I’m remembering my history.  Because the House in its modern incarnation is designed to empower the majority party, the political dynamics for the next two years will be interesting, to put it mildly.  In a future post I’ll try to preview what I think will happen.

In the meantime, let the 2012 presidential campaign begin!

ADDENDUM:  Jeff Garafano emails to say Bennet is declaring victory in Colorado.  If true, this pushes the Democrats to at least 52 in the Senate, but I am waiting to see whether this goes to a recount.

UPDATE 2:05 pm.  I am told that Colorado is unlikely to go to a recount – Bennet’s lead is big enough that no recount will be triggered and Buck is unlikely to pursue/pay for one on his own.

Live Blogging Election Night

7 p.m.  Welcome all to another Election Night extravaganza, courtesy of the Presidential Power blog!   We’ll be setting up at the Middlebury Grille later tonight at 8 pm, as per tradition, but since polls are already closing (or have closed in Indiana and Kentucky) I thought I’d get started.  As always, I welcome your insights and information – this is a collective enterprise.

So join in!

Angelo – Just got an email from a colleague at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania – he’s saying Toomey will pull it out there, but I’m not sure if that’s based on an updated read of turnout…

Ok, we’ll be heading over to the Grille in a few moments.  Already our internet is slowing to a crawl here.  Let’s hope the connection picks up over there.

Ok, we’re set up at the Grille.  Connection is much better so far.  As Angelo noted, a couple of senate races are called – now surprises. One republican pickup in Indiana – but not a surprise.   Meanwhile, Rand Paul has been declared the winner in Kentucky.  We’ll check turnout figures now and see what they tell us.

Jack – We’ll address campaign in a bit, but – as you well know! – Bert things Citizen United will be one of two spins Dems will use to explain their losses tonight…

Nancy Pelosi is taking a page from Jack’s playbook – arguing that this country can’t be bought by special interests!  Expect to hear that refrain for much of the night!  It may be Nancy’s last speech as Speaker…

(BTW, we are listening to the CNN feed here in the Grille).

For the states with polls that closed at 7 – looks like Rubio is doing better than expected in Florida.  At this stage I’m trying to get turnout data to see whether the Republicans are exceeding expectations…

Bert is debunking the Citizens United argument here at the Grille – a masterful presentation!

OK, we just had an extended dialogue with our audience here at the Grille  – simultaneous blogging is so far pretty difficult.   But Tarsi, the gist of the answer is that some districts are so lopsided in terms of partisan composition that they are a foregone conclusion, and are called as soon as results are in.

Ok, we have a list of the 49 House Democrats who are occupying seats in districts that went for McCain in 2008, and we are keeping track of how many lose tonight.  So far, three are down already, including at least one long-term incumbent.  So far, there’s no evidence the Republican wave is not going to materialize…

btw, attendance is way down at the Grille from 2008 – much like the difference between a presidential year turnout and a midterm.  On a positive  note, I’ve got beers stacked up already..

Still waiting for an update from Pennsylvania…

Among the casualties within the 49: (excuse my spelling) Pierello, Boucher and Kosmas.   Add a fourth to the list: Hill in Indiana…

Longtime incumbent David Price is struggling in North CArolina -he’s’ been in 22 years or so but is trailing by 1% with 68%  – No sooner do I post this than they update the race. He’s up by 5%.  Go Political Science!

Ken – thanks for pointing out that Democrats  can thump the bible as well!

RAnd Paul is on:   “Deliberate this!”

Rubio is on for his victory speech.

Zach – Dem’s are not out of the woods in the Senate yet – if they flip Washington they can tie it up….

Isolated cheers here in the Grille -for NBC’s call that the House will go Republican.   Divided  government is here again- that’s the norm in this country in the post-WW II era.

Another of the “49” has gone to defeat – Democrat allen boyd of Florida…so far nothing to indicate this is anything less than a wave election fro Republicans…

Chris – Good to hear from you!  The test can wait…

Democrat Chet Edwards just sent down – another of the McCain 49.   Now O’Donnell is on… loud applause here for one of the few bright spots for Democrats tonight.

David Price has been reelected in NOrth Carolina’s 4rth – strike one for Political Science.

Conor = why do you think exit polls  in Illinois favor Giannoulous?  I’m not seeing it…

We are waiting for 10 – should get some updates as polls close for key states.

Chris – Yes, that’s generally true. Rural areas often report more slowly.  You see this happening in Pennsylvania, where Sestak’s lead is largely due to early margin of returns from urban areas in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.  Things are going to tighten considerably there.

Conor – You may be right about Illinois – I don’t have enough information but it would be interesting to compare the demographics with what happened in 2008.

Wolf is projecting a Republican pickup of over 50 seats – so that’s the over in my House projection.  Who took that?

Conor – we just looked at Nevada exit polls – Latino vote  holding steady from 2008, but women are down, and so are African Americans.  How are you seeing this tilting Reid?  It looks darn close to me.

So, we have three Democrats of the 49 representing McCain districts who have been reelected.  Of these, two voted against ObamaCare.

CNN is projecting 52 Republican seats so far in the House.

BTW, we are close to breaking the Presidential Power hit list, set on Election Night when Scott Brown took “Kennedy’s seat” – keep those hits and comments coming.  If we break it, Bert is buying everyone here a beer!

Chris – I have conflicting numbers from 1994 for the Republican gain.  It was either 52 or 54. I’ll check.

OK, Wikipedia says 54.

Chris – you didn’t hear it from me.

Conor – I’m not saying you are wrong. I just can’t see how the demographics are pointing to a better than expected Reid performance.  What are you comparing these to?

So, it appears that our forecast models based on structural factors alone (economy, presidential approval,  seats in doubt) aren’t enough to explain the scope of Democrat loss – the model using the public opinion data are doing a better job.  Bert’s has just made a good explanation why this might be the case…

Michael – keep  in mind that returns are coming more quickly from urban, Sestak leaning areas in Pennsylvania.  It’s not clear that Toomey is really behind.

Chris – do you  believe Wolf, or Wikipedia…

Michael – Toomey has pulled ahead in Pennsylvania.  ANd Kirk has now pulled ahead of Giannoulious in Illinois.  So, to this date, although it’s a long way from over, there are no real surprises in the Senate races.

Chris – Dubie is clinging to a 1% point lead here, but Chittendon county returns aren’t fully in – that’s a Shumlin stronghold.

Ok, a couple of House districts in Illinois – teh 8th and 9th – were supposed to go Democratic, but in fact are in danger of going Republican.  This is a sign that Illinois may tip to Kirk in the Senate race.

Ok, we are starting to get returns from Chittendon County – Bert says Dubie lead has been reduced fractionally, as expected.

Beers on Bert!  We’ve just broke the record for hits on the Presidential Power website..   The place goes wild!…actually,  people are surprisingly calm…Sigh.

Kirk looks like he’s going to take Illinois.  The Senate remains in play for Republicans, but they are going to need some help in Washington and California…

We are getting nothing from Nevada – is anyone out there getting anything beyond exit polls?

The Crowd is beginning to thin out here – lots of disappointment among some of the students.

So, how to explain the Republican resurgence?   There is a line of thought advocated by political scientists like Mo Fiorina that suggests the more moderate public sees some virtue in splitting governmental control between two parties, both of which are  viewed as more extreme than the voters.  We may be seeing that logic unfolding tonight.

Micheal – we only have 11% of Nevada reporting on our site.  Are you saying Reid is up  y 34,000 with 42% of the vote counted?

Ok, it appears Nevada held back reporting because  of long lines at the polls in some polling areas – they didn’t want to report the vote.  We should see a surge of reporting shortly.   The Dem’s need to hold this as a firewall.

Shumlin is pulling ahead in Vermont.

Boehner is on – “The real winners tonight? The American People!”

Shumlin has reportedly told supporters that he has good news for them – looks like he’s going to win this, and with the 50% he needs.

Another Republican pickup = we at the Grille think Toomey is going to take Pennsylvania, although I haven’t heard anyone call it yet.  The Senate is still in play….with 40% of the vote in Washington state, the Republican Rossi is up, but most of that vote is from the eastern part of the state. Look for Murray to close this gap as the urban areas report….

Ok, we are calling it a night….thanks all for participating and setting a record for hits on the blog.  I’ll try to get on tomorrow with the Senate update  and a final tally on House seats…..

Conor – I have no feel for Alaska, but I don’t think the Republican seat is in danger. If forced to choose, I’ll take Miller.  The key races are Nevada and Washington – if the Republicans steal both, it’s going to be an interesting two years!  Agreed on Kirk and Sestak… no surprises, but they were close.

Nate Silver Is Not A Political Scientist

I’ve made this point before, most recently during the 2008 presidential campaign when Silver’s forecast model, with its rapidly changing “win” probabilities, made it appear as if voters were altering their preferences on a weekly basis.  This was nonsense, of course, which is why the political science forecast models issued around Labor Day proved generally accurate.

But in light of Silver’s column yesterday, it bears repeating: he’s not a political scientist.  He’s an economist by training, but he’s really a weathercaster when it comes to predicting political outcomes. That is, he’s very adept at doing the equivalent of climbing to the top of Mt. Worth (a local skiing area for those not familiar with God’s Green Mountains), looking west toward Lake Champlain to see what the prevailing winds are carrying toward us, and issuing a weather bulletin for tomorrow.  Mind you, this isn’t necessarily a knock on Silver’s work – he’s a damn good weathercaster.  In 2008, his day—before election estimate came pretty close to nailing the Electoral College vote. More generally, at his best, he digs up intriguing data or uncovers interesting political patterns.  At the same time, however, when it comes to his forecast models, he’s susceptible to the “Look Ma! No Hands!” approach in which he suggests the more numerous the variables in his model, the more effective it must be.  In truth, as Sam Wang demonstrated in 2008, when his much simpler forecast model proved more accurate than Silver’s,  parsimony can be a virtue when it comes to predictions.

Why do I bring this up now?  Because, in the face of conflicting data, weathercasters can become unstrung if they are used to simply reporting the weather without possessing much of a grasp of basic meteorology.  In yesterday’s column which the more cynical among us (who, moi?) might interpret as a classic CYA move, Silver raises a number of reasons why current forecasts (read: his!) might prove hopelessly wrong.  Now, I applaud all efforts to specify the confidence interval surrounding a forecast. But the lack of logic underling Silver’s presentation reveals just how little theory goes into his predictions.  For instance, he suggests the incumbent rule – which he has spent two years debunking – might actually come into play tomorrow.  (The incumbent rule says, in effect, that in close races, almost all undecideds break for the challenger).  Silver has provided data suggesting this rule didn’t apply in 2006 or 2008.  You would think, therefore, that he doesn’t believe in the incumbent rule.  Not so!  He writes, “So, to cite the incumbent rule as a point of fact as wrong. As a theory, however — particularly one that applies to this election and not necessarily to others — perhaps it will turn out to have some legs.”  Excuse me?  Why, if there’s no factual basis for the incumbent rule, will it turn out to apply in this election?

The rest of the column rests on equally sketchy reasoning.  Silver concludes by writing, “What we know, however, is that polls can sometimes miss pretty badly in either direction. Often, this is attributed to voters having made up (or changed) their minds at the last minute — but it’s more likely that the polls were wrong all along. These are some reasons they could be wrong in a way that underestimates how well Republicans will do. There are also, of course, a lot of reasons they could be underestimating Democrats; we’ll cover these in a separate piece.”

Let me get this straight: it’s possible the polls are underestimating the Republican support.  Or, they might be underestimating Democrats’ support.  I think this means if his forecast model proves incorrect, it’s because the polls “were wrong all along”.   Really?  Might it instead have something to do with his model?  Come on Silver – man up!  As it is, you already take the easy way out by issuing a forecast a day before the election, in contrast to the political scientists who put their reputations on the line by Labor Day. Do you believe in your model or not?

The bottom line: if you want to know tomorrow’s weather, a weathercaster is good enough.  If you want to know what causes the weather, you might want to look elsewhere.