Election preview: United States midterms

I’m in Crikey today with a preview of the US mid-term elections. Voting will mostly take place overnight, Australian time, and results will start appearing from 10am tomorrow – FiveThirtyEight has a schedule.

The subeditor’s tagline says that my article has “everything you need to know,” but I’m afraid that’s not true. There’s a lot that I didn’t have room for, and I’ll try to cover some of it here.

The striking fact that requires explanation about this election is that the Democrats seem to be doing so much better in the House of Representatives than in the Senate. They’re hot favorites to win back control of the House (88%, according to Nate Silver’s classic model), but the Republicans have almost as big a chance of holding their majority in the Senate (80.5%, from the same source).

I mention some of the reasons for that: the fact that only a third of the Senate is elected each time, that 2012 was a particularly strong Democrat year, and that a 50-50 tie counts as a Republican majority because Mike Pence has a casting vote.

But of course another reason is the simple fact that, while the House is gerrymandered, the Senate is malapportioned. Very big states get the same representation as very small states, and, as in most places, smaller states tend to vote conservative.

So it happens that ten of the Democrat incumbents seeking re-election are in states that Donald Trump carried two years ago – including the four that are at serious risk of losing (Florida, Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota).

But there’s another puzzling thing as well about the contrast between the two houses. While the forecasting models say that the Democrats (as I just mentioned) are slightly more likely to win in the Senate than they are to lose in the House, you’d never guess that from the media coverage.

Most pundits have been focusing on the House, treating it as very much a live contest, and dismissing the Democrats’ chances in the Senate, often in quite cursory fashion.

I take the opposite view. I think for the Republicans to retain their majority in the House would be a major upset, basically for the reasons Silver gives in his final summary:

At a macro level — based on national indicators and the historical tendency of the president’s party to lose seats at the midterm elections — the situation looks bad for Republicans. But at the local level — when you evaluate factors one district at a time, as our model does — it looks worse. The polling is bad for Republicans, the fundraising numbers are awful, and the slate of potential Democratic pickups runs deep into Republican territory. The data is uncertain, because it contains a margin-of-real-world-error. But I don’t think the data is ambiguous. It says Democrats are over the threshold they’d need to win the House.

On the other hand, I have a nagging feeling that a Democrat win in the Senate is a real possibility. Perhaps it’s just my natural optimism; certainly I can’t claim I’ve been immersed in the data the way some people have. (I’ve probably given more attention to New Caledonia over the last week than I have to the US.)

In the Senate, inevitably, we look at the races individually; no-one thinks that nationwide polling is much use. House seats can be taken as to some degree interchangeable; a swing of x% will deliver about y seats, and you don’t feel you have to specify which ones. It’s like the House of Representatives in Australia: if the swing is there, the seats – approximately – will fall.

Senate contests, however, being bigger and fewer, are more high-profile; it’s about the individual contest more than the national trend. But I worry that this way of looking at it might lead us to misestimate the chances.

If you think of several contests as independent events, you will miss possible connections between them. On a racetrack, for example, knowing who won the first race doesn’t tell you anything much about who will win the next race.* But knowing who won one seat in an election is valuable information when looking at other seats, because if a party is picking up votes somewhere it may well be doing it across the board.

Now, I’m sure Silver’s model allows for this to some extent. But I have a suspicion it might not be enough, and that if the Democrats are on a roll, then the Senate might come out better than expected. Unquestionably, however, the odds are against them.

One Senate race in particular is worth special mention: the by-election in Mississippi, where the Democrats need a swing of 11.3% (two-party) to take the seat. That’s very unlikely, but under Mississippi’s idiosyncratic electoral law the election is just a first round; if no candidate has more than 50% of the vote, there will be a runoff three weeks later.

There are three serious candidates; two Republicans and a Democrat. It’s very likely that the Democrat will lead tomorrow, with the other two splitting the Republican vote. If the Democrats have picked up (net) a seat elsewhere, then the Mississippi runoff would decide control of the Senate, with all the national attention that would entail.

In the preview I also talk a bit about the Governors’ races, which are often neglected:

Not surprisingly, gubernatorial elections are more likely to be decided on state rather than national issues. But it would a mistake to think that their outcome is only of interest to residents of those states.

The key thing this year is that these newly-elected governors will be in office when the next census is taken in 2020. That gives Democrats the opportunity to have a say — possibly a decisive say — in the redistribution of electoral boundaries that will take place then.

Given how badly the country needs some fair elections, that would be a big step forward.

There are some other very good summary previews around. Here’s Brendon O’Connor and Dan Dixon in the Conversation; here’s Lesley Russell at Inside Story. And of course the American media are overflowing with information: this piece by Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin in the New York Times would be a good place to start.

There’ll also be liveblogging tomorrow from everybody and their dog. I may join in if I feel I have anything particularly useful to say.


* It might tell you something; particular track conditions might suit some runners more than others consistently across the day. But for most purposes it’s OK to treat horse races as independent events.

7 thoughts on “Election preview: United States midterms

  1. I agree about your point re the Senate. If the blue wave happens then it should be interesting for the Senate. One is kind of hoping for a Beto defeat of Cruz in Texas, which by itself would be hugely significant. And the Georgia and Florida governorships …

    But I haven’t bothered trying to follow the detailed analyses this time because there are simply too many unpredictable variables in American elections, and they are getting worse. I don’t think anyone, Silver or whoever, can correct for them. Trump has increased everyone’s motivation so they say both sides will show up more than usual, however Dems have a depressing bad habit of not showing up (and I’m not sure having Obama and Biden tread the boards to the already-converted is going to change that), which combined with the systematic gerrymandering of those HoR seats they need (I’ve read it amounts to Dems starting about 11% behind in many seats in deep red states!).

    They say that those 52% of credentialed white suburban women who voted for Trump in the presidential election (!) many have changed their minds–but just like the first time, plenty simply refuse to be honest to pollsters, or themselves. I’ve seen group discussions on PBS-Newshour and it is incredible the reasoning given by some of these women (some are “faith” driven and got infuriated by the Kavanaugh business–which they considered a witchhunt and scandalous, while being unfazed about the GOP simply refusing point-blank to even begin Senate hearings of Obama’s choice!). These women are a high-turnout group (but lower turnout of the blue lot in ’16 could have been due to Hillary-aversion which shouldn’t be a factor this time). By contrast all the dumb white smucks (ie. low-education white males) who turned out for Trump may not turn out for the GOP this time? (No, I shouldn’t call them dumb just because they didn’t go to college, and their alienation is at least as much the Democratic party’s failing as their own.)
    Then there is the Republican campaign to disenfranchise Dem voters.

    So many Americans are their own worst enemies. Like with the utter confusion and disinformation and hypocrisy on healthcare (the #2 issue). Many Republicans now want to keep “pre-exisiting conditions” but it is not clear to me that the Dems are cutting thru that this is what the GOP and Trump swore over and over that they would destroy!

    And that brings me to, above all of that noise, the supreme frustration with the Dems themselves. The American political system has a bunch of weird features and the fact that the party out-of-power runs leaderless for about 3.5 of every 4-year cycle, is a serious defect. The fact that the two leaders of the houses of congress are the de facto leaders is worse (and by American’s obsession with seniority they are always a gerontocracy–look at Pelosi & Schumer). As a party they are obviously having trouble with a fundamental response to why/how they lost the election to Trump, and not having a clear leader just makes it that much harder. Almost impossible really, and it shows.

    Of course I’ll watch tomorrow, and won’t be a bit surprised whatever the outcome.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, and don’t get me started on bloody Millennials. Apparently only 23% of them bothered in the 2014 mid-terms. This cohort represents even more people (as they are ten years older than when many of them voted for Obama in 08) but it is not clear if they are going to bother or if most have permanently dropped out.


  2. Blue Wave looks like a bust, even if the Dems might limp over the line for the HoR.

    But my interest has been piqued by how twisted their system is as seen in Texas and Florida. In Florida Senate race is extremely tight, with Miami-Dade still to be counted (no one seems to want to say whether this giant urban area will swing blue or red), but the more significant result is they have voted to restore voting rights to 1.4 million ex-felons! Somehow that tight Senate race would be a blue wave if those could vote (maybe next time however if it remains a GOP governor they will deploy further dirty tricks to stop these people voting). What an amazingly effective fix the Republicans have.
    Over in Texas Beto O’Rourke is a whisker ahead with likewise the giant Houston area uncounted; but again the most significant thing in Texas are the 1.6m new young people of voting age. They would hand it to Beto if they bloody bothered to vote ….


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