The latest chatter among the political classes is whether or not the Republican party can regain control of the Senate. There are currently fifty three Democrats and forty five Republicans in the Senate enjoined with two Independents who caucus with the Democrats. This makes the control numbers fifty five to forty five. The math is simple – a net change of five seats and the Senate will be tied while six has Nevada’s Reid relinquishing his leadership post to McConnell of Kentucky.
Can it be done? According to many pundits the polls are indicating a done deal. Probabilities of 65% to 75% and even 80% are currently be tossed around as the chance of a change. The probabilities are based on their analysts’ interpretations of the current polls.
But before you either celebrate or toss in the towel be warned – these are July polls at the beginning of the campaign season with high rates of undecided voters.
With the caveat in place we generated our own prediction by running the polls for November’s senate race through our model. This model runs sample elections a million times analyzing all of the likely or even possible outcomes.
Our results – while slightly different from those currently touted – do not bode well for President Obama and the Democrats in the Senate. If the November election were held on July 31 the Republicans would have a 54% chance of taking control of the senate while the Democrats have only a 26% of retaining control.
But 54% is only part of the story. These probabilities add to only 80%. In fact the most common outcome of the model is not a Republican takeover but a tie – fifty Republican and fifty Democratic Senators come January 2.
It is easy to argue that if the change occurs it is a result of the policies of the White House, or a change in voter attitudes, or simply Presidential fatigue in the sixth year of an administration. These are the easy conclusions to make. An alternative is to look at the individual Senate races.
November will see thirty five senate races. Of these twenty one are held by Democrats and fourteen are held by Republicans – a lopsided ratio already putting the Democrats at a disadvantage. If races were decided by a toss of a coin then the 60% to 40% ratio of races would have us expecting the Democrats to lose as many as nine seats while gaining at most one. While the idea of regression to the mean is interesting and surely has some influence, races are not decided randomly.
The second possibility is that of the thirty five races eight seats are open – seven retirements and one resignation. These eight are split five Democrats and three Republicans – another lopsided margin. Two of the Republican seats are in Oklahoma and Nebraska – both strong Republican states and thus unlikely to switch. The only open red seat that might possibly switch to blue is in Georgia where the daughter of the popular Georgia Senator, Sam Nunn, is in the race to replace Saxby Chambliss. While this opens the race up as a possible swing the polls are showing her chances presently as a long shot. Thus all three red vacancies are likely to remain red.
But of the five blue seats that have no incumbent the only safely blue seat is that being opened by Carl Levin’s retirement in Michigan. The other four are all in play. In fact recent polling has the Republican Party picking up the seats in South Dakota and West Virginia with a toss up in Iowa.
As for the rest of the class, there is one incumbent who stands to lose his reelection bid – Pryor of Arkansas. Joining him in the south are Landrieu of Louisiana and Hagans of North Carolina who while polling ahead are still in tight races. Another red state with a Democratic incumbent senator is at the other geographical extreme. Begich of Alaska is in a tight race to retain his seat. The four at risk blue seats are completed by Udall of Colorado who is currently in a dead heat.
While the Republicans have a shot at between one and all four of these seats, there is only one seat on the other side of the aisle that is at risk. It is – surprisingly – the seat of Minority Leader McConnell in Kentucky. And while polling close it is leaning for the incumbent.
What does all of this say about 2016? Little perhaps but not much. Control of the senate in the upcoming Congress will be determined by a half dozen races in a half dozen states. As for the White House in two years, these states are most likely to maintain an ideological course in voting for either a Republican or a Democrat for the next President. Instead the 2016 elections will be determined by the candidates that are running in 2016 – including an entirely different class of senators. And instead of having control be decided by six states all fifty will have the opportunity to make the choice for the White House known.