The Midterms: 5 Weeks To Zero

With five weeks to go in the extraordinary 2010 election, the race for control of the House and Senate is tightening. The dominant theme of Republican tidal wave, an all-encompassing storyline embraced by the major media outlets for a year, is contingent now on a series of single digit wins. If the conservatives are to control the House and Senate, it will be by a landslide of tiny margins rather than a landslide of votes. In our democracy, that is good enough (although the idea may have to be explained to Republicans bleating on about “taking back their country”).

House of Representatives

Nate Silver currently pegs the Democrats chances at retaining the House at 35%. He is one of the best and the brightest, but would be the first to point out that a 35% chance five weeks out is not the same as one the night before the election. This isn’t due to any movement that will or won’t happen in the next few weeks (although such movement will be a factor), but rather the deficiency in good, non-partisan, local polling for individual House races. Over the next three weeks, a plethora of polling will give us a much better idea for how these races might break.

For a better idea of the current state of affairs, the broader and more qualitative look of a group like The Cook Political Report is a good resource. The party that wants the power, in the House, must win 218 seats. According to Cook, out of a pool of 86 seats considered lean Republican, lean Democrat, or toss-up, the Democrats must win 46. More than half is daunting, but 32 of those are currently listed as lean Democrat. As more and better polling moves into the frame, the Democrats will tell the world which of those seats they think they can win by virtue of where and how they spend their cash.


As I wrote about five weeks ago, the Senate is an even odder duck than the whole of the cycle. The Democrats were, and remain, able to grow their majority to more than 60 seats, or lose the majority outright. According to Mr. Silver, both possibilities remain in the frame. The Democrat’s chances of gaining 60 are pegged at 2%, with their probability of maintaining the majority sitting strong at 85%. As with the House, these numbers can fluctuate wildly, although there is already a solid body of non-partisan polling available for the battleground Senate races. The wild card here, even more so than in the House, is the method of polling.

One of the great determinants of polling accuracy is the screening model. Who you are polling is every bit as important as what you are asking, and in what order. If you will forgive the somewhat indelicate nature of the analogy, a poll asking men their preference in tampons is not likely to have much value. In politics, pollsters endeavor to poll the intentions of voters. Much to the detriment of our democracy, not all who are eligible, vote (it isn’t close, in fact). Pollsters have, for years, polled registered voters, but it turns out that they miss elections with some frequency. Firms like Rasmussen have been using a screen to sift for likely voters that should be fairly predictive of who will turn up on a midterm election day. If, however, the Democrats can turn out the younger folks and minorities who voted in 2008 (and who, in both cases, rarely vote in midterms), they will turn the likely voter models on their heads.

Some 18 states feature Senate contests that have the potential for seat swings, with the Democrats and Republicans showing similar numbers of opportunities for pick-ups. What is likely, at least now, is that the Democrats will find themselves with a majority come January. What is unknown, is whether the Senate will be able to function at all in the next Congress. Brought almost to a standstill by the Republican tactics of the last 18 months, the Senate has left hundreds of measures that past the House untouched. This election cycle is but further proof that the democracy of “Schoolhouse Rock” is long gone. More is the pity.


Campaign ads layered one after another, polluting every channel…this is the reality of the next five weeks America. For myself, I plan to watch a lot of You Tube, Hulu, and DVD’s. For the political parties and the good folks who support them (yes, I do mean all of the good folks supporting all of the parties), these weeks signal a mad dash to find and motivate every potential voter and cull every potential donor. These elections could go either way, if there were only two ways to go. In truth it is difficult to plot all of the scenarios that could play out; Charlie Cook and Nate Silver are good, and they have competition, but all of the pros will tell you that five weeks is a long time in politics.


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Episode 8: Don't Make Me Use the "S" Word!

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