What Scott Brown's Win Tells Us About November

What Scott Brown's Win Tells Us About November

By Sean Trende - August 24, 2010

In November of 2009, a strange pattern emerged in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections. The states are quite different, politically speaking: New Jersey is blue, Virginia is reddish-purple; Virginia was a battleground state in '08, New Jersey was not. Despite these differences, if you compare the 2008 Presidential exit polls with the 2009 gubernatorial exit polls, you will find that the electorates of both states became increasingly composed of Republicans and Independents in 2009, and that they became so at similar rates. Additionally, the Democratic candidates in both states lost the support of Independents and Republicans, compared to President Obama's 2008 showing, and did so at nearly identical rates.

As I explained in December 2009:

In Virginia, the Republicans' share of the electorate increased by 12% from 2008 to 2009; in New Jersey it was 10%. In Virginia, Democrats were at about 84% of their 2009 level; in New Jersey it was 93%.
In both states, the Democrats' share of the Republican vote dropped by about 50% (50% in Virginia, 56% in New Jersey), and their share of the Independent vote dropped about 66%. The Democrats' share of the Democratic vote was pretty stable; up 1% in Virginia and up 2% in New Jersey.

As we entered December of 2009, Republicans began whispering about a potential upset in Massachusetts. In the absence of much polling, I asked what would happen if the Massachusetts electorate were to shift in the same way that the Virginia and New Jersey electorates did. The results showed a 51.1%-48.9% Coakley win - a much closer race than almost any analyst was suggesting would be possible at the time.

The fact that Scott Brown performed only a few points better than this model suggested implies that the Massachusetts electorate did in fact move in much the same way as the New Jersey and Virginia electorates did (unfortunately we don't have exit polls to verify this conclusion directly). The Massachusetts results also suggest that candidate effects still matter: Had two evenly-matched candidates faced off, the Democrat probably would have won narrowly. But since Brown proved to be a very good candidate and Coakley proved to be a poor one, Brown was able to pull off the upset.

All of this raises the question: What if we were to see similar changes in the electorate across the country this November? After all, very little has changed on the macro-political level since early 2010. Indeed, if anything, the situation has deteriorated for the Democrats since January. President Obama's approval ratings are lower, and the Democrats are faring worse in the generic balloting. This suggests that the same national forces that drove the elections in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts are still at work.

In the tables below, the exact same methodology used to forecast Massachusetts in late December was applied to the various competitive Senate races. The composition of the electorate was altered in each state so that the electorates would be 11 percent more Republican, 5 percent more Independent and 11 percent less Democratic than they were in the 2008 presidential race. Additionally, the Democratic candidates' share of the Republican vote was decreased by 47 percent (which usually worked out to only a couple of points), and by a third among Independents. The share of the Democratic vote was increased by one and a half percent.

The results suggest that Republicans would pick up 12 Senate seats, before accounting for any candidate effects. Table I below shows the calculated results for the eight competitive races with Democratic incumbents and the latest RCP Average for the Democratic incumbent in each race:

Predicted Republican % 67.2% 50.2% 58.1% 54.2% 46.9% 53.5% 52.9% 52.9%
Predicted Democratic % 32.8% 49.8% 41.9% 45.8% 53.1% 46.5% 47.1% 47.1%
RCP Average for Democrat 30.8% 43.8% 43.3% 47.5% 51.3% 52.0% 47.8% 45.3%

It suggests that, without accounting for any "candidate effects," seven of these eight Democrats would lose.

We see that, as the calculations suggest, Blanche Lincoln is in real trouble and is on pace for the lowest re-election number of any incumbent senator in history. If the electorates in California, Washington, and Wisconsin move in the same way that the electorates in New Jersey, Virginia, and Massachusetts did, then a trio of Democrats - Boxer, Murray, and Feingold - are in for very tough re-election battles. And indeed, that is exactly what the RCP Averages suggest. Kirsten Gillibrand in New York, however, should enjoy a reasonably comfortable re-election.

On the other hand, there are several instances where candidate effects are likely causing the Democrats to overperform somewhat. The most obvious example is Oregon, where Ron Wyden is above 50 percent, whereas the calculations suggest that he should be in more trouble. But Wyden remains a fairly popular Democrat, and his opponent is completely unknown. In Colorado and Nevada, the issue is not that Senators Bennet and Reid are popular. Rather, it is that the Republicans have nominated controversial candidates who are underperforming.

What of the open races?

Predicted Democratic % 49.6% 51.6% 51.0% 40.7% 42.8% 45.8% 36.5%
Predicted Republican % 50.4% 48.4% 49.0% 59.3% 57.2% 54.2% 63.5%
RCP Average (D% - R%) 49% - 40% 35% - 48% 39% - 38% 50% - 29% 25% - 69% 40% - 45% 51% - 35%

The polls in North Dakota and West Virginia are obviously showing races that are quite a bit different than what the model suggests we should see. This is probably attributable to the strong candidate effects here: Hoeven is even more popular than the typical Republican in North Dakota, while in West Virginia Manchin is a popular, socially conservative Democrat who fits the state well. Still, the West Virginia numbers should make the Manchin campaign nervous, as they are clearly fighting a steep headwind.

In Illinois the model predicts a very close win by the Democrats. Kirk's recent problems have neutralized (to a degree) Giannoulias's problems surrounding his family bank, and this race in the end may come down to which candidate the public decides is the least flawed.

That leaves Delaware and Connecticut. The likely GOP nominee in Delaware, Mike Castle, is the de facto incumbent in this race. Republicans should be very concerned that after serving as congressman and governor since the 1980s, he is below 50 percent against an unknown opponent. It would not shock me at all if the model proved correct, and Castle ended up losing narrowly (though he is still the favorite). Similarly, I would not be surprised if a four-term Attorney General like Richard Blumenthal in Connecticut ended up losing with 47 to 49 percent of the vote, much as Martha Coakley did in January.

Finally, what do we see in the competitive Republican seats?

Predicted Democratic % 41.9% 43.6% 35.5% 41.5% 44.2% 42.2% 42.3% 33.8%
Predicted Republican % 58.1% 56.4% 64.5% 58.5% 55.8% 57.8% 57.7% 66.2%
RCP Average (D% - R%) 39%-43% 42%-47% 40%-49% 39%-47% 38%-45% 36%-54% 36%-49%

Obviously, the analysis doesn't work for Florida due to the quirky three-way race there, although it is worth mentioning that likely voter polls were showing a 15-point Marco Rubio lead before Charlie Crist jumped into the race as an Independent. The races in Iowa and New Hampshire are turning out pretty much like the calculations suggest they should; in Ohio the more recent polls show Rob Portman opening up a 7-9 point lead which is trending more in line with the 12-point win projected by the model.  Similarly, Roy Blunt's lead is expanding in recent Missouri polling; the latest Rasmussen polling shows him only a few points short of what these calculations suggest.

In Kentucky, North Carolina and Louisiana, there are obviously strong candidate effects at work. Rand Paul is an ideological candidate with a penchant for controversial statements. Had Kentucky Republicans selected Secretary of State Trey Grayson - who led Conway by double digits in some polls - a massive Republican victory would certainly have been possible. David Vitter's dalliances with a prostitute are clearly holding him down. And Richard Burr has not offered a particularly compelling rationale for his re-election. In any other election cycle all three of these races would be tough holds for the GOP.

Whether the Virginia-New Jersey-Massachusetts trend continues through November remains to be seen. President Obama and the Democrats will try mightily to combat it, but they have been trying to do so for almost a year now, and they are fast running out of both options and time. The general dynamics of this election have put more than enough races into play for the GOP to take the Senate. But many of these races will be very close, and the GOP's candidate choices have made some of these races closer than they otherwise would have been.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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