09 October 2014

2014 U.S. Senate Election Forecast

The U.S. Senate currently has 53 Democrats, 2 Independents who are aligned mostly with Democrats, and 45 Republicans.  Since one-third of Senators face election every two years, there are 36 states with U.S. Senate elections this year in the November 2014 election.

The FiveThirtyEight Blog Prediction:

* There are three U.S. Senate seats currently held by Democrats that the Democrats are almost sure to lose this year:

West Virginia
South Dakota.

There are no U.S. Senate seats held by Republicans that Republicans are almost sure to lose.

* There are seven U.S. Senate races in seats in competitive races that are currently held by Democrats that could flip to become Republican in the November 2014 election with FiveThirtyEight Blog handicapping:

Louisiana (R+5)
Alaska (R+3)
Arkansas (R+3)
Iowa (R+2)
Colorado (R+1)
North Carolina (D+3)
New Hampshire (D+4)

If all of these races go as predicted by FiveThirtyEight, the Republicans would pick up five more of these seats.

* There are three U.S. Senate races in seats in competitive races that are currently held by Republicans that could flip to become Democratic or Democratic-leaning independent in the November 2014 election with FiveThirtyEight Blog handicapping:

Kansas (I+2)
Georgia (R+2)
Kentucky (R+3)

If all of these races go as predicted by FiveThirtyEight, the Republicans would lose one of these seats.

* In all other races, a candidate of the incumbent party has at least a seven point lead in the polls.

* Thus, if every race goes as the poll analysis by FiveThirtyEight predicts, the Republicans will gain seven seats and have a 52 seat majority in the U.S. Senate.


Since Vice President Biden, a Democrat, breaks ties in the U.S. Senate, if there the Republicans hold 50 seats, then the Democrats will have a majority and organize the chamber.

The most likely ways for this to happen are for Colorado to re-elect Senator Udall, and for the Democrats to also win either Iowa or Georgia.

The FiveThirtyEight analysis actually gives Cory Gardner a mere 0.7% lead in the polling, and that analysis includes a September 13, 2014 Quinnipiac poll showing Gardner with an eight point lead (which it gives a fairly high weight) that is so far out of line in all of the Colorado races that it is simply not credible.

Historical trends in Colorado, which are also a factor in the FiveThirtyEight analysis, also do not reflect changes in Colorado law between 2012 and 2014 that make it easier to vote, a change that favors Democrats in the state.  These changes are also probably not reflected in the models used by the polling firms in their sampling.

If Udall holds onto his seat in Colorado, then a win by a Democrat in either Iowa (where FiveThirtyEight gives Democrats a 35% chance in race leaning Republican by two points), or Georgia (where FiveThirtyEight gives Democrats a  28% chance in a race leaning Republican by two points), would produce a 50-50 split and Democratic control, while both would give the Democrats a 51-49 majority in the U.S. Senate.

Put another way, a 2 percentage point shift in national public opinion in favor of Democrats during October would give them a 51-49 majority in the U.S. Senate.

What Trends Are Driving Turnover?

Most of the Senate seats which will be filled by a Senator of a different party than the incumbent in this election cycle reflect an ongoing process of realignment, with liberal leaning areas electing Democrats and conservative areas electing Republicans, a trend that has been gradually running its course for more than four decades now.  Some political historians mark Barry Goldwater's unsuccessful Presidential election as the start of the trend.

Many of the states that Democrats are most likely to lose in this year's U.S. Senate races are decidedly conservative "Red States" in which conservative Democratic incumbents with political roots in an era where not all Democrats were liberals and not all Republicans were conservative. Montana, South Dakota, Louisiana, Alaska, and Arkansas all fit this mold.

West Virginia is a bit more of a complicated case.  Its Appalachian cultural orientation suggests that it should favor the socially conservative stances of the Red States.  But, West Virginia is also a state that was formed to side with the North so as not to leave the Union to join the Confederacy along with the rest of Virginia pulling its political identity away from a political party dominated by formerly Confederate States.  Closely related is the fact that West Virginia is overwhelmingly white with few recent immigrants of any kind, because the counties that formed it did not have a history as a participant in the slave trade and its economy hasn't been vibrant enough to attract many economic migrants for a long time.  This has deprived the hot button anti-minority and anti-immigrant driven political stances of the Republican Party of much salience in West Virginia.

And, as a not very affluent state that is best known for its legions of blue collar unionized mine workers, the pro-union stances of a Democratic party that tends to favor the little guy over the affluent on economic issues have been appealing.

But, as opposition to gay rights driven by anxiety over the health of the family in communities with lots of men in blue collar jobs that have seen decades of stagnating or declining incomes and increased job insecurity has eclipsed racial politics in the political debate and that is something that can resonate in West Virginia.  West Virginia's unions have gotten weaker as its coal mining industry has struggled with competition from places like Wyoming in the West, reducing Democratic party support, and the sense that increased Democratic party support for environmental measures driven by the Democratic party's increasingly urban political base has left the Democratic party vulnerable in a rural state that is highly economically dependent upon an environmentally disruptive industry.  Finally, while the Republican party is still the party of the rich, relative to the Democratic Party, the social class divide between the political parties has grown less pronounced in favor of an emphasis on the cultural divide between the two political parties.

As a result of a shift in the policy issues that really define the Republican and Democratic parties respectively, West Virginia has found more and more in common with other Red States and less and less in common with the rest of the Democratic Party base, so eventually realignment caught up with it as well.

At the other end of the political spectrum, New Hampshire, a libertarian leaning New England state which was one of the last outposts of the dying breed of socially moderate New England Republicans.  Also, a growing share of New Hampshire voters live in bedroom communities of people who work in the Boston metropolitan area and thus, have an identity more urban than a cursory look at the state's own urban centers would suggest.

Three of the states in play in this election, indeed, three states which will in all probability decide which party controls the U.S. Senate this year, Iowa, Colorado, and North Carolina are in play for the ordinary reason that states or Congressional districts are competitive.  Iowa and Colorado and North Carolina are purple states where the Democratic Party and Republican Party are very evenly matched this time around.

Colorado was historically a Red State, but has been migrating to the left as urban centers like Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins, and left leaning resort towns built around ski resorts in the mountains with high population densities and many migrants from the West Coast and Northeast have moved to the state.  Meanwhile, rural Colorado areas with farm economies have gradually atrophied as farming has become more mechanized and more efficient and simply less economically relevant relative to the economic activity in the state's urban areas.

Iowa has historically been a Midwestern blue state, but has gradually been pulling to the right as its rural farming identity has become a less good fit to an urban oriented political party.  But, Eastern Iowa is more urban than most people realized, its college towns have become economic drivers just as they have in Colorado, and its farm communities like farm communities everywhere have thinned out, buffering Iowa from the wholesale rightward pitch seen in Kansas and Nebraska.

North Carolina is also a state whose political leanings are shifting together with its economy, allowing a Democrat to gain a small lead over a Republican challenger in a historically Red State in the South.  In a nutshell, North Carolina has leveraged its university system into a secondary center of the tech industry which has grown to become a leading part of the state's identity and economy, while traditional industries, like tobacco farming and processing, have withered in the face of nationwide efforts to reduce tobacco consumption.  The growing tech industry has brought educated, culturally non-Southern, urban oriented people to the state and facilitated their ability to organize and to have the cash needed to become a political force.  And thus, the one time Red State, like Virginia, to the North which has experienced a similar transformation driven by metropolitan Washington D.C. suburbs in Northern Virginia and the economic hub of the University of Virginia, has started to become more of a purple state.

Finally, there is one clearly Red state that will probably not elect a Republican to office.  In Kansas, the Democrats strategically withdrew their own Democratic Party candidate in order to back a moderate independent who was also challenging the conservative Republican candidate in the race.  The independent is now favored to win, because the Republican as one would expect from someone who is the product of a partisan primary, is further from the state's political center than an independent who wasn't vetted by a parade of Republican party litmus tests, and isn't burdened by the unpopular brand in the state of a Democratic President and a Democratic legislative caucus.  If the independent wins, there will be three independents in the Senate, all of whom are more comfortable aligning themselves with the comparatively moderate and big tent Democratic party, than the rigidly conservative Republican Party, at least while the Democratic party can stay in the majority with their support.

The bottom line bad new for Democrats is that many of their losses have been writing on the wall for years and will probably not be reserved in the foreseeable future.  The bottom line good news, however, is that Democrats are better equipped to bring purple states and independent Senators into their coalition than Republicans, and as a result, are still capable of holding a majority even in the U.S. Senate where their advantage in populous urban areas does not necessarily translate automatically into political power.

Another important point is that most "purple states" are in the process of shifting their political identity, rather than in a state of equilibrium.  They are either moving from being Red States to Blue States, or are moving from being Blue States to being Red States.

Fortunately for Democrats, the transition from Blue States to Red States, primarily in the South and the Great Plains, has pretty much run its course already.  But now, historically Red States with strong urban economies are starting to trend back to being Blue again.  This, in the balance of power within the U.S. Senate, is the demographic trend that is just starting to shift state political identities in the Democrats directions that may continue to play out that way for many years to come.  Eventually, this may be enough to turn the entire Southeastern seaboard Blue again.

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