2010 Midterm Predictions

This blog has a no politics policy, but there is an exception once every year before the elections.  One of the things that always stuck with me as a political scientist wannabe is the need to make electoral predictions so I can be held accountable for the analysis I make about elections.  Political analysts excel at Wednesday morning quarterbacking, but it’s always easier to make insight with hindsight rather than with foresight.

With that intro, here are my predictions for the 2010 midterm elections.

The House of Representatives

The Republicans are going to win this election.  There was no doubt about that since the day after the 2008 elections; the GOP had lost all but the most Republican of the districts and there weren’t too many seats left that the Democrats could gain.  The question was always not whether the Republicans will gain seats during the 2010 midterms, but just how many.

Even under normal circumstances, the GOP probably would have gained 20-25 seats.  These are not normal circumstances.  For a variety of reasons, people have become rather disillusioned with President Obama, but the problems are deeper.  As the always-insightful Jay Cost has noted, the Democrats face a perfect storm in this election cycle. The GOP wins won’t be limited to recapturing the traditionally GOP districts in Indiana and rural Pennsylvania or defeating long time conservative Democratic incumbents in South Dakota, North Dakota and the South.  It will spread to places like Washington, Michigan and even the Northeast where the GOP hasn’t performed well in a decade.

The Republicans will almost certainly give back the last category of seats in two or four years, much like the Democrats will lose most of their 2006 and 2008 gains this election cycle.   That the Republicans are likely to capture some of these seats, though, illustrates the trouble Democrats are facing in this mid-term elections.  Pundits like to focus on the vote of independents, but I’ve always believed that a far better predictor of electoral outcome is enthusiasm of the base.  It’s nice that a person says he supports a candidate during telephone polling, but it doesn’t mean much when the person would rather stay in bed than weather the storm on election day.  As my professor in college pointedly out, America’s largest political party is the Gone Fishing Party.  Disillusioned Democrats will stay home while angry Republicans will turn out.  In a midterm elections where the interest is low to begin with, this is the decisive factor.  Coupled with the independents’ breaking for the GOP in double digits and Democrats will have a rough Tuesday in one week.

The million dollar question is, “How rough”?   The popular barometer is 1994, when the GOP rode Newt Gingrich and his “Contract with America” for a net gain of 52 seats.  History, though, is a bad teacher because no two elections are ever alike.  On the one hand, the Democrats this time saw the tsunami coming months away.  Of course, the GOP saw disaster looming in 2006 and they couldn’t do anything about it.  It doesn’t help that the Democrats have far more seats to lose in this election.

My money is on the GOP performing slightly better than the 52 seats they won in 1994; there are just too many seats in play.  Yes, some Democratic incumbents will make a thrilling comeback, but for every comeback, there will be a shocking upset.  Most competitive races will fall GOP’s way and more incumbents who have no business being in even a close election will lose.  That’s just the way tough election cycles go.

Considering the expectations, it would be an utter disaster for the GOP if they fail to gain the 39 seats necessary to recapture the House; anything in the low 40s would be deemed a subpar performance and anything less than 52 seats will be spun as a moral victory for the Democrats.  If the Republicans gain seats in the 60s–something I actually consider unlikely from recent polls–the Democrats are almost certainly losing control of the Senate, where the story is completely different.

The Senate

No party has ever lost the House without losing the Senate, but the Democrats may buck history simply out of sheer luck.  As Jay Cost pointedly noted, the Democrats are defending Senate seats in states not particularly known for conservative leanings: New York (twice!), Connecticut, Delaware, Oregon, Washington and California.  If it was any other election cycle when their seats in the midwest and the South were up for re-election, there won’t be a scintilla of doubt that the Democrats will lose 10 seats in the Senate, and thus its majority.

But luck can only take the Democrats so far.  The closeness of the contests in liberal bastions like Washington and California indicate that the Democrats are in deep trouble because they are compelled to be defensive on their own home turf.  The polls show what would be obvious from this, that the Democrats won’t even be competitive in defending Arkansas, North Dakota and Indiana–proof they are blessed they’re not defending seats in the rest of the Plains and the South–while they won’t come close to picking up  Missouri and New Hampshire.  Russ Feingold will lose by double digits in Wisconsin and I doubt Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Colorado will be as close as the polls indicate.

That leaves California, Illinois, Nevada, Washington and West Virginia.  The Republicans essentially need to sweep to recapture the Senate by winning four out of these five.

The competitiveness of West Virginia surprises me the most, but not in the way most think.  When Robert Byrd died and the state’s popular governor announced he would run for the seat, pundits expected the Democrats to easily hold on to the seat.  This state, though, has progressively become more Republican since 2000 when George W. Bush carried it by a hair.  Only Byrd’s personal popularity kept it comfortably with the Democrats.  With the death of an icon, a popular governor or no, I would have expected the GOP to be pulling away by now.  I think the GOP will win this race, but if they don’t, the Democrats will perform better than I predict and they will comfortably keep the Senate.

I expect GOP victories in Illinois and Nevada as well, but the credit hardly goes to the GOP whose candidates have resumes that look strong only by comparison to Christine O’Donnell.  While the Democratic candidates in these contests will benefit from weak Republican competition, their numbers are far too weak to survive an election with a headwind.  Most close races go to the party riding the tidal wave.  So will these.

That leaves Washington and California.  I thought the GOP chances are best in the former where they recruited a strong candidate, but the incumbent has run a good campaign there to keep the challenger at bay.  I now think the unthinkable, that a Republican majority hinges on, and is within reach by, a victory in California.  Barbara Boxer is unpopular while her challenger is well-financed.    The numbers have been drifting in the wrong direction for Boxer and Fiorina has a legitimate shot.

Ultimately, though, I think the Democrats will hold on–just barely–to the Senate because it’s hard to sweep in any election cycle and the Democrats are playing at home.   At the end of the day, the Democratic base will come home and turn out in California and Washington, where I expect the incumbents to survive with a whisker.

On a separate note, keep a close eye on Alaska’s Senate race.  Lisa Murkowski, an incumbent who lost the primary, may become only the second person ever to win a write-in campaign for Senate.  I personally think that’s the most intriguing story of this election.


10 Responses to “2010 Midterm Predictions”

  1. 1 John October 27, 2010 at 10:57 am

    • 2 joesas October 31, 2010 at 11:13 pm

      This is a great ad, don’t you think? Memorable, funny and creative, and does a great job of explaining what has to be done at the booth.

  2. 3 Chris Schroeck October 27, 2010 at 6:22 pm

    I think your predictions are pretty much spot-on. If I had to pick numbers, I would bet they get 55 in the House and Dems manage to hold 52 Senate seats when this is all over.

    Although it will certainly be big news, and indicative of a disenchanted public, the strange thing about the House takeover is that it’s almost totally irrelevant. With Obama as president, and the GOP holding 63 or more Senate seats, and the way that Congress “works” now, nothing is getting passed regardless of where the House ends up. They will be lucky to avoid a shutdown.

    I keep trying to think of policy areas in which “bipartiship” will prevail and things will get done, but I’m not having a lot of luck.

    • 4 joesas October 31, 2010 at 11:16 pm


      I think your prediction of 52 is just about where I end up.

      You sound really disillusioned. Shouldn’t you know that i) inertia is one of the greatest gifts of our founding fathers and ii) bipartisan is, and has always been, an illusion?

      How can I persuade you that what is about to happen is a good thing for the country?

  3. 5 Chris Schroeck October 27, 2010 at 6:24 pm

    Of course I meant 43 or more Senate seats for the GOP.

    • 6 joesas October 31, 2010 at 11:16 pm

      I’d like to have them get 63 seats…

  4. 7 Anonymous October 27, 2010 at 7:07 pm

    You don’t know elections!!!

    • 8 joesas October 31, 2010 at 11:12 pm

      Dear Anonymous,

      Please help me. I seem to know very little about politics and even less about elections yet I am utterly addicted to it. Worse, people seem to enjoy it when I indulge myself in my addiction. How can I cure this bug from taking hold of me in this wonderfully exciting time called the elections?

      Yours truly,

      Addicted to politics

  5. 9 Chris Schroeck November 3, 2010 at 12:47 pm


    I have trouble believing that inertia is a good thing when we’re at 16% unemployment. (Counting people who have stopped looking, etc.) Certainly, there’s something that Congress needs to do. You and I probably disagree as to what it is. Maybe it’s extend the Bush tax cuts, or pass even more tax cuts, maybe it’s pass another stimulus bill, maybe it’s repeal financial reform, etc.

    Last night made the House more extreme. Lots of blue dogs (who I generally like) lost, often to extremists. The chances of a roughly 50/50 senate voting for cloture on much of anything are very slim.

    But what bothers me most is that in the Senate they don’t even filibuster the right way anymore. It’s always been around, but in the past they would actually have these super-long speeches about bills, including the classic Strom Thurmond move of reading from the phone book. Not only were those long speeches entertaining, but they put the issue in the public eye and encouraged the public to form an opinion on it. Now, if a filibuster is threatened, frequently nobody but the politics junkies like you and I hear about it.

    • 10 joesas November 28, 2010 at 9:27 pm


      While I agree that Congress needs to do something, it’s equally true that there is serious disagreement about how we are going to go about fixing this. I think you’re right that we would disagree on what needs to be done. The plus side of our system is that if there are two sides to the story–and each side is represented to a fairly large number of people–one side doesn’t get the final say. The downside is that unless things get really bad and we get an overwhelming consensus, we can’t make major changes. On a theoretical level, I like the idea of status quo bias b/c we don’t get Hitlers, but when times are bad (but not the end of the world), we do face issues like we do today.

      I wholeheartedly agree that we need to do something about the filibuster system, though. We can’t have this pre-emptive filibuster. If you think the issue is so important that you’re going to single handedly sabotage the majority, then you should have to do it in the open. And it’s wholly in the hands of a majority leader to fix it.

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