Yes, it’s way too early to make any predictions, but then, pollsters and pundits wouldn’t have anything to write about which means they’d be out of a job for a year or so.
Actually, the value of predictions today is relevant to the current political debate over health care. Leading analysts who gauge the mood of the public on a month to month, even week to week basis, see outliers that may - or may not - be indicative of trends.
Trends represent long term outlooks rather than the “snapshot” that polls generally give us. Get enough snapshots of how people are thinking, and you can trace how people are feeling about an issue on a graph. That’s the essence of strategic polling and politicians - even this far out from the 2010 election - ignore the information at their own peril.
So when several of the best analysts in the industry examine the trendlines, as well as the 50-60 congressional districts where vulnerable members from both parties are fighting to remain in office, they put two and two together and come up with scenarios for the election based on science, their own experience, and hunches born out of their insights gleaned over many years of watching politics.
What these pollsters are seeing does not bode well for the Democrats as explained by Josh Kraushaar of Politico:
After an August recess marked by raucous town halls, troubling polling data and widespread anecdotal evidence of a volatile electorate, the small universe of political analysts who closely follow House races is predicting moderate to heavy Democratic losses in 2010.
Some of the most prominent and respected handicappers can now envision an election in which Democrats suffer double-digit losses in the House - not enough to provide the 40 seats necessary to return the GOP to power but enough to put them within striking distance.
Nate Silver, an unconventional but deadly accurate pollster who runs the must read site 538.com - and a Democratic consultant - managed to scare the beejeebees out of liberals at the recently concluded Netroots convention:
At the mid-August Netroots Nation convention, Nate Silver, a Democratic analyst whose uncannily accurate, stat-driven predictions have made his website 538.com a must read among political junkies, predicted that Republicans will win between 20 and 50 seats next year. He further alarmed an audience of progressive activists by arguing that the GOP has between a 25 and 33 percent chance of winning back control of the House.
“A lot of Democratic freshmen and sophomores will be running in a much tougher environment than in 2006 and 2008 and some will adapt to it, but a lot of others will inevitably freak out and end up losing,” Silver told POLITICO. “Complacency is another factor: We have volunteers who worked really hard in 2006 and in 2008 for Obama but it’s less compelling [for them] to preserve the majority.”
Is Silver being an alarmist or is there really a 1 in 4 or 1 in 3 chance that the GOP can pull off a shocker?
If history is any guide, Nate may have something there. Opposition gains in off year elections are a tradition in American politics with the party out of power winning back seats in 10 of the last 12 such elections. (The average gain has been about 13 seats).
But realistically, there would have to be a huge backlash - even bigger than 1994 - for Republicans to regain control of the House. The re-election rate for modern gerrymandered congressional districts tops 98% and the GOP would have to knock that percentage down to 90% in order to gain back the House.
A tall order, that. But the Democrats did it in 2006. And given the volatility of the current political climate, it is not beyond imagining, although Silver’s estimate of Republican chances to regain control is not shared by other seasoned pros.
I think that Nate is being deliberately provocative. The stars would have to align just right for a GOP takeover of the House to materialize. A perfect storm of failed health care reform, a double dip recession, and perhaps higher than expected inflation could combine to cause the kind of collapse in the political fortunes of Democrats that would give the GOP control of the House. I would place the chances of this occurring somewhere between “Impossible” and “Highly Improbable” - say, from zero to 5%.
If the economy improves faster and better than expected, that would alter the trends and Democratic losses may be held to a minimum. There are a lot of variables there as well, but I would put the chances of that happening slightly higher than a GOP takeover; say, 5-10%.
But most analysts - even Democratic ones - see the possibility 14 months from election day, that Republican gains could top the average of 13 seats by as much as a factor of 2. That seems reasonable to me - especially given the number of very vulnerable Democrats who won in 2006 and 2008 in districts normally carried by Republican presidential candidates.
Another factor that is an unknown will be congressional retirements. The GOP had 29 members leave office more or less voluntarily in 2006 (4 members declined to run because of ethics problems), and the Democrats captured all of them. We’ll have a better idea of who might be leaving after the first of the year.
As for the senate, I would say GOP chances of a takeover are even less than the House; say, between a “Cosmic Impossibility” and “When Hell Freezes Over.” And that’s being optimistic.
Seriously, the Republicans have too many seats to defend and not enough vulnerable Democrats to have a chance for an upset. Even if the Perfect Storm Scenario laid out above plays out, winning 11 seats is just too steep a hill to climb. If the GOP can gain 3-4 seats - still a tall order - they could consider the election a success.
But if the current trends showing double digit gains for Republicans in the House and those modest gains in the Senate play out, it would put the GOP in position to make a realistic run for control in 2012 when a winning president’s coattails can make the difference.
It would still be a long shot - I’m thinking that the first real chance for the GOP to regain control is in 2014 if Obama is re-elected and 2016 if a Republican wins in 2012 - but given the eye-popping deficits Obama will be running, anything is possible.