Fear, Loathing and Fun in Midterm Elections

Quick thoughts on some midterm developments:

1. Former Republican Senator Larry Pressler, running for Senate as an independent in South Dakota, seems to be a live candidate (albeit a Bateson class candidate). That has sparked discussion of what would happen if the Democratic candidate dropped out, as the Democrat did in Kansas. Pressler, however, would almost certainly join the Republican conference if he won. My guess is this goes nowhere, but multicandidate contests can be surprisingly volatile, and this one could still yield surprises.

2. Meanwhile, back in Kansas, independent Senate candidate Greg Orman managed to hire both Democrats and Republicans for his campaign. That’s a rare achievement, helping him underscore his independence. Still, while Orman’s campaign may be well served by his keeping his distance from both parties, if he goes on to win he will have to caucus with one party or the other. That decision will influence his staffing, policies and everything else he does. As far as I’m concerned, refusing to reveal his post-election plans is lousy politics, and he deserves to be called on it.

3. The jobs numbers out today are terrific. Don’t expect them to change election dynamics, however. By this point, each campaign contest has a life of its own, and small changes in presidential approval aren’t likely to make a large difference. That said, the positive effects of this year’s economic news have certainly helped keep Democrats from being in even worse shape than they are. With several Senate races very close, even very small shifts could matter. Still, my guess is that current economic news is probably more important for the 2016 election than for 2014.

4. Overall, the battle for the Senate remains a toss-up with a slight lean toward the Republicans. As Nate Silver notes correctly, all of the projection systems except for Sam Wang’s favor Republicans to reach at least 51 seats, with the chances hovering just above 60 percent. Yet it’s worth emphasizing how much uncertainty is involved. Polling remains spotty in many states. Many surveys aren’t as reliable as we’d like. And the polls are still close enough that late-breaking shifts, get-out-the-vote advantages or even minor miscalculations by polling firms (about the size and composition of the electorate, for example) could easily yield different results. Outcomes ranging from minimal Democratic losses to a Republican landslide remain plausible, which means it’s going to be a fun final month for election watchers.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.