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Politico mocks and then agrees with our Senate forecast

- February 7, 2014

Friday’s “Playbook” features some commentary on our Senate forecasting model, which we originally presented here and which Ben Highton discussed Thursday:

MIDTERM BUZZ – “How Republicans can win the Senate in 2014” – WashPost “The Monkey Cage” blog: “A Senate forecasting model developed by John Sides, Eric McGhee and Ben Highton shows that nationally, Republicans have a 54 percent chance of picking up the six additional seats they need to take control of the Senate.”
–BEN HIGHTON, a political scientist at University of California, Davis, elaborating in a guest post on “Monkey Cage”: “Our model suggests … if Republicans win the Senate elections in only four states — Alaska, Louisiana, Iowa, and Montana — then they are very likely to take control of the chamber.” http://goo.gl/LblutP
–NO DUH, dude. You don’t need a MODEL to tell you that. But that doesn’t translate to a current LIKELIHOOD of getting the majority. (Before primaries are done! So good.)

There is an odd tension here. On the one hand, the model’s conclusions are so obvious that they merit a “no duh.”  But on the other hand, the model is pointless because it’s too early and the primaries aren’t even over.
So let’s review what the model is doing.  The model draws on data from decades of previous elections.  It includes baseline fundamentals that everyone — including Playbook’s Mike Allen, I am sure — knows influence congressional elections, such as how popular the president is and the partisanship in individual districts and states.  The model then presents a forecast for every state and district assuming that conditions are what they are today.  We conduct some simulations from the model to deal with the inherent uncertainty in the forecast.  That’s what gives us the estimate of the likelihood the Republicans will win enough seats to take the Senate.
That’s why the model does indeed translate into a current likelihood of 44 percent (if you based the forecast on 1952-2012), 64 percent (if you base the forecast on 1980-2012), or 54 percent if you just take the average as in Ben Highton’s post Thursday. As we’ve pointed out, we’ll be updating the forecast by incorporating other factors — like fundraising — and if fundamentals like presidential approval change.
But apparently all that’s worth a laugh from Politico executive editor JimVandeHei:

–JIM VANDEHEI on “Morning Joe,” laughing at the topline forecast: “A lot of those states are definitely competitive … but … not slam dunks for the Republican Party. … You essentially have to go through and sweep those states for Republicans to have a majority. … [O]ther than West Virginia and South Dakota, none of them are slam dunks. And some of them are quite difficult.”

In other words, VandeHei laughs at the topline forecast but then agrees with it. Characterizing these states as “competitive” but “not slam dunks for the Republican Party” is exactly what we found.  The four states that Ben higlighted — Alaska, Lousiana, Montana and Iowa — are all states that are nearly 50-50, according to the model’s forecast.  And the difficulty of sweeping those states is exactly why the topline forecast is so close to 50-50 itself.  We are very pleased that our forecast could inform VandeHei’s thinking!
Mike Allen then does us the favor of showing that his inside sources also basically agree with our forecast:

–PLAYBOOK FACTS OF LIFE: Republicans intimately involved in the races say their actual chances are probably still around 45% (maybe 54% was a typo!), up from 10% this fall. (When we asked a friend if he’s make it 40 or 45, he replied, in the spirit of the day: “42.5.”)
–PLAYBOOK  IN-BOX – A tippy-top GOP strategist emails: “I’d give it at least 50. Think of it this way: 7 races are in states Romney carried. 6 of them, he carried by DOUBLE DIGITS. Midterm turnout models and lack of an Obama organization makes states outside of those 7 (MI, IA, NH, MN, CO, OR) very competitive. Ultimately the map is starting to get too large [for Dems] to defend — not there yet. But if Scott Brown or another state comes online, it will be close to a tipping point.”

I have no idea how “Republicans intimately involved in the races” or “tippy-top strategists” are coming up with 42.5 percent or 45 percent or 50 percent — this is why models are helpful, by the way — but those forecasts are essentially no different from what we’re saying (even without typos).  Whether Republicans can take the Senate is pretty much a coin flip at this point.
In sum, it is a pleasure to know that our forecasting model’s current estimates are shaping the thinking of the influential people at Politico.