10 in ’10

10 in ’10


I see her in the distance running toward me on the beach. It’s really her – Divided Government. I’ve missed her. She looks so great, so tempting, so desirable, yet so far away. She appears to be getting closer, but… why is she running in slow motion? Is she real or is it all a dream?

Divided Government occurs in the US federal government when the party that controls the executive does not command majorities in both branches of the legislature. To restore divided government in the mid-terms, Republicans would have to retake the majority in either the House of Representatives or the Senate. That means a shift of 40 seats in the House, or 10 seats in the Senate or both. A tall order.

A few weeks ago, Justin invited predictions for the 2010 midterms. With Labor Day around the corner signaling the official start of the fall political election campaign season, I thought I’d throw my entry over the transom. Of course, this is strictly my opinion, your mileage may vary, and mangement is not responsible for the content of this post. I am also predicting an outcome I’d like to see – so there may be some wishful thinking embedded in this analysis.

Last time I looked, the answer was “no” – divided government was out of reach in 2010. It was the same conclusion I arrived at shortly after the election in 2008. Conventional wisdom also said “no”, but conventional wisdom has taken some surprising turns in 2010.

Conventional Wisdom
In January, the expectation was that the GOP would make gains in both houses of Congress, but fall short of retaking a majority in either. It just looked like the GOP was buried too deep in the sand to dig themselves out in one cycle. The Scott Brown “Massachusetts Miracle” eclipsed that particular ray of conventional wisdom, and since then CW has cautiously settled on a partly cloudy forecast with a chance of heavy Republican rain. The current political weather report gives the GOP a good chance to retake the majority in the House of Representatives, but the Senate is still considered by most to be out of reach. Conventional wisdom is not unanimity, so you can find some grasping at straws, others fearing the worst, and a few wondering how bad it could get. To many on the right, it looks like a done deal. We’ll start our analysis by narrowing down the range of possibilities.

Every Possible Scenario
The entire universe of possibilities can be distilled to these four outcomes – listed in order of Current Conventional Wisdom:

  1. Democrats retain Senate, Republicans win House
  2. Democrats narrowly retain House and Senate
  3. Republicans win House and Senate
  4. Republicans win Senate, Democrats retain House

The best way to evaluate this would be a bottoms-up analysis looking at detailed polls and statistically correlating demographics and voting history on a district by district, state by state, and election by election basis. I’m not going to do any of that. For one thing, it is beyond my ken, for another, I can get all that from the usual suspects doing the polling and Nate Silver’s blog doing the quant work. Instead, I’m going to look at the election through the prism of two “rules of thumb” and look for similarities and differences to historically analogous elections. And steal from Nate.

Maxims and Thumbs
The first rule of thumb does not get much publicity, but is an interesting fact that I’ve dubbed “The 100 Year Rule”. In the almost 100 years since we have been been electing Senators directly (only since the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913) the House of Representatives has never flipped majorities unless the Senate flipped first or at the same time. If conventional wisdom is correct and the Republicans take the House but not the Senate, it would be an historic first. So my first prediction is that this is not going to happen. Conventional wisdom is wrong, and the scenario where the GOP takes only the House is the least likely of the four.

The second rule of thumb is Tip O’Neil’s maxim All politics is local. To the degree that O’Neills maxim is true, it is true about the House. This is just another way of saying (as is the first rule) that it is extremely difficult to flip majorities in the House of Representatives. House incumbents, (frequently aided by gerrymandered districts) enjoy extraordinarily high re-election rates. Even when voters tell pollsters they despise Congress in general, they’ll say they love their specific representative who is often the conduit by which federal services are delivered to individuals, municipalities, and businesses in the district. House elections are almost always “local.” Almost.

Looking Back
1994 and 2006 were two midterm election cycles where elections were decidedly not local. They turned on national issues and the House of Representatives flipped majorities simultaneously with a flip in the Senate. These two mid-term elections shared several characteristics: We were under One Party Rule (Democrats in ’94 – Republicans in ’06); There was widespread dissatisfaction with the party in power; The opposition party was energized; The base of the incumbent party was disillusioned with a palpable lack of enthusiasm; There was a widespread perception that the party in power was arrogantly pursuing policies opposed by a majority of Americans; Finally, major corruption scandals were in the headlines for the party in power throughout the election year (Rostenkowski in ’94, Abramoff and Foley in ’06).

Now, without a doubt, all of these elements are present in 2010. However, I don’t believe the 2010 corruption stars (Maxine Waters and Charlie Rangel) rise to the level of the corruption superstars we had in ’94 and ’06. In both of those elections, the corruption scandals were the last straw and triggered the “throw the bums out” gag reflex in the voters. Unless there is an October surprise and more corrupt Democratic pols make it into the headlines, I just don’t believe there is enough animus to overcome the huge House of Representatives incumbent advantage to get the massive 40 seat shift. Plus, one should never underestimate Nancy Pelosi. My conclusion on the House: Close, but no cigar. 2010 will not be quite like 1994 or even like 2006.

Miracles Happen
So if we are to see divided government restored in 2010, the best chance will be the Senate. In January this looked like an impossible hill to climb. The Democrats held a 60-40 super majority and the tie-breaker in the person of Joe Biden. To gain the majority the Republicans would have to win 11 seats. Nobody in either party considered that realistic. But – then something remarkable happened. Republican Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. You might not think that one seat would change the complexion dramatically, but it does.

Thanks Nate
Time to rip Nate Silver’s work. His chart on the left is remarkable. It shows Nate’s stack ranking of the Senate seats most likely to change parties. Of the top 12 seats most likely to switch parties, 11 of them are currently held by Democrats. All either have the Republicans leading in the polls or are within the margin of error. The one seat of the top 12 currently held by a Republican is the Florida Senate, and it is only there because Independent Crist is in a dead heat with Republican Rubio. The Democrat has no chance in Florida. And if Crist were to win, he would likely caucus Republican for reasons that I’ll outline shortly. Now – this still appears to be a very tough climb as the Republicans need 10 of the 11 Dem seats in play to secure an outright majority. But wait! – there is another scenario – they may need to win only 8 or 9 of the 11 seats to take control of the Senate. How? the answer can be discerned by looking to the 2012 election.

2012 effect on 2010
This year the structural playing field is even for the Senate races. There are 37 Senate seats yet to be decided, with 19 currently held by Democrats and 18 held be Republicans (it was 19 and 19 including Massachusetts). In 2012 the Republicans will have a huge structural advantage in the Senate elections. Of the 33 seats contested, 23 are held by Democrats and 10 by Republicans. The Democrats will be on defense with many more seats to defend, the Republicans will have a target rich environment. If they don’t already have the majority, it is a lock the GOP will take the majority in 2012.

Why is this important in 2010? Because Senators Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman can count. If the GOP gets within 1 or 2 seats of an outright majority, Nelson and Lieberman will be in play. They’ll have one shot to cut a deal to guarantee their committee chairmanships for at least another 4-6 years (if re-elected), whereas they will be out as Committee chairs after two years if they continue to caucus Democratic. This also applies to Crist should he knock off Rubio in Florida. My take – these guys like the power and perks that come with committee chairmanships and will not be inclined to give them up too quickly. It just would not be as much fun for them, being in the Senate without that chair. And let’s be honest – its not like you liberals have been particularly nice to either of them over the last couple of years.

MW Prognosticates
My 2010 election prediction: The GOP wins 8 or 9 more Senate seats outright, then takes majority control by flipping Lieberman and/or Nelson. They fall a few seats short in the House and Nancy Pelosi continues as Speaker of the House.

Stack ranking of all possible election scenarios in order of likelihood:

  1. Republicans win 8-9 seats flip Lieberman,/Nelson take Senate, Democrats narrowly retain House
  2. Democrats narrowly retain House and Senate
  3. Republicans win House and Senate
  4. Republicans win House, Democrats retain Senate

We’ll be tracking this dirty dozen of Senate races in posts between now and the election to monitor our last best chance of restoring a perfect “10” in ’10 and once again gaze upon a beautiful, desirable, smoking hot divided government in 2011.

Takeover Chances

N. Dakota
Hoeven v. Potter +40
Boozman v. Lincoln +32

Coats v. Ellsweorth +14
Castle v. Cook +9
Toomey v. Sestak +8

Buck v. Bennet +5
Angle v. Reid +1
Rubio v. Crist +1
Kirk v. Giannoulias +0

Rossi v.Murray -1
Fiorina v. Boxer -2
Johnson v. Feingold 3
Paul v. Conway +4

(chart from Nate Silver’s 538)

Nevada is arguably the most interesting race among the dirty dozen. Given the weakness of Sharron Angle as a candidate, I am astonished that she remains in a virtual dead heat with the Majority Leader in the Senate. There are signs of panic on the left. The problem seems to be that Nevada voters really do not want either Reid or Angle to represent them in the Senate. Throw in the wild card that Nevada is one of the few states where “None of the Above” is a ballot choice, and this gets really hard to predict. Unfortunately for Nevadans, “None of the Above” cannot win. The closeness of the Nevada race may be the single clearest indicator that this may be a bigger GOP tsunami than Conventional Wisdom has yet to acknowledge.

Cross-posted from “Divided We Stand United We Fall“

  • Chris

    What difference would divided government make? The democrats haven’t been able to accomplish much without any republican votes anyway. They play obstructionist perfectly well.

  • http://westanddivided.blogspot.com/ mw

    With a 60-40 super-majority in the Senate, a 39 seat majority in the House, and the Presidency, the only ones who can obstruct anything are Democrats. The Republicans are good at making a lot of noise, but legislatively impotent. There is no real compromise because there is no need for Democrats to compromise. Occasionally they have to buy off a couple of Republican Senators. That is not compromise.

    The result is a trillion dollar stimulus bill that did not stimulate, a $1.4 trillion dollar Health Care bill that adds new spending and taxes, still leaves millions of Americans uncovered and does not control health care costs, exploding levels of debt and spending.

    Divided Government has been shown by historians and political scientists to restrain the growth of spending. It also forces compromise, and reinforces the checks. balances and oversight of the executive branch by Congress. A constitutional responsibility that is abrogated by a lap-dog Congress when it is controlled by the same party as the President. It happened with Republicans under Bush, and it is happening with Democrats under Obama now.

  • kranky kritter

    Hard for me to imagine a virtual clean sweep by the GOP in senate races. We will have a clearer picture as the fall polls begin to come in. But in the current environment, we must remember that the polls can be both more volatile and less genuinely representative.

    For example, consider the out-of-her-league Angle running against the despised Reid. Isn’t it likely that angry Nevadans are saying they’ll vote for Angle in polls as a way to express displeasure? When push comes to shove will that many Nevadans really vote for someone who seems THAT ill-equpped to be a senator?Or will 5% of them peel off, hold their noses, and vote for Reid?

    Time will tell. Based on current polls and maps at RealClearPolitics, I expect the GOP to pick up 6 to 8 seats in the senate. And I expect each party in the house to have 220 + or – 15 seats.

    The thing to look for in the fall polls is, of course, any mushrooming of populist anti-incumbent support. That would change my mind pretty quickly. When Scott Brown beat Martha Coakley, sentiment shifted very quickly and strongly in support of Brown as a sensible regular guy against a bland, same-old, business-as-usual politician who seemed to assume her election was a formality. Brown went from “who?” to an easy going away win in about 6 weeks.

    As a result, I expect most incumbents with a 20 pt lead or less are going to treat their campaigns as seriously as heart attack, which Coakley really didn’t do. She wasn’t ready to really fight. She hadn’t developed any real “game” because she had been the frontrunner and anointee from the get-go.

    I give a solid 20% chance to a scenario where mushrooming populist dissatisfaction knocks off enough incumbents to give the GOP control of at east part of congress. IMO this populist tide is self-evident despite loyalist democrat attempts to spin primary results as proof its much ado about little or nothing. The tide is real, the only question is how it will crest.

    BTW, IMO, your rule of thumb that the senate must swing for the house to swing is based on too small a sample for me to think it has predictive value. How many times has the post 17th am congress changed hands in total?

    Chris, I am not a big believer in the strong-sense form of MW’s divided government hypothesis. But to me it’s obvious that when power is divided the only things that pass into law and big policy are those things which have wide support or which represent legitimate bipartisan compromise. Less changes will be made, but they’ll be made via the route of Republicans and democrats finding either common ground, or real acceptable compromise.

    Much less will happen in terms of passing things. From your deeply ingrained anti-Republican perspective, this will look like nothing more than continued Republican obstructionism. In other words, it’s basically a foregone conclusion that you will see divided government as “making no difference.” You’re already a lock to interpret the next congress through your already formed lens.

    Clinton balanced the budget after democrats lost congress. And I was there. I know from memory that Clinton never showed genuine interest in fiscal sobriety until he had to talk with the new republican speaker of the house. It was never on his radar screen as an important idea before then.

    But he saw the way things were headed, so he ran to the front of that line with a baton and called “parade!”

    I think we will see a similar thing happen after the midterms regardless of exactly how many seats the gop gains. The first thing up will be the renewal of federal unemployment extended benefits, which expires in December. Both parties will understand that failure to renew the extension is probably untenable, but the way it gets renewed will be subject to barter. it’ safe to presume right now that no extension will pas unless the funding comes from money found elsewhere, and not new debt. Democrats won’t try to float new debt or include extra spending or extend benefits past 99 weeks like they did last time. They might posture a bit, but they’ll be going through the motions of plumping ideas that are non-starters in a closely divided congress.

    Just wait and see. I’m right about this.

  • http://westanddivided.blogspot.com/ mw

    I agree about Angle, and expect that Reid will pull it out. Nominating her was a blown opportunity for the GOP. But, I’m not really sure if anyone understands how the “none of the above” ballot option will affect the election. If it is close, “none of the above” will be a spoiler – I just don’t think anyone has enough data in an election like this to say which way it breaks.

    If I take your high estimate for the Senate (8 seats) that makes in 51-49 for the Dems, and still puts the the GOP in range to take the majority by buying off Lieberman and Nelson with committee chairs. I think they’d take the deal.

  • Chris

    Kranky, I don’t think it will make any difference because the current republicans have no interest in working with Obama’s agenda, so it will be up to him to work with theirs.

  • http://westanddivided.blogspot.com/ mw

    That would be a pretty big and positive difference IMO.

  • kranky kritter

    Yeah Chris, that sounds like a difference to me, too. Do you mean to say that you DO think there will be a difference, but that difference is undesirable? That makes more sense to me based on what I know of your views.


    Can’t the democrats buy them off with committee chairs, too? Or something else? Like bacon?

  • http://westanddivided.blogspot.com/ mw

    Sure, and they might – but the difference is that the Dems can only offer 2 years. The GOP will take the majority in 2012, there is no doubt. So the GOP will not need them in 2012, but can offer 4-6 years of chairmanships in they cut a deal now.The GOP can offer a better deal for them.

  • Alistair


    I don’t want to make a comparison but you kinda sound a little bit like Dick Morris over the weekend who is advising the GOP to shut down Government under the Obama administration.


  • Chris

    I’m saying there will be no difference because the GOP will still be obstructionists.

  • JimS

    Chris, mw thinks that the current Republican leadership will be willing to work with Obama and reach compromise and vice versa if the power of having the majority is theirs, not understanding that the only compromise they are interested in is Obama rubber stamping whatever a Republican House and Senate would produce. Look at how the right wing claims that there were no compromises in the health care reform act, calling it a purely liberal product in spite of how much was cut from it in hopes of getting the remaining moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats to support it. Obama knows that he wouldn’t stand a chance of re-election if he did that and therefore can’t do what Boehner and Mitchell would find acceptable. The Republican base, steeped in the philosophy that compromise is evil, would turn on their people just as rapidly if they showed any signs of working across the aisle. He is incapable of recognizing that things have changed for the worse in terms of the effects of partisanship even since the days of Clinton. I just don’t see how anyone can look at the current toxic environment and believe that, no matter what history seems to show.

  • Chris

    Maybe MW is a little older like kranky and remembers a time when republicans weren’t peddlers of misinformation, or panderers to the christian taliban, or maybe he remembers even when they were fiscally conservative. But in my adult life that is all they have been.

  • JimSy


    I remember when Republicans were very different than the current party. I just don’t make the mistake of refusing to admit how different they are now and how it affects things. For one thing, if any of the current leadership tried anything reasonable, they would be crucified on the air by the shapers of Republican opinion. They are also watched over by their own purists such as Jim DeMint.

  • JimS

    For example, look how hard to the right McCain has tacked in his run for re-election.

  • http://westanddivided.blogspot.com/ mw

    I cannot figure out what Morris was even trying to say in that clip – it was mostly incoherent. Seemed like routine partisan cheerleading to me, except that he is really bad at it, plus he felt compelled to remind everyone that he was a Democrat and part of Clinton’s team during that administration. I don’t see the similarity – but I guess if you are standing far enough out on the left everything from the center to the right will look about the the same.

    Heh. Yeah I am surely older than you, and probably older that Kranky. But I had no idea that you were so young that you don’t remember Clinton/Gingrich.

    Again I’ll remind you that for any obstruction under Obama to be successful, it had to be bipartisan. The only ones who could stop a bill from passing since Obama took office, were Democrats. Republicans by themselves could obstruct nothing. Simple mathematical fact. And yes, I am looking forward to that changing.

    Will there be a lot of political posturing under a Dem president and GOP congress from both sides? Yes. Just like we have now and as we had in ’94-’00 with Clinton and Gingrich. Will it include charges, counter-charges, and demonization from both sides? Yes. Just like we have now and as we had in ’94-’00 with Clinton and Gingrich. Might there be brinksmanship from both sides including threats from the GOP to shut down the government, and posturing by Dems to push the GOP into that corner? Probably. And at the end of the process (with plenty of bluster and teeth gnashing by both sides) will we get real compromise and better more fiscally responsible legislation? Absolutely. Just like we got with Clinton/Gingrich. Anybody who remembers that time as era of civil propriety, rational debate, and mutual respect has a very short memory. The partisan bickering was as bad as it has ever been, even worse than now, and yet a lot of good fiscally responsible legislation got done. Unlike what we have seen over the last two years of One Party Democratic Rule.

    The difference is that Dems will not be able to steamroll partisan legislative hairballs like the stimulus, that cost more than both the Iraq and Afgan wars combined, was written by Nancy Pelosi and the House Dems and passed as 90%+ of that original Pelosi/Dem authored bill (according to Claire McCaskill), filled with pork for the Dem districts, was not what it was represented to be by the administration and – unsurprisingly – did not do what was claimed it would do.

  • http://westanddivided.blogspot.com/ mw

    Or as another example –
    Look how Obama ran as a fiscally responsible centrist, but on fiscal matters governs as a classic tax, borrow and spend hard left liberal.

  • Jim

    Or….you could consider that in fact his spending is largely an artifact of the situation the country is in. But that wouldn’t have the same hatred of liberalism that you prefer to inject into your posts, would it? And it also wouldn’t fit into ignoring that the current congress is even more partisan, divided and incapable of working together than it was in Clinton’s time.

    In spite of your claims to the contrary, you are not simply an adherent of a divided government is best philosophy. Your response, straight out the Tea Party handbook, shows this. Again. Otherwise you would recognize that while Clinton was demonized by much of the Republican Party, you actually found Republicans willing to vote not guilty on his impeachment and be willing to honestly answer this question. Would any of the surviving ones dare to do so in today’s environment? Unlikely. Not if they wanted to survive their next primary challenge. Look at McCain’s turn to the hard right, the nomination of people like Sharron Angle and Rand Paul and the rise of the disciples of Jim DeMint as examples. No, mw, things have in fact gotten more poisonously partisan than even that contentious time. It just doesn’t fit into your narrative to admit it.

  • Chris

    I do remember clinton, but I couldn’t vote yet. Also I call false on the premise that it’s democrats fault for not overcoming republicans. All that it takes is 1 democrat, just like all it would take is 1 republican. The republicans are just way better at group think and control than democrats. I don’t seem to remember the minority democrats voting no as a group during the bush years as much as the current republicans in congress do.