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11-2572 U.S. v. Roberts, appealed from Northern District of Iowa Melloy, J.

It’s not the wave, it’s the change that matters

The national political discussion is currently consumed with the question of whether 2014 will be a “wave” election year.  A “wave” is a massive voter movement toward one of the two major parties producing a large and comprehensive set of electoral victories at the national and state levels. Congressionally, it is often defined in terms of a gain of 20 or more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The most recent classic national “wave” year was 2010, when the GOP gained 63 U.S. House seats to take control of the chamber, six U.S. Senate seats and six governorships. In Minnesota, the GOP had a “wave” as well, gaining 16 state Senate seats and 25 state House seats to take control of both chambers of the Legislature.

So will a comparable wave appear in the U.S. and Minnesota in 2014? Just about all analysts agree that the GOP will keep control of the U.S. House and may even gain a few seats.

Political scientist forecasters recently issued their predictions for 2014 in the U.S. House elections at the annual meetings of the American Political Science Association.  James Campbell of SUNY-Buffalo pegged the GOP gain at 16 seats; Alan Abramowitz of Emory put it at only four seats; Robert Erikson of Columbia foresaw a 14 seat pickup; and James King of Wyoming beat them all with a prediction of a whopping GOP 39 seat gain.

The pre-eminent national wave question this year involves the U.S. Senate races. The GOP must pick up six seats to take control. Among the political scientists, only Campbell and Abramowitz offered Senate predictions. Both predicted Republican Senate control, with Campbell declaring an eight-seat pickup to Abramowitz’s 5.5 seats.

The four political scientists were more tentative about Senate predictions. That’s because, as James Campbell noted, many Senate races are very competitive and subject to change based on unforeseeable campaign events. The recent changes in the Kansas Senate race, where the Democratic nominee running against long-time GOP incumbent Pat Roberts informally “dropped out” in favor of an independent candidate, is a recent example of such events.

A number of other non-political science forecasters have entered the Senate prediction sweepstakes as well. As of early September, Nate Silver’s 538 website put the odds of GOP Senate control at 64 percent. The Washington Post’s Upshot forecasting model listed it at 58 percent. Three other forecasters foresaw continued Democratic Senate control, however. The Daily Kos website predicted a 48 percent chance of GOP control; the Huffington Post predicted a 40 percent chance; and forecaster Sam Wang saw only a 25 percent chance.

Why such big differences in these forecast probabilities? The 538 and Upshot models incorporate the latest polling results as well as other factors, such as candidate fundraising and the national generic ballot preferences for the two major parties. Kos, Huffington and Wang rely solely on polls for their prediction.

Nate Silver notes some problems, however, with relying only on polls in predicting 2014 Senate results. First, there are fewer polls this year than in 2010, and some are from pollsters with less than stellar reputations.  Second, polling response rates seem to be declining steadily, increasing the probability of sample bias. Third, pollsters tend to copy each other’s methods, which can further produce systematic bias in results.

Daily Kos, Huffington Post and Sam Wing are also politically liberal forecasters, so their predictions may reflect ideological wish fulfillment. Another way of describing this potential problem is “confirmation bias” in which one recognizes only the evidence that confirms pre-existing beliefs. Time will tell if that was operating with these forecasters.

Election pundit Charles Cook in National Journal magazine recently summarized the D.C. conventional wisdom about a 2014 wave: “For Democrats, the good news is that there doesn’t appear to be an overwhelming Republican tide this year; the bad news is that Democrats could well lose the Senate even without such a wave. Six of the most competitive races are Democratic-held seats in states that Mitt Romney carried by 14 points or more. With a map like that, Republicans don’t need to dominate the country; they just have to win some select states.”

But it may be that all this speculation about waves is misplaced. Alfred Tuchfarber, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Cincinnati and founder of the Ohio Poll, puts the main 2014 issue differently in a recent posting at Virginia Professor Larry Sabato’s website, the Crystal Ball:  “Will November 2014 be a wave election? That is the wrong question. Will November 2014 be a change election? That is the appropriate question. Politics and winning elections are about changing public policy and changing the political dynamics of a nation, state, or locality.”

So in 2014, it is quite possible to have a very important “change” election without a traditional electoral “wave.” A gain of six or more U.S. Senate seats, combined with minor changes in the U.S. House makeup, will produce a major “change” election.

As Tuchfarber puts it, with such a result: ”Under any circumstance, President Obama will still be in charge and will still wield the veto and control the bully pulpit, but a Republican-controlled Senate will change public policy, budget priorities, and the political dynamic for the next two years leading up to the 2016 presidential election.”

In Minnesota, a seven-seat gain by the GOP would give them control of the House and produce important changes in policy, budgeting and politics as well.  Gov. Mark Dayton will be forced to contend with a sharply contrasting GOP policy agenda in a way he has not over the last two years.

Given Dayton’s many troubles working with a GOP Legislature in 2011 and 2010, state politics and policy will likely be rent with conflict under such a scenario.

Ditto for national politics if the GOP takes the U.S. Senate.  Like Dayton, President Barack Obama has a distaste for bipartisan negotiations than may produce gridlock on the national level as well.  The vast partisan differences in policy, budgeting and appointments to federal office will be the common fare of national politics.

That would make 2014 a change election, but not necessarily a welcome change.

Steven Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.

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