Sunday, October 10, 2010


Campaigns have NOT made a difference in 2010

"GOP Romps to Victory; Captures Majority in both House & Senate" is a possible November 3rd headline that is starting to look like a real possibility. In the case of the House, a majority looks more like a probably. The Democratic argument against such an outcome goes something like "our campaigns are just kicking into high gear, and we will bring the argument to the people." If the headline holds true, Republicans are likely to echo this platitude after Election Day "we ran good campaigns, people heard our arguments, and we won!" The truth is that both of these generic statements are mostly false. While some campaigns have made a difference (e.g. Dick Blumenthal's large military record exaggerations, and the emergence of Christine O'Donnell as the Republican nominee in Delaware), the overall nature of the upcoming Republican romp was determined long ago.

In February, I wrote an article entitled "Republican Blizzard on the Generic Ballot". Using a regression based on past midterm elections from a paper by Joseph Bafumi, Bob Erikson, and Chris Wlezien. I wrote that the Republican position on the generic ballot was likely to improve throughout the year. That belief has not borne out.

In fact, the generic ballot has remained amazingly consistent when controlling for pollster and sample population (likely voters to likely voters and registered voters to registered voters). While certain pollsters (e.g. Gallup and Democracy Corp.) have shown movement towards the Republicans, other pollsters [ABC / Washington Post (TNS) and PPP] have actually seen Democrats gain a couple of points. In fact, I believe any difference between these pollsters February/March numbers and September/October numbers can be attributed to the margin of error. What has happened is that pollsters [e.g. ABC / Washington Post and CNN (Opinion Research)] have switched their sample populations from registered voters to likely voters. The Republican surge talk about by some is merely the change by pollsters from registered voters to likely voters, which takes into high voter enthusiasm among Republicans.

What about district-by-district polling? There certainly has been a movement towards Republicans in a number of races. Polls in Republican leaning districts like Alabama 2nd and Kentucky 6th have recently shown Republican challengers gain their first leads of the year. The Cook Political Report and Rothenberg Political Report has also seen many seats shift towards the Republicans. While some of these movements can be attributed to well run campaigns, many of the Republican advances simply have to do with the fact that challengers are becoming as well known as incumbents. In both AL-2 and KY-6, the polls as well as expert ratings are moving towards the generic ballot in these districts. In other words, district-by-district indicators are lagging behind national indicators, but are beginning to catch-up to them.

Not surprisingly, many districts that feature rematches of prior match-ups have not surprisingly remained relatively stable. In Maryland's 1st, incumbent Democrat Frank Kratovil and Republican Andy Harris have remained within a few points of each other this entire year. In Pennsylvania's 12th, incumbent Mark Critz’s numbers in Democratic and Republican polls have matched his pre-special election numbers against Republican Tim Burns. In Florida's 22nd, incumbent Democrat Ron Klein has consistently lead in the Democratic sponsored polls, while Republican polls have shown Republican Andy Harris slightly ahead. Although this is just a small smattering, similar trends have occurred in other districts.

Similar to these House districts with two very well known candidates, US Senate races have shown amazing consistency. Back in February, I wrote

I am by no means saying that the Republicans will take back the Senate; however, the polling in conjunction with past results indicate that it [is] not that long of a shot that they do. Democratic candidates seem to be consistently weak over the last six months, and the Republicans seem to be moving into a stronger position in the last two months.

Looking at Senate races with at least one poll in February / March that the Cook Political Report currently rates in at least a somewhat competitive category (i.e. not solid), Republicans have maintained their edge. In these 17 states, only one state, Washington, has the leader in the polls at the beginning year (Dino Rossi) lose her/his lead. Rossi's deficit was small then, as his lead is now, and there are signs Rossi is moving back in the lead.

Most races have only moved slightly. The average absolute change between February / March and now is only 3.92%, which is largely driven by Connecticut where the once invisible Dick Blumenthal has seen his lead cut by two-thirds. The median (which somewhat controls for outliers like Connecticut) absolute change is only 2.13%. That means that despite all the advertising and baby kissing, most Senate campaigns like those in the House have made only the smallest of dents among the electorate.

As to the question of whether there has been a national swing to either the Democrats or Republicans, the answer is also no. The average change in Republican margin between February / March and now polls is a tiny 1.74%, which again is driven mostly by Connecticut. The median (not absolute) difference is a miniscule 0.34%. While some Democrats and Republicans have gained ground, neither Republicans nor the Democrats have gained ground in the aggregate. There has been no national tide.

Does all of this mean that campaigns did not make a difference in either House or Senate elections this year? Not necessarily. For one thing, we still have a little over three weeks until the election. It is possible that races swing dramatically between now and Election Day, though I wouldn't bet on it. More to the point, one never knows when a race will turn into a Connecticut. Candidates make mistakes, and sometimes strange things happen. In addition, this sort of analysis cannot possibly get down to the nitty gritty 1% or 2% differences that sometimes make or break elections.

Still, at least in 2010, most outcomes have seemingly been predetermined. Campaigns have not made a difference, and voters made up their minds a long time ago.

Edit: I want to make it clear that I am not saying candidates should not campaign. If one candidate campaigned and her/his opponent did not, it would obviously make a difference. An inherent assumption here is that both candidates have at least a bare boned campaign and have the necessary funds to at least minimally compete. Pretty much all House and Senate races meet this criteria.


The elections haven't taken place yet, so how can we know if the campaigns mattered or not?

It's a fair question. I think my conclusion covers your objection. I acknowledge that the elections haven't happened yet, but I truly doubt that the time remaining will make a big difference. See Bowers' election prediction system that is based on the final 25 day average, and Silver's polling average series which shows that the polling average in the 60-30 day period is a FANTASTIC predictor of final results.
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