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Making sense of the polls

US Mid-Term Elections Preview

Every four years a Presidential election is held in the United States. Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012, and the next Presidential election will be held in November 2016. However, the US also holds Congressional elections every two years that decide which party (Obama’s Democrats or the right wing Republicans) control both Houses of Congress. Half the time the Congressional elections are held concurrently with the Presidential election, and the rest of the time they are held as stand-alone elections, and are thus called mid-term elections. Major state governorships are also decided at mid-term elections. The US uses the reverse colour code of Australia, so the Democratic colours are blue, while the Republican colours are red.

At these mid-term elections to be held on Tuesday 4 November with results coming through on Wednesday afternoon Australian time, all 435 House members and 1/3 of the 100 Senators are up for election. Despite losing the overall House popular vote by 1% in 2012, the Republicans currently hold a 234-201 majority in that chamber, and the Democrats are considered no chance of retaking the House. As in Australia, the US House uses single member districts that are population based. US House members only have two year terms.

In the Senate, the Democrats, including two aligned Independents, hold a 55-45 majority. Senate seats up at this election were last contested in Obama’s “wave” 2008 election, and the Republicans are very likely to significantly erode the Democratic Senate majority - the question is whether they can take control of the Senate as well as the House. Each of the US’s 50 states has two Senators, and Senators are elected on a statewide vote basis. Senators have six year terms, with 1/3 up for election every two years.

Owing to three special elections, there are a total of 36 Senate elections this cycle. The special elections are being held in states that are solidly red or blue. For a long time, the Republicans have looked the very likely winners in West Virginia, South Dakota and Montana, three seats currently held by Democrats. Democratic incumbents in the red states of Arkansas, Alaska and Louisiana have also been struggling. Even though Colorado and Iowa were both won by Obama in both 2008 and 2012, the Republican candidates have poll leads in both states, and they are also a chance in New Hampshire and North Carolina.

The Democrats’ main chances of offsetting gains are in Kentucky, a red state where the Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell has become very unpopular, and in Georgia. However, Georgia and Louisiana require runoffs if no candidate reaches 50% in November, and so we may not know the composition of the Senate until well after election day. In a big surprise, an Independent candidate is currently ahead in deep red Kansas, which has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since Roosevelt was President.

Nate Silver’s election forecast currently gives the Republicans a 61% chance of winning control of the Senate. The Republicans need to gain a net six seats to win control, as Vice President Joe Biden can break the tie in favour of the Democrats in the event of a 50-50 tie.

The Democrats are disadvantaged at mid-term elections because many people who vote at Presidential elections simply do not vote at the mid-terms. As a result, the mid-term electorate is both older and whiter than the Presidential electorate, and the Republicans do better with these demographics. Barack Obama’s approval rating has been mired in the low 40’s for a long time, and this also hinders the Democrats.

If the Republicans do win the Senate, it will not have major legislative consequences because Obama can veto any legislation passed by Congress, and it then requires a 2/3 majority in both Houses to overcome a Presidential veto. The Republicans have held the House since 2010, so they are already able to block the Democrats’ agenda. Obama’s signature health care reform legislation was passed in March 2010, and it will be safe until at least the 2016 Presidential election. Judicial and Cabinet appointments require only the Senate’s consent, so these will be affected if the Republicans take control.

In gubernatorial contests, the most attention will be on Florida and Wisconsin. These two states were both won by Obama in 2008 and 2012, but have right wing governors. Polling in both states has been very close. Other close contests are in Illinois, Colorado, Maine, Massachussetts, Connecticut, Kansas and Michigan. The Democrats are very likely to gain the Pennsylvania governorship, and certain to hold their two major blue state governorships in California and New York. In Texas, another Abbott will be elected, with Republican Greg Abbott sure to defeat Democrat Wendy Davis.

The worst aspect of the US electoral system is the way it is politicised. In Australia, state and Federal electoral commissions are responsible for drawing boundaries, but many US states give that power to their politicians. 2010 was a bad year for the Democrats to have a poor election, as it was the year of the once a decade US Census, after which boundaries are re-drawn. Many swing states that year elected Republican governors and state legislatures, and those states then proceeded to gerrymander their congressional districts (CDs) to favour Republicans. In 2012, as a result, in five swing states the Republicans won 51 House seats to 21 for the Democrats even though the Democrats won the House popular vote across these five states by 0.5%. Here is a map of the North Carolina CDs. Three are drawn to be ultra safe for Democrats, with the other 10 drawn so that Republicans can easily win.


For more polling on the current election, you can go to RealClearPolitics, Electoral-Vote or FiveThirtyEight. My report on the 2012 Presidential election is available at The Green Papers.

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