In less than three weeks, the U.S. mid-term elections will fundamentally transform the trajectory of American politics. The results will not only determine the fate of the Obama agenda but will also set the framework for the 2012 presidential election season that will unofficially begin almost as soon as the last ballots are cast on November 2. But how is an interested punter to make sense of the hundreds, nay thousands, of races comprising the mid-term elections, from the U.S. House and Senate to the state governors and legislatures? The following is a brief primer that will hopefully make it all a bit more coherent and digestible.
1. The U.S. House of Representatives
With Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the helm skilfully commanding a 39-seat majority in the 435 seat lower chamber, much of the Obama agenda has been passed, including a stimulus bill, a health care bill, and a cap and trade energy bill. Unfortunately for House Democrats, most of the bills theyâ€™ve passed have proven to be widely unpopular and have endangered dozens of the members of her caucus. At the same time, persistently high unemployment figures and a host of other national and state-level problems have only compounded the majority partyâ€™s political difficulties.
For a political punter, the House can seem intimidating. After all, given that there are so many races, polls can be hard to come by for any single contest and the polls that do exist in any particular race are not necessarily reliable. The safest approach is to scrutinize nationwide polls of the generic congressional ballot, which ask likely voters all across the U.S. whether they plan to vote Democratic or Republican.
Historically, Gallupâ€™s generic ballot polls have proven to be remarkably accurate in nailing the final national numbers, and seat totals naturally flow from those numbers. No, such polls wonâ€™t tell you who will win and lose each specific House race, but they will give you an excellent basis to extrapolate seat totals for the two major parties. My prediction: Republicans will gain 55 to 60 House seats, giving them about 235 House seats to the Democratsâ€™ 200.
2. The U.S. Senate
Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid has been less successful than his House counterpart in advancing the Obama agenda through the upper chamber, but that doesnâ€™t mean his fellow Democratic senators are avoiding the wrath of the voters any better than House Democrats are. In fact, the Democratic Party now seems unlikely to pick up any Republican Senate seats this year, meaning the only question is how many of their own seats they will lose.
Republicans need to pick up a whopping 10 seats out of the 19 total seats being defended by the Democrats this year in order to take back the Senate, a tall order in any political environment. A few months ago this seemed impossible but recent figures at Intrade suggest that the Democratic Senate majority is more imperilled than ever.
For savvy bettors, there are just a few races you really need to watch in order to gauge which way the wind is blowing. If Republicans can pull off a victory or two in the closely fought contests in California, Connecticut and Washington state, you can bet that Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will be the next Senate majority leader. On the other hand, if the GOP comes away disappointed in Colorado, Nevada, Illinois, or West Virginia, the Democrats will be celebrating a renewed lease on their Senate majority. My prediction: the GOP will gain 9 or 10 Senate seats, either leaving the Democrats in control at 50-50 or giving Republicans a bare 51-49 majority.
3. The governors (and state legislatures, etc.)
Amid all of the excitement over the battle for Congress it is easy to overlook the dozens of contests for various state governorsâ€™ mansions, not to mention the other statewide races and contests for state legislatures. But these state-level battles are all important for their own separate reasons. Governors routinely provide the single biggest pool of credible presidential candidates in the American system. The state legislatures will be instrumental in most states in determining the boundaries of U.S. House districts next year, which in turn will have a huge impact on which party will gain or lose House seats in 2012. My prediction: Republicans will gain about 8 governorships, leaving them with about 32 out of 50.