In an effort to examine how the 2016 Senatorial elections might turn out, I have been estimating some simple models of Senate elections using aggregate data from 1946 to 2014. For my dependent variable I have chosen to use the (logit of the) total vote for Senate candidates in the President’s party. This removes party labels from the analysis and treats the two parties symmetrically. I conduct some “regression experiments” of this measure using three types of predictors.
One type represents the electoral setting. Is this an on-year or off-year election? And, in on-years, is the incumbent President running for re-election? Alone these two factors account for over twenty percent of the variance in incumbent support, with President re-election bids having by far the greatest impact. The results for this model appear in the left-hand column of the table below. The remaining columns add other possible explanatory factors to the basic political environment.
Right away we see that when a President is running for re-election, his co-partisans in the Senate have a much greater chance of winning. Because these are measured as logits, values below zero correspond to a percentage value below fifty, while positive logits imply values above fifty percent. Without the President running, the model has a slight negative prediction equal to the constant term. In Presidential re-election years that negative value turns positive being the sum of the constant (-0.08) and the effect for re-election years (0.14). By this model the Democrats in the Senate will be short that extra boost that comes from having an incumbent seeking re-election.
One reason the Democrats are optimistic about their chances to retake the Senate in 2016 is that these seats were last contested in the Republican wave election of 2010. This year those seats will be fought in the context of a Presidential election with its greater visibility and higher turnout. I have measured this effect by including the vote from the election held six years prior. In principle, we should expect a negative effect, as “regression toward the mean” sets in. Republicans perhaps won by unexpectedly larger margins in 2010 so their margins should fall closer to the average this time around.
Adding the prior vote for each Senatorial “class” improves the predictive power of this simple model slightly, but the coefficient itself fails to reach significance. It has the expected negative sign, however, and will prove much more significant in further reformulations.
The third column adds the effect of presidential approval, a common predictor in models of voting for the House. For the Senate it turns out to have a more subtle effect. Presidential approval has the expected positive effect on votes for Senators of the incumbent’s party, but only in off-year elections. A long literature in political science has examined off-year elections espousing a variety of theories to explain the President’s usual losses. I generally adhere to the “referendum” school of thought on off-years, that they give the public a chance to express their approval or disapproval of a President mid-way through his term. That presidential approval matters not in years when a Presidential election is being held reinforces my belief in the referendum explanation for off-year voting.
The last explanatory factor is the year-on-year percent change in real disposable personal income. Political scientists and economists have included pretty much every economic variable that might affect election outcomes in their models of presidential and congressional voting, but the one factor that often proves significant is personal income. Adding it to the model increased “explained” variance by over ten percent.
Here is a chart showing the expected national vote for the Senate Democrats as a function of the size of the increase in personal income heading into the election. They do get a small positive compensation from having lost the popular vote for these seats six years before. However, without the re-election boost, even reaching an absurdly high four percent growth in real income would not push the expected vote for the Democrats over the 50 percent line. In the best years of the Obama Administration, real income growth reached slightly over two percent, which would give the Democratic candidates for Senate about 48 percent of the vote.
I admit there are many shortcomings to this analysis. First, I only account for 45 percent of the variance in Senatorial voting, and this only at the national level. Senatorial campaigns are played out in states, where local forces can exert a major role. With only 33 or 34 seats up in each election, idiosyncratic factors can swing a few decisive states.
If, as the model predicts, the Democrats should expect to win about 48 percent of the popular vote for Senate, they can nevertheless still win back the Senate. They might follow the path taken by the Republicans in 2004 and most dramatically in the first off-year election under Ronald Reagan in 1982. In both those years the Republicans won a majority of the contested Senate seats with a minority of the popular vote.