Overstating Democratic Gains

November 6th, 2006 9:24 PM

Of late, we've been treated to the sound of careless political reporters and analysts tossing around figures of Democrats taking back the House by varying degrees of hugeness.

In many cases, these predictions are simply wishful thinking on the part of left-wingers eager to see Republican evil (the only kind there is) beat back by the forces of good. Some of our prognosticating pundits are basing their predictions on actual polling, however.

Trouble is, their math, based somewhat on faulty "generic ballot" polls and primarily on the work of political analysts Stuart Rothenberg and Charlie Cook, is downright horrible.

Rothenberg and Cook are more politically fair than the rest of the elite media, though both, in true MSM tradition overestimate Democrats chances in my experience. This time, according to Jay Cost, the culprit is not wanting to get caught flat-footed like they were in 1994 when neither came close to predicting Republicans would take back Congress. As a result, both analysts are completely discounting the GOP's chances, even by their own math:

The major race rankers see a massive "wave" coming, but cannot really find the districts to upgrade to fit the wave. Cook's response has ostensibly been to develop a "Gimme a reason, punk!" kind of attitude toward Republican seats -- i.e. any seat where the Republicans blink is a seat that gets upgraded -- candidate financing, party involvement, district partisanship aside. The net result is a set of highly conservative seats that -- despite the negative mood toward the GOP and despite whatever drama might be happening on the ground -- are really unlikely to switch, and, minimally, do not justify the 1994 comparisons that Cook has been supplying with his list. 1994 saw Democrat-held 0 seats from districts in which George H.W. Bush did 9% or worse than his 1992 national average switch to the Republicans; Cook's list currently has 11 such Republican-held seats (i.e. seats from districts where Kerry did 9% or worse than his national average) rated as vulnerable.

Rothenberg's response? Well -- from the looks of it, he is implying that his race-by-race estimates will be wrong - and not just a little bit wrong. A lot wrong. Why does he not correct them so that they show something like 34 to 40? Maybe he does not because he just cannot find the races to fit into a 34 to 40 scenario, but thinks it will happen nonetheless.

This is, I think, what he thinks - though I am not sure he and his staff grasp just how divergent their aggregate estimate is from their race-by-race analysis. His political editor, Nathan Gonzalez, commented to the San Francisco Chronicle:

"As we looked back to 1994 in our analysis, Republicans even won half of the toss-up, tilting-Democratic seats back then," said Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report. "Because this is such a volatile environment, I think there will be a couple surprises, a couple members who will lose that no one was talking about.

In other words -- the list is different from the final number because Rothenberg and Gonzalez expect a surprise. Fair enough (well, not entirely - there are good reasons not to expect certain types of surprises - but we'll talk about that tomorrow). However, this does not cut the mustard. If we do what Gonzalez thinks we should do, if we altered the "Toss-Up/Tilt Republican" to give the Democrats 50% of the seats, that would only give the Democrats an extra 1.25 seats.

Gonzalez needs something much more extreme to get to 34 to 40. This might work: if we gave the Republicans nothing of the seats that are tilting/leaning/favoring Democrats and gave the Democrats half of everything that is "Toss-Up" or tilting/leaning/favoring Republicans, that would give the Democrats 36 to 37 seats. In other words, re-jigger the list to put 20 seats into "Safe Democratic" and 21 seats into "Pure Toss-Up" - which is to say, shift 66% of all vulnerable seats toward the Democrats - and you can hit the mid-point of their estimate.

So - that is the kind of "surprise" that Rothenberg and Gonzalez are expecting. Not a slight shocker on the margins - but a massive movement of seats toward the Democrats that these two have been unable to identify. And, I would note that I am positive that these two have been looking at each seat very closely to identify any kind of Republican weakness. To wit: they have about 20 Republican seats where (a) the Democratic challenger is under-funded, (b) the NRCC is not spending a dime on advertisements, or (c) the DCCC is not spending a dime. Either they know something the Hill committees and party donors do not, or they have inflated their list of Republican targets. Nevertheless, they still think they have underestimated Democratic strength.

In other words, Rothenberg and Gonzalez are expecting that, though they are convinced that the Democrats are as strong as they have been since Skynyrd's Second Helping, and though they have presumably completed a thorough search for any GOP seat with even the vaguest sign of weakness, they nevertheless believe that they have systematically underestimated Democratic strength by 30% to 60%!

That is a lot of error to commit when you are on the look-out for exactly that type of error.