It may be that the greatest contribution in Nate Silver's young life is not the PECOTA system he developed for evaluating baseball players and projecting their future contributions, the accuracy of his 2012 election forecasts or his new ESPN-housed enterprise, but rather his book The Signal and the Noise.
The book is an elegant, intellectually omnivorous, well-researched and disciplined assertion of the need for prediction and for prognostications to be as accurate and useful as possible. He looks at the egregious failures of prediction due to blind spots in imagination -- not considering the possibility of an air attack on Pearl Harbor because of a belief that, were Japan to attack, it would do so via sabotage by U.S. resident Japanese or not seeing the possibility of an Al Qaeda attack using hijacked airplanes to ram buildings. He also notes that in some fields, notably in predicting major earthquakes, forecasting has not made major advances because all scientific models have so far led nowhere.
But his main thesis, grossly oversimplified, is that when predictions tend to be wrong, it is because those making them do not distinguish between the signal and the noise -- between information, data, and events that are necessary building blocks toward accurate prognostication and other data, information, events and commentary that may appear relevant to some but essentially lead one astray. This is a good framework for looking at the early predictions for the 2014 election.
The current consensus in Washington is that 2014 will be a Republican election -- that they will gain some seats in the U.S. House, that they have a realistic chance of recapturing a bare majority in the U.S. Senate and that they will continue to enjoy a sizable edge among the nation's governors and hold their own in the state legislatures.
This common wisdom is based on a series of premises, many of which are more noise than signal.
Among them: A historical record of a two-term president's party losing legislative and executive seats in almost all previous mid-term elections following his re-election; polls showing a majority opposes the president's signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act (ACA); other polls showing Obama's favorability rating at low ebb; missteps in the roll out of the ACA and promises made that citizens would be able to retain their existing health care policies if they liked them that were inaccurate and could not be kept.
The record will show that the Democratic Party sustained no net losses in the U.S. Senate and gained five seats in the House in the 1998 mid-term during President Clinton's second term and after Monica Lewinsky and impeachment dominated the news for the majority of the year. The record will also show that January polls tend to be irrelevant to November results or President Muskie would have been elected in 1972 and Hillary Clinton would have been the Democratic nominee and probable president in 2008. Foibles from a year earlier will only be remembered around election time if nothing has changed to render them obsolete. All of these are noise.
What could be either signal or noise in the Republican election scenario are two factors: 1) The mid-term electorate is substantially smaller (by as much as 20 percentage points) than the presidential year electorate, and it tends to include fewer young voters and minorities; and 2) There are twice as many Democratic Senate seats up for election in this cycle as there are Republican and, according to the Cook Political Report, there are only 77 House districts that were won by a 55-45 margin or less in 2012, only 33 by 52-48 or less -- and those nearly evenly divided between Democratic and Republican winners.
Elections are not decided by how many turn out, but rather who turns out, and it is not at all clear at this juncture whether the deep divisions within the Republican Party will reduce GOP turnout by a greater amount than the likely lower turnout of some key Democratic constituencies.
At this juncture the Democrats are defending several more U.S. Senate seats that are competitive than are the Republicans. They face challenges in Iowa, Montana and South Dakota to replace senators who have moved on, and in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina where incumbent Democrats have only a precarious hold on their seats. It is conceivable that they could lose all of these seats and no seat that the Republicans now hold would swing to the Democrats -- such as in Georgia where the daughter of the revered Sam Nunn is challenging a GOP in disarray; or Kentucky where Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell is viewed unfavorably. It is not likely.
Thanks to the "shellacking" of the Democrats as Obama called it in 2010, the Republicans not only gained six seats in the U.S. Senate, 68 seats in the House, more than 600 seats in state legislatures and a net of six governorships. Those results allowed the GOP to control the House, control both the legislatures and governorships in 29 states and made it virtually impossible for the Democrats to overcome filibusters in the Senate. Perhaps of greater long-term import, the control that the Republicans had in the 29 states allowed them to favorably gerrymander House and state legislative districts, a redistricting which will be in place until the 2020 Census. All of which makes it unlikely that the Democrats can garner the 17 net seats to regain control of the House or substantially reduce the degree of control the GOP has in the state legislature -- unless the 2014 election becomes a pro-Democratic wave election.
Despite current conventional wisdom, such an election is not only possible but probable but only if three signals occur: If September polls, the polls taken when people are paying attention to the upcoming election, show a substantial improvement in Obama's approval rating and an equally substantial increase in public support of the Affordable Care Act, and if the economy does not relapse into recession.
There are many signals pointing to Republican vulnerability, including:
- The 2013 Elections: Chris Christie was the only statewide office-holder win for the Republicans, and the defeat of the larger of two tax-increase proposals in Colorado was the only victory for Republican ideas. But Christie's victory brought zero legislative gains and Colorado passed a more modest tax increase measure on the same ballot. In Virginia, Democrats hold every statewide office and now, as a result of this election, control the state Senate.
- The Congresses of the Past Three Years: For most of the past year, Congressional performance approval ratings have wallowed in the high single digits to the low teens, the lowest for any institution and the lowest ever for Congress. For the past three years, Congress has been the least productive of any in recent memory and perhaps in its history. The public, by modest majorities, puts the blame for the low approval and lack of production squarely on the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and their intransigent right-wing.
- Public Policy and the Lack Thereof on Three Levels: On one level, the public understands that it was the GOP that forced the government shut-down and has engaged in brinksmanship to no positive end. On another, the Republicans give the appearance of having an agenda of cruelty to the least fortunate in America -- cutting food stamps for an estimated 850,000 who need them (and wanting to cut more); opposing extended unemployment benefits, leaving 1.4 million (a number that is growing daily) without any source of income; and blocking any increase in the minimum wage -- while protecting the most fortunate. On still another level, they have been the party of "No": "No" to any further stimulus to the economy that might put many unemployed back to work and deal with the nation's crumbling infrastructure; "No" to taxes and/or loophole closings that might narrow the economic inequality gap and "No" to virtually any regulations that might mitigate the effects of climate change.
- Demography: The non-white share of the American population is growing, and the GOP is doing its best to alienate that share. Latinos voted Democratic in 2012 by a 70-30 margin. African-Americans voted by more than 90-10 for Obama. Latinos know which party has xenophobia as part of its grassroots, which party has announced that it will not consider immigration reform this year, which party has rebelled against offering the possibility of citizenship to any of the more than 11 million undocumented Latinos residing in the United States. African-Americans know which party is attempting to erect barriers to their voting participation not in requiring photo identification as a prerequisite to casting a ballot, but in making such identification difficult to get. (What the Republicans forget is that when Georgia and Indiana initiated the first round of photo ID legislation, African-Americans turned out in record numbers in both states.)
The GOP also has a gender problem. More women than men are eligible to vote; since 1980, they have voted in higher percentages and they have given a majority of their votes to the Democrats in every recent election. While women in general (as opposed to activists) might not go along with the Democratic characterization of a Republican "war on women," they are very much aware that the current dominant elements of the GOP are seeking to impose narrow, puritanical and unachievable approaches to morality and sex on the nation, in general, and women, in particular.
- Trouble in the States: If the Democrats have more vulnerable U.S. Senate seats to defend, Republicans have more governors whose re-election is in danger, including but not necessarily limited to: Corbett of Pennsylvania, LePage of Maine, Scott of Florida, Snyder in Michigan and Walker in Wisconsin. They may serve as a drag on down ballot contests. The GOP also has to defend what many see as extremist advocacy and policies in the states -- attempting to make contraception illegal (North Carolina), requiring sonograms and their images of fetuses to be presented to women seeking abortions (several states), advocacy of secession (Colorado and Texas), making enforcement of federal laws regarding guns a crime (Missouri), adopting a tax code that puts a greater burden on the poor and middle class while advantaging the rich (North Carolina and Kansas), mandating photo identification for voting while making the availability of those IDs only in Department of Motor Vehicle offices where the non-driving majority of those without IDs never go (a number of states), refusing federal funds for expanding access to Medicaid for millions who need such access and protection (21 states, all with Republican governors)*, and attempting to mandate the teaching of "creationism" in schools (several states).
- Divisions: Viewing current politics, it is by no means clear that the divisions between Republicans and Democrats are greater than the divisions within the GOP. Moderate and conservative Republicans seem to be treated with as much animus and intransigent opposition by the party's radical right as they have treated Democrats. While the views of the radical right are supported by less than a third of the nation and are viewed unfavorably by 80 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of independents, they have sufficient support in the states to challenge moderate and legitimate conservative incumbents to intimidate those whom they have not yet actively challenged, to threaten the party leaders in the House of Representatives with removal from their leadership perches and to drive extreme policies in several states. The result of this is a Congressional party so divided that no legislation on major problems can be proposed or passed, statewide candidates who can secure party nominations but cannot be elected, and the image of a party engaged in civil war without a clear image of what it stands for.
The old adage is that you can't beat something with nothing.
The Democrats, including Obama, have a record to run on: rescue from a free-falling economy (with help from Ben Bernanke); steps toward financial regulation to reduce systemic risk; saving the domestic auto industry; generating several positive environmental initiatives including higher fuel economy standards and regulation of some of the greenhouse gases thought to contribute to climate change; ending the misguided American involvement in Iraq; reducing or eliminating combat involvement in Afghanistan; helping to remove Qaddafi from Libya which also made possible the destruction of Libya's stockpile of chemical weaponry; with Russia's assistance, removing and destroying Syrian chemical weapons; finding and killing Osama Bin Laden; reversing the Bush Administration's permissive torture policy; repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and paving the way for an integrated military; expanding national service and wilderness and watershed protection; improving school nutrition and reducing the national deficit.
The signature achievement of the Obama administration was the Affordable Care Act, which allows children up to the age of 26 to be included in their parent's health insurance, greatly expands coverage to millions of uninsured Americans, pays for an expanded Medicaid, forbids denial of insurance coverage for persons with pre-existing medical conditions, eliminates overall dollar limits to coverage and will, within three years, provide health insurance -- through insurance exchanges, business health plans, family insurance and Medicaid -- to as many as 30-plus million citizens who are not protected now. Like the roll out of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, there are flaws in the program that need to be overcome, but like those earlier programs, the ACA is likely to be seen as a major contribution to a safety net for all Americans.
It is also possible, but by no means certain, that by election day 2014, the administration can claim an enforceable agreement eliminating the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons; a clear road to a durable agreement between Israel and Palestine and, perhaps, even an end to the war in Syria.
Against this backdrop, the GOP, by choice, is offering nothing but attacks on the ACA, scandal-mongering on Benghazi and IRS missteps and a roadblock against any fiscal initiative that would improve the economy and put the many unemployed, under-employed and out of the labor force to work.
It is possible that Obama's approval rating will not improve by September, that the public at that time will continue to have a dim view of the ACA and that absent stimulus, the economy doesn't improve. If that is the lay of the political landscape when citizens are paying attention, the noise of the present will be the signal of the then, and the current conventional wisdom will become accurate prophecy.
But public opinion on a person or an issue is usually formed on a compared-to-what basis. And in that context, it hard to believe that a party whose leader in the Senate would see in 2011 his single most important goal as "to make Obama a one-term president," and whose leader in the House would say, "We should not be judged on how many laws we create. We ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal," would be given a 2014 mandate to continue on its present path.
*Two of these states have received waivers that allow them to use expanded federal Medicaid funds for private insurance for those who qualify and one of those states, Virginia, now has a Democratic governor who supports Medicaid expansion.
Curtis Gans has been a student and analyst of American politics for the past 38 years as director of the non-partisan Center for the Study of the American Electorate. Prior to that he challenged the conventional wisdom of the time by providing the theory for and helping to organize the "Dump Johnson" movement and serving as staff director of Eugene McCarthy's 1968 presidential campaign.)