12/12/2011 04:05 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2012

Could We See An Historic Triple Flip In 2012?

Some people do not know what our political future holds because they have not given it much thought. And then there can be people who reach a deep level of Zen meditation and know that they do not know what will happen in 2012. This is called "profound not knowing," and the after reading most of the political analyses written over the past few months, and doing some of our own political analysis, we have decided that:

  • The chance of the Republicans gaining control of the Senate is about 50-50.
  • There is a one half probability of the Democrats regaining control of the House of representatives, and...
  • President Barack Obama has about even odds of holding onto the White House.

All three events are essentially a coin flip, and if these were independent events, the chance that all three branches would change party control -- a triple flip -- would be a one-in-eight (12.5%) probability. The chance is actually less than this to the degree that the fates of the Senate and the president are linked.

We want to be clear: this article is not a prediction, but just pointing out that a triple flip is a possibility that shows what a unique political climate we are experiencing. Voters have been in sour moods in past years but it has reached new levels. In 2011 the public has never been more negative and distrusting of government and politicians -- and really nearly all institutions -- to the point that anything can happen, even something as unprecedented as a change in control of all three policy making bodies.

The point is, with the election just about one year away, no one knows what will happen. We can make the case for at least four scenarios for 2012 that seem about equally likely.

  1. A Republican wave sweeping out Democrats because President Barack Obama and the Democrats were elected in 2008 to fix the economy and the economy is likely to still stink four full years later on Election Day 2012.
  2. A Democratic wave sweeping out Republicans who find themselves too closely associated with the wealthiest "1%" and large corporations and on the wrong side of a class war in an election year.
  3. An anti-incumbent, or more precisely anti-politician, wave sweeping out office holders of both parties in favor of new faces in an effort to fix the broken political system in Washington.
  4. The waves cancel each other out. Different cross pressures in different regions leave voters without a clear voice and leave the nation without any new direction.

Either of the last two scenarios would make a triple flip possible even if it is still unlikely. This is (obviously) a list that adds up to no prediction at all. It's like a meteorologist saying there is a 50% chance of rain, or to carry the analogy further, predicting with equal likelihood: flood, drought, heat-wave or blizzard.

A Nation of "Mikeys;" We Hate Everything

The unpredictable nature of the upcoming elections flows directly from the unprecedented negativity of the American public. A broken economy and a broken political system have combined to take polls of voter sentiment to lows not seen since 1994 when Republicans won control of the Senate and flipped the House for the first time in 40 years.

In the 1970s Quaker Oats made a commercial for Life Cereal introducing a four-year-old boy named "Mikey" with the famous line "Let's get Mikey to try it, he hates everything." Well recent polls tell us America has become a nation of Mikeys. Today's voters are anti-Washington, anti-Wall Street, anti-incumbent and anti-political.

It is well known that voters often give Congress low approval ratings but still say they intend to vote to reelect their own Congressional representative. Well now, to go with record low approval rating for Congress, a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll finds voters giving more strongly negative ratings than strongly positive ratings to their own representative as well. These times are different.

The House of Representatives is Up for Grabs

Democrats believe they have a very good chance of retaking the seats they lost in the 2010 election to freshman Tea Party Republicans who have brought nothing but discord and standoff to Washington and have little to point to as accomplishments. Republicans in Congress have not yet produced anything that they can claim as job creation and their partisan brinksmanship led to a downgrade of the U.S credit rating that further weakened the economy and has led to record lowCongressional approval ratings. In the 2012 election cycle so far Democrats have been out raising Republicans and out recruiting talented candidates.

It is not clear whether this could translate into the 25 seats Democrats would need to regain control of the Speaker's gavel. It would not if the election becomes a referendum on President Obama's economic progress. However, if Republicans are caught defending millionaires and wealthy special interests while Democrats are seen as aligned with trying to help the unemployed and struggling middle class, then control of the House could very well flip.

Control of the Senate Will Rest on a Handful of Contests.

Republicans feel good about their chances to flip the Senate in 2012 and some simple math is on their side. Of the 33 seats to be <contested next year, Democrats have to defend 23 of them while Republicans will be defending just 10 seats.

By recruiting some good candidates to challenge vulnerable Republicans, Democrats believe they have pulled at least even in the race to control the upper chamber. At this point several key match-ups are not yet set. Primary races in states like Missouri, Michigan, and Florida will determine which Republicans challenge Claire McCaskill, Debbie Stabenow, and Bill Nelson and others. Several Republican incumbents face primary challenges from more conservative Republicans. Democrats are hoping for a repeat of 2010 when Tea Party Republicans defeated more moderate and established Republican candidates in the primaries allowing Democrats to win seats they had worried about losing in Nevada and Delaware. The balance of power in the Senate could again depend on whether Republicans choose nominees who appeal to the far right wing or nominees who can appeal to moderate voters.

An unresolved presidential race, (and that's just among Republicans) With Newt Gingrich now leading national polls of likely Republican primary voters, as well as in several key states, there has been a new leader for the nomination in each of the 4 months leading up to the first contests. Nominee Newt is a frightening thought for Republican partisan commentators but Mitt Romney continues to underperform expectations. Will we next see a Ron Paul surge, or a Michelle Bachman comeback, or a late Mike Huckabee entry? With the Republican nomination process in such a state of flux who would venture to handicap next year's general election presidential race?

Well Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin come close in a well worth reading analysis for the Center for American Progress, but they do not claim to know which party will control the White House in 2013. In our analysis based on the four scenarios outlined above, each of the three prizes in the 2012 election are little different than a coin flip at this point. Teixeira and Halpin reach the same non-prediction based on just two scenarios. One of their scenarios matches one of ours: we agree the state of the economy will help the Republican nominee, whoever that is. But as we said all through the 2010 campaign, we believe the Republicans committed political and policy malpractice, by not replacing their economic theories and prescriptions, after tax cuts and deregulation contributed to a global economic collapse -- as President Obama seems to have just now discovered.

For Teixeira and Halpin the counterweight to the Republican advantage on the economy is a demographic shift aiding Obama and the Democrats. The 2012 electorate, they argue, will be younger, more college educated, and less white male than 2010 (certainly) but also than even 2008. Teixeira and Halpin state their thesis (without suggesting they know who will win) this way, "Obama's ability to keep his coalition of the ascendant together and avoid catastrophic losses among the white working class will be heavily dependent on whether and how much the economy improves."

Obama won the presidency with 365 electoral votes, a cushion above the 271 needed to win, so he can afford to lose many states that were in his column in 2008. Team Obama has invited the press corps to their headquarters in Chicago to learn how they view the electoral map, but even if we believe for the moment in their vision of an expanded playing field, the race will still come down to a relatively small number of states. At this point with the identity of the Republican nominee clouded in doubt, the direction of the economy as uncertain as ever, conflicting evidence about which side will benefit most from the anti-political sentiment running rampant through the land, a few computer models may be willing to predict the 2012 outcome but any human pundit would be fool hardy to do so.

Will there be a "third Party?"

And a bewildering political environment seems likely to become more so. Between January and August of an election year, there is a perennial boom in dreams of an additional alternative to the two party candidates but it is nearly always a misnomer talk about a "third party." It would not be third, and usually there is no party. The Green Party, Libertarian Party, Socialist Party and many others bump any new party nearly out of single digits, and usually these additional candidates run for the president without offering candidates for any other level of government - so they are neither legally or effectively a political party. The correct term is more likely to be "independent candidate" and in this anti-political year we could expect a lot of emphasis on the independence if there is an independent campaign.

With positive views of the two parties at record lows, and more and more second tier celebrities and politicians realizing that running for president generally turns out to be a good career move (check back with Herman Cain in about two years), if there is not a single independent campaign it is probably less likely that there is zero than that it is are two or more.

Several independent projects are already underway. Americans Elect has developed a website designed to nominate a ticket through direct democracy although it is not clear how they will ensure that, for example, Democrats and unions will not swarm the site to nominate Barack Obama. There may be others hoping to build support for an independent candidate in the center, and who knows if there will be a Tea Party challenge on the right or an Occupy Wall Street inspired challenge on the left.

But will any of these independent efforts maintain their support once a candidate is named and they start to express their views? Who knows? Anybody who thinks they know what's going to happen before Christmas preceding an election year hasn't studied history. All campaigns make history by turning out unexpectedly (except the ones that defy these odds.) As of this date, we profoundly do not know what flips and flops 2012 will bring.

James Hazzard contributed to this article.