Thursday, September 18, 2008

When The Music Stops Will There Be 60 Democrats Sitting?

Today we will take a break from the presidential race and take a look at the Senate races that are occurring this fall. While they have garnered far less attention in the national media, the break down of Senate members is a critical factor in the ability of a president to get anything done.   

The magical number that is required to get anything real done in the senate is 60 votes. This is because it takes 60 votes in the Senate to invoke cloture and end debate. As the Senate is designed to be a more deliberative body than the House, the rules for debate in the Senate are much less structured than in the House. Consequently, a single senator can prevent all senate business from occurring by refusing to yield the floor. If 60 of his/her colleges disagree with the filibuster, they can vote to end debate by invoking cloture.   

The net result is, in order to get any major or controversial piece of legislation to a vote in the Senate, the majority party needs to have 60 reliable votes so that it knows it can end debate and get a vote on a bill. Based on the current breakdown in the Senate, if the democrats can take nine seats currently held by republicans in the fall, they will reach the magical number of 60.   

It is important to note that the democrats actually have only 49 members in the Senate currently, but the two Senate independents caucus with the democrats, which give them 51 votes on procedural matters. On top of this, one of the independents is Joe Lieberman, who has angered many democrats for his support of Bush and McCain. Thus, in reality while the math may say nine seats, there is the chance that the democrats will really need ten seats to switch party lines, without losing any of their seats that are up for grabs.   

So the $64,000 question is can they do it?   

There are several factors to consider. First, only a third of the Senate is up for election at a time. So only 34 seats are actually up for grabs (the extra seat is a special election in WA). Second, of these seats, 22 are currently held by republicans, and 12 by democrats. Thus, more republicans are up for reelection this time around than democrats. With such a high number of republicans up for reelection it is unlikely that all 22 seats will remain republican.   

A third factor to consider is the number of incumbents that are rerunning in these 22 republicans seats. The incumbent advantage is well documented in the Senate. According to latest data, about 85% of incumbents win reelection. So, while it is not impossible to knock off an incumbent in a reelection, the odds of the democrats winning a previously held republican seat drastically improve for elections in which a republican incumbent is not running. In examining the 22 republican seats up for election, seven do not have incumbents (CO, ID, MS, NM, NE, VA, WY). Of these seven, only CO, NM, and VA are states that are not solidly republican.   

The last aspect to consider is in what states the 22 republican seats are from. Clearly, it should be easier for a democrat to be elected to the senate from a “blue state” than a “red state,” where blue and red are defined in how they voted in the 2004 Election. Taking a look at the 2004 Election map, of the 22 republican seats, only two (MN and ME) are from blue states in 2004.   

Taking all of this together, while it seems that the democrats will pick up seats in the Senate, it is unlikely to be the nine (or ten) needed to reach 60. It is much more likely to be 3-5 seats. The reason for this is simply that while there are vastly more republicans up for election and a lot of republican retirements, these seats are predominantly safe republican seats from states that reliably vote republican. Of the 22 republican seats, 14 are very safe for republicans, with polling numbers all above 90% that a republican will be elected.   

This is not to imply that it is impossible, just highly unlikely. The current polling, while not as frequent as for the presidential race, backs up this analysis. If the race was held today, based on current polls, the democrats would hold on to all of their existing seats and gain seats from CO, AK, NH, NM, and VA. Thus, they will shift their majority from 51 to 56. Between these five pick-ups and the 14 safe seats, this only leaves 4 other races (NC, MN, OR, MS) out there. While republicans in these races are not up by the 90% mark, they are all leading by about 70%. Since the democrats would have to win them all to get to 60, it seems unlikely to happen.  

Thus, while the democratic majority in the Senate will increase, it will still be short of that magical number 60.  

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