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Nationalization of Senate Elections Poses Challenge to Democrats in 2014

Democrats face several challenges in trying to maintain their majority in the U.S. Senate in the 2014 midterm election. In addition to the normal tendency of the president’s party to lose seats in midterm elections, Democrats are defending 21 of the 36 seats that are up this year including seven seats in states that were carried by Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. Moreover, six of those seats are in states that Romney carried by a double-digit margin.

Given this math, Republicans are almost certain to make at least some gains in this year’s Senate elections, and the six seats they need to regain control of the upper chamber appear to be within reach. The Crystal Ball’s most recent Senate ratings predict a GOP pickup of between four and eight seats in November, and several statistical forecasting models, including my own, have given Republicans at least a 50-50 chance of gaining six or more seats this year.

Despite the difficult task that they face in defending so many Senate seats in Red states this year, Democrats have some hope of offsetting expected losses by taking back two seats currently held by Republicans — the Kentucky seat held by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Georgia seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss. Based on recent polls, the Senate contests in both of these states appear to be highly competitive. In the Bluegrass State, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) has been running even with or slightly ahead of McConnell, and in Georgia, non-profit executive Michelle Nunn (D) has been running even with or slightly ahead of businessman David Perdue (R) and Rep. Jack Kingston (R), the two finalists facing off for the Peach State’s GOP nomination.

Picking up one or both of these seats would obviously make it much easier for Democrats to maintain control of the Senate. Republicans would then need to flip seven or eight seats currently held by Democrats instead of just six in order to get to 51 seats. But what are the chances of Democrats winning either one of these contests?

Despite the results of recent polls, there are several reasons to be skeptical about Democrats’ chances of winning either the Kentucky or the Georgia seat in November. Kentucky hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1992, and Barack Obama lost the state by 16 points in 2008 and 23 points in 2012. Georgia hasn’t been quite as unfriendly to Democratic candidates in recent years. Still, no Democrat has won a Senate contest in the state since Zell Miller in 2000, and the last Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state was Bill Clinton in 1992. Obama lost Georgia by five points in 2008 and eight points in 2012.

Table 1: Percentage voting for president’s party in Senate elections by evaluation of president’s job performance, 1972-2012

Source: American National Election Studies

Beyond these recent election results, Democrats would have to overcome another obstacle in order to take back the Kentucky or Georgia Senate seats in 2014 — the increasing nationalization of U.S. Senate elections. Table 1 displays the results of an analysis of voting in U.S. Senate elections since the 1970s, using data from the American National Election Studies. The data in this table show that over this time period, voting decisions in these contests have become increasingly influenced by opinions of the incumbent president’s performance. This relationship set a new record in 2012. Ninety percent of voters who approved of President Obama’s job performance voted for a Democratic Senate candidate while 82% of voters who disapproved of the president’s performance voted for a Republican Senate candidate.

This trend portends problems for Democratic candidates in Red states like Georgia and Kentucky. Recent polls put Obama’s approval rating at 44% in Georgia and 34% in Kentucky. Moreover, in midterm elections like 2014, voters who disapprove of the president’s performance tend to turn out at a higher rate than those who approve of his performance.

Table 2: Seat changes, seat swing and majority control changes in Senate elections by decade

Sources: CQ Guide to U.S. Elections and data compiled by author

One important consequence of the growing impact of presidential evaluations on Senate voting decisions has been growing consistency of party-seat switches in Senate elections as contests across the nation are increasingly influenced by trends in presidential approval. This trend can be seen in Table 2, which displays both the number of seats switching party control and the partisan consistency of these seat switches by decade since the 1960s. The results in this table show that while the average number of seats switching party control in recent elections has been close to the average of the last 50 years, the partisan consistency of those seat switches has been considerably greater than in the past.

Between 2000 and 2012, almost 90% of seat switches in Senate elections were in a consistent partisan direction. Moreover, in the four federal elections between 2006 and 2012, this trend has become even stronger. Nearly all of the seat switches in this quartet of elections — 23 of 24, or 96% — have been in a consistent partisan direction. In 2006 and 2008, there were a total of 14 party-seat switches, and all of them involved Republican seats switching to Democratic control. In contrast, all six switches in 2010 involved Democratic seats switching to Republican control. Finally, in 2012, three of the four switches involved Republican seats switching to Democratic control.

Implications for 2014 and the future of Senate elections

These results suggest that if, as expected, Republicans pick up several Senate seats currently held by Democrats in November, Democrats will find it difficult to offset these losses by picking up seats currently held by Republicans in Kentucky and Georgia. In the past, it was not unusual to see both parties picking up seats previously held by the other party in the same Senate election. In 1976, for example, a total of 14 seats switched party control: seven seats switched from Democratic to Republican control, and an identical seven seats switched from Republican to Democratic control. In recent elections, however, party-seat switches have been much more consistent with all or almost all seats switching in the same direction in a given election.

Greater partisan consistency in seat switches means that even though the number of seats switching party control has not increased, the size of the overall national seat swing in recent elections has been larger than in the past as the data in Table 2 show. Combined with the relatively small size of party majorities in recent years compared with the 1960s and 1970s, this trend means that changes in party control of the Senate are more likely now than in the past. Since 1992, there have been four switches in party control of the Senate compared with only two in the previous three decades.

Almost every election now brings with it the potential for a shift in party control of the Senate, and the 2014 midterm election is no exception. Moreover, increased competition for control of the Senate has affected the way the Senate works. It has been an important factor in the growing intensity of party conflict in the upper chamber. Leaders of both parties increasingly seek to use Senate rules and procedures to embarrass the opposing party and give their own party an advantage heading into the next election. And this situation is unlikely to change as a result of the 2014 election — the size of the Republican or Democratic majority in the next Senate will almost certainly be very narrow, so the 2016 election will bring with it another good chance of a change in party control.

Alan I. Abramowitz is the Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University and a senior columnist for the Crystal Ball. His most recent book is The Polarized Public: Why American Government Is So Dysfunctional. Follow Alan on Twitter @AlanIAbramowitz.