Monday, September 10, 2012

Introducing the Baseballot Senate Rankings

Too much attention is paid to the presidential race, and the dozens of polls in each swing state make it too difficult to create any stable kind of ranking. The race for control of the House, meanwhile, has far too many unknowns and, with 435 races, is a far too ambitious project for only eight weeks out. Therefore, here in 2012, in Baseballot's first election cycle of existence, I have decided to issue my personal rankings for the race for control of the US Senate, which are now available by clicking the appropriate tab above.

I initially issued these rankings over Twitter a couple weeks ago; there has been only one change, which I also tweeted about today. That first announcement (a soft launch, if you like) prompted a good round of debate and discussion with some followers, and I encourage readers to do the same thing with the rankings now that they are posted in full on the site.

Bringing the rankings off Twitter and into a somewhat more institutionalized form allows me to do a few things. First, it lets me display them in a more creative way—at least, as creative as my Excel-chart-making skills will allow. Second, it lets me explain my thought process to you in more than 140 characters.

As you'll see by clicking the link, each race is organized into a row and a column. The columns represent which party currently holds the seat; the rows represent my ranking of the competitiveness of that seat. As a result, you can see at a glance (a) which party stands to win the seat in question and (b) which party may potentially stand to lose it. In this case, the chart demonstrates how the "tipping point" of competitiveness lies squarely on the Republican side; that is, there are no Republican-held seats where Democrats have the advantage, while Republicans are looking good in some of the races in the left-hand column. In other words, Democrats are playing defense.

One of the most important features of the chart is the fact that, while the x-axis (current ownership of each seat) is necessarily a binary, the y-axis is more of a continuum. Specifically, I have ordered the races, from top to bottom, from most Democratic-leaning to most Republican-leaning. This is because, despite the usefulness of labels such as "likely Republican," they can also be misleading—these things are on more of a "percentage-likelihood-of-winning" sliding scale. Put another way, I do not believe that Wendy Long (R-NY) has the same odds of winning as Pete Hoekstra (R-MI), despite the fact that they are both in the Solid Democrat category.

This has another useful visual side effect. If and when I update the chart, you might see some of the races move up or down in the ranking—or you might instead see the rankings move up or down the chart. The former would be if an event shook the odds in a specific state—for example, if the Republican candidate makes an offensive comment about rape. The latter would occur if the national electoral landscape appears to move in a more Democrat- or Republican-friendly direction.

As for my methodology—I regrettably do not have the numerological chops of Nate Silver, who in my mind has the last word in electoral rankings at any level and whose predictions and analysis I respect greatly. As a result, my rankings go more with my gut than with any statistical formula. (Naturally, however, my gut is informed significantly by polls, my assessment of the quality of those polls, and other both qualitative and quantitative race analyses that I read in publications and online.) You'll notice that I've used the widely accepted format of "Solid/Likely/Leans." To me, "Solid" means there is simply no evidence that that party can lose that seat. "Likely" means that I acknowledge that the seat is in play, but in my heart of hearts I don't see it going to the other party. "Leans" means I believe a race could reasonably go either way, but I have identified enough of a tilt that I'm comfortable making a call. And, finally, "Tossup" means I simply have no freaking idea.

I will make one observation about my formulation of the rankings. You may come to notice, as I have, that I tend to be conservative in my assessment of each race. By this I do not mean that, in a fit of either optimism or pessimism, I tend to be more bullish about Republicans' chances; I mean that my rankings tend to take the long view and be slow to change. I will not be adjusting the chart if one poll comes out showing a drastically changed race; I will treat it as an outlier until more polls prove otherwise. Even if a few polls in a given week show the complexion of a campaign to have changed, I'll usually hold off in switching the ranking until I can confirm that it wasn't just a temporary "bounce." I tend to believe that the picture painted over a broader sample size, on a more consistent basis, is the more reliable one. Indeed, I'll even take this to the extreme sometimes—if polling is showing a neck-in-neck race in a state that usually displays a strong partisan tilt, I'll be skeptical that those voters are really leaving that partisan past behind. This is why, for example, despite most polls showing Scott Brown in the lead, I continue to consider Massachusetts a Tossup; in a state where President Obama is likely to hit 60% of the vote, I simply consider it a tall order for Brown to win over 10% worth of ticket-splitters. (The reverse of the Massachusetts case is true in Indiana and North Dakota, which I see as Leans Republican but which polls show as tied.)

For those of you not curious about the individual subtleties of each race, I've provided the rankings' bottom line in the final column on the right of the chart: the number of projected Democrats, the number of projected Republicans, and the number of tossups. Currently, I foresee—as I have for a few months now—a complete tossup for control, with 48 seats looking blue and 48 seats looking red. That leaves four Tossups, which, if you take the definition of "tossup" literally, figure to split evenly between the two parties. That creates a Senate tied up at 50, with the future vice president (currently likely to be Joe Biden) the tie-breaking vote. (Given the conventional wisdom that Angus King will caucus with the Democrats, I've included him in the Democratic total for now, but it is certainly possible that in a truly tied Senate he would sell his services off to the highest bidder.)

Anyway, as has been said, the rankings have been added as a permanent addition to the site via the tab above. Check them often, as I anticipate they will change, and enjoy!