Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Senators Dilemma
- or -
Why it doesn't matter whether Nate Silver or Sam Wang is right about the GOP winning the Senate.

The Senators Dilemma

In case you missed it, there was an interesting  geek-fight between election prognosticators Nate Silver of Five Thirty Eight Blog, and Sam Wang of Princeton Election Consortium over the last few weeks.

Nate Silver has long been the darling of progressive poll watchers as he wears his liberal sensibilities on his sleeve. However, he does not let his personal political preferences affect his quantitative analysis.  His accuracy in predicting political outcomes in recent cycles has been nothing less than exemplary. Which explains the cries, lamentations and rending of garments among Democrats when, last March, he predicted that Republicans had a 60% chance of taking the Senate. Notable among the critical cognoscenti was Paul Krugman, who is the opposite of Silver in the sense that he never lets facts, rationality or reality get in the way of his particularly progressive view of the world.

Silver's Senate prediction of a Republican takeover has remained consistently in the 60% range since that March prediction. Which goes a long way to explaining why the left-o-sphere lurched for Sam Wang's recent prediction that the Democrats would continue to control the Senate like a drowning man grabbing for floating debris. Since then Silver critiqued Wang's methodology, who responded in kind by explaining what Silver was doing wrong, leading to another Silver rebuttal, and a Wang counter-tweet...

... and so it goes. But it really does not matter.

It does not matter because, like most pollsters, they essentially agree that the Senate red/blue caucus mix will wind up 51-49, 50-50 or 49-51 after the midterms. And that means regardless of the election night outcome, control of the Senate will be decided by Greg Orman, Angus King, and Joe Manchin. Not necessarily in that order.

Angus King is the Independent Senator from Maine currently caucusing with the Democrats. Greg Orman is the Independent candidate for Senator in Kansas, currently leading in the polls against incumbent Republican Senator and alleged Kansas resident Pat Roberts. Joe Manchin is the Democratic Senator from West Virginia and arguably the most conservative of the three. Whether Manchin chooses to remain a Democrat, and/or whether Orman (assuming he wins) and King choose continue to caucus with the Democrats will determine which party controls the Senate for the next two years.

The real question is whether there is a reason for one or more of them to caucus GOP. So let's assume, as the Dividist has been predicting since April, that we wind up 50-50 on election night. If no one of the three switches, Joe Biden has the deciding vote and the Democrats continue to control the Senate.  Why won't it stay that way? The reason is this:  All three have to stay put to maintain the Democratic majority status quo. The first one to crack is likely to be the one to gain the greatest advantage for their state, their personal ambitions, and their reelection prospects.  In game theory it's called The Prisoners Dilemma. The first to flip gets the advantage. The last to flip gets bupkis. Lets look at them individually.

Of the three, Independent Angus King is probably the least likely to caucus GOP. He caucuses Democrat now and that alignment has had no negative impact on his popularity in his state and hence his re-election prospects. Yet even King pays lip service to the notion that he will caucus with whichever party gives his state the greatest advantage. If he waits and either Manchin or Orman goes GOP and he stays with the Democrats, he will be caucusing with the minority party in the Senate and the party of an increasingly unpopular lame duck President. How does that help the people of Maine?

Depending on the poll, Independent Greg Orman is either slightly ahead or slightly behind the wildly unpopular Republican incumbent Pat Roberts.  Kansas is always described as solidly Republican and as far as the MSM is concerned, the official state name is  "Red State Kansas".  Robert's problem in that state is not about his Republican party affiliation, but has more to do with the fact that he does not appear to actually have been a Kansan in any conventional sense in recent years. In fact, the only reason Roberts has even kept the race competitive is by raising the specter of Orman caucusing Democrat.  If Orman gets elected, and wants to ever be reelected in Kansas, he'll caucus Republican.  In fact, the only thing he needs to do to ensure his election over Roberts, is to promise to caucus Republican sometime in the next three weeks. So he probably will, and if he does, he'll be the first to crack and win the Prisoner's Dilemma game.

Joe Manchin is a Democrat, but is more conservative on many policy issues than either King or Orman. Particularly on anything energy related as he represents the fossil energy dependent state of West Virginia. He recently campaigned for Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu who is fighting a tough race in another state economically dependent on fossil energy - Louisiana.  What makes this campaign swing interesting is the case he makes for reelecting Landrieu:
"If Landrieu is defeated, she would be replaced as the top Democrat on the Energy Committee by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. Manchin says Cantwell is “a very good person,” but someone who would take a “hard-line environmental position” and not be open to the kind of oil and gas exploration that Landrieu supports... 'We are dead. Absolutely dead without Mary' Manchin said."
In other words, West Virginia and Louisiana cannot afford to have the ranking Democrat chair the Energy Committee if Landrieu loses. Which will not be a problem if Manchin changes party and a Republican, maybe even Manchin himself, chairs that committee.  That would be a very good thing for West Virginia, and coincidentally for Joe Manchin.  Hard to understand why he would remain a Democrat if Landrieu loses.

It's a game and the first mover get the Cadillac. The second mover gets a set of Ginzu steak knives. Third place gets fired.  The GOP is going to control the Senate for the next two years. Deal with it.

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