Forecasting Update: Senate Changes; The Shortcomings of Horse-Race Forecasting

Click for a legible version. In light of Russ Feingold’s tanking in the polls, the Senate forecasts have changed. Qualitatively, not quantitatively. While Chris Coons was predicted to lose to the then-likely Republican nominee Mike Castle, he appears to be likely to be elected over Christine O’Donnell.

I was somewhat struck as I sat and compared these electoral ratings to my previous forecast – namely, by the fact that they basically look the same. Four boxes have inverted colors on the sub-table – that’s it. Still looking at the same big, bold bottom-line prediction. If all I cared about was the raw numerical forecasting, there would’ve been no reason for this post.

On planet Raw Electoral Outcomes readers seem to care most about the bottom line – the new number of seats, the questions like “can my party overcome a filibuster?” or “does the President have to get legislation through a chamber where his part is the minority?” In the world of forecasting and political journalism, these questions have the same answer whether the President’s party lost its final seat of the majority in Delaware, Wisconsin, Nevada…

The trouble is that a Senate without a Russ Feingold and a Senate without a Chris Coons are in reality entirely different creatures. The type of legislation, what issues that legislation will target, whose records will be altered by cosponsoring that legislation, etc. are all subject to change depending on which Senator exists to propose the legislation at the time. If he wins, for example, Chris Coons will be at the bottom of the Senate Democratic hierarchy. Russ Feingold had the advantages of his relative seniority (he is the 29th longest-serving Senator). I have never seen Nate Silver or any other of the demigods of American political forecasting attempt to actually offer concrete policy outcomes of their forecasts.

It is also likely that Chris Coons will be less liberal than Feingold. Coons is running in a district previously held by Joe Biden, DW-NOMINATE score -.338, while Feingold has consistently held the most liberal record in the Senate, with a DW-NOMINATE score in the -.6 range. That means Coons may be a pivotal voter more often.

These are questions forecasting is ill-prepared to address. Perhaps it is not within the purview of professional prognosticators to think too deeply about long-term outcomes, but I think there is an entire untapped body of predictive work to think about here. How much legislation would the Senate propose without a Feingold vs. with? What would that legislation look like? How would it be different? I smell a side project.

There is definitely a shortcoming within the field of forecasting to think about here. In fact, this could be one of the ways that forecasting could become more than a thought exercise in the horse race. It would certainly be useful to the public, to journalists, to legislators, industry, interest groups, etc., to be able to think more concretely about electoral outcomes if we could start forecasting Senate productivity. Of course, that’s probably a much harder question to address than the actual election results – for now. But there were days when even elections were considered daunting bodies of data to assemble into coherent predictions.

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