Projections — Not Predictions — About 2012

by Stuart Rothenberg January 7, 2011 · 10:06 AM EST

I have been writing about campaigns and elections for more than three decades, but some of the people who comment about my work still don’t seem to have a clue what I do.

I’m quite certain that some who talk about politics like the prognosticator or pundit label. I’m not one of them. Here’s a bulletin: I don’t predict the future. I don’t try to predict the future. If you can predict it, I’m impressed. Congratulations.

So what do I do, especially when it comes to elections? I interview and evaluate candidates, offering projections about the future based on the existing data —polls, fundraising numbers, candidate comments and other pieces of information obtained through reporting.

Of course I make certain near-term assumptions about the future — about public opinion and the economy, for example — but throughout an election cycle, I emphasize that projections are likely to change as circumstances evolve.

And I always leave room for late developments in a cycle, which is why I don’t “call” a flip of the House or the Senate six, 12 or 18 months before an election. I’m not trying to be the first to “predict” who’ll control the House or Senate in a competitive cycle.

Since my analysis is data-driven, I want to see what the late data show — the last-minute polls, the final media buys, late interviews that I have with candidates — before offering my final projections on the most likely House and Senate outcomes.

Given this, I’ve always seen what I do as handicapping, not predicting. For as we all know, long shots win in both horse racing and politics.

All of this seems pretty obvious to me, but I figured I had better be explicit about what I do after reading that I “predicted” in an April 2009 column that Republicans would not win the House in 2010.

When I wrote my April 23, 2009, column, just three months after President Barack Obama’s inauguration, the data clearly indicated that Republicans had no chance of winning back the House.

As I wrote in that column, the GOP needed a political wave to develop for that to happen, and in April 2009 there were no signs of a wave developing. None. Zero. Zilch. In fact, at that time, public sentiment about the future (specifically about the direction of the country) was improving.

The president’s job approval sat at about 60 percent, the Democratic brand was far better than the Republican brand, and Democrats had recently won a special election in New York state that reflected continuing GOP problems.

I realize that if you are a partisan, you don’t need signs of a wave to see one with absolute certainty. You only need faith, and that’s something that devoted ideologues of the right and the left have in abundance. I’m not opposed to faith when it involves religion, but faith plays no part in my political analysis (or in any political or electoral analysis of any value).

Of course, my assessment didn’t mean that Republicans would never win back the House. But circumstances needed to change — the data would need to change — for that to happen.

When the data did change — Obama’s numbers sank, the economy showed no signs of an economic rebound, unemployment continued to rise, the Democratic Party’s numbers tanked — then I changed my projections, ultimately ending the cycle projecting Republican gains of 55 to 65 seats.

That’s the kind of process I employed last cycle, the cycle before it and the cycle before that. And that’s how I’ll approach 2012.

If you simply want to read an early prediction of what will happen in 2012, you’ll have to look elsewhere. I’m sure you can find some partisan observer or college professor who’ll be happy to offer a guess even now about the next election.

But that’s not what I do here in this column or in my newsletter. I interview and write about candidates, trying to identify the strongest ones as well as the less credible. I report on what the parties are doing and thinking. And I try to compare election cycles. Handicapping is a part of the product, but it’s just a tip of the iceberg.

Now, on to 2012.

Obviously, I have no idea what will happen in the fight for the House next year. At least not yet.

Projections at this point in the cycle are of dubious value, especially because redistricting will be a huge wild card. We have no idea what the economy (and the unemployment rate) will be like. And we don’t know anything about candidate recruitment or fundraising.

Even more important, we don’t know how the dynamic of divided government will play out or how voters will regard the two parties when 2012 rolls around.

We do know that last cycle’s huge Republican net gain of 63 seats means a House of 242 Republicans and 193 Democrats, and that the GOP gains included a handful of Democratic-leaning districts that could snap back to the Democrats in a year when higher turnout among young voters and African-Americans could mean a less Republican electorate.

Republicans control the redistricting process in more states, which gives them a significant advantage. But their large gains in 2010 limit their ability to take advantage of that power, since they already have maximized their gains in some states.

I start out with the working assumption that there won’t be huge changes in the House. Democrats should win back some seats that they lost only because of the midterm wave, but those gains could be offset by the GOP redistricting advantage.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, this isn’t a prediction. It’s a baseline projection that will be adjusted over time, as we all start to see more data and as the 2012 elections approach. Enjoy the ride over the next 22 months.