Predictions aside, HuffPo analyst sees gridlock ahead

This year’s midterm elections are unlikely to break the political impasse currently rankling the nation, the Huffington Post’s senior data scientist told a Yale audience recently.

At the panel discussion (from left) Jacob Hacker, David Mayhew, Eitan Hersh, and Natalie Jackson.

Natalie Jackson, a political scientist who aggregates polls and builds forecasting models, said the standoff between Democrats and Republicans in Washington, D.C., won’t be altered once votes are cast for Congressional seats in the House and Senate on Nov. 4. Voters and analysts alike have been closely monitoring a number of races, as well as the possibility of a shift in Senate control.

“I honestly don’t see that much will change, even if the Republicans do gain a majority in the Senate,” Jackson said during an Oct. 30 panel discussion presented by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism and the Institution for Social and Policy Studies. Jackson said President Obama likely would veto measures passed by a Republican-controlled Congress, while Democrats have little hope of reaching the 60-vote level in the Senate needed to pass legislation without Republican support.

“I don’t see any break in the gridlock we’ve already seen,” Jackson said.

Rounding out the panel were David Mayhew, Sterling Professor of Political Science; and Eitan Hersh, assistant professor of political science. The moderator was Jacob Hacker, director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies and the Stanley B. Resor Professor of Political Science.

Jackson said most analysts give Republicans a 60-69% chance of winning the Senate. But she warned that such predictions must take into account many factors, such as how national issues affect individual state races and the ever-elusive nature of voter turnout.

“The moral of the overall forecast is: Flip a coin,” Jackson said.

Mayhew pointed out that over the past century, midterm elections have proven disastrous for the political party of a president in his second term. In nearly every case, from Democrats during the second terms of Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton, to Republicans during the second terms of Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush, the president’s party fared poorly.

“Midterms are just plain bad news for a president’s party,” Mayhew said. “The president’s party gets hammered in the second midterm. That’s the history.”

Hersh and Jackson said they’re particularly interested in voter turnout for the 2014 races. If Democrats perform better than expected, Hersh noted, it is likely to be due to better-than-predicted voter turnout. If Republicans perform better than expected, he said, it may be an indication of how difficult it was for Democrats to overcome a lack of enthusiasm.

Hacker asked the panel to reflect on the potential importance of the 2014 midterms.

Jackson said the biggest impact may be at the state level. There are a dozen close gubernatorial races, she pointed out, including Connecticut. Hersh said the midterms may have a significant impact on judicial appointments, though not necessarily at the U.S. Supreme Court level.

Mayhew speculated that a Republican-controlled Congress would produce legislation on such issues as the Keystone XL pipeline, leading to “veto games” between Congress and the President. “Agenda control makes a fair amount of difference,” Mayhew said.

Mayhew also predicted that beyond 2014, the country will take a new look at campaign finance reform. Historically, he said, reform efforts have been directed at specific institutions, from political machines to unions to corporations.

“Right now, it’s a billionaires’ problem,” Mayhew said. “It seems to smell bad, with billionaires being able to put a lot of money into politics.”

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Jim Shelton: james.shelton@yale.edu, 203-361-8332