Sabato's Crystal Ball

House 2016: Patriots & One-Term Wonders on the Frontline

What we can learn from both parties’ lists of top races, plus other notes

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball February 26th, 2015

Over the past few weeks the two parties’ House campaign arms, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee, have begun to roll out their lists of vulnerable seats and of the opposing seats they are targeting. The primary purpose for these lists is, of course, fundraising. They are a flashing billboard to loyal donors, alerting them as to which candidates they should support and incumbents they should oppose.

Beyond that, the lists serve as a signal to certain incumbents, hinting broadly to the ones who should be working hard early in the cycle because they are vulnerable. The parties are also reassuring preferred challengers that they will have national financial support if willing to run in a targeted district.

So far, the NRCC has named 19 Democratic incumbents it has identified as vulnerable, as well as 12 potentially vulnerable Republican incumbents who are in its Patriot Program. Meanwhile, the DCCC’s Frontline program names 14 most vulnerable members, and its One-Term Wonders feature 16 mostly first-term Republicans that the party is targeting. (The comparable Republican list does not at this point have a snazzy name.) The DCCC says that there are more GOP targets to come, which makes sense given the party’s deep deficit in the House: Democrats would need to net 30 seats next year to take the House majority. Overall, the GOP holds a daunting 245-188 edge in the House right now, with two vacancies that the Republicans should hold in upcoming special elections (more on those races below).

Significantly, the lists are useful to House watchers because, when combined, they show which seats both sides openly agree are in play in 2016.

Tables 1 and 2 show the Republican and Democratic seats that appear on both parties’ lists of top targets and vulnerable members. In other words, to appear in these tables, a Democrat would have to have a place on both the GOP’s list of targets as well as the Democratic Frontline program, and a Republican would have to have won notice on the GOP’s Patriot Program as well as the Democrats’ One-Term Wonders.

Table 1: Vulnerable Republicans as identified by congressional committee target and defense lists

Table 2: Vulnerable Democrats as identified by congressional committee target and defense lists

Sources: The Almanac of American Politics 2014 for 2012 Obama/Romney numbers, the Cook Political Report’s National House Popular Vote Tracker for 2014 results. All results rounded to the closest whole number.

Of the 11 Republicans in Table 1, none were in the House in 2012. So these are 2014 wave winners whom the GOP will have to protect in what should be a less favorable climate in 2016. They are not all technically first-termers, though: Reps. Robert Dold (R, IL-10) and Frank Guinta (R, NH-1) won their first terms in 2010, lost in 2012, and then avenged their defeats in 2014. Of these 11 seats, nine were won by Obama in 2012, so if Democrats gain seats on the overextended Republicans in 2016, these are some of the first ones that could fall.

Of the 12 Republicans listed in their Patriot Program, 11 appear here. The only one who does not, Rep. David Valadao (R, CA-21), was first elected in 2012 and thus does not fit the Democrats’ “one-term” rubric. But when Democrats release their next list of longer-serving Republican targets, Valadao will be included: His district is one of the most Democratic held by any Republican, giving Obama 55% of the vote in 2012. It also is more than two-thirds Hispanic, which poses both a turnout challenge and an opportunity for Democrats in a presidential year.

Five of the Democrats’ 16 One-Term Wonders are not listed by the Republicans on their Patriot list, which indicates some disagreement between the parties on their vulnerability. They are Reps. David Jolly (R, FL-13), Rod Blum (R, IA-1), Tom MacArthur (R, NJ-3), Ryan Costello (R, PA-6), and Barbara Comstock (R, VA-10). On four of these five, we agree with the Republicans that they do not start off the cycle as very vulnerable: Jolly was unopposed in 2014 after winning a very competitive special election earlier in the year, and MacArthur, Costello, and Comstock all won by at least nine points last November. We rate all as Likely Republican: Democrats will have to prove through recruiting and fundraising that these seats are truly in play.

Blum’s seat is a different story: He won by less than three points in 2014 and sits in one of the most Democratic seats held by any Republican (56%-42% Obama in 2012). That makes him one of the likeliest House incumbents on either side to lose in 2016. So why is he not listed by the Republicans on their list of seats to defend? Probably because he voted against Speaker John Boehner (R, OH-8) in last month’s leadership vote. This is payback. We know you’re shocked that such a thing could happen in politics — but take some deep breaths and continue reading.

Blum will be a highly courted Iowa Republican this year: For instance, he’s holding an event with Scott Walker next month. But while GOP presidential candidates are going to be beating a path to his door as they compete in the opening contest of the presidential nominating season, the national party could very well hang him out to dry given how hard it will be to hold his seat, not to mention the fact that he’s not playing ball with leadership. Or maybe he’ll be added to the list later if there’s some kiss-and-make-up.

The 14 Democrats in Table 2 are mostly 2014 survivors, and they should benefit from 2016 turnout. That particularly goes for the five Californians on this list: If the GOP could not win these seats in 2014 there’s no real reason to think they will win them next year, assuming no scandals or retirements. All of these members first won in 2012 or 2014, although Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick (D, AZ-1) and Rick Nolan (D, MN-8) previously served in the House prior to their 2012 victories (like Dold and Guinta on the Republican side). Something to watch among this group is whether Reps. Patrick Murphy (D, FL-18) or Kyrsten Sinema (D, AZ-9) runs for the Senate. Both would be potentially strong statewide candidates, and their seats, particularly Murphy’s, would be hard for Democrats to hold without their incumbents.

The Republican target list has an additional five names not listed on the Democrats’ Frontline defensive roster. One of them, Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D, NM-3), is included merely for trolling purposes: Luján is head of the DCCC. But his district is much too Democratic, 58%-39% Obama in 2012, to be an actual Republican target in a presidential year. Also mostly a “take that!” mirage is the inclusion of Rep. Steve Israel (D, NY-3), who is Luján’s predecessor as DCCC chairman. Israel has not had a hard race since his initial election in 2000, and there’s not much reason to think he will have trouble in 2016. Yet his district is only about as Democratic as the nation as a whole, so it could be competitive under some theoretical circumstances. We call it Safe Democratic in our ratings owing to Israel’s established strength, but it’s not impossible that the right Republican could push him a bit.

The other three Democrats who appear on the Republican but not the Democratic list are: Rep. John Garamendi (D, CA-3), who had a somewhat close call in 2014 but will be even harder to beat with 2016 turnout; Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D, CT-5), who did better in 2014 than in her initial 2012 election; and Collin Peterson (D, MN-7), who holds the most Republican seat held by any Democrat in the nation. Yet Peterson has a strong local presence, and Republicans may be simply trying to goad him into retirement. Again, assuming no scandals or retirements — a big “if” in the 70-year-old Peterson’s case, although he said recently that he’s “running at this point” — we don’t consider any of these five aforementioned members to be especially vulnerable.

Ultimately, there are just 25 seats listed in Tables 1 and 2 where there is a consensus among Democrats and Republicans that the races should be competitive, and we’re not even sure we’d go that far: Several of the seats the Crystal Ball has already categorized as Likely for one side or the other, so it is not obvious to us that they will be competitive. Another appears in the Crystal Ball as Safe Democratic (IL-17, held by Rep. Cheri Bustos). More races will obviously come into play, and remember that the Democrats have more Republican targets to unveil. However, there’s little reason to expect at this point that more than about 50-60 seats — and probably fewer — will be truly competitive in the general election. That’s barely more than a tenth of all 435 House seats.

Overall, our outlook is for the Democrats to end the cycle in 2016 with more seats than they hold now, but the Republican majority is secure, barring a massive Democratic wave.

Other news and notes

— The House campaign, understandably, is mostly in a state of hibernation, but we do have one rating to change. Rep. Tim Walberg (R, MI-7) has always been a bit more conservative than his southern Michigan-based seat. Obama won it in 2008, and Romney won it in 2012, so it can swing even though it has a small Republican lean. Walberg first emerged on the national scene by primarying a moderate Republican congressman, Joe Schwarz, in 2006. Walberg then narrowly won the seat in the general, lost it in 2008, and then recaptured it in 2010. Democrats have a potentially strong challenger, state Rep. Gretchen Driskell (D), a candidate respected by some of our Republican sources. We’re moving this race from Likely Republican to Leans Republican.

Table 3: Crystal Ball House ratings change

— Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) stubbornly refused to schedule a special election to replace disgraced former Rep. Michael Grimm (R, NY-11) until a judge last week ordered him to do so. Cuomo has now set the election for May 5. In New York, the parties choose the candidates. The Republican nominee will be popular Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, and the Democratic candidate appears likely to be New York City Councilman Vincent Gentile of Brooklyn. A Brooklyn candidate could not have been the first choice of Democrats because Staten Island dominates the district, but bigger names decided not to run. We took a detailed look at this district and special election last month, and there’s been no indication since then that Democrats are going to strongly contest this special election. The race rating remains Likely Republican, and that designation might still be generous to the Democrats.

— The recent death of Rep. Alan Nunnelee (R, MS-1) from brain cancer has triggered a special election for the seat. The field of candidates remains largely unformed: Sam Hall of the (Jackson) Clarion-Ledger has a useful rundown of the possibilities, who have until March 27 to enter the race. Earlier this week Gov. Phil Bryant (R) set the special election for May 12 with a runoff if needed on June 2. A runoff is likely: All candidates run together on the same nonpartisan ballot, so presumably no one will get over 50%. This is a seat Mitt Romney won with 62% in 2012, so it should be a Safe Republican hold even though ex-Rep. Travis Childers (D) captured it in a 2008 special election and then held it in the ’08 general, before losing to Nunnelee in 2010. Childers succeeded when George W. Bush was in the White House; under Obama, one would expect a different outcome.


Religion in Politics: A Look at Data From the New American Values Atlas

Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley, Sabato's Crystal Ball February 25th, 2015

On Wednesday, the Public Religion Research Institute released its new American Values Atlas. It is full of information regarding the American public’s religious identity, political views on hot-button issues such as abortion and immigration, and demographic information for regions, states, and major metropolitan areas. This atlas should prove to be a highly useful resource, especially because of the incomplete state-by-state data in recent exit polls.

Using this treasure trove of new data, the Crystal Ball took a look at three major religious groups in the American public: white evangelicals, the unaffiliated, and Catholics.

White evangelicals and Romney

It’s no secret that white evangelical Christians voted heavily for Mitt Romney in 2012, a notable fact given his Mormon faith. Many commentators had wondered if Romney’s performance among voters in this crucial GOP base group would suffer. But according to the exit poll, 78% of them backed the Republican nominee, a four-point improvement over John McCain’s performance in 2008. This is a testament to the partisan polarization that has taken deep root in the United States, almost across the board. Let’s see just how consequential this mode of identity seemed to be for the election outcomes in many states.

Table 1: Percentage of state population identifying as white evangelical and percentage vote for Romney

Source: Public Religion Research Institute, Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections

Take a look at Table 1 above, which lists the states by the percentage of the population that identifies as white evangelical Protestant and the 2012 vote for Romney in each state. Tellingly, the 16 states with the largest percentages of white evangelicals all went for the Republican, and out of 50 states, 20 of the 25 with the largest percentages backed Romney. In other words, of the 24 states Romney won in 2012, five out of six were in the top half of states with the greatest proportions of white evangelicals. The four outside of that group were Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, and, unsurprisingly, Utah. And at least in the cases of the latter three, they fall in the top six states in terms of Mormon percentage of the population, a group that voted overwhelmingly for its coreligionist in 2012. (Utah and Idaho have the two largest Mormon percentages at 56% and 20%, respectively.)

The simple linear regression in Chart 1 shows a solidly positive relationship between the portion of a state’s population identifying as white evangelical Christian and its support for Romney. There is a relatively strong correlation of .65 between the two variables.

Chart 1: Simple linear regression of white evangelical percentage and Romney percentage

Note: Doesn’t include Washington, DC.

While race certainly plays a role in all this — the group in question is denoted as white evangelicals, after all — it’s not the whole story. On the one hand, the exit poll found Romney won 59% of white voters. But on the other hand, using the PRRI data, the correlation between the white percentage of the population by state and its support for Romney is only .35, far less than .65.

The unaffiliated

Religiosity certainly matters to political identity, especially given the potency of policy debates over issues like same-sex marriage and abortion. Polling from Gallup in early 2014 showed that the 19 states with the largest concentrations of “very religious” Americans all voted for Romney in 2012. The 2012 exit poll found a very clear increase in support levels for Romney among voters who attended church more often: Romney won weekly church attendees 58%-41% and those who attended “more than weekly” 63%-36%. The flipside of this is also apparent: Less religious voters tended to vote more for Obama. Obama won monthly attendees 55%-44%, Easter-Christmas churchgoers (“few times a year”) 56%-42%, and those who said they never attended 62%-34%.

Thus, just as the states with the most religious voters usually supported Romney, the states with larger numbers of less religious voters were likely to back Obama in 2012.

When someone describes him- or herself as “unaffiliated,” it doesn’t necessarily mean the individual isn’t religious, but it does suggest that religion is probably not a central part of life. As shown in Chart 2, a simple regression analysis of PRRI’s state-level data for the unaffiliated and 2012 state support for President Obama shows a positive relationship, with a correlation of .40 between the two variables. This is a fairly mild relationship, but it does at least suggest a connection between decreased religiosity and increased support for Democrats. Of the 24 states with the largest percentages of unaffiliated (22% or more), three-fourths supported Obama. Conversely, the states with the smallest percentages of unaffiliated nearly all backed Romney: of the 14 states with 18% or less unaffiliated, 13 supported the Republican, with only New Jersey (with 18% unaffiliated) voting for Obama.

Chart 2: Simple linear regression of unaffiliated percentage and support for Obama

Note: Doesn’t include Washington, DC.

Catholic voting

Avowed anti-Catholicism is, fortunately, not really a part of American politics anymore. While there has only been one Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, Catholicism hardly seems like a mark against any politician these days. For example, the new Congress opened with a record number of 164 Catholics (30.7% of the 535 total membership). The lack of anti-Catholic sentiment can also be seen in the composition of the Supreme Court, where six justices are Catholic (and the other three are Jewish, another religious group that has faced persecution throughout history).

But opposition to the Catholic Church used to play a major role in American politics. In the pre-Civil War era, the Whigs (and later the Republicans) were generally the more anti-Catholic party, in part because Catholic Irish immigrants were such an important voting bloc in the Democratic coalition. The phrase “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” originated in the 1884 election as a Republican attack on the Democrats, with “Romanism” referring to the Catholic Church. (Historians now remember the attack as a perhaps-fatal gaffe in an election that Democrat Grover Cleveland would win.) New York Gov. Al Smith, the 1928 Democratic presidential nominee and a Catholic, lost in a wipeout, and his religion (and opposition to Prohibition, which was in effect at the time) contributed to his failure to carry several Southern states that had voted Democratic for president since Reconstruction. However, Smith won two heavily Catholic states above the Mason-Dixon Line: Massachusetts and Rhode Island, which prior to that election were reliably Republican. According to the survey, Massachusetts and Rhode Island currently have the highest percentage of white Catholic residents.

Kennedy’s groundbreaking election in 1960 had a great deal to do with religion: Kennedy won more than three-fourths of Catholics, and Richard Nixon won about two-thirds of Protestants.

As we noted, more than 150 years ago the Whigs (in many ways the antecedents to the Republicans) were generally the more anti-immigration party while the Democrats were generally the more pro-immigration party and the political home for recent Catholic immigrants (primarily Irish and German). The more things change, the more they remain the same. In modern politics, the Republicans remain the party that is less pro-immigration than Democrats, and Catholic immigrants (this time, Hispanics) again identify more with the Democrats.

(Much of the history noted above is described in historian Morton Keller’s excellent America’s Three Regimes, which we highly recommend.)

In the exit poll era (beginning in 1972), white Catholics have generally voted about the same as the nation, at least through 1996. In seven elections, Democrats won three and lost four shots at the presidency, winning an average of 44% of the vote. Amongst white Catholics, the Democrat also got an average of 44%. In this same time period, whites as whole were more Republican: They gave just 39% of the vote to the Democratic nominee, on average, in these seven elections.

But from 2000 on, white Catholics became clearly more Republican. Over the past four elections, the nation gave an average of 50% of the vote to the Democratic nominee, with an average of 41% of whites going Democratic and 44% of white Catholics voting Democratic. So white Catholics remain a bit more Democratic than whites as a whole, but they aren’t as reflective of the nation as they used to be.

In 2012 Obama won Catholics 50%-48% according to the exit poll, about the same as his 51%-47% national victory. The 2012 exit poll does not break down nonwhite Catholics as a separate group, but given that 18% of the electorate was white Catholic and 25% was Catholic overall, about seven percentage points worth of voters therefore were nonwhite Catholic. The PRRI survey shows that only 2% of the adults surveyed were Catholics who were neither Hispanic nor white, so the lion’s share of the nonwhite Catholics in the exit poll were Hispanics. Because Obama got 40% among white Catholics and 50% overall, we can estimate that Obama won about 75% of nonwhite (mostly Hispanic) Catholics.

Charts 3 and 4 display simple regression analyses of the Hispanic and white Catholic percentages in each state compared with 2012 support for Obama. Examining the state-level Hispanic Catholic numbers and support for Obama doesn’t tell us much, even though the exit poll found that 71% of Latino voters cast ballots for the Democrat in 2012. The correlation between the percentage of the population that identifies as Hispanic Catholic and 2012 support for Obama is weak, .21 (Chart 3). Only six states have 10% or larger cohorts of Hispanic Catholics, meaning their overall voting influence on 2012 state-by-state outcomes was relatively small outside of the few states with large Latino populations (e.g., California or New Mexico). Texas, with the third-largest percentage of Hispanic Catholics, still went solidly Republican in 2012. We can only assume Texas Latino voters went big for Obama again in 2012 — he won 63% of the group’s vote in 2008 there — because regrettably there was no exit poll for the Lone Star State in 2012.

Chart 3: Simple linear regression of Hispanic Catholic percentage and 2012 support for Obama

Note: Doesn’t include Washington, DC.

Examining white Catholics tells us a little bit more. The correlation between the percentage of the population in each state that identifies as white Catholic and 2012 support for Obama is .43 (Chart 3). While the correlation is mild in strength, it’s much stronger than in the case of Hispanic Catholics. The moderate correlation follows the logic that white Catholics are, on the whole, more inclined to vote Democratic than Republican, at least compared to their white evangelical counterparts. White Catholics voted for Romney 59%-40% (about the same as whites as a whole) versus the 78%-21% Romney edge among white evangelicals. So while Obama didn’t do well among white Catholics, he unquestionably did better among them than white evangelicals. Looking at the states, the three with the largest white Catholic populations — Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut — are solidly blue and are the only states that are at least 30% white Catholic, meaning that those states’ white Catholic populations have the size to clearly influence statewide voting outcomes. Of the states that are at least 20% white Catholic, only North Dakota did not back Obama in 2012.

Chart 4: Simple linear regression of white Catholic percentage and 2012 support for Obama

Note: Doesn’t include Washington, DC.

Conclusion

Outside of partisan identity itself, race may well be the most vital factor in understanding politics today. Yet there is no question that different value systems based on religious beliefs (or a lack thereof) also play a notable role in determining political identity. To some extent, the party bases reflect this. Social conservatives, many of whom are evangelicals, are major players in the Republican base and will undoubtedly make their voices heard in the coming 2016 presidential nomination battle. Meanwhile, many liberal Democrats fall into the category of religiously unaffiliated, and they are strongly supportive of same-sex marriage and abortion rights. Given the significant pull of such issues on both the right and left, religion will continue to be an essential part of any discussion of contemporary American politics.


Why Outside Spending Is Overrated

Lessons from the 2014 Senate Elections

Alan I. Abramowitz, Senior Columnist, Sabato's Crystal Ball February 19th, 2015

The Koch brothers and their network of wealthy conservative donors recently announced that they intend to spend almost $900 million on the 2016 elections. This level of spending by a group operating independently of any candidate or political party would be unprecedented in American politics. In fact, it would exceed the combined spending by the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee during the 2012 election cycle. Understandably, this announcement reinforced concerns among Democrats and liberals that spending by the Koch brothers and other conservative groups could give Republican candidates a crucial advantage in key House and Senate contests and in the race for the White House.

Since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision opened the door to spending by Super PACs funded by unlimited contributions from corporations, unions, and wealthy individuals, there has been a dramatic surge in spending by outside groups on federal elections. In 2012, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, groups not affiliated with any candidate or party spent over $1 billion on the presidential and congressional elections, more than three times the amount that such groups spent in the previous presidential election year. In 2014, outside groups spent over $565 million, almost twice the amount that such groups spent in the previous midterm election year.

Spending by outside groups strongly favored Republican candidates in 2012. According to the data from the Center for Responsive Politics, conservative groups spent over $700 million on the 2012 presidential and congressional elections while liberal groups spent less than $300 million. Despite this huge advantage in outside spending, however, candidates favored by conservative groups generally fared poorly in 2012. In the presidential race, conservative groups supporting Mitt Romney outspent liberal groups supporting Barack Obama by $418 million to $131 million but Obama still defeated Romney. In the battle for control of the Senate, the balance of outside spending favored Republicans over Democrats by a narrower margin of about $150 million to $115 million. Nevertheless, Democrats won almost every competitive race and actually added two seats to their Senate majority.

The impact of outside spending in 2014

While there is little evidence that conservative outside groups were successful in influencing the results of either the presidential election or key Senate contests in 2012, some observers believe that their efforts may have had a greater impact on the 2014 midterm elections, especially in the crucial battle for control of the Senate. Conservative groups spent more than $250 million in support of Republican Senate candidates in 2014, including almost $35 million in North Carolina, more than $33 million in Colorado, and more than $31 million in Iowa. Republican candidates won all three of those races and almost every other key Senate contest, scoring a net gain of nine seats in the upper chamber.

There is no question that 2014 was a very good year for Republicans, especially in the U.S. Senate elections. The question remains, however, to what extent did outside spending by conservative groups contribute to GOP gains in the 2014 Senate elections? On that score, there are good reasons to be skeptical. For one thing, liberal groups did a decent job of matching conservative groups in 2014 when it came to outside spending. Table 1 displays total spending by outside groups on the 10 Senate races with the largest amount of total outside spending.* These 10 races accounted for over 90% of spending by outside groups on the 2014 Senate elections. Altogether, liberal groups spent about $215 million to support Democratic candidates in these 10 states while conservative groups spent about $224 million to support Republican candidates. In four of these races, including North Carolina and Colorado, outside spending by liberal groups was actually greater than outside spending by conservative groups. And even where one side had an advantage in spending, as in Georgia or Michigan, it appears that both sides had more than enough money to get their messages across to the voters, especially when party spending and candidate spending are considered along with outside spending.

A glance at the data in Table 1 reveals another important feature of spending by outside groups: liberal and conservative groups tend to spend money on the same races. For all 34 two-party contested 2014 Senate elections (Alabama and Kansas’ races didn’t have candidates from both major parties), the correlation between spending by liberal groups and spending by conservative groups was an extraordinarily strong .94. Moreover, liberal and conservative groups also tend to spend money on the same races that the national parties are spending money on. For the same 34 Senate contests, the correlations between spending by liberal groups and spending by the Democratic and Republican Senate campaign committees were .96 and .92 respectively. The correlations between spending by conservative groups and spending by the Democratic and Republican Senate campaign committees were .93 and .91 respectively.

These spending data indicate that liberal and conservative outside groups along with the national parties were all pouring money into the same relatively small set of races that were considered competitive, and there was almost perfect agreement about which races those were. Moreover, even though they are not legally allowed to “coordinate” with each other, the outside groups and parties track each other’s spending closely: If they see other groups or parties spending money on a race, they spend money; if they don’t, they don’t. This can be seen from the fact that neither outside groups nor the parties spent a significant amount of money on the Virginia Senate race — a race that shocked everyone by turning out to be extremely close.

The fact that vast sums of money were being spent by liberal and conservative groups along with the national parties on the same small set of Senate races probably limited the impact of such spending. Not only was one side’s spending generally matched by the other side’s spending, but the sheer volume of spending probably exceeded the point of diminishing returns in many of these states. For example, after each side had spent $30 million on attack ads in a small state like Iowa, it’s hard to believe that an additional $1 million in spending on attack ads by either side was going to have much impact on the Hawkeye State electorate — except perhaps causing more Iowans to turn off their televisions.

Along with relatively balanced spending by both sides and diminishing returns on spending, there is another important reason to be skeptical about the influence of outside spending on the results of these Senate contests — the powerful influence of partisanship. In the current era of electoral competition, partisanship exerts a very strong influence on the outcomes of elections from the presidency down to the state and local level and Senate elections are no exception. In 2014, the correlation between the Democratic Senate candidate’s vote margin and Barack Obama’s vote margin in 2012 was an astonishing .89. With Maine excluded — Sen. Susan Collins (R) faced minimal opposition in her race and ran far ahead of Mitt Romney — the correlation goes up to .95.

In order to measure the effects of outside spending and party spending on the outcomes of 2014 Senate races, I conducted a regression analysis with the Democratic Senate margin as the dependent variable and four independent variables: the difference between pro-Democratic and pro-Republican outside spending in millions of dollars, the difference between Democratic and Republican Party spending in millions of dollars, incumbency (coded as +1 for Democratic incumbents, 0 for open seats, and -1 for Republican incumbents), and the 2012 Democratic presidential margin. The results of this analysis are displayed in Table 2 for the 34 Senate contests with Democratic and Republican candidates.

Table 2: Results of regression analysis of 2014 Senate election results

Sources: Center for Responsive Politics and data compiled by author

This regression equation does an excellent job of explaining the results of the 34 contested Senate races, explaining 86% of the variance in the Democratic Senate margin. Among our four independent variables, presidential partisanship was by far the strongest predictor of the election results. The estimated unstandardized regression coefficient for the presidential partisanship variable means that for every one percentage point increase in Barack Obama’s 2012 margin in a state, the Democratic Senate candidate in 2014 could expect to receive an increase of about .8 percentage points in his or her margin.

Incumbency also had a significant impact on the outcomes of Senate races. According to these results, on average, a Democratic or Republican incumbent could expect to receive a nine-point boost in margin compared with a Democratic or Republican candidate in an open-seat race. The estimated constant, or intercept, in the regression equation indicates that there was a significant Republican tide in 2014 — a Democratic candidate for an open seat in a state in which Barack Obama and Mitt Romney received equal shares of the vote in 2012 would be predicted to lose by a margin of more than six percentage points in 2014. However, these results indicate that neither outside spending nor party spending had a significant impact on the results of these Senate races. The estimated coefficients for the spending difference variables are both negligible in size and actually in the wrong direction. Our results indicate that after controlling for state presidential partisanship and incumbency, relative spending by outside groups and political parties had no discernible impact on the Democratic candidate’s margin in these contests.

Conclusions and implications for 2016

Republicans made major gains in the 2014 Senate elections but the findings reported here indicate that outside spending by conservative groups had little or nothing to do with those gains. The main reason why Republicans did very well in 2014 was that Democrats were defending far more seats than Republicans and many of those seats were in states that normally favor Republicans based on recent presidential voting patterns. Democrats lost all seven of their seats in states carried by Mitt Romney in 2012 even though Democratic candidates enjoyed an advantage in outside spending in several of those races.

The factors that limited the impact of outside spending in 2014 are very likely to be present in the 2016 elections as well. In the large majority of states, the winners of the presidential and Senate elections will be determined by the relative strength of the parties in the state. In the last four presidential elections, 40 of the 50 states have supported the same party in each contest, and there is little reason to expect anything different in 2016. In the 2016 Senate elections, Democrats are likely to gain at least a few seats simply because Republicans will be defending a large number of seats in blue states that they picked up in the 2010 midterm election. Notwithstanding the plans of the Koch network to spend almost $900 million on the 2016 elections, neither party is likely to enjoy a substantial advantage in spending in the relatively small number of competitive states that will decide the presidential election or control of the Senate.

The fact that outside spending is unlikely to have a major impact on the results of the 2016 elections does not, of course, mean that Americans should not be concerned about the vast sums of money pouring into American elections since the Citizens United decision. What we are seeing today is essentially an arms race between the two major parties with Democrats struggling to keep up with spending by the Koch brothers and other conservative billionaires. Even if Democrats and their liberal allies are able to remain financially competitive, it’s reasonable to question whether having both of our major parties increasingly dependent on financial largesse from the super-rich is a healthy development for American democracy.

*The Kansas Senate election is not included in this analysis because there was no Democratic candidate. Conservative groups spent more than $10 million to support Republican incumbent Pat Roberts while liberal groups spent almost $7 million to support independent Greg Orman.

Alan I. Abramowitz is the Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University and a senior columnist for the Crystal Ball. His most recent book is The Polarized Public: Why American Government Is So Dysfunctional. Follow Alan on Twitter @AlanIAbramowitz.