Georgia Senate Race

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Saxby Chambliss won reelection in the Georgia Senate run-off by a somewhat surprising margin 57-43% margin over Democrat Jim Martin.  Some random thoughts:

 

  1. I wouldn't yet call it an "Iron Law," but there seems to be an emerging pattern of the newly elected president's party losing in run-off elections.   Of course, the closest parallel was in Georgia in 1992 when republican Paul Coverdell beat incumbent Democrat Wyche Fowler following Bill Clinton's presidential victory.  Of course, there are big differences between the two cases.  First, Chambliss, unlike Coverdell, won the plurality of the votes in November.  Second, Clinton, unlike Obama, won Georgia's electoral votes.  So Chambliss's victory is not nearly surprising as Coverdell's was.
  2. Political scientists and economists such as Alberto Alesina, Howard Rosenthal, and Mo Fiorina have offered a "balancing" explanation as to why the new president's party performs poorly in these special elections and in midterm elections generally.  The basic idea is that most voters are more ideological moderate than the two parties and therefore would like to balance them through divided government.  Such balancing is hard to do during a presidential election due to the uncertainty surrounding the presidential contest.  If a voter splits her ticket to obtain balance but guesses wrong on the presidential race, she's only made matters worse.  But in a special or midterm election, voters have a clear opportunity to promote balance by voting against the president's party.
  3. There may be other explanations as well for the presidential slump.  Perhaps there is buyer's remorse.  Probably not the case here.  Obama seems just as popular now as when he was elected.  Perhaps winners get lazy and losers get fired up.  Because it was a fairly exhilarating victory for the Democrats and a very disheartening loss for the Republicans, this doesn't seem that plausible either.
  4. Much of the focus on the runoff centered on its potential to create a "filibuster-proof" Democratic majority in the Senate.  I've been fairly skeptical that getting to 60 is somehow magical.  Yes, 60 is better than 59 and 60 may be more better than 59 than 59 is better than 58.  But I don't think there was nearly so much riding on this race as some have suggested.  First, the academic literature on the Senate has failed to find a discontinuous advantage in reaching the filibuster margin.  The best book on the subject (written by Eric Schickler of Berkeley and Greg Wawro of Columbia) finds that many important piece of legislation pass with a less than 60 vote margin (in other words, the opponents of legislation often fail to fully exploit there opportunity to obstruct).  Second, it seems plausible that Maine's Olympia Snow and Susan Collins will be almost as reliable a vote for Obama's initiatives than the southern moderate Martin.   
  5. A lot of heavy hitters campaigned in Georgia during the runoff (Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Sarah Palin, etc).  But the heaviest hitter of them all, President-elect Obama, sat this one out except for making some radio ads.  This contrasts to Bill Clinton's extensive activities on behalf of Fowler in 1992.  I have lots of hypotheses (but alas little data) as to why Obama stayed in Chicago.  The first is that he believes the "balancing" theory and didn't want to remind voters of this opportunity.  The second is that he agrees with me about relative unimportance of the 60th vote in the Senate (or he knows something about the Minnesota recount that I don't).  The third is the most plausible.  He's worked very hard in his transition to live up to his post-partisan promises.  Travelling to Georgia in the midst of an economic crisis to give a partisan political speech would have undone much of this.

3 Comments

If I'm not mistaken, I remember press interviews with voters who said something along the lines of "we have to be sure Democrats don't get a filibuster proof majority." Kind of evidence for balancing. Also surprising that people actually knew what the filibuster was, the threshold for ending it.

I don't see that balancing is necessary to explain the result, but I do agree tha that 60 votes thing has been overemphasized; see here:
http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~cook/movabletype/archives/2008/12/low-turnout-run.html

Also, I'm not convinced by Boris's evidence. I could well believe that these respondents were Republican voters who were just giving the 60th vote thing as a reason because that's what had been mentioned during the runoff campaign.

Andy: I didn't mean to overplay the balancing argument. I presented it as one of many, though it seemed to do better in the Wednesday morning analysis than some competitors. The difficulty with a low-turnout argument is that over a very large number of these special elections, the president's party has done worse than the out party. I'm pulling together some data on post-war special elections to the House, so check back later and I'll have some numbers on the table.

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