Monday, July 14, 2008

Fight for the House: A Note on Ratings and the Elections

By Stuart Rothenberg

As almost everyone knows, Charlie Cook is a longtime friend and the publisher of the highly regarded Cook Political Report. I think it’s fair to say that I pay close attention to Charlie’s House and Senate ratings and he does the same with mine.

This column was prompted by a short piece in the Washington Post about recent ratings changes by Charlie’s newsletter, but my comments are less about the Cook Political Report and more about how the Post played those new ratings.

The Post suggested that the recent shift in the ratings of 27 House races toward Democrats by the Cook Political Report is “evidence that a Democratic wave may be building.” I don’t agree. Though, like Charlie, I expect significant Democratic House gains.

It’s important to note that 21 of the 28 races Cook moved recently went from “Solid Republican” to “Likely Republican.” From a handicapping point of view, there is relatively little difference between those two categories.

My own newsletter lists only districts where I believe a change of party is possible. My “Republican Favored” and “Democrat Favored” categories are roughly similar (though not identical) to Charlie’s “Likely” categories, and I never expect races in those categories to change party. Any race in those categories that switches is a significant upset in my view, as Iowa’s 2nd district and New Hampshire’s 1st district were in the previous cycle.

Suggesting that moving a race from “Safe” to “Likely,” in Charlie’s terminology, or adding it to my ratings as “Favored” is a dramatic development is simply a misunderstanding of the categories and an over-reaction to the change.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. In releasing its list of ratings changes, the Cook Report noted that while “it’s not likely a majority of the races moved from ‘Solid’ to ‘Likely’ Republican will become competitive by November,” because of the environment “even very difficult districts for Democrats [are] worth keeping tabs on.” So even the Cook Political Report doesn’t believe that the races it moved are currently competitive.

Why move a race into the “Favored” or “Likely” column if the meaning of the change is small? Speaking only for myself and not Charlie, I am trying to give readers a sense of the different tiers of races. Even though races that I classify as “Favored” are not likely to change party control, they seem to me to be of a different quality than certain more competitive contests (“Lean” races in my terminology) or races where the incumbent party is at such limited risk that it doesn’t make my list.

Now, back to Charlie’s recent changes. Some of the races that he has moved are also on my list, as well, including West Virginia’s 2nd district, Kentucky’s 2nd district and Florida’s 8th district. Others could well be added soon, including Florida’s 21st district, and I may move some contests as soon as he does.

But some of the races that the Cook Report moved currently appear to me to be such long shots that I can’t imagine adding them in the near future. Fundamentally and without overwhelming evidence to the contrary (which Charlie may have but I do not), I view them as just too tough for Democrats. This isn’t meant to be a criticism of the Cook Political Report. It just means that we approach ratings in a slightly different way.

Yes, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but his district gave President Bush 67 percent in 2004 and is a reliable Republican bastion. His Democratic opponent, Daniel Johnson, may have a good story to tell, but that’s rarely enough in a very partisan district, especially in a presidential year.

GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s 46th district in California? Debbie Cook, the Democratic mayor of Huntington Beach, may well do better than Rohrabacher’s previous challengers, but can she win?

The district gave Bush 57 percent in 2004 and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) 69 percent of the vote in 2006. In other words, there are a lot of Republican voters there. Debbie Cook might be able to get to 45 percent or even 47 percent, but if I doubt that she can win under any circumstances, she doesn’t get on my list.

I’d put Pennsylvania’s 5th district, the open seat held by retiring Rep. John Peterson (R), into the same category. GOP nominee Glenn Thompson is a good fit for the district, which gave President Bush 61 percent of the vote in 2004. Yes, State College (home to Penn State) is in the district, but that alone doesn’t make the district likely to flip.

Naturally, if I were to become convinced that the Democratic nominee in any of these districts could win, I would add them to my list.

More than four years ago in this space, I explained why I continued to rate South Carolina Democratic Senate candidate Inez Tenenbaum as a slight underdog even though many saw the race as at least a tossup. I noted the importance of fundamentals and ideology in races in explaining my reasoning. She lost by just over 9 points.

There is plenty of credible evidence that many voters have soured on the GOP, and that development is likely to allow Democratic Congressional candidates to improve their showings in many districts.

That is not, however, the same thing as saying that Democratic challengers will now win many districts that have been reliably Republican in the past. They won’t. Getting close may be a moral victory for some Democratic candidates, but I’m trying to measure a candidate’s likelihood of winning.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on July 10, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.