A touchup, probably not a makeover.

Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Here Come the 2016 Elections (Not Just the Big One)

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
Read More.
a | A

It's 2016, when the election will finally get to the voters. Yes, the presidential cycle is already more than three years old. Republican candidates started competing for this year’s nomination the day after the November 2012 election, and Hillary Clinton probably started planning for 2016 at some point in 2009. But now it's time to start watching other races, too.

Senate

Republicans currently hold 54 seats, but Democrats have several opportunities to close the gap. That's because the third of the Senate contested this year was elected in 2010, a good Republican year. “The question is not whether Democrats will pick up Senate seats next year, it is almost certainly how many,” the National Journal’s guide predicts.

Republican incumbents in Illinois, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania are all endangered, as is an open Republican seat in Florida. The only similarly vulnerable Democratic seat is in Nevada, where Harry Reid is retiring. But the state has trended Democratic. 

In recent cycles, a presidential vote has tended to predict House and Senate elections. And a relatively large turnout in presidential years has seemed to benefit Democrats, with midterms appearing to favor Republicans. But it's hard to know if that effect is linked to different electorates (older and wealthier voters, who tend to be Republicans, show up more often in lower-interest elections, for example), or if it could be a consequence of the ebb and flow of a president's popularity, the economy and other events. 

Perhaps the most likely result this time is that the Senate will follow what happens in the White House race, so the incoming president's party will likely have a narrow majority in the upper chamber. But it’s easy to imagine continued divided government, including a flip with Democrats taking the Senate while losing the White House.

House

Everyone expects Democrats to gain some seats but fall solidly short of regaining a majority. After two Republican landslides in the last three elections, there aren’t many weak Democratic seats remaining. If it's possible for Republicans to win a House seat, they've probably already won it (see, for example, the Cook Political Report chart).

But it's still early. Watch for retirements in swing districts over the next several weeks. So far, more Republicans (20) are leaving than Democrats (13).

Again, House voting will be closely tied to presidential voting. So the only way Republicans might pick up more House seats in 2016 is for the party's presidential candidate to win by a landslide. And a Democratic presidential rout might be the only way Democrats have a chance to pick up the 30 seats they need for a House majority.  

States 

Most elections for governor are now held during presidential off years; only 12 will be contested in 2012. That schedule may account for some recent Republican successes. It may also be a reason GOP governors have mostly sat on their hands in the current presidential nomination battle. They have less at stake because they don’t have to share a ballot with their party's national candidate. 

While Senate elections in 2016 look back to 2010, a good year for Republicans, gubernatorial elections this year look back to 2012, a presidential election year that was better for Democrats. Consequently, some Democratic statehouses are in some danger in Missouri, New Hampshire, Vermont and Montana. Fewer Republican-held seats are at risk. On the other hand, if Democrats retain the presidency, it will be their best chance to try to reverse large recent losses in state legislatures.

Elections -- looked at in bulk -- are about opportunity, on the one hand, and partisan tides on the other. Because of big Republican wins in 2010 (Senate) and 2014 (House), Democrats have the opportunities for congressional pickups; Republicans have more chances for gains in gubernatorial races. As for partisan tides? Watch Obama's approval ratings (currently mediocre, but not terrible) and the state of the economy for the general lay of the land.

Most models right now predict a close race, with perhaps a small edge for Republicans. But it will also depend on whether a party nominates a particularly poor candidate. Donald Trump, an unusually unpopular candidate, would qualify; Ted Cruz, because he's perceived as extremely conservative, would probably count as well, but I've underestimated him before.   

  1. Those numbers include members of the House running for higher office (8 Republicans, 9 Democrats) as well as those simply retiring (12 Republicans, 4 Democrats). 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net