Bush vs. Kerry: The Final Odds

Here's Action Economics' updated scorecard, covering summaries of the latest polling data, futures market bets -- and gamblers' bets

By Ryan Brecht

With Election Day here, where do the major parties stand in their battle to control the White House and both houses of Congress? To help sort things out, we at Action Economics have updated our original election "cheat sheet" with a final version reflecting the latest info on the seats up for election, tables of the most recent polls for state elections, and links to useful poll and betting sites, as well as some links for interpreting election results as they're reported.

First, let's begin with the contest for control of Capitol Hill. The Republicans currently enjoy a narrow majority in both houses -- which has looked unlikely to change throughout this campaign. The GOP holds the Senate by one seat, with 51 in the 100-seat body. The Democrats occupy 48 seats, with one Independent. Only one-third of the Senate is up for grabs every two years, for six-year terms.


  Current members are fairly well entrenched, as usual, and incumbent turnover is rare. That's why election prospects tend to focus on open seats. Most key races have changed very little since the Presidential debates. That leaves the Republicans in a good position this cycle, with only 15 seats up for reelection, compared with the Democrats' 19 seats. Moreover, the GOP has to defend only three open seats, vs. five for the Dems (for another look at the Senate races, see "Seven Steps to a Dem Senate").

One of the vacant Democratic seats appears to be in the GOP's grasp, with polls showing the Republican candidate for the vacant Georgia seat holding a comfortable lead. Democratic open seats in both South Carolina and Louisiana also appear to be leaning to the GOP. Recent polls show the South Carolina race widening in the GOP's favor, although the Louisiana contest remains close. The Republicans have gained ground in the polls for the high-profile South Dakota seat, prompting us to change our forecast to a GOP win.

But while the GOP looks on track to pick up at least one Democratic seat, and possibly three more for a total of four, the Democrats look likely to knock one Republican out of office in Alaska and to scoop up a vacant GOP seat in Illinois. Moreover, the Colorado race is leaning toward the Democrat, which suggests that the Republicans' gain will be limited to one seat this election cycle. Here are more poll results on key Senate races.

  Republican Democrat
Republican Incumbent 48 1
Previously Republican 0 2
Democratic Incumbent 1 42
Previously Democratic 3 2
TOTALS 52 47
Previous Composition 51 48
Change +1 -1

With the margin of control in the Senate so lean, the Presidential election could determine which party will hold sway. Indeed, if President Bush is reelected, the Democrats must capture two seats to gain control, as Vice-President Cheney would retain the power to break ties in the Senate. Recall that the one Independent senator in Vermont, James Jeffords, is allied with the Democrats. If, however, the Kerry/Edwards ticket triumphs, the Democrats need only one new seat, since a Vice-President Edwards would control the tie-breaking vote.

As with the Senate, the battle for control in the House of Representatives hasn't changes much since the debates. As a result of fine-tuned redistricting, while all of the 435 seats are up for election to two-year terms, only a handful still appear to really be at risk of being seized by the other party.

Among these are several seats in Texas that were subject to redistricting by a GOP state legislature. Not surprisingly, the changes favor that party and suggest that one currently Democratic seat and two new seats will be won by Republicans. However, one GOP incumbent looks likely to lose, while a vacant GOP seat is likely to be won, leaving the Republicans with a net pickup of just one seat.

  Republican Democrat
Republican Incumbent 225 1
Previously Republican 3 0
Democratic Incumbent 1 203
Previously Democratic 1 0
TOTALS 230 204
Previous Composition 229 205
Change +1 -1

Here's another way of tracking the potential outcomes: The Iowa Electronic Markets is a real-money futures market maintained by the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business, which provide probability estimates for events such as elections.

The current Iowa futures are consistent with our forecasts for the outcome of the congressional contest. The futures contracts are priced for the GOP maintaining control of both houses (see graph). Indeed, the market is priced for either a GOP pickup in House seats or for no change in composition (see graph).

The odds for the Senate aren't quite as strong, with around a 50-50 odds of a Republican pickup (see graph). In the Presidential contest, the chances of a Bush win narrowed through the debates but then widened (see graph).


  The futures contracts still point to a Bush win, which is in contrast to the mixed opinion polls (here's an aggregate list ).

Among the variety of electoral-vote tracking sites, electoral-vote.com is one of the more useful ones as it includes easy references to the polling results for each state. CNN's electoral-vote explainer is also worth reviewing because it give a straightforward explanation of the electoral college voting system. USA Today also provides a simplified explanation of the electoral process.

Gamblers are also putting their money where the futures traders are: on a Bush win. Ladbrokes' publishes odds while betting is under way, but they can't be found on the site otherwise. Centrebet posts odds all the time, though this is a less widely cited source. These figures currently imply a 59% chance of a Bush win and a 41% chance of a Kerry win.

Looking for info on more current election polls? Check out offerings from Zogby, Rasmussen Reports, Gallup, Newsweek, and American Research Group.

Overall, while the odds on the Presidential race remain slightly in the President's favor, the situation in both the House and the Senate persistently favor the GOP. But enough of the polls. Now it's the voters turn to be heard.

Brecht is senor economist, North America, for Action Economics

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