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An Additional Point or Two about West Virginia

In a post that went up an hour ago I suggested that Governor Joe Manchin would be no sure thing to win Robert Byrd’s Senate seat in West Virginia, and might not even be particularly favored to do so. This conclusion was based on part on a fairly simplistic regression model that we use to forecast Senate seats; the regression model in turn is based in large part on a state’s Partisan Voting Index or PVI.

PVI is a pretty crude measure, which evaluates a state’s performance based solely on its voting in Presidential elections. I’ve received a bunch of e-mails and tweets making the point that West Virginia has been comparatively more likely to vote for Democrats in statewide races.

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It’s a valid argument, and I’ve been working on developing alternatives to PVI. One thing that seems to be the case, for instance, is that wealthier states/districts tend to vote a little more Republican than their PVI would suggest in races for the Congress, and poorer states/districts (like West Virginia) tend to vote a little bit more Democratic. If that’s the case, West Virginia would be a better state for Manchin than PVI lets on.

Some people have also made the point that I’m underestimating just how popular Manchin is. All that may be true — and it may also be true that Democrats get more sympathy than usual in an election where they’d be succeeding Robert Byrd.

Nonetheless, most of this is based on supposition of some type or another, and not on hard evidence. Even Manchin’s high approval ratings are a bit suspect, since those numbers are about a year out of date, and since something might be lost in translation as he moves from being a governor to a candidate for federal office. On the other hand, the one thing we “know” is that this isn’t an easy political cycle for Democrats almost anywhere. It wasn’t easy for them in Massachusetts in a special election under arguably similar circumstances. It doesn’t look like it will be easy for them in Arkansas, Louisiana or Kentucky, other states which have some history of voting Democratic for statewide and Congressional races, but Republican for President.

If Manchin is intimidating enough to Republicans that they don’t nominate a strong candidate against him, he could obviously win pretty easily. For that matter, since the Republicans have a thin bench in West Virginia, that’s an outcome that could emerge more or less by default.

But against someone like a Shelley Moore Capito, Manchin could have a real race on his hands. Would Capito sacrifice a safe U.S. House seat to run for a Senate seat that she might have only, say, a 35-50 percent chance of winning, and which would have only a truncated two-year term? If I were advising Capito, I’d probably tell her not to. Even if the political environment is somewhat less favorable to Republicans in 2012 than in 2010, she would have a choice that year of running for a full six-year Senate term (presumably against Manchin, who could be sullied by his affiliation with Washington Democrats), or of running for governor (which one Republican strategist describes to me as a “no lose deal” for her). Theoretically, she could also wait two more years and run against Jay Rockefeller in 2014.

On the other hand, Capito has a lot of money in the bank, and is thought to be considering a special election run rather seriously.

In summary, I don’t really have a nice, crunchy conclusion for you — there are too many variables in play. But I’d also advise against being overly complacent about Manchin’s chances; let’s wait for some polling data, and let’s wait to see who his opponent might be. For that matter, let’s wait to see if there’s a special election at all, and whether he chooses to make himself one of the candidates.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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