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Bayh’s Blue Dogs: Bane or Boon?

From Roll Call comes the relatively unsurprising news that Indiana Democrat Evan Bayh is attempting to form a “Blue Dog” coalition in the Senate, one which would mirror the one that Democrats already have in the House. This group will presumably include some of the swing senators that I described last week, folks like Ben Nelson, Mark Pryor and Mary Landireu.

The practical upshot of something like this — apart from making Bayh one of the ten most powerful people in Washington — is that the Democrats in the Blue Dog coalition would presumably tend to vote as a group rather than individuals. That is the whole point of a coalition; if a coalition’s members are not voting together, it really isn’t serving any purpose. Let’s say that there are seven Democrats in the Blue Dog group. In theory, this means that instead of having anywhere between zero and seven votes on a particular bill (but most commonly some in-between number like two, three or four), Barack Obama would tend to get either get exactly seven votes or exactly zero. Would this behavior be helpful or harmful to his agenda?

I would argue that it might be helpful, simply because of where the numbers tend to stand in the Senate right now. The Democrats will wind up with somewhere between 57 and 59 memebers in their caucus, depending on the resolution of Illinois and Minnesota. That means they will need somewhere between one and three Republican votes to break fillibusters — and so every vote on the margin will tend to matter a great deal; he’ll already need to achieve near-unanimity among Democrats. If Obama loses, say, three Democratic votes, then reaching a 60-vote threshold is already liable to be relatively difficult for him, and so losing seven Democratic votes instead might not matter very much. On the other hand, if Bayh can whip Mary Landrieu’s or Ben Nelson’s vote for him on a particular issue, that could potentially be pretty helpful. (If the Democrats had, say, 62 votes instead rather than 57-59, the reverse dynamic might manifest itself).

That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, coalitions like this are rarely successful in the Senate. Does, say, Mark Warner or Ben Nelson in increase his influence by partnering with Bayh? Quite possibly not, and thereby group discipline is hard to facilitate.

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