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Can Manchin Save West Virginia for Democrats?

It now appears that West Virginia governor Joe Manchin, under various types of political and legal pressure, is more likely than not to call for a special election to replace Robert Byrd in the Senate this year, rather than wait until 2012 as he had originally planned.

If Manchin decides to advance the date of the general election, this obviously creates another great opportunity for Republicans, as West Virginia has become a very red state. Whereas the Senate model that we ran last week gave Republicans only a 6 percent chance of flipping enough seats to take over the Senate, they were already set to benefit from some changes to the model, such as an adjustment we’ll be incorporating to account for polls which are of registered rather than likely voters, as well as the removal of Research 2000 polling from the model. Those methodological changes should boost Republican chances to 10-15 percent.

With another seat in West Virginia now potentially in play, however, their chances figure to improve even further. One of the components of our Senate model, which serves as a compliment to the polling, is a regression analysis that seeks to forecast the outcome of each Senate race based on an incumbent’s approval ratings, the state’s PVI, and the relative experience levels of the two candidates. In a matchup between ‘generic’ Republican and Democrat candidates who have a roughly equal amount of experience, the regression model would expect the Republican to win by 13 points in this cycle in West Virginia, although there is a high degree of uncertainty on that estimate.

However, there is a chance — a good chance — that Manchin himself will decide to run, especially since it’s more or less at his discretion to move the election date forward. Although there are no especially recent polls on Machin’s approval, a PPP poll in May, 2009 put his numbers at 53 percent approving and 34 percent disapproving — these are pretty decent numbers, especially since PPP, for whatever reason, has a fairly strong house effect toward low-ish approval ratings. Also, a Mark Blankenship Enterprises poll in August, 2009 put Manchin’s numbers at just 78 percent approving and 18 percent disapproving.

If we treat Manchin as an incumbent, using an average of his PPP and Blankenship approval ratings, our model shows him as a favorite — but only by a small margin: just 1 point over a Republican at the next-highest level of experience below Senator/Governor, such as a U.S. Representative or a statewide elected officeholder like an Attorney General. Against someone with fewer credentials, like a state senator, Manchin would be a 6-point favorite, and against an outsider with no experience in elected office, he’d be an 11-point favorite.

This seems like a fairly harsh treatment of Manchin, and we should note that this is an exceptionally simplistic model, which may not especially well designed to cope with the unusual situation of an apparently very popular Democratic politician running in a very red state in a very red cycle. On the other hand, the model is relying on fairly outdated approval ratings for Manchin — his numbers may have slipped some, as they have for most Democrats and for most incumbents. And he might suffer a penalty of sorts from having switched from one office to the other (see also: Crist, Charlie), especially since his gubernatorial term is not yet expired.

If Manchin runs for Byrd’s seat and the GOP manages to put up a competent opponent, I would not be surprised if polling showed him as anything from a fairly heavy favroite to a slight underdog. In the absence of that polling, the most prudent characterization is probably that West Virginia leans Democrat if Manchin runs and leans Republican if he doesn’t.

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