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Scott Brown Was an Outlier After All

A new poll from Public Policy Polling in Massachusetts suggests that Republican Senator Scott Brown — who represents one of the Democrats’ few opportunities to play offense in a cycle in which they hold more than two-thirds of the Senate seats that will be contested in 2012 — is in relatively good shape for re-election. Against a series of potential Democratic opponents, he holds leads by margins ranging between 7 and 19 points, according to the survey.

Obviously, it’s a bit early to be looking ahead toward the 2012 elections, and the political environment could change significantly before then. It is perhaps more likely than not that it will shift somewhat back toward the Democrats, as a matter of simple reversion to the mean as well as the fact that, in Presidential years, turnout is higher, which tends to work to Democrats’ benefit. It will be some time, however, before we can develop a good sense for whether the Democrats are liable to hold onto the Presidency and the Congress — and what chance they might have to win back Mr. Brown’s seat in Massachusetts.

But it’s worth pausing to think about Mr. Brown, whose election this January will probably be seen as the bellwether event when narratives are written about the 2010 election cycle. Indeed, Mr. Brown’s win in Massachusetts was the first time that a lot of pundits realized that the Democrats were in trouble — not just a little trouble, but a lot of it. The special election caused a significant shift in public perceptions: Democratic odds of losing the House, which were taken to be about 25 percent at the start of January 2010, according to the collective wisdom of traders at the Iowa Electronic markets, had risen to 40 percent by the end of the month, following Mr. Brown’s victory.

In another way, however — and as badly as the Democrats did on Nov. 2 — last month’s elections make Mr. Brown’s victory seem like more, rather than less, of an outlier.

Barack Obama won 61.8 percent of the vote in Massachusetts in 2008. One might reasonably have predicted, therefore, that if Mr. Brown had nevertheless been able to win his election in Massachusetts, Democrats would also lose a few other seats in which Mr. Obama had won by that margin — particularly in a universe in which Democrats lost nearly 65 seats in the House of Representatives over all.

In fact, however, this did not occur. The bluest seat to flip from Democrats to Republicans on Nov. 2 was the Illinois 17th Congressional district at the western frontier of the state, which gave 56.4 percent of its vote to Mr. Obama in 2008. (Outside of Illinois, where Mr. Obama may have overachieved in 2008 given his that he makes his home there, the next-bluest seat to flip to Republicans was the New Hampshire 2nd congressional district, where Mr. Obama had gotten 56.1 percent of the vote in 2008.)

Prior to November, there were also three seats that were already held by Republicans, but where Mr. Obama had achieved even more of the vote than the 61.8 percent that he got statewide in Massachusetts. These were the at-large congressional district in Delaware (61.9 percent), the 1st congressional district in Hawaii (70.4 percent) and, the 2nd congressional district in New Orleans, Louisiana (74.1 percent).

Democrats, however, won back all three of these seats (they were the only three Congressional seats in the country, indeed, that did flip from red to blue.) Thus, Mr. Brown now occupies the bluest seat in either branch of Congress currently held by a Republican. (The runner-up is the Illinois 10th congressional district — formerly held by Republican Mark Kirk and won by their nominee Bob Dold; Mr. Obama had won 60.9 percent of the vote there.)

The tsunami that hit Democrats last month — as large as it was — was remarkably precise and orderly, all things considered: given that the Democrats lost more than 60 seats, they lost almost exactly the 60 seats that you might have expected them to lose based on the overall partisanship of the districts. That did not include seats similar to Massachusetts, where Democrats in fact held on to all 10 congressional districts, even though several of the seats had been considered vulnerable.

In some ways, then, last month’s results ought to reinforce that the Democratic nominee in the Massachusetts special election, Martha Coakley, really was an incredibly weak candidate — or that Mr. Brown was an especially strong one, or both. Indeed, this was somewhat obvious at the time for those willing to engage in a sufficiently careful investigation of the data.

Perhaps this implies that Mr. Brown is more vulnerable than the Public Policy Polling survey suggests. Certainly if the 2012 elections resemble 2010, in terms of Congressional voting being aligned very strongly with Presidential voting, he could be in some trouble if the Democrats rebound to any extent at all. At the same time, a broader sweep through history would reveal that incumbents — especially ones with the political skills of Mr. Brown — are sometimes able to defy gravity for years at a time.

What would have happened if Democrats had nominated a stronger candidate in Massachusetts and won the special election? My guess is that it would ultimately not have made very much difference (although they would have had more flexibility in passing their health care bill). The basic conditions that led to the Democrats’ defeat — a weak economy, the inability to sell legislation to the public, the “enthusiasm gap”, strong Republican recruitment — were for the most part already manifest by mid-late 2009 — well in advance of Mr. Brown’s election — even though few analysts were able to put all the pieces together quite so quickly.

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