Nate Silver, who predicts electoral results better than anyone else in the country, says that Todd Akin’s appalling comments about rape and abortion could hurt him in his campaign against Sen. Claire McCaskell to cost him the election.
No two controversies are alike, and we’ll have to wait for polling data to see what impact this has on the race. But based on some loose historical precedents, the remarks could be enough to swing the polls to Ms. McCaskill.
In August 2006, Senator George Allen, then the Republican incumbent in Virginia, was videotaped using the term “macaca” at a rally, which was interpreted by some as a racial epithet against a staff member for his Democratic opponent, James Webb.
The polls quickly shifted against Mr. Allen. He had led by an average of 12 points in the three polls conducted just before his comments. But his lead was whittled down to just two points in the three polls conducted just after the remark, and Mr. Allen eventually lost the race by about 10,000 votes.
Last February, in another instance of apparent racial insensitivity, the Republican candidate Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, a former United States representative, released an attack ad against the Democratic incumbent, Debbie Stabenow, that was deemed offensive by Asian-American groups. Mr. Hoekstra’s standing also declined in the polls. He had trailed Ms. Stabenow by an average of eight percentage points in three polls conducted in late 2011, before the ad’s release. But the gap averaged 18 points in two polls taken just after the commercial was released, although it has recovered some since.
These episodes in Virginia and Michigan, which produced a net swing of about 10 percentage points in the polls against the candidate involved in the controversy, appear as though they may represent fairly typical cases.
A paper by Nicholas Chad Long of St. Edward’s University examined the performance of Senate candidates running for re-election between 1974 and 2008 who were involved in various types of controversy.
Mr. Long identified 21 cases in which the controversy surrounded a public statement the candidate had made. He found that, on average, these candidates received about 5 percent less of the vote than they otherwise would have on Election Day, controlling for other factors. Since most Senate races are two-way contests, losing five percentage points also implies that the opponent gains five percentage points, meaning that the net swing is equal to 10 points.
If Mr. Akin lost a net of 10 points in the polls to Ms. McCaskill because of the remark, he would be trailing her by five points in surveys rather than leading her by about that margin.
And the effect could be much bigger than that. There’s a real fight on for control of the Senate and it could very well come down to a single seat. It’s entirely plausible that Akin not only cost himself a spot, he may have cost his party control of that chamber for the next two years.
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