A day at the races: Political junkies aside, upcoming debates matter most for congressional election

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As we head into the final stretch of the election season, the presidential debates and accompanying horserace are the focus of the upcoming two weeks. They will prove interesting, as they always do for political junkies, but they are unlikely to significantly change at this point. They may, however, change the races further down the ballot, possibly in strange and unpredictable ways. It’s worth some time getting to know what to look for ahead of time.

The Bump – Romney is so far behind, especially in key states like Ohio and Florida, that he will certainly get a bump from the debates (barring a major gaffe). He has been so thoroughly demonized for the video of him deriding the peons of the nation that simply getting up there and looking like a real human will probably swing a few people his direction. It’s unlikely to be enough momentum to overcome the huge hole his campaign has, but it will be talked about. The press likes a horse race that closes at the end, so expect a lot of ink about it.

The Senate – Nothing will change this week in what is about to become the developing story, control of the US Senate. As big money donors and strategists see the Presidential race closing down, resources will be diverted into major Senate races across the nation. More Democrat seats are up than Republicans, with a total of 33 seats up for grabs in the 53/47 split, 23 are Democrats. But as it stands now, the Democrats have a pretty solid hold on 7 of those, with another 11 looking pretty good. Real Clear Politics has 9 seats in the “toss up” category, and the Dems have to win 5 of them to hold on to the lead they have. It’s very unlikely that they could possibly hit a filibuster proof 60. This one is tight and will soon receive a lot more attention even if the Presidential race can be spun as closer than it really is.

The House – Control of the US House is also unlikely to change, but it could swing slightly more Democrat. Dems need to pick up 24 more seats to take the House back, and few think this is likely. The ray of hope remains the unreliable “Generic Congressional Ballot” poll, which asks people in the abstract which party they will vote for. It’s completely deadlocked right now, suggesting everything will be very close. One analyst believes that, after looking at trends from 2010, the US House is very much up for grabs and possibly leaning Democrat. This will be hard to spot weeks in advance.

Attention will likely remain on the Presidential horserace, no matter how much it seems over, but the Senate races will certainly gain in stature. It’s probably not worth paying attention to, either. The real race is later on the card, for the US House, although we have very little guidance to predict it in advance.

What should we look for? In general, Obama will certainly do his best in the debates to look Presidential and not screw up. But if we see an attack on the Republican plans and actions from him we will know that his people are going to try to win back the House. If Obama is worried about his legacy as President, secure in re-election, it is the logical thing to do. A Democratic House is probably essential for him to be able to get anything at all done in the next two to four years.

Romney is less likely to worry about the down-ticket races, which could put even more distance between him and the Republican leadership that is poised to abandon him. What we need to look for is solidarity and a clear commitment to the party, with a solid defense and exposition on the Republican platform. That would signal that he is indeed a team player, a move that is probably his best bet at this stage of the game. If Obama should stumble somehow, it would put Romney in a much better position to capitalize on it.

Overall, the debates are unlikely to define the races by themselves. But they will enclose the paddock where the serious bettors go to gawk at the steeds before each race. If the House, or even the Senate, is really up for grabs we will know over the next two weeks. Even if you like the horserace of politics more than the policy stuff, you have to remember not to bet everything on one race. It’s a full day of racing ahead if you plan it right.