2006: 1994 for Democrats? Posted by: McQ
on Wednesday, March 15, 2006
Dale cites an article by David Keene which contends that 2006 may be shaping up for the Democrats like 1994 did for the Republicans. He notes that Michael Barone, alone among pundits, was the only one who got 1994 right.
Keene is having a problem buying into Barone's analysis this time as well. Barone is saying political conditions are not quite the same for Democrats now as they were for Repblicans in 1994. So I thought it might be worthwhile to look at what Barone is saying.
Democrats' chances of taking those 15 seats are not very good — if the voting patterns and political contours that have held steady since the 1995-96 budget showdown continue to prevail. Ordinarily in a decade we see a shift in these patterns. Some geographic regions or demographic groups move to one party or the other, or the whole electorate does.
But that hasn't happened in the past 10 years. In the five House elections starting in 1996, Republicans have won between 49 percent and 51 percent of the popular votes, Democrats between 46 percent and 48.5 percent of the popular votes. Nor have regional patterns changed much. From 1990 to 1996, the nation's largest metro areas became more Democratic, while rural areas and the South became more Republican.
Since then, things have stayed about the same. And this is regardless of whatever problems were facing party leaders like Bill Clinton, Gingrich and George W. Bush.
The "why" is also interesting. It has to do with the redistricting efforts by both parties in the wake of the 2000 census which created a number of "safe seats":
The redistricting that followed the 2000 census was based on those same voting patterns. That's why so many safe seats resulted from Republican gerrymanders in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Texas; Democratic gerrymanders in North Carolina and Maryland; and bipartisan incumbent-protection gerrymanders in New York, California, Illinois and Ohio. If the political contours should shift, as they did in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, then some seats designed to be safe will become marginal, and some will shift to the other side.
The question remains, are the "political contours" shifting? Well maybe. But if they are what does it mean?
Pollster Stanley Greenberg says his latest Democracy Corps poll shows Republican support falling sharply in the Deep South, in rural areas and among downscale men — groups among which Republicans have had big leads. Such a change wouldn't affect many House races, because these groups are concentrated in districts that are very heavily Republican. But it could put another dozen or so Republican seats in play, over and above the dozen or so where Democrats are making strong challenges (Republicans are making strong challenges in about half a dozen Democratic seats).
So, per Barone, a few more seats may be in jeopardy, but that is balanced by strong Republican challenges against a half-dozen Democratic seats.
Consulting history, and assuming it will repeat, that means a few gains by Democrats but it is far from a sure thing and certainly not as sweeping as 1994 was for the Republicans:
In years when voters have shifted sharply to one party — Democrats in 1974, Republicans in 1994 — the winning parties captured only about half the seats they targeted. So even if the field of contested seats expands as Greenberg suggests, Democrats could take the House only if they picked off half their targets, while defending every one of their own contested seats. But few seats are captured without strong challenger candidates, and while Democratic recruiting has had some successes, it hasn't produced serious challengers in all these seats. Democrats have a chance to win the House, but it's far from a sure thing.
What Barone is saying is despite the growing attempt, at least by Democratic analyists and opinion makers, to liken political conditions now as similar to 1994, it ain't necessarily so.
Jay Cost gives us a good analysis of some of the reasons the atmosphere isn't the same:
Further, the number of open seats does not favor it. 95% of House incumbents are running again, and the reelection rate of incumbents in the last three cycles has averaged 99%. Democrats cannot undo what is one of the most important, yet least appreciated, secular trends in American politics: the movement toward perfect incumbent retention. Further, the tight alignment of the electorate does not favor it. 93% of Republican members of Congress are in districts Bush won.
This supports Barone's point about trends since 2000. Anyone who follows politics can't help but know that the "movement toward perfect incumbent retention" has been a prioritiy for both parties for years. And the numbers certainly point to success in that endeavor.
So what about the coming "open seats" then? Since incumbents almost have to caught having sex in public with a minor to lose their seats, how about all of the open seats brought on by retirement.
As it stands, the Republicans have 17 open seats to defend. The Democrats have 9. Historically speaking, with an economy as strong as today'??s, and the party of the President having to defend 8 more open seats than the opposition, we can expect the Republicans to lose about 9 net seats. My sense is that the final figure will be slightly lower than that. The reason for this is that this estimate takes into account the quantity, but not the quality, of open seats in play. In 2006, the quality of Republican open seats is very poor from the Democratsâ?? perspective.
How they break down:
- Of the 17 open Republican seat districts, Bush won 15 in 2000 and 2004.
- Bush'??s median percentage of the vote in 2000 in all 17 was 55%. In 2004 it was 57%
- Of the 17 open Republican seats, Bush increased his percentage of the total vote by an average of 3% between 2000 and 2004.
- The median Cook Partisan Voting Index of these 17 districts is Republican +5. In other words, the median district of these 17 tends to vote Republican 5% more than the nation.
As Cost points out, these aren't seats the Democrats are 'salivating' over. Addressing the 1994 paradigm, Cost points out:
Nevertheless, these types of open seats are very dissimilar to the type of open seats the Democrats had to defend in 1994. The Democrats had many more open seats that year. And, furthermore, the quality of those open seats was much more amenable to GOP gains. In 1994, Republicans won Democratic open seats in conservative districts. It is unlikely that the Democrats will win Republican open seats in conservative districts.
One last difference between 1994 and 2006. The reason for the open seats:
Further, as mentioned above, open seats are frequently a sign of how politicians view their chances. Thus, we can get a sense of how the parties will do in November based upon seat vacancies today. If, for instance, lots of Republicans are retiring, we could infer that the Republicans sense an anti-Republican climate and have decided to avoid losing. Open seats in 1994 were a sign of the anti-incumbent climate of that year, for instance. What can we infer about the GOP based upon these open seats? Consider the following:
- Of the 17 open Republican seats, 9 of them are open because the incumbents are pursing higher electoral office.
- The median share of the vote that incumbents in these seats took in 2004 was 60%.
- Of the 7 Republican seats that are open because members have decided to retire, 2 of those members faced no opposition in 2004. The remaining won their 2004 election by a median value of 60%.
- Of the same 7 seats, the median length of time each current member has served is 24 years. All of them have served through anti-Republican, anti-incumbent elections.
- 7.3% of the Republican delegation will be open in November. 3.9% of the Democratic delegation will be open.
In 1994 we saw a good number of Democrats bailing because they sensed the shift toward the Republicans and chose to leave instead of lose. As Cost points out, that isn't the case today for Republicans.
The point of all of this, as pointed out by both Michael Barone and Jay Cost, is that you should take this comparison between 1994 and 2006 with a grain of salt at this point.
That's not to say that the Dems can't win a net 15 seats in the House in November, but as it stands, it's probably not as likely as Democratic spin meisters would have voters believe. November will tell whether Barone's predictive record will survive intact.
This analysis fails to take broad pyschological trends into account. In 1994, there had been a long ascendence of GOP fortunes at the national level. They had gotten two landslides for president - 1972 and 1984 - that indicated a broad shift in the willingness of electorate to vote for them. By contrast, the elections of Carter and Clinton were narrow. Neither got a majority of the popular vote.
A lot of Democratics seats were being held through inertia from previous Democratic dominance. Seats such as Jim Sassar in Tennessee were vulnerable to the broad shift in the electorate’s willingness to embrace GOP candidates, particularly in the South. 1994 is simply when it all came together and allowed that willingness to trickle down from the presidential level to the Congressional level in a big way (and it took several more years in many states for it to trickle down to the state legislature level). Certainly dissatisfaction with Clinton’s first two years (gays in the military, tax increases, the HillaryCare debacle) contributed to the GOP’s prospects, but without a willingness for the electorate to think positively about the GOP, that would not have made a lot of difference in congressional elections.
Certainly there is dissatisfaction with Bush, but it doesn’t seem to be as severe as Democrats pretend, and there is a bit of backlash among moderate voters that the Democrats are not "playing fair" by bashing Bush indiscriminately. So the Bush factor does not look to me to be the fuel that the Democrats need.
Now couple that with the fact that there is no evidence of a broad shift in support for the Democrats at the national level. They have no message to rally around. They have no charismatic leader to inspire the voters to rethink their vote. All they have is some dissatifaction with Bush and the willingness to exploit that in every fashion they can dream up (which can result in overreaching, ala Russ Feingold).
That may very well be enough to make the difference in a few races. But not enough to throw the House to the Democrats, I think, especially given some of the demographic and redistricting trends analyzed in the article.
And if the Democrats continue to fumble, let me be brave and say I think it’s quite possible for them to lose seats. I don’t know how any other people feel as much revulsion for Harry Reid as I do, but I think he costs the Democrats votes every time he appears on the television screen. Feingold and Dean seem to be setting the tone for what’s important to the Democrats, and if Iraq settles down over the summer, that’s going to look like a silly position to take.
If Bush gets a good month in Iraq (few car bombings, etc.) and takes the opportunity to pitch a troop drawdown of even 25%, and aggressively spins it as evidence of things going well in Iraq, then the Democrats are going to have to find another issue to talk about. Except for healthcare, I don’t see that they have one, and it’s not at all clear where that issue is going to go.
I agree in general. Some gridlock might keep any new debacles, such as the prescription drug bill, from going anywhere. Of course, we won’t see any tax reform either, but I had lost hope about that anyway.
I’d feel better about such an outcome if the GOP drew the right message from it. (I despair of the Democrats in their current incarnation ever getting the message about anything.) I’d like for the GOP to see such an outcome as an encouragement to develop a stronger small-government message, so they give voters a positive reason to vote for them. But I fear that any gains by the Democrats will simply push the GOP further leftwards
In order for 2006 to be the next 1994, the democrats will have to come up with a message. The 1994 election happened in large part because Newt and Republicans created the Contract with America, essentially a reinvention of the party platform, and then ran on it. The Democrats were left with either "yeah me too" or "Contract On America is more like it" neither of which helped them pick up votes.
If the Dems were smart they would be creating an anti-corruption and pro-fiscal restraint platform right now. It would tap into a large centrist population with growing concerns at what the Repubs have wrought. But there is no sign of this and the Democrats should have been running on it already for it to work.