Do the Democrats have a legitimate shot at the House in November? Posted by: McQ
on Wednesday, April 05, 2006
Susan Page and Richard Wolf have an interesting analysis of the upcoming House races in USA Today. They look at how the upcoming elections remind one of 1994 and how they're different.
A Democratic takeover of the Senate seems distant, but Cook and others now figure it's possible (though not yet likely) that Democrats will gain the 15 seats they need to seize control of the House of Representatives.
Three of the five key ingredients of the 1994 turnaround are in place, including broad public dissatisfaction with the direction of the country, dismal approval ratings for the president and the taint of scandal in Congress. But there are differences, too: The number of competitive House districts is much smaller than 12 years ago, and the opposition party has yet to articulate a unified, positive message.
"Direction of the country" is a nebulous and personal assessment each of us make based on various factors we deem to be important. It is ripe for political spin and I expect the Dems to work very hard at spinning it to their advantage.
I'm not sure how the presidential ratings will play in Congressional elections except to say that it is again an area where spin will tell. Depending on what happens between now and November, Republicans are going to have to make the decision as to whether they're going to run away from the President or seek his help during the run up to the election. That may be a difficult decision for some. Look for Dems to try and link all Republicans with what will clearly be characterized as a "failed presidency".
But the biggest difference between 2006 and 1994 is to be found in the last point. Between then and now, both parties have been busy making their districts "incumbent safe":
Democrats' biggest single problem: Where to fight?
The number of competitive House districts has been shrinking, in part because redistricting has protected incumbents in both parties. In 1994, strategists could target 111 members of Congress who had won two years earlier by 55% of the vote or less. This year, there are just 32 members in that category.
Political scientist Alan Abramowitz of Emory University in Atlanta has run two political models for 2006. In one, using such national political conditions as public unease about the country's direction, Democrats gain 33 seats. In a second, which includes more “micro” factors such as the number of open seats, they pick up just eight seats.
To me this is the key difference between 1994 and now. While much has been in the news about Texas and the redistricting effort by DeLay and the Republicans, theirs isn't the only effort in this regard over the past 12 years. Incumbent party safe seats has been a priority for both parties and they've been pretty successful in that regard.
That makes fewer and fewer districts competative. And because of that, message and spin become critical. It is in the message department that Democrats have been found wanting, even by their own admission.
“The biggest reason why Republicans may keep the House is the failure of Democrats to articulate anything positive at all,” says Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who helped devise the 1994 plan. Joe Gaylord, a Republican consultant who also advised Gingrich, agrees.
Attacking the opposition isn't a message. Saying "we can do better" isn't a message. Political spin isn't a message.
While it is certainly possible for the Dems to take the House in November, it is not at all a sure thing. What's interesting, in my opinion, is the ball is in their court. It is theirs to lose. Why? Mostly because of "incumbent party fatigue". The smell of "change", which Bill Clinton successfully rode to the White House, is in the political air. Can the Democrats capitalize on that?
Already some elements of the left are moving into action:
MoveOn.org is trying to make some seemingly safe Republican incumbents vulnerable. On Monday, Pariser announced a $1.3 million ad buy in districts in Connecticut, Indiana, Ohio and Virginia.
For political junkies, this promises to be an interesting political season. Will it be the year of the Democrat (at least in the House)? Or will we again see the same sort of disjointed and ineffective effort in '06 that we saw in the presidential campaign of '04.
MoveOn.org is trying to make some seemingly safe Republican incumbents vulnerable.
If they succeeded in playing a significant role in defeating a GOP candidate, I think it would be the first time. The MoveOn/Kos/DU wing is notoriously tone-deaf about the messages that will resonate with enough voters to affect the outcome of a race, especially in a district that is majority GOP.
This is a subject near and dear to my heart. The biggest factor in 1994 wasn’t Clinton, or Gingrich, or the Contract with America (which polls showed only about 20% of voters in 1994 had even heard of, let alone approved). It was the ascendency of a conservative Republican majority over the past few decades that had largely been kept in check by Democratic gerrymanders and 80-year-old conservative incumbents. The interpretation of the VRA requiring more minority-majority districts and the ascendency of Republicans in some statehouses broke up many of the gerrymanders, and forced many of the 80-year-old conservatives to retire.
It wasn’t just that there were a lot of competitive districts in 1994 — there were a ton of outright mismatches. In other words, not only has the playing field shrunk since 1994, there isn’t nearly as much low-hanging fruit for the parties (to mix a metaphor). Dems had to defend 15 open seats alone where Bush had won more than 55% of the vote in 1988 (sometimes more than 70%) and FIFTY-ONE incumbents in seats where Bush won more than 55% of the vote in 1988 (I use 1988 because the "Perot factor" makes it difficult to really ascertain who "won" districts by how much in ’92. But the ’88 numbers are for the districts as drawn in ’94, not ’88). But still, conservative Dem incumbents survived, sometimes handily, even in districts where Bush won with 70+ percent of the vote in ’88. Right now the Republicans represent zero (0) districts that either Kerry or Gore won with more than 55% of the vote. And those that do represent Democrat-leaning districts tend to be fairly liberal Republicans, the counterpart to Dems that tended to survive in ’94. Indeed, you can in many ways view the ’92, ’94, and ’96 elections together as a trilogy where Democrats were finally weeded out of fairly solidly Republican districts, and vice-versa.
Its not that ’94 had a bunch of competitive districts so much as ’94 had a ton of districts where Republicans should have won. If ’06 is short on the former, it is utterly lacking in the latter. That’s why Dems will have a much harder time getting 15 seats than Republicans had getting 52 in ’94.
MoveOn can have a fun time spending money in solidly Republican districts, btw. Even in "tsunami" years, those districts tend not to flip.