After an election, there’s always the immediate punditry, exit polls and then, a few weeks later, some thoughtful analysis. After several months pass, then the number crunchers and political scientists weigh in. One of the standard analyses of each election cycle comes from political scientist and respected election watcher Gary Jacobson. Jacobson weighs polls and campaign dynamics, such as spending by and on behalf of campaigns. But for Jacobson, one of the key factors in every Congressional election is the composition of the electorate, where it’s clustered, and the boundaries of Congressional districts(pdf):
The Republicans’ advantage derives from the fact that their usual voters are distributed more efficiently across districts and states than are Democratic voters.
As an illustration, consider that the Democrat, Al Gore, won the national popular vote over George W. Bush by about 540,000 of the 105 million votes cast in 2000, yet the distribution of the 2000 presidential vote across current House districts yields 240 districts in which Bush won more votes than Gore but only 195 in which Gore outpolled Bush. Similarly, Bush won thirty states to Gore’s twenty despite losing the popular vote nationally.
A national political tide was surging at least as strongly for the Democrats in 2006 as it had been for the Republicans in 1994, but the Republicans were defending higher ground, and so the total damage they suffered was not as extensive.
What does Jacobson think about the 2006 election as a precursor for 2008 and beyond?
Historical parallels to the 2006 midterm congressional elections can be found in the elections of 1950 and 1966 as well as 1994. In all three of these elections,
the economy was in decent shape but voters were unhappy with the president, in the first two cases, in part because of increasingly unpopular wars (Korea and Vietnam, respectively), and the president’s party suffered. None of these elections, however, produced a durable change in the party balance in the electorate, and, according to the data now available, there is little reason to believe 2006 will be any different.
Jacobson is wise to put emphasis on what he refers to as "structural" issues (which in the end amounts mostly to the distribution of voters). But he’s wrong that there’s little reason to believe 2006 will be any different. Built in to his assumptions are a bias toward the belief that voters and the electorate change slowly, and that changes between elections are generally pendulum swings emanating from a fairly unmoving equilibrium. If one questions those assumptions, and adds in demographic change, a broader historical scope, the importance of ideas, and other structural matters like money for candidates and campaigns and the support of key elites, there are numerous reasons to think that the 2006 and 2008 campaigns cycles won’t resemble the 1950-1952, 1966-1968, or 1994-1996 cycles. It’s more likely that the 2006-2008 cycles will bear a greater resemblance to the 1930-1932 campaign cycle: the elections that preceded and then brought in Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the creation of the New Deal voting coalition.
It’s important to place elections in a broader context than just the ones immediately preceding and following. For instance, the 1950 election followed a huge shift of House and Senate seats from Republicans to Democrats in 1948, resulting in a shift of control in both chambers from Republicans to Democrats. 1966 was a pendulum swing back from the 1964 Johnson landslide over Goldwater, which brought so many Democrats to Washington that only during the first 6 years of FDR’s tenure have Democrats ever had a larger Congressional majority. But the big difference between 2006 and, on the other hand, 1966 and 1950, is that in 2006, the party that lost numerous seats had not enjoyed big gains in the preceding election. Taking out the gains created by the 2004 Texas redistricting, the House was essentially unchanged from 2002 to 2004. Going back an earlier election, the number of seats that shifted from Democratic to Republican control in 2002 was equal to the number of districts drawn from areas that supported Gore to those that, in their new configurations, in 2000 supported Bush.
Thus, 2006 occurred after a long period of status-quo elections, going back all the way to the Republicans’ breakthrough in 1994. But here, if we look forward to the next election, that analogy also seems faulty. In 1994, Bill Clinton was fairly unpopular, but by election day in 1996, Clinton’s popularity had surged, he was easily reelected over the lackluster Bob Dole, and Newt Gingrich was well-known but reviled. Congress was unpopular, but not for what it failed to do (like now) as much as for what it did do, which was lose the battle with Clinton in the government shutdown, which was perceived by many voters as spurred by Gingrich’s petulance but also a somewhat radical Republican attempt to scale back the New Deal, including Social Security.
In all but one of Jacobson’s examples, the election following the big Congressional win resulted in a correction in favor of the other party. And the 1950-1952 sequence for Republicans only resulted in a shift to Republican control of Congress on the second election. But Eisenhower, who broke the Democrats’ 20 year hold on the presidency, did not run a deeply partisan campaign, he was generally seen as a superior candidate to Adlai Stevenson, and the election was not a major rejection of Democratic party policies. Indeed, in the next election, Democrats regained control of the House, which they maintained for the next 40 years.
What might make this election different than those previous big Congressional wins? And how will the presidential race figure in? Could it be a big win for Democrats? I think so.
First, on the Congressional level, there is the simple fact that in 2006, especially in the Senate, the Democrats essentially "ran the table." Only DLC favorite Harold Ford failed to close the deal in a close, competitive Senate election. Democrats won every other Senate seat they seriously contested, but most observers were predicting that it wouldn’t be 2006 when the Democrats would win the Senate, but in 2008, when Democrats only defend 12 seats and Republicans must protect 22. Retirements should also be a major factor in Democrats’ favor. Already Republicans have to defend at least four open seats, and three of them—VA, NM and CO—appear likely to go to Democrats. At least seven of the Republican seats will be competitive, and maybe more than ten. On the Democratic side, only LA and SD might be competitive.
Retirements could also help Democrats significantly in the House.
An open seat neutralizes the incumbency advantages of name recognition and fund-raising, which puts both candidates on a level playing field. In watershed elections such as those of 1974, 1994, and 2006, the presence of open seats has helped fuel the large seat change that either expanded one party's control over the House or helped throw that party out of power. In 1974, Democrats flipped 13 Republican open seats to Democratic control as part of the angry response to the Watergate scandal. In 1994, Republicans gobbled up 22 Democratic open seats on their way to sweeping Democrats out of power in Congress. In 2006, Democrats picked up eight open Republican seats, which provided more than half of the total necessary to gain control of the House.
In the 1994 Republican landslide, almost half of the Republican gains in the House came from open seats. In 2006, it was only 20% of the net gain; Democrats picked up their 30 seats in a much tougher manner. This time around, almost all the rumored or confirmed House retirements are on the Republican side, many of them in Democratic-leaning districts. Most Republicans have either never served in a Democratic majority, or are quite old, so look for many more Republican retirements in the House.
There’s also the economy. Jacobson discusses the 2006 election as having occurred during good economic times, although he does admit that the aggregate "good economy" might not feel good to many voters if they’re not "winners" in an economy where most of the benefits of growth have been going to the very rich. Political horse race expert Charlie Cook wrote about the economy a few weeks ago:
Spending time last week on both Capitol Hill and Wall Street provided me with a stark and fascinating contrast.
Among elected officials in Washington, there seems to be little talk about the economy and hardly any mention that the housing sector is in a free-fall.
In New York, everyone is white-knuckled as fears over the economy and a mounting credit crunch are pervasive. What started as a subprime mortgage crisis has since spread far beyond the housing sector. That, combined with oil prices exceeding $90 a barrel, constitutes a two-pronged attack on economic expansion.
However, among elected officials and staffs in Washington, there seems to be little talk about the economy and hardly any mention that the housing sector is in a free-fall. Most of the conversation steers away from economic problems, other than possibly the deficit and federal spending. Furthermore, the recent Democratic and Republican presidential debates have devoted hardly any time to the direction of the economy or the housing crisis.
In the ensuing two weeks, things haven’t begun to look any better. Cook acknowledged that there was some contradictory information that suggests things getting better. But, according to The Economist,
the good news may be about to come to an end. The housing downturn has entered a second, more dangerous, phase: one in which the construction rout deepens, price declines accelerate and the wealth effect of falling prices begins to change consumers' behaviour. The pain will be intensified by a sharp credit crunch, the scale of which is only just becoming clear. And, in the short term, it will be exacerbated by a spike in oil prices—up by 25% since August—that is extreme, even by the standards of recent years. The result is likely to be America's first consumer-led downturn in close to two decades.
The bigger point is that even if the economy technically avoids a recession, it will feel like one to most Americans—because it will be led by consumers. That will be a big change. Consumer spending has not fallen in a single quarter since 1991; it has not fallen on an annual basis since 1980. Consumers barely noticed America's last recession—when low interest rates and high house prices kept them spending solidly (see chart 5). Just how voters and politicians react to a consumer downturn in an election year is worryingly uncertain.
What's more, the squeeze on consumers will last longer than many expect because it involves the unwinding of an asset-price bubble and attendant financial excesses. Just as corporate spending stayed weak for years after the 2001 recession, so consumer spending will be crimped for more than a few months. There seems little reason to expect, as many analysts seem to, that the housing bust will be history by the second half of 2008.
Finally, policymakers' responses may be more muted. In 2001, the economy was cushioned by a large fiscal boost, thanks to tax cuts and bigger spending, as well as much lower interest rates. A big tax cut now seems extremely unlikely. At the same time, the weak dollar and global economic strength that softened the downturn will also complicate the central bankers' ability to respond. Based on underlying inflation expectations, real interest rates are still above 2%. Central bankers often push short-term real rates to zero, or even below, in a downturn, suggesting there is plenty of room to cut, particularly since the housing glut means lower interest rates may pack less punch. But high oil prices and a falling dollar may preclude such an aggressive response, as Mr Bernanke worries about rising inflation expectations. Recession or not, America faces a tricky road ahead.
Whether we experience a full-fledged recession, The Economist seems correct, that it will feel like it to most Americans. Voters show hunger for significant, systemic change. They hate Bush. They are irritated with Congress, but they hate George W Bush, they hate the war, and the Republican Presidential candidates appear more than willing to let the Democrats make this the second straight election about Bush, which will be lethal to their chances.
But these factors are all pendulum-like factors that are swinging in the direction of Democrats. There is a deeper, almost "geological" change going on that should help Democrats in 2008, and possibly well beyond. This demographic, social and ideological shift was described by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira in The Emerging Democratic Majority, and next week I will discuss how it could lead to a major Democratic victory in 2008.