The “Obama plunge”, 2012 edition

Last fall, the GOP scored a historic 63 seat gain in the House (picking up 66 Democratic seats while losing 3 Republican seats). We had predicted this political earthquake as far back as the upset victory of Scott Brown in Massachusetts a year ago, using a set of criteria called the “Obama plunge” (explained in further detail here):

That Was Then

Can this “plunge” reassert itself in the 2012 Congressional elections ? For us to answer this question, let’s look at the actual results to evaluate our “plunge theory”:

(1) We had noted in this article that the “Obama Plunge” was not distributed evenly across all demographic groups: a district with a significant “base Democratic vote” (i.e., blacks, Jewish voters, academics, and those who depend on government funding for their livelihood), would have a negligible “Obama Plunge.” Accordingly, we consistently found that any Democratic held House seat that voted 58% or more for Obama in 2008 did not flip to the Republicans in last November’s elections – in other words, the actual “Obama Plunge” was about 8%;

(2) We also noted that the “Obama Plunge” would not apply if there were third party candidacies splitting the conservative/Republican vote. In the 2010 elections, we found that 8 House Democrats were elected/re-elected with less than 50% of the vote;

(3) Part of our analysis of the “Obama Plunge” was based on votes incumbent House Democrats (Republicans were nearly unanimously opposed to the Democratic agenda) had to make on the stimulus, “cap and trade”, healthcare reform, raising the national debt ceiling, and “deeming” the Democratic budget approved (i.e., passing a budget without explicitly voting on it). The next time around, with Republicans in secure control of the House, there will likely be less controversial legislation, although GOP efforts to repeal “Obamacare” can certainly have the potential of being a campaign issue in 2012 (only three House Democrats joined Republicans in voting for repeal);

(4) We believed that “Congressmen behaving badly” (i.e., inappropriate public behavior from a Congressman that was circulated over the Internet) could impact the results. In fact, of 5 incumbent Democrats who earned that dubious honor, four (Phil Hare of Illinois, Bob Etheridge of North Carolina, Alan Grayson of Florida, and Ciro Rodriguez of Texas) lost. The only survivor was Barney Frank of Massachusetts, although his share of the vote was reduced to a record low (for him) of 54%;

This Is Now

Given the theoretical criteria, the actual results, the fact that 2012 is a Presidential election year (with theoretically higher Democratic turnout), and the impact that redistricting will have on several Congressman’s careers, we will start the 2012 election cycle off with a refined set of criteria:

(1) Any Democrat in a district that voted 58% of more for Obama is safe, UNLESS he/she was re-elected with 55% of the vote or less;

(2) Any Democrat in a non inner city district who lives in a state where Republicans control redistricting is theoretically vulnerable;

(3) Any Republican in a district that voted for Obama is theoretically vulnerable;

(4) Any Republican who lives in a state where Democrats control redistricting is theoretically vulnerable;

(5) While we are not yet in a position to use a Democrat’s voting record on controversial legislation to assess his/her vulnerability, the three Democrats (Dan Boren of Oklahoma, Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, and Mike Ross of Arkansas) who voted to repeal “Obamacare” are off to a good head start;

Given this analysis, we see that up to 61 Democrats are vulnerable. Of this group, 47 were elected/re-elected with 55% of the vote or less, and the average Obama vote in those districts was 55%. In the remaining 14 districts, the Democrat was re-elected with more than 55% of the vote. 4 of those 14 districts were carried by McCain with an average of 58% of the vote, and it’s worth noting that none of these 4 Democratic incumbents received more than 58% of the vote. The remaining 10 districts were carried by Obama with an average of 56% of the vote, and Democratic incumbents were re-elected with an average of 58% of the vote. This group of incumbent Democrats is probably safe for now, but in the situation where there is another “Obama plunge”, they could have a more competitive race. (NOTE: this list of 61 currently includes Gabrielle Giffords (D-Arizona). Since she was a victim of the recent Tucson shooting, we believe right now that she is politically safe).

What about the Republicans ? There are 34 Republicans (31 freshmen and 3 incumbents) who theoretically are vulnerable. It is worth noting, however, that in these districts, Obama received an average of 54% of the vote, while the average GOP House vote was 52%. In other words, Republican House candidates/incumbents ran 6 points ahead of John McCain’s 2008 showing. Since the vast majority of these Republicans will be running for re-election in 2012 as incumbents, we think many of them, in the absence of a “Congressmen behaving badly” situation, can be re-elected.

Can redistricting play a factor ? Using the criteria #2 and 4 above, we see 14 Democrats and 5 Republicans (we are including in this total one of the Republicans in the Louisiana House delegation) who could see their political careers end because they live in a state where redistricting will not be favorable towards them. However, we are not factoring these seats into the equation yet, because we don’t yet know what the lines will look like in states gaining House seats.

Given this analysis, we believe that the 2013-2014 House could contain anywhere from 208 to 303 Republicans. Since 218 votes are required for control, the Democrats would have to pick off 25 Republicans (even assuming not a single Democrat loses) to take the House back in 2012.

As time goes on over the next two years, we will revisit this criteria and make appropriate adjustments.