As the fall elections get closer, we’ve been analyzing the likely outcome based on available data like an incumbent’s voting record on controversial items (the stimulus, “cap and trade”, and healthcare reform), his/her 2008 re-election percentage, and the level of support for Barack Obama in those districts. This analysis has been performed while considering the presence of the “Obama Plunge” (a fairly consistent 12-15% drop-off in Democratic support since the “cap and trade” vote in the House last summer). As a result of these factors, we currently forecast a GOP gain of 79 seats in the House and eight seats in the Senate.
This method of predicting the election outcome isn’t flawless, of course, because of other factors like retirements, quality of candidates running, last minute scandals, and/or the economy. Therefore, we would like to discuss the likely outcome by comparing it to the 1994 GOP landslide to determine whether history is repeating itself.
In 1994, former President Clinton saw his popularity plunge after “don’t ask don’t tell”, controversy over whether his appointees paid taxes on their nannies, his 1993 tax hikes, the military disaster in Somalia, and a botched attempt at healthcare reform. And, in fact, almost immediately after the tax increases (which were passed with no votes to spare in either house of Congress), the GOP steadily picked up Democratic held seats in off year and special elections. The first tremors occurred in November 1993, when the GOP captured both the Virginia and New Jersey Governorships, as well as mayor’s races in New York City and Los Angeles. The GOP then proceeded to pick up two Democratic held open House seats in Oklahoma and Kentucky. As this was happening, the 19% who had supported Ross Perot’s Independent candidacy in 1992 became a sought after “swing vote” that, in the context of the 1993-1994 Democratic agenda, was willing to consider Republican Congressional candidates for the first time in decades.
While President Obama had a more aggressive (and more successful) Democratic agenda than former President Clinton did in 1993-1994, the trifecta of the stimulus, “cap and trade”, and healthcare reform forced Democrats in marginal seats to “walk the plank” repeatedly in support of the Democratic agenda. While it is true that Democrats were victorious in two Republican leaning House seats in upstate New York, these narrow victories were no doubt due to the GOP’s choosing colorless incumbent legislators as their nominees in both races. And the Republicans had their share of victories in offyear/special elections as well in bluer territory like Virginia, New Jersey, Massachusetts, the New York City suburbs, Albuquerque, and Pennsylvania. Finally, grassroots opposition to key components of the Democratic agenda appeared in the form of locally oriented and conservative leaning TEA (Taxed Enough Already) Party groups.
The Role of Retirements
There is yet another similarity to the 1994 GOP landslide that can be discovered by examining the nature of the GOP gains in Congress in 1994 (a net gain of 54 in the House of Representatives and 10 in the Senate). Though some political pundits have attributed the 1994 GOP gains to an abnormally large number of House and Senate retirements that year (30 of 51 House retirements were Democrats, as were six of nine retiring Senators), the fact remains that the GOP gains were also fueled by their defeating 36 Democratic incumbents in the House and two in the Senate. Additionally, the retirement count so far isn’t far off the 1994 figures; with filing deadlines closed in 23 states so far, there have been 39 House and 11 Senate incumbent retirements.
There are two additional factors, however, that limit the extent of electoral landslides: (1) landslides never sweep all incumbents out of power, and (2) the influence of third and/or fourth party candidacies can complicate the results. To illustrate, in the 1994 landslide, there were 35 House and three Senate Democrats who were re-elected with 50-54% of the vote. There were also 10 House Democrats and two Senate Democrats who were re-elected with less than 50% of the vote because of third party candidacies. Had the Republicans won the races mentioned above, they would have had (in 1995-1996, anyway) a nearly filibuster proof Senate and a nearly veto-proof House majority. As such, if we were to apply the “ones that got away” logic to our current projections, the 79 seat GOP House gain we’re projecting instead becomes a 34 seat gain – not enough to retake the House (even assuming that the GOP can hold all its seats). In the Senate, a projected eight seat gain would be pared back to a paltry three seat gain. This sobering possibility is something that surely must be on the minds of political operatives between now and November and, with the emergence of decentralized TEA parties as a political force, the “elephant in the room” question will be the extent to which they can/will ally with the GOP, as opposed to their running third party candidates.