With polls showing public anger and anti-incumbent fervor at levels unseen since the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, the inevitable analogies are being batted around all over the political world, and the New York Times is the latest one on the bandwagon:
In many ways, the 1994 election has become the template both Republicans and Democrats are looking to as they set their strategies for the fall Congressional elections. Democratic campaign operatives, who are girding for big losses, began meeting quietly with party strategists involved in the 1994 contests last summer, looking for lessons on how to avoid another rout.
Yet 1994 seems an imprecise way to predict how this contest will play out. While there are intriguing parallels, there are some important differences as well.
The biggest differences, of course, being that, this time, the Democrats managed to get their health care reform bill passed into law (although any positive benefit from that accomplishment is arguably outweighed by the growing public opposition and calls for it’s repeal) and the fact that, this time, both sides can see the train coming.
Despite the differences, though, there are plenty of signs that Democrats are at risk of suffering massive losses in November, as Nate Silver noted over the weekend:
In my piece a couple of weeks ago, I wrote that there was only a 1 in 10 chance that Democrats would lose more than 55 seats in November. Having now looked at this issue in somewhat more detail, that clearly seems to be a lowball estimate. While there is other statistical and anecdotal evidence that one can point toward that is relatively more favorable to Democrats, and while there are other techniques, like a district-by-district analysis, that could be applied to this problem instead — if you could get 9:1 odds (a 1-in-10 chance) on the Democrats losing more than 55 seats in the House, that would be a good bet.
If Democrats were to lose 50, 60, 70 or even more House seats, it would not totally shock me.
Silver isn’t the only one foreseeing the prospect of massive Democratic losses as at least within the realm of possibility, Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz sees it too:
According to a statistical model that has proven highly accurate in forecasting the outcomes of congressional elections, Republicans now have a good chance of regaining control of the House of Representatives in November. The model uses four independent variables to predict Republican seat change in congressional elections: the president’s net approval rating in the Gallup Poll, the results of the generic ballot question in the Gallup Poll, a dummy variable for midterm elections that is positive in Democratic midterm years and negative in Republican midterm years, and the number of seats held by Republicans before the election. The following table shows the results of a regression analysis of seat change in 32 postwar House elections using these four predictors.
Contrary to many other analyses, however, the results of the forecasting model indicate that the main factors contributing to likely Republican gains in November are structural and do not reflect an especially negative political environment for Democrats. The current political environment only appears unfavorable for Democrats compared with the extraordinarily favorable environment that the Party enjoyed in both 2006 and 2008. The two structural variables in the model—previous Republican seats and the midterm dummy variable—predict a Republican gain of 38 seats, half due to the small number of Republican seats prior to the election and half due to the fact that 2010 is a Democratic midterm year. According to this model, the main reasons that Democrats are likely to experience significant losses in 2010 are the normal tendency of voters to turn against the president’s party in midterm elections regardless of the national political environment and the fact that after gaining more than 50 seats in the past two elections, they are defending a large number of seats, many in Republican-leaning districts.
In other words, it was entirely predictable that Republicans would gain seats this year given the fact that they suffered massive Congressional losses in 2006 and 2008, as I noted some time ago:
I don’t think there’s almost any doubt that Republicans will gain seats in Congress next year. In fact, it’s seemingly an historical inevitability. For one thing, after two straight elections where they suffered massive losses, it’s only to be expected that the GOP would recapture many of the marginally Republican districts that went Democratic in 2006 or 2008. For another, there have only been two times in modern political history, 1934 and 2002, when the incumbent President’s party gained seats in a second-year mid-term election. Both of those were historical anomalies and, barring another one, it’s likely that the Democrats will lose some seats. Absent a catastrophic decline in Obama’s popularity, though, it’s unlikely that the GOP will gain enough seats to take control of the House, and control of the Senate is simply out of the picture for at least the next 4-6 years.
And what have we seen recently ? Obama’s approval numbers have declined, although they have not reached catastrophic levels yet. The Democratic Party has seen it’s own approval numbers drop to historic lows. The bellwether right-track/wrong-track poll has turned decidedly negative. And, both Obama and the Democrats are tied inexorably to a health care reform bill that the public still doesn’t like. It’s no surprise we are where we are today, really. It really isn’t surprising that people are talking openly about the possibility of a massive shift of power in the House of Representatives.
There are some intriguing similarities between the political situation in 1946 and the political situation today.
In the off-year election of 1946, Republicans gained 13 seats in the Senate and emerged with a 51–45 majority there, the largest majority that they enjoyed between 1930 and 1980. They gained 55 seats in the House, giving them a 246–188 majority in that body, the largest majority they have held since 1930.
First, Democrats were promising (or threatening) to vastly increase the size and scope of government. Government’s share of gross domestic product had risen to over 40% in World War II, and it was obvious that there would be some scaling back. At the same time, the Allied victory in World War II had enhanced the prestige of the state, just as the 1930s Depression weakened faith in free markets. In Britain, the 1942 Beveridge Report urged creating a welfare state after the war, and the Labour Party won a resounding victory in the July 1945 election and promptly proceeded to adopt the Beveridge recommendations and more.
In the United States, Franklin Roosevelt in his January 1944 State of the Union address echoed the Beveridge Report. As I pointed out in my 1990 book Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan, he called for “steeply graduated taxes, government controls on crop prices and food prices [and] continued controls on wages . . . Government should guarantee everyone a job, an education, and clothing, housing, medical care, and financial security against the risks of old age and sickness.” “True individual freedom,” Roosevelt said, “cannot exist without economic security and independence.”
His successor Harry Truman took the same view. In September 1945, less than a month after the surrender of Japan, he called for continued price controls, a full-employment bill, a higher minimum wage, a public- and private-housing bill, and only limited cuts in the high wartime tax rates. In December 1945 he called for national health insurance.
The parallels between the political situation in 1946 and 2010 are limited but instructive. Americans once again are faced with proposals that would vastly expand the size and scope of government. And they are faced by proposals to increase the power of labor unions. Public opinion polls show that in 2010, as in 1946, most Americans reject such policies. Republicans in 1946 were prepared to advance policies that turned America away from such policies. The question is whether Republicans in 2010, with the prospect but not the assurance, of winning a majority in the House and perhaps a majority in the Senate, are similarly prepared.
As long as they continue down the ill-advised “Party of no” road, I’ve got to say that they aren’t prepared at all.
H/T: James Joyner