Some Revolution

by Ed Kilgore | September 28, 2009

In political circles, Republicans and Democrats alike have begun comparing the 2010 election with the "revolution" that handed both the House and the Senate to the GOP in 1994. But how applicable is that analogy, really?

On the surface, the comparison is plausible. In 1994, as now, a charismatic outsider took office amid general unhappiness with the record of his Republican predecessor. Then, as now, the president decided to make health care reform a signature issue despite widespread concerns about the economy, taxes, and federal budget deficits. And, as now, Republicans responded with an abrasive political strategy that energized their conservative base, at a time when Democrats were seemingly divided between centrists and liberals discouraged by the new president’s perceived centrist path.

It's impossible, however, to draw concrete conclusions from such superficial observations. A more disconcerting parallel for Democrats might be the scope of their recent winning streak. In the elections leading up to both 1994 and 2010, Democratic victories, particularly in the House, left the party somewhat over-exposed. In 1994, 46 of the 258 House Democrats were in districts carried by President George H.W. Bush in 1992. The numbers are comparable today, where 49 of the 257 House Democrats are in districts carried by John McCain, with only 34 Republicans in districts carried by Barack Obama. Similarly, if you apply the Partisan Voting Index, (PVI), which compares a district’s prior presidential results to national averages, you find that there are 66 Democrats in districts with a Republican PVI and only 15 Republicans in districts with a Democratic PVI--a similar situation to the 79 Democrats in Republican districts in 1994. Clearly, two straight "wave" elections have eliminated most of the low-hanging fruit for Democrats in the House, and created some ripe targets for the GOP.

But that's where the fear-inducing similarities end. The Republicans' 1994 victory in the House was also enabled by a large number of Democratic retirements: Twenty-two of the 54 seats the GOP picked up that year were open. By comparison, the authoritative (and subscription-only) Cook Political Report counts only four open, Democrat-held House seats in territory that is even vaguely competitive. That low number of open seats is significant because it limits the number of seats Republicans can win; if there is a similar wave of retirements in the offing for 2010, the signs have yet to materialize.

The 1994 parallels appear even more tendentious in the Senate. In 1994, Democrats lost eight of the 22 seats they defended, six of which were open. Republicans had only 13 seats to defend, and three of them were open. In 2010, however, the situation lopsidedly favors Democrats. Republicans have to defend 19 of their seats, seven of which are open. Meanwhile, Democrats have to defend 19 seats, only three of which are open. For Republicans to take the Senate, Democrats would have to lose eleven seats without picking off a single Republican. There’s no modern precedent for a tsunami that large. 

Another disconnect between 1994 and 2010 involves patterns of demography and ideology. The 1994 election was the high-water mark of the great ideological sorting that occurred between the two parties. That made the environment particularly harsh for southern Democrats, as well as those in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain West, where many ancestral attachments to the Donkey Party came unmoored. 

In the South, this sorting-out was reinforced by the decennial reapportionment and redistricting process, during which both Republicans and civil rights activists promoted a regime of "packing" and "bleaching" districts--that is, the electoral consolidation of African-American voters. While this had a salutary effect on African-American representation in the House of Representatives, the overall effect was to weaken Democrats. This dynamic was best illustrated by my home state of Georgia, whose House delegation changed from 9-1 Democratic going into the 1992 election to 8-3 Republican after 1994.

Nothing similar to those handicaps exists today. The ideological filtering of the parties is long over; any genuine conservative Democrats or liberal Republicans left in the electorate clearly have reasons for retaining their loyalties, which will be difficult to erode. Moreover, whether or not you buy the "realignment" theories that Democrats were excited about after the 2008 elections, there is not a single discernible long-term trend that favors the Republican Party. Bush-era Republican hopes of making permanent inroads among Hispanics and women were thoroughly dashed in 2006 and 2008. Moreover, as Alan Abramowitz recently pointed out, the percentage of the electorate that is nonwhite--which is rejecting Republicans by overwhelming margins--has roughly doubled since 1994.

Still, there is one short-term demographic factor that Democrats should be alarmed about in 2010. Older voters almost always make up a larger percentage of those who go to the polls during midterm elections than they do in presidential election years. And older white voters, who contributed mightily to the Democrats' midterm victory in 2006, are famously skeptical of Barack Obama. Indeed, they skewed away from him in 2008, even before Republicans devoted so many resources turning them against health care reform with tales of big Medicare cuts and death panels. So the Cook Political Report's David Wasserman may have been correct when he predicted that, "[e]ven if Obama and Democrats are just as popular next November as they were last November, they might stand to lose five to ten seats in the House based on the altered composition of the midterm electorate alone." 

That’s bad, but it's certainly not political reversal on the scale of 1994. Unlike Bill Clinton at the same time in his presidency, Obama's approval ratings seem to have recently stabilized in the low-fifties; not great, but not that bad in a polarized country, either. And as both Abramowitz and Ron Brownstein have pointed out, in group after group of the electorate, he remains as popular as he was when he was elected. A cyclical turnover of ten House seats, which seems to be the most likely scenario in 2010, would not a revolution make.

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