November 28, 2005
2006: A Status Quo Election

By Jay Cost

Journalists and pundits seem to be writing an advance copy of the political story of 2006 – the beginning of the end of the contemporary Republican Party. A few have been prepared to write the GOP’s 2006 obituary, interestingly enough, since Bush’s second inaugural. But with the President’s numbers sinking, the House majority leader and the Vice-President’s Chief of Staff under indictment, and the Republican agenda seemingly non-existent – many more political observers are now speculating whether next year will mark the end of the contemporary GOP.

The question I shall answer here is whether there are grounds for this conclusion. I believe that the answer is no. While the anti-Republican mood in the nation today is undeniable, it does not seem that it will translate into big changes in Congress.

The reason for this answer does not boil down to what are now bland platitudes like “Tomorrow is a new day in politics” or “You never know what is coming around the corner in Washington” or “Don’t misunderestimate Bush.” It is not predicated upon the assumption that Bush’s numbers will rise again. It is, rather, predicated upon a sober assessment of the American political landscape in the context of our system of government. In other words, the argument here is that if the 2006 elections were held today, the GOP would hold Congress.

When pundits discuss the “end of the GOP” – they usually mean the end of GOP congressional dominance. Obviously, Bush is not going anywhere anytime soon. What people usually mean is that the Republicans will lose one or both houses of Congress next year. And the reason, these pundits believe, that they will lose is because of the anti-Republican tenor in the nation.

But the argument that public discontent will translate into Democratic control of Congress implicitly depends upon Congress being something it usually is not – reflective. Congress is a collection of the nation’s representatives, but only at a few times in our history has Congress ever really reflected the national mood in the way that pundits often assume it can.

The reason for this comes from the nature of the Madisonian system. We do not have a system where power is centralized in a parliament that is elected proportionally. We have, rather, a geographically based system for choosing members of Congress, an institution that is divided from the rest of the government. This system insulates Congress from most swings in the national mood. This makes all the difference. When forecasting congressional elections, geography matters and the separation of power matters.

Geography Matters

Because we do not have a proportional system of representation, but rather a system in which we select members of Congress based upon geographical boundaries, changing the control of Congress is not simply a matter of public opinion. It has to be the right public. What really matters is the structure of political opportunities the discontented public enjoys. Small shifts in public opinion can result in large swings in Congress, and massive shifts in public opinion can result in only small swings in Congress. What really matters is where the public discontent has developed. If most congressional districts remain largely Democratic or largely Republican, and are represented by members whose partisanship is the same as their district, Congress will not change hands, even when the public mood changes.

For instance, 1994 saw a GOP shift in the House of Representatives of 54 seats. Nationwide, the GOP increased its overall vote total by 5.7% (that is, the party as a whole increased its share of the entire congressional electorate by 5.7%). However, in 1966, the GOP increased its overall vote total by 6.3% and only collected 48 seats, failing to capture the House. In 1954, the GOP saw its vote total decline by 4.0%, but only lost 15 seats. In 1956 it increased its vote total by 2.1%, but failed to capture a single net seat. What does this imply? It implies that the correlation between vote changes and seat changes is not as strong as people would think, that a nationwide partisan swing is not enough to explain a swing in the control of Congress. What is necessary for Congress to switch hands is for the swing to be in the right place – or, more specifically, places where the incumbent is of the “wrong” party.

The GOP’s national bump in 1994 was a little under 6%, but what really induced the swing was where the bump was concentrated and where Democratic members of Congress were located. The GOP received 8% more votes in the South, about 7% more in the West and about 5% in the Midwest. Meanwhile, it only increased its vote total by less than 2% in the Mid-Atlantic and less than 1% the Northeast. Why? The anti-Clinton, anti-Democratic trends were stronger in the former areas and weaker in the latter areas. On top of this was the fact that there were many Democrats in the regions where the GOP did so well that were therefore made vulnerable. This is why the GOP picked up 36 seats in the South and the West, and an additional 15 in the Midwest, but only 3 seats in the Northeast. The big change in 1994 thus occurred because of a combination of forces: there were publics that did not like the Democrats that also had the opportunity to vote against them.

This is pretty commonsensical. If you have a 5% nationwide swing in the next congressional election, but it amounts to the Republicans earning 6% instead of 16% in districts like IL-01, or 83% instead of 93% in districts like TX-08, a single seat is not going to change hands. What matters is where the shift is occurring. And in 1994, the public was shifting in sufficient quantities in districts held by Democrats. In other words, 1994 was the capstone of a long-running political realignment, one that really began in 1932. The inherent tension between the FDR Democratic Party and the voters in the South, the Midwest (to a lesser degree) and the Mountain West finally gave way to a Republican takeover of many conservative congressional districts. The publics in those areas had for a long time becoming increasingly Republican in their national political outlook – while their congressional representatives remained Democratic. 1994 was the year that the large-scale mismatch between the ideology of constituencies and the partisanship of seat holders finally resulted in a major change in the partisan balance of Congress. This is why an overwhelming majority of the GOP pickups in 1994 were in districts that went for Bush in 1988 and 1992. For instance, Republican challengers defeated 21 of 73 Democratic incumbents in districts where Bush had won a majority, but only 13 of 152 where he did not. Southerners and westerners ended a major political tension by reconciling their congressional and their presidential votes.

This is not to argue that 1994 was inevitable. The big changes in the political landscape occurred then in part because of the public’s unusually high disaffection with incumbents (which in turn was due to the tenacity of gridlock that was expected to disappear with Democratic control of government), the ineptitude of Bill Clinton’s early leadership, and the GOP’s ability to nationalize the election (although, it is important to not get carried away with the word “nationalize;” after all, most of the seat changes occurred in specific regions). Gingrich, Dole and the rest of the Republican leadership is thus to be credited with convincing people to vote in congressional elections the same way as they had been voting in the presidential elections. But the most fundamental ingredient in the mix that year, the truly necessary condition, was the tension between Democratic members of Congress and their constituents’ political views on national issues. If there had been no tension between congressional and presidential voting in the South, the Midwest and the Mountain West, there would have been nothing upon which the GOP could capitalize.

The big question for 2006, then, is whether there is another such mismatch. In other words, which publics are becoming more discontented with the GOP? Are they publics that will have the opportunity to vote out Republicans? Currently, the answer seems to be no – though it is difficult to draw solid conclusions because we do not have district-by-district opinion data. All we have is nationwide data that is susceptible to faulty inferences when we evaluate individual districts within the nation. Nevertheless, Charlie Cook, though he does not agree with my conclusion, argues that barely 6% of House seats are competitive – which seems to indicate that not many districts are switching from red to blue. This makes intuitive sense. If 1994 was part and parcel of a long-term realignment, then we can expect that today’s publics are generally realigned, and therefore less likely to have ideological tension with their representatives or senators.

But we can dig a little deeper than this. Compare the political landscape of 1994 to the landscape of 2006. In the former year, there were 73 Democrats sitting in districts that George H.W. Bush won in 1992. In the latter year, there are a scant 17 Republicans sitting in districts that George W. Bush lost in 2004. The political landscape is markedly different this time around; the public seems to largely be in equilibrium. Their presidential votes generally match their congressional votes. This will make it extremely difficult for the Democrats to find the 16 pickups they will need to secure a majority in the House. The Democrats will have to send the political nation back into disequilibrium – by once again turning red presidential districts into blue congressional districts. They cannot simply rely upon blue presidential districts to turn into blue congressional districts. Such districts are not numerous enough (especially when you factor in the number of districts in this subset of 17 where the GOP have victory assured). By and large, Democrats will have to go into the interior of Bush’s political territory to take back the House. In other words, they will have to undo 1994 – and major, realigning elections have never been undone. On the Senate side, the current alignment of the nation is even less inviting for Democrats; there are only three Republicans up for reelection this year in states that Bush lost in 2004. Given that Olympia Snowe is virtually guaranteed of reelection, the Democrats will have to convince at least four red states to provide blue senators. This is not impossible (nor, for that matter, is a Democratic take-back of the House), but it is extremely unlikely. In all likelihood, given the distribution of Republican and Democratic congressmen across the nation, the Democrats will trim the GOP’s edge in both houses, but will not take control of either body. There are just not enough locales that are sufficiently susceptible to switching the partisanship of their congressman.

Separation of Powers Matters

As everybody learns in 8th grade civics, this nation divides power up more than an office birthday cake. The argument for this division was that it would serve as a powerful check against tyranny. Regardless of whether our system’s structure does prevent such tyranny, it has had some unforeseen side effects. By dividing power, you also divide responsibility – and thus enable politicians to avoid taking the fall for somebody else’s political blunder.

In terms of 2006, that means that it is not enough that the public is angry with George W. Bush for Congress to change hands. The angry portion of the public also must connect their Republican member of Congress to Bush. This happens very rarely. As UC-San Diego’s Gary Jacobson and others have argued, there is only a very weak correlation between presidential approval ratings and individual vote decisions for Congress. As a matter of fact, scholars have even found that the anti-GOP typhoon that was the 1974 congressional elections was not really caused by the political earthquake of Watergate – in that it does not explain why individual voters chose the way they did.

Jacobson has asserted that people tend to vote in congressional elections based upon their evaluation of the candidates, not the national political climate. There is a logic to this behavior that follows from the structure of our government. It is difficult for many voters to really make a causal connection between what the president does in the White House and what their member of Congress is doing over on Capitol Hill. One of the major reasons for this is that the average voter really has no idea what their member of Congress is doing. And, as Rochester University’s Richard Fenno argues, members of Congress take advantage of this low level of information to separate themselves from unappealing parts of American government. Why is it, for instance, that the average voter hates Congress but loves his member? One reason is because the member almost always runs anti-congressional campaigns. In other words, the average member’s campaign is all about how the rest of the system is broken, but your congressman is there to fix it.

Members of Congress, in other words, are very good at taking advantage of the separation of powers. They use it to avoid blame. They have become very good at this tactic over the years. This is why we expect, for instance, Maine’s Olympia Snowe to win reelection easily next year. Maine might be angry with the GOP and with President Bush, but Snowe is adept at establishing herself as an independent-minded member of Congress.

This is not to say that members of Congress can always escape blame. The ability of members of Congress to insulate themselves from Washington is not always sufficient. 1994 taught us that – it showed that elections can be, in some measure, nationalized – and that hiding behind one’s bridge project or one’s independence from Congress provides no guarantee of reelection. But, considering that we have not had such a strongly nationalized midterm election since (nor have we had many prior) and considering that the necessary ingredient in this nationalization was a tension between people’s prior congressional and presidential votes, it is pretty clear that 2006 will likely not be a year like 1994, a year in which control of Congress switches.

What could really make the difference, but at this point does not seem like it will, is candidate recruitment. Jacobson and Samuel Kernell (also of UC-SD) have argued that national political moods, especially presidential approval rating, can affect congressional races indirectly by inducing top-tier candidates to run or not run. So far this year, this does not seem to be happening. Neither party seems to be doing a fantastic job of recruiting candidates, which means that the Democrats cannot seem to capitalize on Bush’s low numbers. The Republicans, for instance, could not convince Shelly Moore Capito to run against Robert Byrd in West Virginia. They have had similar trouble finding a top-tier candidate to challenge Debbie Stabenow in Michigan. But the Democrats, for their part, could not persuade Tim Roemer to run against Richard Lugar in Indiana. They are also having real trouble finding a top-tier candidate to take on Mike DeWine in Ohio. Speaking roughly, it looks as though the Democrats only have top-tier Senate candidates in three GOP-held seats (TN, RI, PA) and second-tier candidates in two states (MO, MT). In the House, meanwhile, Charlie Cook argues that, while the Democrats want to put 50 GOP-held seats in play, in 32 GOP-held districts they have only fielded “at least a second- or third-tier candidate.”

There are exceptions – Maryland and Pennsylvania’s Senate contests both feature top-tier candidates. And this general trend might change (though if it does, it will be evident by February, at the latest). But at this point it is fair to say that the low approval numbers for the Republican and Democratic parties will probably induce the best of the best to wait until a later date, when the political climate is a bit more inviting. Without quality challengers, incumbents are better able to structure their campaigns as referenda on their personalities and their independence, rather than on national issues, making it more likely that the elections will produce few changes in the makeup of Congress.

The bottom line is the following. Simply because Bush is down in his approval rating does not mean that the Democrats will increase their vote totals by a significant margin and the GOP will see its totals decrease by a significant margin. The reason for this is that presidential approval does not strongly correlate with congressional performance. Nor, for that matter, does any national trend. One of the reasons for this is that Congress, as a body existing in a system of separated power, is full of members who are very adept at running away from dangerous national trends. National trends usually only find their way into local elections through the medium of candidate recruitment, which is currently sounding ho-hum for both parties.

[N.B. Recent analysts, notably Charlie Cook, have argued that the current results of the “congressional generic ballot” question, which asks if people plan to vote for a Democrat or a Republican in the next congressional election, strongly indicate that 2006 will be a good year for the Democrats. There is a problem with this line of analysis – and that is that the generic ballot question only tends to be a reliable indicator of final election results in the days leading up to the election. As Robert Erikson of Houston University and Lee Seigelman of George Washington University have argued, the Gallup generic question, probably the most reliable of the bunch, tends to skew toward the Democrats this far from a congressional election (i.e. it overestimates the level of Democratic support). The Gallup question is usually biased by about 6% toward the Democrats one year from the congressional election – and the October 21 Gallup Poll gave the Democrats a 7% edge on the generic ballot. As Gallup’s David Moore and Lydia Saad have noted in response, the generic ballot question becomes much more reliable closer to Election Day. But we are very far from that day.]

Representative, Not Reflective

Democratic dreams and Republican nightmares of a turnover in congressional control are therefore not very realistic. The distribution of angry voters, as well as the aptitude with which members of Congress can avoid public wrath, together indicate that in all likelihood very little will change in 2006. There will be some interesting races, for sure. Pennsylvania and Maryland again come to mind. But it is extremely unlikely that either the House or the Senate will change hands.

The reason for that once again returns us to the original design of Congress. Congress is not a national body in a literal sense – it is a collection of representatives from different parts of the nation. This makes a big difference. Congress was never intended to be reflective of “the people” broadly conceived. It was, rather, intended to be the body at which the representatives of different sets of people meet to develop policy.

Thanks to the institutional innovations of Andrew Jackson, the people of this country do indeed have one branch that can be reflective – the executive branch. And we filled that job about a year ago. In all likelihood, you will have to wait until 2008 to see the national mood affect the composition of our government.

Jay Cost, creator of The Horse Race Blog, is a graduate student of political science at the University of Chicago. He can be reached at jay_cost@hotmail.com.

Jay Cost

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