commentators remain ambivalent about the chances of a Democratic
capture of the House. Most are willing to say that they cannot
capture the Senate – especially now that Lott has decided
to return. It would require them to run the tables on every vulnerable
and “vulnerable” incumbent Republican out there: Santorum,
Dewine, Burns, Chafee, Talent. This would be at a time when incumbents
are, historically speaking, as invulnerable as they have ever
been, and Republicans are as invulnerable as they have been since
Hoover. Most think this is impossible.
about the House? To take the House, the Democrats would have to
net 15 seats. Can they do this? As readers of my previous work
have undoubtedly noted, I believe the answer is no, and the firmness
with which I hold this opinion stands as an exception to the current
consensus. In the course of the next two columns, I intend to
justify this opinion to you.
I think the
reason that so many other analysts are ambivalent is that they
are making one of two methodological mistakes. Some analyze the
House elections top-down. In other words, they investigate the
nationwide electoral picture and, from this, attempt to infer
how many seats will change hands. I think this is the necessary
way to estimate net seat changes, but I also think that too few
deploy arguments that are informed by the best, or even a complete,
theory of congressional elections. Thus, they look at incumbent
retention rates, voter dissatisfaction with Bush, congressional
approval ratings, generic congressional ballot, the economy –
all of that macro-level data – but cannot really conclude
with confidence what it implies. It is all there in a stew that
seems to taste more like elephant than donkey, but who can say?
have been analyzing the race from the bottom-up. In other words,
they look at which members currently suffer from weak poll positions,
which are facing stiffer-than-normal competition, etc. From this
they develop a set of possible Democratic captures. All of this
is well and good as a way to begin estimating what will occur
in the aggregate in November. However, maximally, this mode of
analysis will only give you a range of options. You need to look
at the bigger picture to begin to determine which scenarios are
more likely, which are less likely. For instance, the consensus
among “trench” experts is that there are 21 Republican
and 11 Democratic House seats that are legitimately contested,
with the caveat that the number of contested seats could get bigger
or smaller. From what can you conclude based upon this alone?
The result can be any of 32 possible outcomes – from a Democratic
net gain of 21 to a Republican net gain of 11.
To move from
this range to a situation wherein we assign probabilities to certain
outcomes requires us to analyze the bigger picture. I think that
we can do a better job than most analysts have done thus far.
I believe that one can estimate electoral results with a good
degree of confidence and precision this far from November. This
is where I stand in sharpest disagreement with other commentators.
Most others I read tend to speak metaphorically, ambiguously,
and always leave themselves an “out” clause. I think
this is unnecessary. A higher level of precision in discussing
the House elections is possible today. We do not need to wait
until November 6 to speak non-metaphorically, to speak without
“out” clauses, to speak unambiguously, to speak precisely.
I believe that all of this is possible because I do not view House
elections as Charlie Cook does: events in which sometimes “the
political laws of gravity (are) suspended.” I think that
the causal laws of American politics do not become suspended;
otherwise, they would not be laws. Congressional elections are
like most other political processes, characterized by regular,
consistent features and stochastic, surprising features. You cannot
predict aggregate electoral results exactly, but the process is
regular enough that you can develop a precise prediction that
will be very close to correct.
What we need
is a good theory: one that makes intuitive sense, one that is
historically accurate, one that is precise, one that can help
us estimate the size and scope of its possible error. There is
such a theory, and it is wickedly simple. It was developed first
by Yale’s Edward Tufte in the 1970s and refined later by
UC-San Diego’s Gary Jacobson in the 1980s and 1990s. It
explains most of the electoral results we have seen between 1946
and 2002. It is the following: the party of the President tends
to lose seats in Congress as his party is increasingly exposed
in the election, as change in real income per capita stagnates
or declines, as his job approval rating stagnates or declines.
This theory does not hypothesize that the average voter thinks
in this way – that individuals tend to weigh these three
factors. As we have discussed
previously, the average voter tends to ponder local issues when
he casts his vote. This theory hypothesizes that the net effect
of every voter is such that the electorate, as a whole, acts in
this way. This theory does not contest Tip O’Neill’s
wise-but-overused statement that “all politics is local.”
As a nation,
therefore, we tend to punish or reward members of the President’s
congressional caucus according to three independent variables:
exposure, real disposable income per capita (RDI/cap) and presidential
approval. Let us take each variable in turn – noting that,
if we set all of them to zero (i.e. a party that is neither under-
nor over-exposed, a president whom literally nobody likes, and
an economy that has neither grown nor shrunk in real terms), we
can expect the party of the President to lose a sizeable portion
of his House delegation.
is defined as how many seats a party has above its historical
average. For every “extra” House seat that the party
of the President enjoys, it tends to lose a portion of its congressional
caucus in the next election, all else being equal. The intuition
behind this variable is pretty clear. It is like the stock market.
When you see a stock performing above its historical average,
all else being equal, you expect that stock to go down again.
When you see it performing below its historical average, you expect
it to go up again. It gets to the idea that there is some kind
of “natural” level of value. The Republicans have,
today, a “natural” position in the House and, all
else being equal, we expect an adjustment toward that position
Next is presidential
approval. The intuition behind this is also fairly clear: there
is a linkage between the President and the members of his party.
This theory does not hypothesize where the linkage exists –
does the voter think about the President, do political donors
think about the President, etc. It does not hypothesize how the
linkage exists – does the voter use his vote as a message,
does an unpopular president bring out his opponents, etc. It only
hypothesizes that it exists: a popular president somewhere and
somehow helps his party; an unpopular president somewhere and
somehow hurts his party.
important variable is real disposable income per capita (RDI/cap).
RDI/cap is the average amount of inflation-adjusted after-tax
income each person receives per year – it serves as an estimate
for how the economy is performing. Just as with presidential approval,
this theory hypothesizes that the economy matters. It does not
hypothesize where or how it matters. The argument that voters
in congressional elections practice economic rationality, a.k.a.
pocketbook voting, has a hard time fitting the facts. So, this
theory does not claim that the average voter checks in with the
Commerce Department to see how RDI/cap is performing before heading
to the polls. It only argues that, as a whole, the electorate
tends to vote as RDI/cap tends to change, all else being equal.
is all there is to it. Three simple variables will get us extremely
close to the correct outcome in 2006. It will not be completely
accurate. There will be some error in the theory’s prediction.
But, this theory is so good that any prediction about 2006 would
be remiss not to make use of it. Thus, what we shall do tomorrow
is, to quote my high school geometry teacher, “plug and
chug”. We shall see what this theory predicts will happen
in November, estimate the extent to which its prediction might
be wrong, and see if we cannot get a sense of which party this
error might favor.