The Hardest Numbers
Congressional Republicans have some reason to feel under siege.
Public opinion polls show that congressional action in the Terri
Schiavo case was unpopular. George W. Bush's job ratings have
dipped, and Congress' job rating is lower. Many polls show that
Bush's proposal for personal retirement accounts in Social Security
is unpopular, too. The Washington Post and the New York Times
have been hammering away at House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Despite
good economic numbers, most voters feel the economy is in trouble
and the nation is on the wrong track.
But Republicans should pause before they panic. Polls on unfamiliar
issues are notoriously volatile, and results can shift wildly
when questions are worded slightly differently.
When pollster John Zogby asked, "If a disabled person is not
terminally ill, not in a coma and not being kept alive on life
support, and they have no written directive, should or should
they not be denied food and water?" Seventy-nine percent said
they should not be denied, and 9 percent said they should.
When Fox News pollster John Gorman asked, "Do you favor or oppose
giving individuals the choice to invest a portion of their Social
Security contributions in stocks or mutual funds?" Sixty percent
said yes, and 28 percent said no. Both Zogby and Gorman, by the
way, are Democrats. So the polls hyped by the mainstream media
are not necessarily the final word on opinion.
In any case, when you're talking political numbers, you should
remember that some numbers are harder than others. And the hardest
numbers in politics are election results. Most journalists and
politicians don't spend much time looking at them. They should.
Because the 2004 presidential election results tell us that Republicans
are in even stronger shape than their 55-45 and 232-203 Senate
and House margins suggest.
Start with the Senate. George W. Bush carried 31 states that
elect 62 senators. There are nine Republican senators from Kerry
states and 16 Democratic senators from Bush states. Many of these
are from states that were close in the presidential election.
But there are 11 Democrats and only three Republicans from states
where their presidential nominee got less than 47 percent of the
vote. There are more Democrats with political incentives to vote
with Bush than there are Republicans with incentives to vote against
As for the House, we now know which presidential candidate carried
each of the 435 congressional districts, thanks to Polidata, which
crunched the numbers for National Journal and the Almanac of American
Politics (of which I am co-author). These numbers surprised even
some political pros. Bush carried 255 districts and John Kerry
only 180. In all, 41 Democrats represent Bush districts and 18
Republicans represent Kerry districts. Eliminating the districts
where the House member's presidential candidate won 47 percent
or more, we find only five Republicans in strong Kerry districts
but 30 Democrats in strong Bush districts.
Why did Bush carry 59 percent of the districts while winning
51 percent of the popular vote? One reason is that winners usually
carry a disproportionate share of districts. Another is gerrymandering,
which favored Republicans this cycle. One more is the Voting Rights
Act, which encourages concentrations of blacks and Hispanics in
a few districts that Democrats usually carry heavily, while losing
The implications? In the long run, Republicans are well positioned
to increase their numbers in both the Senate and the House. Some
Democrats hold seats because of personal popularity or moderate
voting records. But when they retire, Republicans may well succeed
them. In the short run, very few Republicans run great political
risks by supporting Bush. Significantly more Democrats run great
political risks by opposing him. Obstruction doesn't work well
for Democrats in Bush seats: Just ask former Senate Majority Leader
Tom Daschle. And at the moment, on Social Security, as Democrats
Stan Greenberg and James Carville wrote last month, "Voters are
looking for reform, change and new ideas, but Democrats seem stuck
Of course, the 2004 election figures are not etched in stone.
The balance between the parties can change. But it hasn't changed
much since 1996, and recent movement has been toward Republicans.
Or so the hard numbers say.
Copyright 2005 US News & World Report
Distributed by Creators Syndicate
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