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Jumping the Shark

By Jay Cost

Just yesterday, Charlie Cook updated his race rankings. I have to say, I think he might have jumped the shark.

Reading Cook has felt to me like watching one of my favorite sitcoms. Maybe a bit like Seinfeld: his trajectory this electoral season has seemed like that show. I was with him in the Spring. Good points, well argued. I liked it. Read him every week. Disagreed often (very often!), but the disagreements always got me a-thinkin', which is something I truly enjoy. I checked his site every day. But, slowly but surely, I started to move away from him. He just wasn't "clicking" for me. His recent mentions of Terri Schaivo (Terri Schaivo?!) felt a lot like a few of the Seinfeld episodes in Season 7 -- e.g. "The Calzone" or "The Bottle Deposit" -- that just had weak premises. And now - I think he has finally jumped the shark. Call it his "Bizarro Jerry" moment.

Don't get me wrong. I see where he is going with his race rankings. His latest generic ballot has the Democrats up a quarter century among the most likely voters. And he thinks that this voter disaffection is just going to overrun the Republican Party. He sees this as 1994 in reverse. But an examination of the races he views as competitive just does not square with 1994. It squares more with something like 1860, 1896 or 1932 - the last three "realignment" years.

Exactly what do I mean by this? The following. In 1994, the Republicans won a gross of 56 seats. Most of these seats were districts where George H.W. Bush did better than his national average of 37%. Some of them were districts where he did worse. 6 of the 56 seats the GOP won were districts where Bush did quite worse - where he earned a vote total that was 5% or lower than his national average.

In other words, though the GOP won a lot of districts nationwide - relatively few of them, only 10.6%, came from districts that could, at the time, be considered reliably Democratic. 89.4% of them came from swing or conservative districts.

This is the Democrats' major limitation this year. They just have relatively few Republican-held districts, about 15, where Kerry beat Bush in 2004. And the number of real toss-up districts has also decreased. This is why the major question this year - the one that nobody has the answer to -- is: what happens when the structural advantages that the Republicans enjoy in the House are challenged by a briskly negative voter sentiment?

My feeling is that one of two results is possible: (1) the GOP's money and incumbency advantages will secure most of their vulnerable seats in swing or Democrat-leaning districts, thus giving them at best a slight edge in the House or at worst a slight Democratic majority; (2) the GOP's money and incumbency will not secure these vulnerable districts and the Democrats, though the playing field is relatively small, will win a very large percentage of the challenged districts, thus securing a functional majority of 223 or more (i.e. a net of 20+ seats). Right now, I am in camp (1), though I think that a slight, but non-functional, Democratic majority is the most likely result. Michael Barone and I see eye to eye on the state of the House.

Charlie ostensibly believes that (2) is the case. And I do not fault him for that. But he also would add a third, which I think is just plain not gonna happen: (3) a realignment is a brewin'. For, if Charlie is right about these districts -- that will be the story on November 8: that we have just witnessed a realignment that - for the first time ever - started with the House of Representatives.

Why is this the case? Consider again the previous facts about 1994. Only 6 seats flipped that were in reliably Democratic districts. This was a sign that, though the electorate generally was pretty peeved, Democrats were not really that peeved, at least not enough to toss out their members.

The inverse of this would be seats that gave Kerry a share of the district vote that was 5% or more below the national average.

Now - with that in mind - look at Cook's rankings. Of the 54 Republican districts that are, to some degree, competitive (i.e. that are in "Lean Democrat," "Toss-Up" or "Lean Republican"), 24 of them are districts that fit this definition. That was not a typographical error. According to Cook, 44.4% of the total playing field this year is in solidly Republican territory.

If we allocate those districts according to his categories along a 75%, 50%, 25% chance of Democratic acquisition of each seat, Cook is predicting that the Democrats will capture 10.50 of these seats. Overall, applying the same percentages to his total model would give the Democrats a gross of 24.75 seats. So - Cook sees 42.4% of Democratic gains coming from conservative districts. (N.B. This is just a "for the sake of argument" estimate because, as some have pointed out to me, Cook has an "iron-clad" rule about not allocating incumbents as being more vulnerable than "Toss-Up." Although, I should say that if he allocated incumbents to his "Lean Democrat" category as CQ Politics does to theirs, the percentage would be virtually unchanged, at 42.1%.)

And, I should note that these districts are more conservative than the 6 that the Republicans picked up in 1994. The Democrats did not lose a single district where George H.W. Bush did 9% or worse than his national average. Cook, however, has 11 such districts on his list, i.e. districts where Kerry did 9% or worse. Of the 6 solidly Democratic districts that the GOP won in 1994, the average H.W. Bush share of the vote was 6% lower than his national average - so they were only slightly on the "solid Democratic" side of things. What of the 23 districts that Cook has as being vulnerable? The average Kerry share of the vote in them is 9.6% lower than the national average. That's right: the average partisanship in these districts is more Republican than any 1994 pick-up was Democratic.

My favorite is NE 03, where Kerry failed to convince 1 in 4 voters to pull the lever for him. Coincidentally, if "Lean Republican" gives the Democrats a 25% chance in every seat in the category, then 1 in 4 times we run this type of election, NE 03 would switch. Bizarre...or should I say..."Bizarro."

Like I said - 1994 is not the model for this kind of occurrence. Neither, for that matter, is 1974. Neither is 1958. Cook is actually implying an inverse of 1896, where William Jennings Bryan ceded Democratic strength in the industrial Midwest and the commercial Northeast to appeal to the rural Midwest and West. Implicit within Cook's set of races is Bush giving up the rural Midwest and West, while retaining his position back in the East and the South.

I do not think this is what is going to happen. I would add that there has never been a realigning election that begins with the House. 1994 was not, in the true sense of the word, a realignment. It was - if it was anything - part and parcel of a secular realignment that had been on-going since 1948, and that started on the presidential level. Never has a major realignment started on the House level - and for that to happen now, with the incumbency advantage and all of the other structural benefits House members enjoy, is - to me - downright unimaginable.

I am going to keep reading Cook's columns and checking out his rankings. But, then again, I watched the 9th season of Seinfeld. "Serenity Now!" and all.

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