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Bigger Than 1994

Bigger Than 1994

By Sean Trende - September 2, 2010


There has been a flurry of political stories in recent weeks about the electoral difficulties Democrats face this fall. It seems Washington is finally catching on to the fact that the Democrats' hold on the House is in dire jeopardy, and that a 1994-style, 52-seat pickup is a real possibility.

But this should not come as a surprise, as the data have been pointing to Democratic losses in the 50-seat range in the House for some time now. Washington continues to be disconnected from the political reality that the polls and the electorate have been sending consistently over the past year. After all, the deterioration in Democratic fortunes has not just recently put the House in play. In a piece written in April, I explored how bad things could get for Democrats:

So how bad could 2010 get for the Democrats? Let me say upfront that I tend to agree with analysts who argue that if we move into a "V"-shaped recovery and President Obama's job approval improves, Democratic losses could be limited to twenty or twenty-five seats.

That said, I think those who suggest that the House is barely in play, or that we are a long way from a 1994-style scenario are missing the mark. A 1994-style scenario is probably the most likely outcome at this point. Moreover, it is well within the realm of possibility - not merely a far-fetched scenario - that Democratic losses could climb into the 80 or 90-seat range.

The country has not enjoyed a "V"-shaped recovery; rather, economic analysts are now seriously debating whether a double-dip recession is coming. President Obama's job approval ratings have declined, rather than improved. The Democratic party's standing in the generic ballot has declined as well.

From that same piece in April:

The RCP Average has Republicans leading Democrats by 2.8 points on the generic ballot test. That should equate roughly to a 225-seat Republican majority (Republicans won the national vote by 5 points in 1994), which would almost represent a 50-seat pickup.

But many of these polls survey registered voters. Polling among likely voters, such as Rasmussen Reports, shows Republicans up by about 8-10 points, which would probably represent a seventy-seat pickup.

And the polls of the most highly energized voters are even worse for Democrats. Recent NBC/WSJ polling found that Democrats led by three points among registered voters. But among those most interested in the November elections, Republicans led by 13 points.

This reminds me of the polling that showed Martha Coakley up 15 points in early January, but which also showed her and Scott Brown tied among those most interested in the race.

In reality, barring some major and dramatic turnaround in the political landscape, the 50 seat GOP wave has now in many ways moved closer to the floor for Democratic losses. With the economy continuing to flounder and with fewer than 60 days until Election Day, the potential for a once-in-a-century type of wave that would lead to GOP gains in the 60-90 seat range is increasing.

The latest Gallup generic ballot tracking finds that, among registered voters, Republicans are leading by ten points, 51 percent to 41 percent. Three of the four highest leads for the GOP since Gallup began tracking the generic ballot in 1942 have been measured in the past month alone (and Republicans won the House seven times during those intervening years, with as many as 246 seats which would be a 68 seat pickup today).

Moreover, this is a poll of registered voters. This poll only partially accounts for a massive 25-point "enthusiasm gap" between the parties (highly enthusiastic partisans are more likely to answer a phone and sit through a survey). If Gallup had been using a likely voter screen, it would likely have shown upwards of a 14 point lead for the GOP. The last time a party won the national vote by fourteen points was in 1964, when the Democrats won 295 seats in Congress (in 1974 they won the national vote by 17 points and won 291 seats).

Nor is this cherry-picking the data. The RCP Generic Ballot Average, which is predominately comprised of registered voter polls, for the Democrats currently stands at a +4.8 percent edge for the Republicans. That probably translates to a 8 to 10 point edge for Republicans among the actual electorate.

What makes this election cycle so devastating for the Democrats is that the Republicans have had their numbers reduced so severely in the past two cycles. Republicans were reduced to 42.5 percent of the popular vote in 2008 - their lowest total since 1974. Their share of the two party vote (i.e. just Republicans and Democrats) was 44.5 percent. Even a dead-cat bounce in a neutral environment would have netted the Republicans twenty seats after plumbing those depths.

As a result, if the GOP were to win the national vote by ten points this year - again, roughly what the RCP Average suggests when transformed into a likely voter model - that would represent over a ten point gain for the GOP over the course of a single election. A gain in the popular vote of that magnitude in a single cycle hasn't occurred since 1932, when Democrats jumped from 45.9 percent of the popular vote to 56.2 percent of the popular vote, netting 97 seats in the process.

There is one danger for Republicans here. The high enthusiasm gap means that their base voters are extremely likely to vote. But turning out new voters in places like the Birmingham suburbs (R+29) or Midland/Odessa (R+28) does the GOP no good in House races, although in certain states it could have a significant effect on Senate and Governor races.

In other words, Republicans might have a very inefficient vote distribution. This problem continually afflicted the GOP in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Republicans came very close to winning the national popular vote in 1966 (1 point), 1968 (2 points), 1972 (4 points), 1980 (3 points), and 1986 (3 points). Yet they never won more than 44% of the seats in Congress, because their vote was concentrated in a few districts. A similar effect could potentially deny the GOP the truly massive gains that a double-digit national vote victory would suggest.

Right now, the idea of gains in excess of 60 seats for the GOP is unthinkable to many. Gains of that magnitude haven't happened in over 80 years. But unthinkability is not evidence. What actual evidence we have reminds us that no political party has hit the trifecta of a lousy economy, an opposition at its nadir (in terms of seat loss), and an overly ambitious Presidential agenda in over 80 years. All these macro factors are pointing to a massive GOP blowout, and they will not be changing between now and November. The Democrats need to hope that the micro factors save them from a once-in-a-century storm.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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