What If 2006 Model Isn't Enough for Democrats?

What If 2006 Model Isn't Enough for Democrats?
AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File
What If 2006 Model Isn't Enough for Democrats?
AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File
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It can often be useful for elections analysts to find a previous election to cite as a model for the current one.  For example, Brendan Nyhan was fond of referring to 2012 as “Bizarro 2004,” where the Democratic campaign ran roughly on the same trajectory as the Republican campaign of just eight years earlier (and even concluded with a similar margin).  There are a number of potential analogues for this year’s midterms, but my mind keeps wandering back to 2006.  Here’s the interesting thing: A year like 2006 might not be enough for the Democrats to take the House.

The GOP’s 2006 campaign started promisingly enough. In 2002, Republicans had surprised most observers by picking up seats in a midterm election while holding the presidency for the first time since Reconstruction (Democrats had done so twice).  They followed this up with a substantial win in the 2004 presidential election, enlarging their majorities in both houses of Congress.

Things went downhill quickly, however. After a failed attempt to introduce private accounts for Social Security, the Iraq War took a decided turn for the worse.  As the deaths of soldiers increasingly dominated the headlines, and as Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans, President Bush’s job approval dropped steadily.  This manifested in special elections.  In mid-2005, Democrat Paul Hackett ran 12 points ahead of John Kerry’s vote total in a part-rural/part-suburban House district outside of Cincinnati (echoed by Conor Lamb’s performance in southwestern Pennsylvania this year), while Democrat Francine Busby lost by just five points in a suburban San Diego district that had been trending toward her party (echoing Jon Ossoff in Georgia’s 6th District last year).

By the summer of 2006, the Republicans were in dire shape.  George W. Bush’s job approval sat at 36.4 percent; it improved to 39 percent by Election Day. Over the course of the month of May, the Democrats’ lead in the generic ballot was 11.4 percentage points, and was around 15 points for much of October before closing to around 10.  The results were awful for Republicans.  They lost 30 seats, including ones that no one had believed were vulnerable at the beginning of the year.  They also lost control of the Senate.

So why might this model not be enough for Democrats?  There are three reasons.  First, at least for now, Republicans are polling considerably better than they were in 2006.  As of today, President Trump’s job approval sits at 44 percent in the RCP poll average – nearly eight points higher than Bush’s – while the Democrats’ lead on the generic ballot is in the mid-single digits. This suggests that despite the similarities, Republicans tend to be performing at least somewhat better.

Second, 2006 can’t be analyzed without acknowledging that it involved a number of fluke-ish victories for Democrats. These include: Tom DeLay (resigned under scandal, Republicans were unable to place a different name on the ballot); Bob Ney (convicted in a coin-trading scheme shortly before the election); Don Sherwood (accused of choking his mistress); Mark Foley (accused of having sexual relationships with pages); Sue Kelly (caught on camera running into the shrubs to avoid questions about Foley); and John Sweeney (accusations of domestic battery arising shortly before the election).  There were also a number of semi-flukes, such as Curt Weldon having his congressional office raided by the FBI before the election, or Richard Pombo, who was caught up in the Jack Abramoff scandal. Regardless, if one doesn’t count the six “clear” flukes, the Democrats’ actual gain was 24 seats, which would barely be enough for them to win the House today.

Finally, there is the issue of exposure.  Put simply, if a party enters an unfavorable election environment holding a large number of seats that are dispositionally inclined toward the other party, they will probably suffer worse losses.  This is why Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s job approval ratings – which were in the mid-40s over the summers of 1994 and 2010, when their parties lost 54 and 63 seats, respectively – don’t provide the best guidance.

Consider this: In 1994, Democrats held 53 seats in districts that had been carried by George H.W. Bush in 1992 and held 91 seats where Clinton had either lost or won with less than his national margin of 53.5 percent of the two-party vote (what we would today call districts with a Republican-leaning “PVI”).   Of course, at that time the South still had a lot of seats that leaned Republican at the presidential level but voted happily for conservative Democrats like Tom Bevill and Sonny Montgomery, but it nevertheless meant that Democrats would have a lot of members in unenviable positions if the electoral environment took a turn for the worse. 

In the wake of the 2008 elections, Democrats found themselves in a somewhat better position: They held 69 seats that leaned toward Republicans, with 49 Democrats in seats that John McCain had won outright while losing nationally by about eight points. The difference was that those southern Democrats suddenly were no longer willing to vote for conservative local Democrats; 2010 can in many ways be thought of as an aligning election.

So why did Republicans perform so much better in 2006 when they had a president with a much lower job approval on Election Day than Democrats had in either of those years? Part of the answer lies in their relatively low levels of exposure. Republicans had just 21 members in seats with Democratic PVIs, and only 18 members in seats John Kerry lost.  This insulated Republicans from a negative environment and helped minimize their losses in November.

How many seats do Republicans have in Democratic-PVI districts today? Nine.  The list of Republicans in Clinton districts is somewhat longer – 23 seats – but most of those seats are ones where she nevertheless won by less than her national margin of two percentage points.  Regardless, Republicans are much less exposed than Democrats were in 2010 or 1994, and are probably less exposed than they were in 2006.

None of this is to say that Democrats can’t win the House this cycle.  Today, they are probably no worse than even odds to do so.  But many observers are downplaying the difficulties they will face doing so.  For now, expect a very tight race for the House.

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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