Articles and Analysis


Cook on the House: Focus on districts

In a comment on my post about the 2010 midterms yesterday, Charlie Cook protests the "lack of focus on actual Congressional districts":

What I find interesting about this whole conversation is the lack of focus on actual Congressional districts. When you look at the 84 CD's currently held by Democrats, that went for either Bush 2004 or McCain 2008, the 48 Democratic seats that went for Bush and McCain, the 54 seats that were in Republican hands four years go, it is very clear that the party's vulnerability exceeds their margin of 40 seats.

In particular, Cook says, the remaining Southern Democrats who hold competitive seats are vulnerable:

I was interested in your comment, "There's no comparable regional partisan shift working against the Democrats right now."

Have you been in the South lately? The level of anti-Obama, anti-Democratic and anti-Congress venom is extraordinary, and with 59 Democrat-held seats in the region, 22 in or potentially in competitive districts, this is a very serious situation for Democrats. I have had several Democratic members from the region say the atmosphere is as bad or worse than it was in 1994.

This is not just about President Obama. It is anti-Congress and anti-Democratic Congress.

While the election is obviously 13 months away and much can change, that means it could get better, or snowball and get worse. To the extent that Democratic performance in 2008 was elevated by unusually high African-American turnout, that exposure to decline is even greater.

At this point, Democratic members in the South, Border South, Mountain states, in districts with heavy rural and small town populations as opposed to urban and suburban, particularly those with few transplants from other parts of the country, and fewer college graduates, are at particular exposure. Some of these members have either never had a tough race or haven't in many years, with campaign organizations that are hardly sharped to a fine edge.

So while the Democratic performance in the generic Congressional, which is substantially lower than it was during the periods leading up to the 2006 and 2008 elections, when these majorities were built, that is only part of the case for why this may be an extremely challenging election for Democrats.

How seriously should we take these objections? On the first point, Cook's job is to focus on the details of individual races, so it's not surprising that he thinks we should do so. But it's easy to be drawn into highly idiosyncratic narratives and end up losing sight of the big picture. In particular, individual House races are a noisy, lagging indicator of national trends (see, for instance, the House races that suddenly became competitive very late in 1994 and 2006). Political scientists try to abstract away from these details and analyze the underlying process that generates House election outcomes. Cook argues that many House seats held by Democrats are potentially vulnerable, but majority parties always hold marginal seats. The question is whether the number of potentially vulnerable Democratic members is significantly greater than, say, the number of vulnerable Republicans in 2006. (In technical terms, what does the seats-votes curve look like for 2010 relative to previous elections?)

In terms of Cook's second point about the South, I'm open to the idea that the regional shift against Democrats is not complete, making some members there particularly vulnerable. But with only 22 in competitive or potentially competitive races, it's not clear that enough Southern Democrats will lose to create a 1994-style landslide.

(Cross-posted to brendan-nyhan.com)



I agree with you Brendan. Most of these Southern Dems are well entrenched. They constantly win with over 60% percent of the vote. Some even survived 1994. I did a diary on this at Swing State Project recently.


This idea that because people voted for Bush and McCain while also voting for Dems they are all about to turn aound and boot their reps out because of Obama is a stretch. Yes, some might lose but not enough to make a significant difference. Now people who won narrowly in 2006 and/or 2008 I can buy being vulnerable but that doesn't add up to anything like 48 or 54 let alone 84.


Gary Kilbride:

I think you have to step back and look at a wider landscape in evaluating 1994. The prior Democratic president was Jimmy Carter. When Clinton's popularity nose dived, there was a, "Here we go again," mindset. That allowed swing voters to align with Republicans without much hesitation, particularly because the Reagan/Bush years preceding the Clinton presidency were viewed as generally favorable.

That hardly applies to 2010. Clinton's eight years are consensus more popular than the Republican administration that followed, so there won't be an automatic decisive recoil against Obama and anything Democratic.

The GOP is not strong or popular enough to inherit a landslide. Everything needs to tilt in the same direction for an extreme result, not merely weakness on the other side.

Besides, in 1994 there were plenty of soft GOP targets, seats that by all rights should have switched hands in 1992 after the 1990 redistricting. Only Bush 41's low approval prevented that in 1992. Democrats in 2006 and 2008 won dozens of net House seats but in each case many were said to be left on the table. Carville was livid about that in late 2006. The 2008 net was not quite as high as most forecasts, and certainly lower than a 7+ point Obama victory could have yanked. If Democrats had shaken the tree fully, I'd be more concerned about a massive loss in 2010.

And I have been in the South recently, two weeks in Georgia and three in North Carolina this summer, in fact with an Obama/Biden sticker still planted on my car. The anti-Obama chat was more restrained than I expected, more of a counter punch if anything positive was suggested.

We've had two successive cycles of major developments, Democrats seizing both chambers in 2006 then the landmark primary season and Obama election of 2008. Let's face it, Charlie Cook and others in the profession want a big story. What fun is it to wait two years for a break even or slightly altered cycle? This far removed it's natural to hype potential for one extreme or the other, and obviously a major GOP wave makes exponentially more sense than unexpected Democratic gains.

I will say this: Democrats are in a lull. I sensed it leading to 1994, that reclaiming the White House was the goal and two years later the energy was zapped, no way to fake it. It feels similar this time but the opponent is in comparatively weakened state, Democratic organization is markedly superior to 1994, and of course the demographics have shifted in our favor, the steady climb of the non-white vote that Alan Abramowitz detailed.


Post a comment

Please be patient while your comment posts - sometimes it takes a minute or two. To check your comment, please wait 60 seconds and click your browser's refresh button. Note that comments with three or more hyperlinks will be held for approval.