Articles and Analysis


On Waves and Stability - Part I

Topics: 2006 , The 2006 Race

I have spent a lot time over the last few days pouring over the U.S. House polling numbers on Pollster as we have been at work on some sort of summary scorecard. But before we plunge back into the micro, district-level analysis, I thought it would be useful to do a bit of a review of the way things look at the national level. We do seem to be facing a surge of voter discontent with the Bush administration and the Republican Congress, but forecasting how that surge will impact the race to control the House is something of a puzzle.

Last week, I spoke at a forum sponsored by Campaigns and Elections magazine and was fortunate to share the stage with Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. He summed up this puzzle with a metaphor:

There's a big anti-Republican wave out there. But that wave will crash up against a very stable political structure, so we won't be sure of the exact scope of Democratic gains until election night. We really don't yet know which is ultimately more important -- the size of the wave or the stability of the structure.

So let's take a closer look at what we know now about the size of the coming wave and the stability of the structure.

Generic Ballot. National pollsters measure Congressional vote preference with a question commonly known as the "generic ballot," usually some variation of the following: "If the election for U.S. House of Representatives were held today, would you vote for the Democratic or Republican candidate in your congressional district?"

The goal of the question is to measure the total national vote cast for Congress. The good news for Democrats is that they have been leading on the generic ballot by margins of 10% or more since August, with a recent bump up in the aftermath of the Foley page scandal. However, the Foley bump is just icing on the Democratic cake. When my colleague Charles Franklin compared the trend in the generic ballot to past elections back in August (see especially the powerhouse graphic below), he noted that Democrats have not had a lead that "approached 10%, let alone exceeded it" since 1994.


That lead is important because historically, as Franklin showed in a subsequent post, the better a party does on the generic ballot the higher its share of the national Congressional vote. Unfortunately, however, that question proves to be a very blunt instrument in predicting seat changes, showing a huge historic variation of 45 seats on Franklin's chart. And as he points out, since 1946, the generic vote favored the Democrats just before 7 of the 8 elections that installed Republican majorities in the U.S. House.

There are two reasons for this imprecision. The first is that the generic question omits the names of the candidates, so the answers probably tell us more about general attitudes toward the two parties than about actual vote preference. Surveys I have seen recently that asked both the generic and actual votes produced a mismatch at the individual level of roughly 25%.

The second problem: Forget the survey question, for the moment. The national vote for Congress - the thing we are trying to predict -- is itself an imperfect predictor of seat changes. Franklin has the details (and as usual, the killer chart), but the following table shows some of the noise. Notice, for example, that the Democratic share of the Congressional vote was lower in 1998 than 1996, but they managed to pick up five seats. Similarly, Democrats improved their total vote margins between 2002 and 2004, but still managed to lose a net three seats.


Franklin also provides evidence that number of seats won by each party has "been MUCH less responsive to changes in votes since 1994 than in the previous 46 years . . . I would be very reluctant to assume that the historic relationship between votes and seats is still true."

The weak relationship between the vote and the seat count beaks down because of the "stability in the system," that Mark Mellman talked about. We'll get to that.

Given all this imprecision, why pay attention to the national generic ballot at all? Because comparable national surveys are conducted more often, with larger sample sizes and more rigorous methodologies than many of the surveys we are seeing at the district level. If a last minute change occurs in the national political environment ("the size of the wave") the national surveys will show it first.

[Editor's note to self: This is a blog, not a book. so I'll stop here and pick up with a look at the "enthusiasm gap" in the next post].


boring pedant:

that's "poring"



Nice summary. Have you considered a book? Additionally have you considered what this site will do post election?



Speaking of stability, I just looked at the latest polls for the NC-08. From 10/8-10/06 Kissel's ahead 51-44. But the week of 10/16-17/06 it shows him behind 33-49. Why such a huge disparity and in only a week?



nobody knows the difference between pouring and poring any longer. Let's just segway to something different.


Gary Kilbide:

Thanks for posting a quote from Mark Mellman. In 2004 I thought he provided the best summary of the dynamics of that election, two days before election day. I've posted this link many times on liberal sites when posters try to pretend Kerry had all the advantages and was definitely robbed:


"Taking all that and more into account, an expert forecasting model suggests that Bush will get 51.6 percent of the two-party vote."

At the end of that article, Mellman was exactly where I found myself, and many posters I respected, in early November 2004, realizing the fundamentals favored Bush but so disgusted with him and the Republicans in general, that we wanted to believe there was a hidden like-thinking wave.

Mellman wrote:

"You soon will know whether Kerry�s appeal was strong enough to overcome the incumbent�s strength. I think I will be smiling broadly. But it has been an uphill fight."

Well, Kerry's appeal translated into a 47% approval, 51% disapproval rating in the national exit poll.


Mark Lindeman:

"nah," let's not give the homophones free reign around here. (That one gets misspelled so often, it may count as a new idiom.)

Mark, that's sort of a tease about the surveys you've seen that show a 25% mismatch. I assume this means that folks were asked the generic question first, then asked about particular candidates, and 25% 'changed' their votes. Ah, if that was done on one of those multiple-candidate surveys, the journal article practically writes itself.

I had forgotten that the Dems led in the generic ballot in 1994. Hmm, I was all set to "explain" that as a problem identifying likely voters (since the gap between voters and non-voters was unusually large that year), but that probably isn't enough. Challenger quality may help.

Gary, I'm with you, except that probably isn't a good measure -- exit poll respondents tended to use "approval" to recapitulate the vote they had just reported. But other sources give the same general result: Kerry's appeal was not going to flip the outcome. In any case, Mellman was thinking pretty clearly.


I took a look at stability, among other things, in a post at my blog yesterday, "What A Dem Landslide Could Mean". I devoted the most attention to identifying what makes for a realigning election, and the evidence points to two consecutive House wave elections totalling a shift of more than 30% of the House seats. If you get this, then you get a realigning Presidential election--either simultaneously with the second election, or one cycle later (as happened in 1896).

But I also looked at the decline in volatility, which can be traced as far back as the 60s, or arguably even the 1950s. It grew more extreme after 1984, but if you look at the chart I've posted in the diary, it's obvious that "wave" elections in which 10% or more of the seats change hands have grown significantly less frequent since the 1940s, the last decade to have more than one such election. 1946/1948 saw two back-to-back, the first favoring Reps, the second Dems, plus 1942 also saw a Rep swing > 10%.

While both 1974 and 1994 have been proposed as "realigning elections" if one looks at my chart, it's obvious that these are fairly unremarkable elections in the larger scheme of things. What makes them stand out is the relative decline in volatility around them.

My analysis also suggests that even if the Dems make stronger gains than most are predicting (breaking the 10% [44 seat] barrier), a truly defintive change, ushering in a new party system, will require a second election with even higher gains, so that the two-election total reaches 30%. This is a formidable challenge, indeed. But the Dems can meet it, I believe, if they send a clear legislative message of taking the country in a decidedly different (aka "reality-based") direction.

In my estimation, we are still operating in a dealigned variant of the New Deal Party system, rather than a distinctly different system, and the continuation of the New Deal system is linked to the decreased volatility, since a certain level of volatility is required to enable large-scale reorientation of party systems.


If you want to read a book that explains why current elections are less responsive than previous elections, might I suggest my own edited volume, The Marketplace of Democracy: Electoral Competition and American Politics (Brookings Press 2006).

I think the electoral tide is large enough to overcome the Republican structural advantages in the House of incumbency and how voters are distributed into districts, but the seat pickup for the Democrats given this political environment should be on the order of 60 seats, not 20. There is a tipping point where the Democratic seat pickup could be quite large if the wave is large enough to swamp many of the marginally competitive Republican districts.

Something to think about for 2008: if the Democrats win the House, they will have a number of vulnerable Freshman representing leaning Republican districts. A modest wave back in the Republican's favor will sweep these Democrats out of office. The good news for polarization in the House might be that those who survive will be moderates. Part of the problem with our polarized politics is that we've had stagnated electoral politics since 1994. Some swings back and forth might help to restore the center.



Why should the generic ballot have any relation to gains and losses? The only relation should be total seats. On November 7, the Democrats will start with 0 seats and hopefully come away with 230+. That's the only gain that's relevant to the historical trends.


Who's Polarizing Who?

Michael McDonald:

if the Democrats win the House, they will have a number of vulnerable Freshman representing leaning Republican districts. A modest wave back in the Republican's favor will sweep these Democrats out of office. The good news for polarization in the House might be that those who survive will be moderates.

Why is this good news? Moderation in opposition to insanity is no virtue.

Folks like you--political scholars--should be aware that in international terms the US is anomaly: we have a party of the Right, the Republicans, and a party of the center, the Democrats, but no party of the left. Even the Democrat's Progressive Caucus would only be center-left on an international scale. The polarization in America comes almost entirely from the right.


Folks like you--political scholars--should be aware that in international terms the US is anomaly: we have a party of the Right, the Republicans, and a party of the center, the Democrats, but no party of the left.

Paul, I don't follow your logic here. "Right" and "Left" are terms that are defined only relative to some existing framework. There is no Absolute Right or Absolute Left (although I wouldn't be surprised to see them show up in a vodka ad.) Given where the political center of mass appears to be in the U.S., there are right and left wings. The center here just happens to fall farther to the right than elsewhere.

Bernard Guerrero, political and moral relativist


Not Exactly

Bernard Guerrero:

The center here just happens to fall farther to the right than elsewhere.

International comparisons do show that we're less enthusiastic about the welfare state and related values than European countries. But (a) we're talking different degrees of landslide and (b) support has not changed much overall since the early 1970s, before the elite attack on the welfare state began in earnest, when public policy was far more liberal overall.

Furthermore, if conservative ideas were really that popular, then conservatives would not have to lie so consistently and so outrageously to push their agenda. I have in mind examples such as Charles Murray's attack on welfare, Losing Ground, which was ripped to shreds in articles such as "Losing Faith in Losing Ground - the intellectual mugging of the Great Society by Robert Greenstein in The New Republic back in 1985, and yet which ended up becoming the conventional wisdom.

The problem is, liberals like Greenstein foolish try to win debates in a civilized, centrist, consensus-seeking manner, while conservatives like Murray are, like the subtitle says, out for a mugging. The rightward shift of American politics has been accomplished via assymetrical warfare. It can only be brought back to sanity by fighting fire with fire--not by lying, as conservative do, but by developing disciplined ideological narratives that convey a clear, coherent worldview. It's not our fault if ours also happen to be true, while theirs are not.


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