Articles and Analysis


On Waves and Stability - Part III

Topics: 2006 , The 2006 Race

In Parts I and II of this series, I summarized evidence of a wave of anti-Republican sentiment brewing nationally - in the form of Democratic leads on the "generic ballot" and greater enthusiasm about the election expressed by Democratic voters. Now, to once again borrow the metaphor offered by Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, let us consider the "stability of the system" that this wave will crash against on November 7.

The phrase "stability of the system" refers mostly to the advantages of incumbency. Incumbent members of Congress almost always win re-election. In November 2004, 401 incumbents sought reelection and all but 5 (or 99%) won reelection. That was a very typical result. Generally speaking, the more incumbents seeking reelection, the more stable the system.

One reason is that incumbents are almost always better known and better funded than their challengers. They have gained recognition from past campaigns, appear more often in local news coverage and have typically built up goodwill from years of taxpayer funded newsletters and constituent services. And they usually raise much more money for their campaigns. According to FEC reports (compiled by ThisNation.com), incumbent Congressional candidates had more than four times as much campaign cash at their disposal as challengers in 2004.

The congressional redistricting process is another big factor that has made the system more resistant to "waves" of political discontent, that has created what Bruce Reed recently described in Slate as a "firewall of safe districts that could enable the Republican party to survive what would otherwise be a China-syndrome political meltdown." The redistricting process also helps illustrate the relative instability of the system in 1994, when an anti-Democratic wave helped Republicans gain 54 seats in the House.

The redistricting of 1990 was unusual in that it helped undermine Democratic incumbents in the House. I will let the National Journal's Chuck Todd explain:

Thanks to President George H.W. Bush and the Justice Department, the '91 reapportionment created an opening for the GOP to run the table in the South and defeat a number of longtime white Democratic incumbents. How? By creating a slew of minority-majority congressional districts in places like Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. What the new maps did was pack a number of Democrats into fewer House districts, leaving a ton of 50- to 60-percent GOP presidential performing districts to be represented by Democrats. The '92 campaign cycle should have seen the GOP pick up a lot more of those seats, but they didn't thanks to the lackluster Bush campaign. Once '94 rolled around, these Democrats were still sitting ducks, and the Republicans scooped up easy targets.

The redistricting of 2000 -- and the subsequent efforts by Tom Delay and to redraw the map in Texas -- had the opposite and effect, helping Republicans protect their incumbents. Consider this analysis by the Pew Research Center. Between 1990 and 1992, the number of competitive House seats (defined as those where the winner received less than 55% of the vote) jumped from 57 to 111. There were 98 such seats in the 1994 election when Republicans "ran the table" in 1994. But the combination of the new Republican members steadily building on the advantages of incumbency and the redistricting of 2002 has steady reduced that number from to only 32 competitive seats in 2004.


The greater instability in 1994 compared to 2004 exists in other measures, although the contrast is not quite as stark. An unusually high number of retirements in 1994, helped create 28 open seat contests in Districts represented by Democrats. Without the protection of incumbency, Republicans rode the anti-Democratic wave to win 20 of those seats. This year features 20 open seat contests in 20 districts represented by Republicans, and at the moment the Pollster.com tally suggests Democrats have a decent shot at eleven of those seats. We show Democrats leading by statistically meaningful margins in seven, three are toss-ups and one district (Tom Delay's Texas-22) is widely considered to be leaning Democratic but lacks a public poll.

In 1994, as Chuck Todd points out, Democrats "had a huge freshman class" that was vulnerable to the Republican wave. That year, 13 of the 34 incumbents defeated by Republicans were freshman first elected in 1992. In 2006, according to Todd, "the number of vulnerable GOP freshmen this cycle numbers six (and that's being generous)."

And finally there is the usual money advantage helping incumbents. Consider this October 17 report from The Washington Post:

The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter about elections, identifies 31 House Republicans in closely contested campaigns. According to their financial reports filed over the weekend, they had a total of $32.7 million in cash on hand as of Sept. 30, compared with $14.5 million for their Democratic challengers.

The National Republican Congressional Committee circulated an internal memo yesterday -- which a Republican gave to The Post -- noting that GOP candidates hold an average cash advantage of $450,000 in 25 of the most competitive districts.

And those statistics do not include the late expenditures by the party campaign committees, such as the $8.4 million dollar advertising expenditure by the NRCC last week. As TPMCafe reported last week, that infusion meant additional large six figure media buys in eight of the districts "GOP strategists are most worried about."

That cash advantage is playing out in campaigns right now, with exchanges of negative advertisements flooding the airwaves in the most competitive districts. Will it help endangered Republicans incumbents hold off the wave of anti-Republican attitudes evident in the national surveys?

The campaign handicappers are uncertain, pointing out Democrats are still positioned to hold their own despite the Republican advantage. Charlie Cook points out in his most recent column that the Republican financial advantage at the national level is "the narrowest it's been in 20 years... The GOP spending advantage is there, but it's nothing like the 50- to 125-percent advantages that we have seen in previous elections." And that Washington Post piece included this observation from, Anthony J. Corrado, a campaign finance expert at Colby College:

What is notable this year, Corrado said, is that Democratic challengers have enough money to stage full-fledged efforts, and that is one reason the election appears to be so close. "Although they haven't matched the incumbents," he said, "challengers are raising the amounts of money that they need to be competitive."

Corrado makes an important point. Consider the Pennsylvania Senate race and the FEC reports on campaign spending as compiled by the National Journal. In the third quarter of this year, Republican Rick Santorum outspent Democratic challenger Bob Casey by nearly two-to-one ($9.6 million to $5.5 million), with most of that cash devoted to television advertising that flooded the states airwaves. Then consider the trend line plotted our Pollster.com Pennsylvania chart. If all that cash had an impact, it is awfully hard to see.

Which brings us back to Mark Mellman's riddle: Which will be more important, the size of the anti-Republican wave or the stability of the structure? The wave is certainly looks as formidable as the one in 1994, and Democrats seem to be holding their own despite the GOP cash advantage. While Democrats may not have as many openings in the House in terms of open and typically competitive seats as Republicans did in 1994, but they do not need as many to recapture the House. Our House scorecard shows Democrats now leading in just enough states to recapture a majority, but also shows 23 seats now held by Republicans still looking like toss-ups. But Mellman riddle remains.  We may not know which way those toss-up seats go until late in the evening on November 7.



Contrasting the Pew analysis in this post with Cook's projections in the previous one...

...can we expect that all of Cook's 85 competitive races will end up with the winner receiving less than 55% of the vote?

...and can we expect that there will be no district with a winner with less than 55% of the vote that is not on Cook's list?

In other words, are these two categories coterminous? If not, which of the two is narrower?



The chart defines competitive races by under 55%. I wonder how many races fall in the 55-60% band. The most efficient use of gerrymandering would be to decrease the number of 50-55% winners, at the cost of increasing the number of 55-60% winners.

In other words, building the levees only slightly higher than you think you need, leaves the next band of elections more vulnerable in a political hurricane. I don't know about earlier elections, but in 2004 there were over 50 seats in the 55-60% band.


Mark Mellman:


Thanks for the kind comments and the perceptive extention of the metaphor.

When I talk about stability I have a couple of other factors in mind in addition to incumbency advantages. As I noted in my original Hill article last March....

"One measure of political instability: the number of Republicans holding seats that vote Democratic for president and vice versa. When big political waves hit, that is precisely where much of the action is. In the two prior presidential elections, Bush (the father) or Reagan had won 30 of the 34 seats Democratic incumbents lost in 1994. Similarly, two-thirds of the Republican incumbents who lost in 1882 were running in districts presidential Democrats had won just previously.

Today, though, there are fewer mismatched seats than at any point in recent history. Going into 1994, 53 Democrats held seats won by Bush in 1992. Today just 18 Republicans hold seats won by Kerry. So, while forces in the political environment push strongly in a Democratic direction, they are acting on a relatively stable structure: Hence the test."


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.