Brendan Nyhan | September 28, 2009
Topics: 1994 , 2010 , Barack Obama , House of Representatives , seat swing
During his interview with President Clinton yesterday on Meet the Press, David Gregory asked a question that is increasingly occupying the minds of prominent Democrats -- "do you worry about a repeat of '94 politically?"
Vice President Joe Biden raised a similar concern last week, telling attendees at a Democratic fundraiser in Delaware that "If [Republicans] take them back [35 Democratic House seats in traditionally Republican districts], this [is] the end of the road for what Barack and I are trying to do."
So is the House really in play? Analysis by several political scientists suggests that the answer is yes. Democrats could lose the House, which would take a 40 seat swing, but a 1994-style landslide seems unlikely.
A Sept. 3 column by Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, analyzes a statistical model of midterm elections since 1946 and concludes that Democrats should expect significant losses:
Democrats are likely to lose at least 15 seats in the House of Representatives in 2010 and their losses could go as high as 30-40 seats. The Senate looks more promising for Democrats because there are as many Republican as Democratic seats up for election next year but a loss of 3-4 seats is entirely possible.
Under what Abramowitz calls "what might be considered a worst case scenario for Democrats" in which "President Obama's approval rating sinks into the low 40s next year" and "Republicans take a 5 point lead on the generic ballot," he projects a GOP gain of four seats in the Senate and 41 seats in the House -- just enough to take back control of the lower chamber.
Tom Holbrook at UW-Milwaukee cautions, however, against Charlie Cook's warning that "wave elections, more often than not, start just like this: The president's ratings plummet; his party loses its advantage on the generic congressional ballot test; the intensity of opposition-party voters skyrockets; his own party's voters become complacent or even depressed; and independent voters move lopsidedly away":
Let's look first at presidential approval... [I]t appears that early reports of presidential approval are fair predictors of midterm losses (r=.60, p=.02), though there are still a number of data points that are significantly off the regression line... Still, there is a clear relationship here, one that might foreshadow the outcomes of next year's elections. Based on the Obama's current level of approval (52%, Gallup polls in September), the trend in these data predicts a seat loss of 28 seats for the Democrats in 2010.
Should this be cause for Republican jubilation and Democratic hand-wringing? Not quite. The problem with forecasts like this one is that the sample size is small enough (n=15) and the forecasting error is large enough (standard error of forecast=17.9) that a 95% confidence interval around the prediction ranges from a loss of 67 seats to a gain of 11 seats. In other words, the prediction from these data encompasses everything from a complete Democratic collapse to historic gains for the Democrats. The best guess is still substantial Democratic losses, but with plenty of hedging.
What about Obama's standing among independents? Is it particularly important to the Democratic fortunes in the 2010 elections? It turns out that presidential support among independents is no more or less important than the overall level of presidential approval...
Finally, we turn to the generic congressional ballot. It is clear from other research that the generic ballot predicts well in the fall of election years (see Abramowitz), but is it really of much use 14 months out? In a word, no...
The third political scientist to weigh in, Andrew Gelman at Columbia, suggests that the current generic Congressional ballot numbers for Democrats are roughly consistent with a Republican vote swing that would be large enough to take back the House (though he admits he's extrapolating -- see Holbrook's finding above).
Finally, low-volume trading on the Intrade prediction market puts the probability of a Republican takeover of the House at 37%.
In the end, Democrats seem likely to suffer significant losses (especially if the economy hasn't started to turn around), but Holbrook is right to emphasize the level of uncertainty, which is still relatively high. As to the 1994 question, here's what Clinton said to Gregory yesterday:
PRES. CLINTON: It, it--there's no way they can make it that bad, for several reasons. Number one, the country is more diverse and more interested in positive action. Number two, they've seen this movie before, because they had eight years under President Bush when the Republicans finally had the whole government, and they know the results were bad. And number three, the Democrats haven't taken on the gun lobby like I did, and they took 15 out of our members out. So I don't think it'll be--whatever happens, it'll be manageable for the president.
I'd put a slightly different spin on the first and third points. From a political science perspective, 1994 was the culmination of the long decline of Democratic dominance among whites in the South -- many incumbents were vulnerable on issues like guns, gays in the military, etc. because their districts had changed. There's no comparable regional partisan shift working against the Democrats right now. Clinton's second point can be similarly reinterpreted -- the damage done to Republican brand under President Bush may restrict Republican gains in this election relative to 1994.
Update 9/28 11:52 AM: I missed a more recent Abramowitz analysis, which argues that a repeat of 1994 is unlikely due to the growing proportion of non-white voters in the electorate -- a development that is likely to damage the GOP's prospects due to its weakness with those groups (see Clinton's first point above).
Update 9/29 7:19 AM: The Hill points out another reason that a 1994-style wave election is unlikely - the lack of retirements by incumbents:
In the last three "wave elections," the party that lost a large number of seats has been hampered by incumbents not running for reelection. But so far in the 2010 cycle, not a single House member has announced his or her retirement, though 18 -- seven Democrats and 11 Republicans -- have said they will run for higher office.