The buzz du jour decrees that the GOP, by dint of its wanton behavior, will cough up control of the U. S. House in the ’14 midterm election. But I don’t buy it.
At first glance, a Democratic takeover does indeed seem buzzworthy. As evidenced by all the latest surveys, Americans now prefer that the president’s party run the House, trumping the Republican nut wing. Democrats have opened up an eight-point lead in the bipartisan NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, and a six-point lead in the Pew Research Center poll. In multiple post-shutdown polls, the Republican brand has plummeted to historic lows. It speaks volumes that the support for Obamacare (46 percent) is roughly 20 points higher than support for the GOP. Heck, support for legalizing marijuana (58 percent) is roughly 30 points higher than support for the GOP.
Indeed, Republicans keep lamenting how low the party has fallen. Mike Murphy, the veteran strategist who began running GOP campaigns in the ’80s, said yesterday that far too many Republicans are obsessed with “old dogma” and “ideological purity,” that they’re “totally in a 55-year-old white guy echo chamber of their own creation, and disconnected from the reality of today’s electorate.” And this morning, John G. Taft, a self-described “genetic Republican” – whose great-grandfather was president of the United States, and whose grandfather was conservative leader Robert A. Taft – assailed the current congressional GOP for “bomb-throwing obstructionism” in the mode of demagogue Joe McCarthy. In Taft’s words, “the Republican party is (or should be), at long last, about decency. What a long way we have yet to go.”
And, yeah, there’s giddy talk in some quarters about a new House – The Root, a left-leaning political website, suggests that the GOP shutdown “has shifted the scales in favor of a Democratic comeback” – and, granted, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party arm that maps House elections, recently announced a record monthly fundraising haul, feeding off the public’s frustration over the shutdown. (The DCCC’s message: “Enough of this crap.”)
But still. The buzz about a House power shift is ridiculously premature – and probably fanciful.
If the Democrats do win the chamber a year from now, I’ll stand corrected. But here are four (overlapping) factors that tell me otherwise:
1. Since the advent of the two-party system circa 1856, the incumbent president’s party has never wrested control of the House from the opposition party in a midterm election. Not once.
It’s considered big news when the president’s party even manages to net any new seats at all; in the 1998 midterm, the Democrats did just that, benefiting from a voter backlash against the GOP’s anti-Clinton impeachment crusade, but they barely dented the GOP House majority. In fact, according to the noted political analyst/junkie Larry Sabato, the president’s party has lost House seats in 35 of 38 midterms dating back to the Honest Abe era.
I’m well aware that precedents are sometimes overturned. But it’s hard to envision that President Obama’s party will do it. Which brings us to factor #2.
2. Assuming (OK, just assuming) that the Republicans reign in their crazies and forego another government sabotage in ’14, the autumn ’13 idiocy will soon recede in the rear-view mirror. As the nonpartisan political handicapper Charlie Cook puts it, “The election is more than a year away, and all events, no matter how cataclysmic they may seem at the time, have shelf lives.” Which is a polite way of saying that, one year from now, the “bomb-throwing obstructionism” that John Taft referenced is likely to slide down the memory hole. Americans are skilled at amnesia.
3. To pull off a net gain of 17 seats – the bare minimum for winning a majority – Democrats would have to sweep virtually all the competitive races, because very few seats are in play. Most Republicans are well cocooned, thanks to their gerrymandered districts; that leaves, at most, two dozen vulnerable Republicans nationwide. (In the Philadelphia region, most analysts cite only two vulnerables – Jon Runyan in Southh Jersey and Mike Fitzpatrick in Bucks County.) In other words, Democrats will need to virtually run the table. Plus, they’ll have to defend the dozen or so seats where they are currently deemed vulnerable – including several in districts that voted for Mitt Romney in ’12. So even though the national polls seem to suggest an historic shift in House control, it’s worth remembering (as Tip O’Neil famously said) that all politics is local.
4. It’s a contemporary truism that has yet to be disproved: Midterm electorates are smaller, older, and whiter than presidential-year electorates. That helps Republicans, because their brand is still a magnet for older white people. Obama’s voters – particularly single women, the young, and the racially diverse – don’t vote heavily in midterms, and it’s hard to foresee how ’14 would be any different.
More broadly, midterm turnout is typically dominated by the “outs,” those who are ticked off at whichever party happens to hold the White House. Franklin D. Roosevelt got waxed in the 1938 midterms, his sixth year; Dwight Eisenhower got waxed in the 1958 midterms, his sixth year. So did George W. Bush, in 2006.
Of course, one year from now, everything I’ve just written might prove to be as dated as an audiocassette. There’s always the chance that Republicans will ratchet up the war among themselves, and that Ted Cruz will flap his yap so relentlessly that he’ll make the party less popular than foot fungus. But I’ll stick with math and precedent. And if Team Obama fails to fix the Obamacare website with all deliberate speed, a ’14 takeover will clinch the math.
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