Sabato's Crystal Ball

They Just Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To

Today's Brand of House Elections and the 2006 Picture

David Wasserman and Larry J. Sabato, U.Va. Center for Politics June 2nd, 2005

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Between 1934 and 1994, the party in charge of the presidency lost House seats in midterm congressional elections without fail. And for years, political scientists have elaborately laid out logical reasons for this to be the case: some have theorized that midterms serve as natural electoral “reflexes” to counterbalance strong party showings in presidential cycles, and others have advanced the idea that retrospective voting is responsible for consistent issue-based backlashes against the incumbent White House party.

The durability of this pattern prior to 1998 led most midterm cycle analysts to speculate almost exclusively on how severe a White House loss of seats would be rather than whether a loss would occur in the first place. Yet remarkably, the 1998 and 2002 congressional midterms consecutively turned conventional wisdom on its head. In the midst of the 1998 impeachment saga, Clinton-loyal congressional Democrats added five new representatives to their ranks, stunning Republicans who had crossed their fingers in hopes that a “six year itch” would increase their slim majority and forcing incumbent GOP Speaker Newt Gingrich out of power. And in the midst of the 2002 build-up to the Iraq War, Bush-loyal Republicans defied the pattern once again, managing an overall gain of six seats in House contests.

So should we scratch the notorious “six (or two) year itch” from our approach to midterm congressional election analysis for good? Of course not. Both the 1998 and 2002 cycles took place under extraordinary circumstances that enhanced the political positions of the presidents’ parties. It is possible that in a couple of decades, we will look back on 1998 and 2002 as the “great exceptions” to the historic rules that have governed midterm elections. But it is clear to us now that the evolution of certain aspects of U.S. House elections, especially a decline in the number of “swing districts,” has impaired future prospects for large partisan shifts in midterm congressional elections.

In last week’s special guest Crystal Ball column (read more), Prof. Alan Abramowitz made the case that redistricting is not to blame for the lack of competitiveness in House races. Instead, he claims, migration and demographic changes have been the prime culprits responsible over the long term for regional polarization of party support and fewer opportunities for mapmakers to carve out districts featuring relative party parity. The increasing cost of campaigns also discourages competition by shutting out cash-strapped challengers and leaving incumbents with larger-than-ever advantages out of the gates, according to Abramowitz.

Even if partisan redistricting has played a lesser role in this decline, however, we need not look further than the last three House cycles to see that the drop in the number of truly competitive congressional races has been particularly sharp in recent years. By comparing House results from the most recent cycle, 2004, to outcomes from the immediate past presidential cycle, 2000 (pre-redistricting), we can in fact see several clear trends that may offer important lessons for the 2006 outlook.

2004 vs. 2000: Where Did Half the Competition Go?

In 2000, 42 victors of House races won their seats by a margin of less than 10 percent against their major party opponents. But by 2004, the number of these truly competitive races had astonishingly been cut in half to 21, and in only ten of those races were the two top candidates within 5 points of each other:

Type of House Race 2000 Cycle 2004 Cycle Trend
Seats unopposed by a major party candidate 65 62 -3
Seats decided by more than 20 percent 275 299 +24
Seats decided by 10 to 20 percent 53 53
Seats decided by 5 to 10 percent 23 11 -12
Seats decided by less than 5 percent 19 10 -9

So far in the 2006 cycle, there are few indications the field of truly marginal districts will expand. Unmistakably, this is an especially bad harbinger for members of the Democratic House minority, who need seats to be in play in order to win them! At this early stage, even the Crystal Ball is hard-pressed to identify a strong set of competitive races to form the “Dirty Thirty” list (though we’re sure this will change as candidate fields sort themselves out in the coming months).

Raw Vote Increases & The Changing Nature of the Game

Anemic voter turnout in 2000 gave way to robust turnout in 2004 for a variety of reasons, not the least of which involved the former year’s loud message about the value of individual votes in elections for the nation’s top job, the presidency. And down-ballot, the impact was felt in House races, where 62 seats saw over 300,000 votes cast in a congressional election for the first time:

Type of House Race 2000 Cycle 2004 Cycle Trend
Unopposed seats without vote tallies 23 34 +11
Seats with under 100,000 House voters 3 3
Seats with 100,000 to 200,000 House voters 109 52 -57
Seats with 200,000 to 300,000 House voters 276 260 -16
Seats with over 300,000 House voters 24 86 +62

So why is it noteworthy that 2004 set raw vote total records in nearly every congressional district in the country? Because such a large influx of congressional voters, as little attention as these statistics get, helps to slowly but surely change the fundamental nature of House races. While the American population and electorate have more than tripled since 1910, the number of total congressional seats has not once wavered from 435 since then (other than, as our astute readers have pointed out, a brief period following the admission to the Union of Alaska and Hawaii, when the total number of seats was temporarily raised to 437). Long gone are the days of pure retail appeals by House candidates; nowadays, serious contenders must rely on expensive media appeals in order to reach a critical mass of voters within one congressional district. This dynamic ably supports Prof. Abramowitz’s assertion that incumbency is a stronger weapon than ever before in a congressional contest. In 2006, expect less established incumbents such as Rep. Melissa Bean and Rep. Charles Boustany to benefit heavily from this fact of political life.

Not Your Father’s House Rules

In the last decade, the presence of extraordinary issues like scandal and war has been a prerequisite to an incumbent White House party’s defiance of the dreaded “six year itch.” But in our view, given current trends in party competition for House seats, the absence of any such hot potatoes in future midterm elections may be what inhibits the out-of-power party’s ability to take advantage of the longstanding rule.

Democrats hope that a strong “itch” effect in 2006 will bring them a few steps closer to erasing their current 29-seat deficit and reclaiming the lower chamber. As of this writing, however, it is unclear as to whether or not they will find their silver bullet. Barring a timely Tom DeLay meltdown or enduring high oil prices, it looks like an entrenched lack of competition may be all the anti-itch medication the GOP needs.

David Wasserman is a senior intern and writer for the Crystal Ball. Larry Sabato is the Crystal Ball’s creator and the director of the U.Va. Center for Politics.