The expanding Congressional battlefield

October 10, 2012

Two new stories this week -- one from AP and one from our wonderful colleague Amy Gardner today -- point out that the presidential map is the smallest in recent memory.

As Gardner reports:

The result is the smallest, most rigid playing field in recent history, one that excludes 41 states.


Both campaigns agree that 36 states are not competitive this year, with 22 of them expected to vote for Romney and 14 for Obama. That number is misleading, though, because the Obama states are more populous; when tallied according to electoral votes, those states give Obama 197 electoral votes and Romney 169.


Both Obama and Romney have spent the bulk of their money and attention this year in Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Wisconsin. Beyond those nine, another six are not being heavily contested but nor do the two campaigns agree that their outcome is certain.

The funny thing is, while the presidential map is getting decidedly smaller, the maps for the House and Senate only seem to be growing.

At this point, The Fix rates 17 of the 33 Senate races as leaning slightly toward either party or as toss-ups, while the Cook Political Report rates 15 of the 33 accordingly. That means roughly half the Senate races are at least somewhat competitive -- a number higher than in any recent election.

At the House level, The Fix rates 24 races as toss-ups and 59 races as either toss-ups or leaning slightly toward one party.

Both are huge maps, especially for an election cycle in which neither party seems headed for big gains. Generally when this many seats are in play, it's because one side is headed for a wave election; so far, there's no indication of that.

So what's at work here? Why is the presidential map shrinking while the congressional map expands?

Here are a couple theories:

1. The president is polarizing: As we've written before on this blog, people generally know how they feel about President Obama, and it's split pretty evenly down the middle. While Mitt Romney might want to take back his "47 percent" comment, one of his underlying messages was true; there are basically 47 percent of people who will definitely vote for Obama, and 47 percent who will definitely vote for Romney. This kind of polarization makes it hard to bring new states into the presidential mix, but it doesn't exist as much at the Senate level, where candidates still matter and can overcome the political lean of their state. Case in point: four of the seven Senate races rated as toss-ups by The Fix come in states where we pretty much know who will win the presidential race -- Massachusetts (Obama), Indiana, Montana and North Dakota (Romney). And all of those states (except perhaps Indiana) won't be close.

2. Incumbency doesn't matter as much: While incumbency used to mean a lot, it's not what it used to be, and elections are much more parliamentary. Gone are the days when Southern Democrats survived in spite of their party's liberal lean, and when moderate northeastern Republicans held on even as their party tilted more conservative. The nationalized electorate means party matters more. In addition, after three straight wave elections, there is significantly less incumbency built up. More than half of the 33 senators facing reelection have served one term or less, and most of the vulnerable GOP members of Congress are freshmen. So while members in vulnerable districts used to be known quantities who had been on the ballot multiple times; today most of them have only been on the ballot once before. This makes them much more vulnerable to the political winds and quality challengers.

3. The waves themselves: Because of the three straight wave elections, Senate Democrats won several red states in 2006 and 2008 and Republicans won some blue states in 2010. All of these seats are going to be hard for their side to hold in a more neutral environment, and it's going to lead to multiple big races for the next three election cycles. This year, Democrats had to defend seats in Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Virginia. In 2014, they have to hold Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and Virginia. And in 2016, Republicans have to defend Illinois, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

4. Redistricting: Redistricting is supposed to lead to less competitive House elections because of partisan gerrymandering, but in the election immediately after districts are redrawn, it can actually lead to an increase in competitive races. Both sides have drawn incumbents of the opposite party into tougher districts in hopes of unseating them, and the process has also created a bunch of new districts and open seats where each side has a fighting chance. In addition, California, which is home to 12 percent of all House seats, had its map redrawn by a group of citizens, which has led to chaos on its notoriously gerrymandered map (eight of the 59 competitive House districts are in the Golden State). Once these districts are settled and their incumbents become more entrenched, many of them will be less competitive, but for now, there is a free-for-all across the country.

Are there any other reasons that people can think of? The comments section awaits...

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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