For Democrats, Wave Is Building

By Thomas E. Mann
Sunday, July 16, 2006

There's probably no way congressional Republicans can lose this fall, no matter how unpopular President Bush is or how unhappy the voters are with the war in Iraq. That's the prevailing view in Washington today.

But it's wrong.

If history is any guide, we're heading into a major political storm. And that means we could see a national tide in November that will sweep the Democrats back into the majority.

Virtually every public opinion measure points to a Category 4 or 5 hurricane gathering. Bush's job-approval rating is below 40 percent, and congressional job approval is more than 10 percentage points lower. Only a quarter of the electorate thinks the country is moving in the right direction, and voters are unhappy with the economy under Bush. Finally, Democrats hold a double-digit lead as the party the public trusts to do a better job of tackling the nation's problems and the party it would like to see controlling Congress.

What's causing the skepticism about Democrats' chances for victory in November are changing election patterns. Until recently, one of the few iron laws of American politics was that the president's party loses House seats in midterm elections, with the size of the loss depending on how many seats are at risk and how the public evaluates the president's performance. But all that seemed to change in 1998.

That year, a healthy economy plus public distaste for the Republicans' impeachment drive against President Bill Clinton allowed the Democrats to gain five seats. Four years later, with Bush in the White House, Republicans picked up eight additional House seats in the midterm election. GOP fortunes were boosted by the fact that fewer seats were at risk, the president's post-9/11 approval ratings exceeded 60 percent throughout 2002, and the Republican campaign elevated terrorism over the economy as the central public concern.

In the past five House elections, the number of seats changing party hands and the number of defeated incumbents have been historically low. Because of gerrymandering, stronger party-line voting and Americans' fondness for moving, the partisan makeup of House districts has become more lopsided, with many safe Republican and Democratic districts and very few competitive ones. Since 1994, when the Republicans won back the House, there has been a dramatic decline in the number of majority-party members out of sync with the partisan makeup of their districts and of those who won the previous election by a narrow margin.

All this leads to the consensus that the Republicans can't lose this fall. But I think they can.

When there's no strong national issue at stake, local forces (a district's partisan makeup, the incumbent's reputation, the challenger's resources, etc.) dominate congressional elections. But a sharply negative nationwide referendum on the party in power -- causing a national vote swing of five percentage points or more -- buffeted local factors in the 1946, 1958, 1966, 1974, 1982 and 1994 midterm elections, producing losses of 26 to 56 seats.

In each of those elections, changes in the national vote were not distributed evenly across districts. The party losing ground found itself besieged in districts previously thought to be safe, where the average swing was double or more the national swing.

The new pattern of uncompetitiveness that developed after the 1994 Republican landslide has not been tested by a surly electorate. The Democrats' hopes rest on intense public unhappiness with Bush and the GOP -- and enough districts in play -- to allow them to pick up the 15 seats they need to become the majority party.

What might keep a national tidal wave from developing this year?

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