By Thomas Riehle
The size of the Democratic majority in the 110th Congress will alter the shape of American politics for the remainder of President Bush’s term, into the 2008 Presidential contest, and beyond — and because of the demographics of the districts electing all those new Democrats to Congress, it will alter the character of the national Democratic Party as well. Majority Watch conducts polls of 1,000 or more voters (margin of error ± 3.1) in each contested House race, and if current trends continue, Democrats will hold 222 to 230 seats in the 110th Congress (218 is a majority).
Whether that new Democratic House majority extends beyond 230 seats — and more importantly, whether that majority extends beyond the 110th Congress — depends on how well Democrats adapt themselves to the new demographic realities of the party’s broadened geographic base. Democratic House members will represent constituencies and trends that will force the House Democratic Caucus and the national Democratic Party to put up a wider tent than it has housed itself in these past six years.
Democrats will win:
- Suburban seats that are home to corporate managers, where one-third or more of the voters have a bachelor’s degree or better. In Majority Watch (MW) polls conducted by RT Strategies and Constituent Dynamics in October, the Democratic candidates had solid leads outside the margin of error, and in many cases already claimed 50% of the vote or more, in places like Ohio 15th near Columbus, where 38% of households boast adults in managerial positions, and Pennsylvania 6th and Pennsylvania 7th, where more than 40% are managers. Democrats are making competitive races in other places where managers make up 40% or more of the electorate: Washington 8th south of Seattle, and in suburban seats bracketing New York City on all sides (New Jersey 7th, New York 3rd on Long Island, and Connecticut 4th). The Chicago suburbs (Illinois 6th, 8th and 10th) have not swung as enthusiastically to the Democrats, however, and remain no better than close contests.
- Small-town, working-class seats where half or more of the adults pursue their goals in life with, at best, a high school education. In MW polls, Democrats had leads of 7 points or more in races in both central and western North Carolina, in small-town upstate and western New York and northeastern Pennsylvania, both northern and southern Indiana, and in southeastern Ohio. Across the Ohio River, Democrats are giving Republican incumbents all they can handle in Kentucky’s northern House seats, where adults are about twice as likely (or more) to have a high-school education than a college degree; districts with similar educational patterns in northern Wisconsin, and in West Virginia, Iowa and Texas are all either easy Democratic elections in Democratic seats once deemed potentially vulnerable, or close races where Democrats are trying to take over Republican seats.
The appeal of Democratic House candidates in some places will transcend barriers that have kept Democrats locked in the House minority since 1994:
- The marriage gap, where married people vote Republican and singles vote Democratic, cannot persist if Democrats hope to hold onto their gains. In MW polls in October, Democratic candidates were leading by 7 points or more in only one seat where 63% or more of the adults are married, but if the Democratic victory expands in the final weeks beyond the 222-seat majority MW polling projects today (with Democratic leads outside the margin of error), it will be because of victories in many places where 63% or more of adults are married (and the races are within the margin of error in MW polls today): Wisconsin 8th (Green Bay), Illinois 8th (a Democratically-held district), New York 3rd (Rep. Peter King’s Long Island district), Illinois 6th (Retiring Rep. Henry Hyde’s district), Florida 16th (Rep. Foley’s former district), Minnesota 6th (where the Democratic candidate’s background led her to focus on what the Foley scandal says about the commitment of Republican leaders in Washington to protect children from predators), and New Jersey 7th and Washington 8th, suburbs south of New York City and Seattle, respectively.
The Democratic Party’s northeastern base will be solidified, while in-roads will be made in other places as well.
- The blue tide is a northeastern tide, with strength all down the Ohio River and in scattered places out West as well. This blue tide rises in Connecticut, where Democrats will take at least one and maybe as many as three Republican seats, carries across New York, where Democrats will win at least three and possibly as many as six Republican seats, through far northeastern Pennsylvania (a state where Democrats will see at least two and possibly three pick-ups), then down the Ohio River where almost every contiguous seat on both sides of the river clear down past Indiana is an open seat or a vulnerable Republican-held seat and Democrats could win most of them (at least on the river’s northern bank, and very possibly on the southern bank in Kentucky, as well). It does not stop there: Democrats are competitive in northern Wisconsin, southern Minnesota, central and eastern Iowa, as well as in the suburbs of Denver and Seattle and in the New Mexico 1st House district.
Most importantly, in Florida, North Carolina and New York, Republicans say they will cross over to vote for the Democratic House candiCATEGORY: Editor’s Corner
- The Democratic takeover is a reaction against Bush, Bush policies, and the Republican majorities in Congress that enabled Bush. Voters in the first 74 MW House polls (a total sample of 74,448) disapprove (53%) rather than approve (39%) Bush’s job performance. Since all but 7 of those 74 polls were conducted in seats held by Republicans, the failure of Bush to score better than his weak national numbers for job performance indicates why these particular seats are the most vulnerable for Republicans.
- In some House races, the weakness of a Republican candidate or incumbent in a Republican-held seat is in part a reaction of Republican voters against the national Republican Party. Disaffected Republican voters in those districts will send a message to the national Party by voting against the Republican candidate in their House election. Overall, across the 74 polls, 67% of Republican voters approve but 22% disapprove of Bush’s performance. Among those Republican voters who disapprove of Bush, only 41% will vote for the Republican House candidate, 53% the Democrat. The districts where disaffected Republican voters who disapprove of Bush are most likely to vote Democratic in their House election are North Carolina 8th (69% of Republicans who disapprove of Bush will vote for the Democratic House candidate), North Carolina 11th (70%), Florida 13th (85%), Florida 16th (70%), Florida 22nd (69%), New York 26th –the home of NRCC chairman Reynolds (75%), and New York 24th –the open seat of departing Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (64%). In New York, North Carolina and Florida, Republican disgust with national Republican policies or behavior will benefit the 2006 House candidate — then it will be up to that Democratic winner to retain the loyalties of some of those disaffected Republicans (and Democrats are significantly ahead in MW polls in the New York and North Carolina races).
Politics (beyond the organization of the 110th Congress under a Democratic Speaker) will resonate to the sound of this political earthquake for years to come.
- Politics will be altered by the ability or inability of political leaders to help themselves by helping others. Sen. Hillary Clinton in New York will get credit for an assist when a handful or more of new Democratic House Members arrive from New York (and National Republican Congressional Campaign Chairman Tom Reynolds of New York will prove, if proof was needed, that it is a bad omen for a party when the congressional campaign chairman’s own race is irretrievably lost before the trees in the mid-Atlantic forests even turn colors for the fall). Sen. Evan Bayh will be more plausible as a national Democratic candidate in 2008 if three of his state’s nine House seats change hands from Republicans to Democrats in 2006. Republican Presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain of Arizona will not be strengthened as Arizona 8th became a hopeless cause for Republicans in early October and two other Arizona seats (1st and 5th) are in play as well.
In the final three weeks of the campaign, longtime leading Democratic strategists such as Stan Greenberg and James Carville urge the party to maximize the once-in-a-generation opportunity the 2006 election offers Democrats by reaching out for every seat that is even conceivably contestable. Netroots newcomers, however, are not so ambitious, preferring to see the Democrats focus their attention on locking in their potential gains rather than reaching too far and “blowing it.”
That reflects an ironic turn of events for internal Democratic Party strategic debate. Netroots newcomers, throughout 2000, 2002 and 2004, complained bitterly about the cautiousness of Democratic campaign insiders in Washington. Now the tables are turned. Political guru Charlie Cook calls it a generation gap in perceptions of what is happening in 2006. Old-timers who lived through 1974 and 1994 have felt all year that 2006 could develop into an enormous, earthshaking Democratic sweep—they’d seen this kind of thing before, and this felt like that. Netroots activists, in contrast, have not seen that kind of sweeping election victory before — their experience has been largely a series of narrow, nail-biting elections with winners and losers determined by a handful of seats in a 50-50 political world.
Because of their different experiences, netrooters have dismissed talk of a sweep as so much old-timer mysticism. Old-timers have been unable to believe the netrooters do not see what is clearly before their eyes. As a result of their different experiences, netrooters are also more focused on carefully bringing home every victory that’s clearly in reach and leaving nothing to chance in any race, while the old-timers are wondering whether a bank would loan the DNC $5 million or $10 million against future contributions to expand their reach from 30 targeted seats to 50. Old-timers are also speculating about whether they should count as won the top ten prospective take-overs and shift resources from those seats to the Tier 3 opportunities.
Whichever direction the party takes in the final weeks — whether a cautious, button-down strategy designed to make no mistakes and lose no birds in the hand, or a more “all-in,” go-for-broke strategy that seeks every possible bird in every possible bush — one outcome is certain: A very different, more mainstream, more suburban and small-town, greatly expanded House Democratic caucus will present a new face of the Democratic Party to the country as the 2008 Presidential election gets underway on November 8.
Thomas Riehle is the co-founder of RT Strategies, a bipartisan polling firm in Washington D.C. Majority Watch is a joint project of RT Strategies and Constituent Dynamics, a non-partisan automated recorded-voice polling firm in Seattle Washington. Majority Watch is designed to track trends in the fight for control of the U.S. House of Representatives by means of polls of 1000 or more likely voters in each contested House race.