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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

An Electoral Tsunami Or a Reversion to the Norm?

This item is cross-posted from ProgressiveFix.
With all the numbers and hyperbolic rhetoric being thrown around about potential Republican gains this year, it’s sometimes helpful to look more closely at the patterns. We are often told, for example, that this is going to be some sort of day of reckoning for House Democrats generally, or for House Democratic incumbents in particular. But what, exactly, is the nature of those House seats Republicans are poised to win?
For purposes of this analysis, I’ll use Nate Silver’s House ratings, which are more precise than those of most of his competitors. Nate shows 27 districts where Republicans are “likely” (defined as an 80 percent or better probability) to win Democratic seats. Do many of these contests involve longstanding Democratic bastions where incumbents are being ousted by the righteous wrath of an angry voting public? No. Eleven of these seats are open. Another thirteen are seats wrested away from the GOP in the “wave” elections of 2006 and 2008. And 22 of the 27 have a pro-Republican PVI (the Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index), which means they tilted Republican more than the national average in the last two presidential races.
In other words, these are seats that would inevitably be ripe for the plucking in the first midterm after a Democratic presidential victory, even if you don’t consider the factors (especially age-related turnout patterns and the condition of the economy) that make this an especially promising GOP year.
Looking at Nate’s next category, fifteen “lean takeover” seats where the probability of a switch to the GOP is in the 60-80 percent range, there are far fewer open seats, but plenty of other factors indicating low-hanging fruit for Republicans. Aside from the two open seats, there are twelve that Democrats picked up in 2006-08, and eleven of the fifteen have pro-GOP PVIs.
It’s only in a third category, twenty “even” seats where the probability of a Republican takeover is 40-60 percent, that you start getting into a significant number of contests involving entrenched incumbents. Even there, half the seats were taken over by Democrats in 2006 or later. But 14 of them have pro-Republican PVIs, and many of the Democratic “entrenched incumbents” typically represent strongly pro-Republican districts as measured by PVI: Gene Taylor of Mississippi (R+14); Lincoln Davis of Tennessee (R+13); Jim Marshall of Georgia (R+10); Ben Chandler of Kentucky (R+9); John Spratt of South Carolina (R+7); Baron Hill of Indiana (R+6); John Salazar of Colorado (R+5); and Mike McIntyre of North Carolina (R+5).
Remembering that Democrats will probably win some of these close races, it seems likely that Republican House gains this year will represent more a reversion to the norm than some sort of electoral tsunami–and more of a partisan “correction” than any revolt against Democratic incumbents-particularly if you consider the structural factors that make this particular midterm difficult for Democrats.
Now it’s always possible that Republican gains will be even larger than Nate Silver and most others consider probable, and if so, it will be necessary to reconsider everything I’ve said above. But it’s equally appropriate to demand a reconsideration of all the apocalyptic advanced spin coming from Republican circles if the House results turn out to be relatively predictable. Based on current evidence, the idea that this election is going to usher in some sort of extended era of conservative domination of American politics is no more credible than the belief exhibited by some Democrats two and four years ago that Republicans wouldn’t enjoy power in Washington again for the foreseeable future.

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