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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Abramowitz: Don’t Bet on ‘Triple Flip’ Election

Writing at Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball, TDS Advisory Board member Alan I. Abramowitz lays into the theory that an “anti-incumbent mood could produce an historic triple flip in the 2012 elections with control of both houses of Congress and the presidency all changing hands,” resulting in the election of a Republican president, a Democratic House and a Republican Senate.
The theory is wedded to the ‘false equivalency’ meme, arguing that the public finds both parties equally at fault — sort of a generalized ‘anti-incumbency.’ Abramowitz doesn’t buy it:

OK, time to get back to reality. There has never been a triple flip election and there is not going to be one in 2012. Not only that, but despite the abysmal approval ratings that Congress has been receiving, 2012 will not be an anti-incumbent election. That’s because opinions about the performance of Congress and opinions about whether most congressional incumbents deserve to be reelected have little or no influence on the outcomes of congressional elections.
Political scientists have long recognized that Americans generally make a distinction between Congress as an institution and their own representatives in Congress. They usually rate their own representative (and their own senators) much more favorably than they rate Congress. The renowned congressional scholar Richard Fenno observed that incumbent members of Congress actively encourage this sort of thinking by regularly criticizing the performance of the institution in their own campaigns. As Fenno put it, members “run for Congress by running against Congress.”
This distinction between Congress as an institution and its individual members is alive and well today. For example, in the same Gallup Poll that found that only 20% of Americans feel that most members of Congress deserve to be reelected, 53% of the respondents felt that their own representative deserved to be reelected. And this percentage would undoubtedly have been even higher if respondents had been asked about their own representative by name.

Noting that “the reelection rates for House and Senate incumbents are generally quite high, averaging over 95% for House incumbents and over 80% for Senate incumbents in recent years,” Abramowitz adds that even 2010 was an “anti-Democratic election, not an anti-incumbent election.” it was a fairly typical ‘wave election’ in which “A large number of incumbents lose their seats but almost all of the defeated incumbents come from one party.” only 2 Republicans lost their seats in 2010, and in the ’06 mid-terms, another wave election in the opposite direction, no Dems lost seats. “Throw the bums out” is more partisan in practice, not an anti-incumbent sentiment.
Abramowitz presents historical data to back up his argument, and says that “Based on the historical record we can confidently predict that if a large number of incumbents lose their seats next November, it will be because 2012 is a wave election and that almost all of the defeated incumbents will come from the party on the losing side of the wave.” The most likely scenario, according to Abramowitz:

The fact that Republicans currently hold 242 House seats, the largest number that they have held in the past 60 years, suggests that Democrats are likely to make at least modest gains in 2012. On the other hand, the fact that 23 of the 33 Senate seats that are up for election in 2012 are currently held by Democrats almost guarantees that Republicans will pick up some seats in the upper chamber.
We also know that 2012 is a presidential election year so Republicans will not have the advantage they enjoyed in 2010 of being the opposition party in a midterm election. Beyond these basic facts, it is likely that the results of the 2012 House and Senate elections will depend on the outcome of the presidential election.

Under Abramowitz’s most optimistic (for Dems) scenario, “Even with the advantage of having only 10 of their own Senate seats at stake in 2012 vs. 23 Democratic seats, if Republicans lose 25 seats in the House, the minimum number required for Democrats to regain control of that chamber, the expected GOP seat gain in the Senate would be reduced to zero.”
In any case, concludes Abramowitz, “The chances of a double flip election, let alone a triple flip election next year can best be described as slim to none . . . and slim just left town.”

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