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.
That’s how Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institute begins a pursuasive argument for the Dems’ chances this November which first appeared in the Post on July 16.
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.
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.
Mann goes on to demystify the conventional MSM wisdom about Republicans’ hold on power, arguing that the currently institutionalized system Gerrymandering and campaign finance laws have created since ’94, has not had to face a tidalwave election yet–and this seems likely to a prime candidate.
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.
In other words, Mann is pointing out that Gerrymandering of any sort–incumbant, partisan, or minority–is predicated on status quo electoral conditions. However, when big swings occur, the gerrymandering can be devastating to the institutional interests that creating it, and the whole system can fall like a house of cards.
Everyone should go and read the piece in its entirety. Mann goes on to deal with several of the objections likely to be raised and presents cogent reasons for believing otherwise.