You’ve Got to Hit Them Where They Live

Virtually all polling analyses, including this column, that deal with the possible outcome of the 2010 midterm elections, make frequent use of the "generic congressional ballot," a survey question probing House voting intentions on a national basis. But, while there may be national trends, there are no national elections in the United States. Constitutionally, the members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate and even the President of the United States are all elected on a localized, state-by-state or district-by-district basis. In spite of this, with one major exception (the discredited Research 2000 that formerly conducted weekly tracking surveys for Daily Kos) pollsters rarely report their results geographically beneath the aggregate national level. That's why a recent posting by Tom Schaller at FiveThirtyEight is so interesting, refreshing, and important. While many reports based on the national generic ballot stress the similarities between the 2010 midterm elections and those of 1994 in which the Democratic Party lost large congressional majorities, Schaller's analysis points to key regional differences that may buffer the Democrats from the kind of devastation they suffered sixteen years ago.

By eerie coincidence Democrats hold precisely the same number of House seats (256 or 59% of the body's 435) in today's 111th Congress that they held in the 103rd Congress of 1994. But, that is where the similarity ends.

In the 103rd Congress the Democrats held essentially the same percentage of seats (60% or a point or two less) in each of the nation's four geographic regions-the Northeast, South, Midwest, and West. Now, the Democrats control the vast majority of House seats in the Northeast (82%) and West (63%). Within the former region, all of New England's 22 Representatives are Democrats as are 26 of New York's 29 (with one Empire State seat currently vacant). In the West, the Democrats are especially strong along the Pacific Coast, holding 33 of California's 52 seats, 4 of Oregon's 5, and 6 of Washington's 9.

By contrast, the Democrats hold 55% of Midwestern House seats, slightly less than the 58% they held in 1994. But, the big change has been in the South. Now, only 43% of Southern Representatives are Democrats, far less than in 1994 when 60% were. It was, in fact, the 1994 election that finally flipped the South's Congressional delegation from majority Democratic to majority Republican. In other words, as Schaller's analysis makes clear "the two Democratic coalitions [in 1994 and in 2010] are not the same geographically."

The alteration in the regional composition of the two party coalitions described by Schaller is a part of broader demographic and political changes that have been portrayed in detail by NDN's 21st Century America Project. Survey research conducted this year in connection with that project both reflects and explains why the regional strength of the two parties in Congress has been altered so significantly since 1994. As the following table indicates, both the Northeast and West contain the greatest number of voters who identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party followed closely by the Midwest. By contrast, the South contains the fewest, and among white Southerners a clear plurality identifies with or leans toward the GOP

  Total Electorate Northeast Midwest West South Southern Whites
Democrat 47% 49% 48% 49% 44% 35%
Independent 20% 20% 22% 18% 19% 21%
Republican 33% 31% 30% 33% 37% 45%
Ratio of
Democrat to
1.4:1 1.6:1 1.6:1 1.5:1 1.2:1 0.8:1

These changes may place the Democratic Party in better position to avoid the massive losses of 1994-and thereby retain their House majority. Schaller projects two possible scenarios for the November midterm elections. The first he labels a "regular wave" in which the Democrats would lose about 36 House seats, a bit above the average losses for the president's party in the midterm election of his first term. The second Schaller calls a "big wave" in which the Democrats would lose about 61 House seats. While their losses would be serious in either scenario, in a "regular wave" Democrats would retain control of the House. In the latter, they would lose it.

According to Schaller, Democratic losses would not be distributed evenly across the country. In a "regular wave," he says, a disproportionately large share of Democratic losses (64%) would likely occur in the two regions where the party is already weakest-the South and Midwest. (That, by the way, would leave the Democrats with only a third of Southern House seats, continuing a trend that has been ongoing for the past five decades). However, in a "big wave," while a majority of Democratic losses would still be in the South and Midwest (58%), more of the incremental losses would come in the Northeast (26%) and West (16%). With three months to go before the election, there is no reason to believe that the midterm elections will necessarily result in a wave of any size, but Schaller's analysis does suggest the best place to look for any early signs of a tsunami that would cost the Democrats their House majority are in the contested districts of the Northeast and West.

Of course, its solid party identification lead nationally and its regional strength in the Northeast and West only provides the Democratic Party with an opportunity to avoid a repeat of the disaster of 1994. There is no guarantee that it will do so. As the election of Republican Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate earlier this year in Massachusetts, the bluest of all Northeastern states demonstrates, the Democrats can lose almost anywhere if they run a poor campaign and/or candidate.  The Democrats lost that special election in Massachusetts not because the state had suddenly become a GOP stronghold or because Massachusetts Democrats turned against Barack Obama, the Democratic Party, or the policies that they favor. That "impossible to lose" election was lost because Democrats failed to mobilize their majority strength in Massachusetts.

If Democrats are wise, what happened in Massachusetts will serve as a warning and not a prophecy of things to come. To ensure the former, Democrats should reject advice, some well-intentioned and some not, to focus their 2010 campaign on appeals to "angry" independents or "disaffected" moderates and focus instead on activating their own sizable base of identifiers, especially in regions where that base has the potential to be dominant.  In 1994, when each of the two parties had exactly the same percentage of identifiers, the Democratic Party could not successfully do that. In 2010, it can-- and must-- if it hopes to retain its majority status in the House.