Reality Check Needed: Can Wave Sweep Republicans? No. Can the Democrats Gain a Majority? Maybe.

Let’s start out by saying that this election is nothing like 1994 or any other wave mid-term election, whether or not it has been nationalized by events or issues.  In reality, to think of ’94 as a wave caused by a couple of bad years for the Clinton presidency combined with a revolution involving a shift of  ideology in the electorate to a more conservative agenda is too simple. 

Those two factors were a part of the reason so many seats changed sides, but reapportionment of district lines and party organization were more responsible for making the win so big; and those later two facts are making it hard for the Democrats to repeat the Republican success in this year’s election.  It also exposes a continuing problem for the Democrats.

The Republicans for more than three decades have put special effort into party building at the local level—increasing party membership, getting into relationship with new voters, and developing a farm team that can run at a local level with an intention of taking over state legislatures.  It developed for Republicans a bigger list of dependable voters at a time when turnout was decreasing in elections.  Not only did it give them more impact on governance locally, it also gave Republicans more influence, and even control, over state legislative and congressional reapportionment. 

The wave in ’94 was the culmination of pent up pressure caused by systematically reapportioning districts in 1980 and 1990, and by adding a massive organizational effort in districts that were marginal by increasing the number of registered Republicans and increasing the turnout of their partisans on election day.  Since ’94, the Republicans have benefited by an additional shot at partisan reapportionment after the 2000 census, and the Bush/Rove team has pushed target refinements further. 

They also made the public policy debate more partisan and increased negative campaigning.  This, together with the Democratic response in kind, has had the effect of increasing the number of voters not enrolled in either party (independents), who are more likely to drop out of the electorate in a low turnout election like a mid-term election, especially in a negative news environment.  This has weakened the Democratic side, which scores better on most issues over Republicans.

Because of the overwhelming consequence of incumbency and the difficulty of contesting any election in large expensive media markets, a tsunami sweeping the House has not changed more than 10% of the seats historically.  Now, the effect of reapportionment makes it hard to competitively contest more than 5% of the seats.  Even though the top political handicappers have increased the number of seats they are watching to 60 races or more in the House, don’t be fooled, the Democrats have actually targeted less than 45 Republican seats and the Republicans have countered in only five Democratic seats.

Though the Republicans may not pick up even one Democratic seat, no one believes they will lose all the seats they are defending.  In fact, if this were an historic wave, one would expect the Republicans to pick up one or two seats and the Democrats to pick up a third of the seats they are fighting for, about 15 seats.  Three rounds of computer driven mapping and modeling reapportionment have corrupted the process to make that much of a shift less likely.  In addition, the Republicans have fine tuned their relationship driven GOTV (get out the vote) operations, while the Democrats are still depending on tired transactional based organizational activities. 

Issues, ethics and narrative still mean something in politics, as do open seats.  Remembering that elections are held in the world of perception and not in reality, the second Bush term has not worked to the Republican advantage.  For starters, a handful of Republican open seats were held by ethically challenged incumbents who had to leave office.  Going in, these seats are lost, erasing part of the reapportionment advantage.

As much as 9/11 changed things in American politics, giving Republicans an advantage in the last presidential year, hurricane Katrina has hurt Bush and the Republicans since then.  The opposing side can argue who did and did not do what they were supposed to do or what the federal role should be today.  That said, it was the worst public relations crisis management of a disaster since the Exxon Valdese and as such has hurt Republican framing on every other issue. 

Competence and caring for people like you was lost by Bush and the Republicans.  For example, the overriding problem for the Republicans—the war in Iraq—has become a major drag on winning elections.  Americans never like war and it is easy to make a case for war being bad (Lieberman’s advance post primary aside) the Democrats have successfully made the case that the aftermath to toppling Saddam has been handled incompetently with willful disregard for the opinion of voters, helping Democratic candidates.

The Foley scandal temporally put pressure on Republicans, both because of the hypocritical nature of the scandal and the look of incompetence in handling the matter by Republican leaders.  This is yet another crisis management failure that has tightened races.  Since it emerged, Foley’s Florida seat, which overnight became the most likely seat to change hands, has moved a notch each week and is now rated number six.  In New York, a good Congressman and head of the Republican Congressional campaign is still in trouble because of this issue. He would have had a safe seat against a Democrat, who even the Democratic leaders are not enthusiastic about, but now he must fight to keep his seat.

The Foley scandal, which stalled the Bush/Rove teams move to change the subject to terrorism and security, also took Iraq off the front page.  This stalled Republican candidates ability to make a come back.  The fact that Democratic voter coalesce four to five weeks out while Republicans seem to coalesce two to three weeks out made it seem to have more effect than it actually did.  

In a competitive district, about half of the campaign’s communication takes place in the last three weeks and cumulatively half of that is in the last week.  And then there is the intense last three days of organization atop of communication.  So we still have miles to go before the finish line.  All and all the Democrats can be expected to pick up between 10 and 20 seats, with 10 being more likely than 20.  It is less likely that it would turn out to be either extreme of net 5 or 30 seats.  It is possible to take the House, but unlikely for there to be a wave.  The balance of power has been shifting back and forth and there is still time for something to tip the process.  Democrats will pick up seats but may not pick up control.

Democrats need to do two things to change the outcome in the future.  They have to compete and win more local legislative positions to gain control of state legislatures to retake control of reapportionment.  (The more appropriate reform alternative would be a move to non-partisan reapportionment.)  And the Democrats need to set up a better party building structure, with a heavily targeted relationship-based GOTV operation.   

In New York not enough was done to make seats competitive.  Every opposition party incumbent needs to be challenged with a candidate developed from an enlarged empowered farm team that is then supported with a robust modern targeting operation and well funded media campaign.

Can the Democrats stay on a winning message?  Will the 72 Hour Plan save enough Republican seats?  Is the Senate takeover just a long term work in progress?  Can the Democrats change their operations in time for the presidential election?  More Later.