Looking back on 1994

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Looking back on 1994

In the lead on my U.S. News column on the House elections, I noted that I was the first writer in the national press to write, in July 1994, that the Republicans had a serious chance of winning a majority in the House elections that November. I noted in that article that three incumbent U.S. House Democrats, competent members who had won at least one election and who had no scandal problems, were trailing Republican challengers in polls. It's highly unusual for an incumbent House member to trail a challenger in any poll; usually the incumbent's higher party identification insures a higher percentage, since the lesser-known challenger is not likely to have corralled even all of his own party's supporters. I noted also that there were a lot of serious Republican challengers out there and that President Bill Clinton's job approval rating was not very good.

But there were other factors that guided my analysis.

Going back into the 1980s, I had come to regard the Democrats' House majority as threatened. I was encouraged to do so by a Republican backbencher (as he was until 1989, when he won the race for minority whip by 2 votes), Newt Gingrich. It is said of some economists that they have predicted five of the last two recessions: Gingrich predicted five of the last one Republican takeover. But what he was predicting was not, I came to conclude, just hot air.

When I examined the reasons why the Democrats continued to hold the House through the 1980s, when Republicans won the presidency three times and carried a majority of congressional districts three times, I identified three factors. None of them was bound to remain in force forever, and in two of the three Democrats were almost certain to find their advantage diminishing over time.

The three factors.

The class of 1974. Democrats won a huge victory in the 1974 House elections, putting something on the order of 75 almost entirely liberal freshmen in office (House Republicans would put almost exactly the same number of almost entirely conservative freshmen in office in 1994). This Watergate class of Democrats tended to be highly motivated, politically shrewd and immediately effective. Under the tutelage of Phil Burton (who represented the district the descendant of which elects Nancy Pelosi today), the Watergate freshmen instituted election of committee chairmen by the Democratic Caucus, ousted several old chairmen, and created a system in which anyone who wanted a chairmanship now or in the future had an incentive to have a liberal voting record and to support other House Democrats in elections. This was party responsibility, something political scientists had long called for. Democrats had captured control of the House in 1954 and held it for 20 years. But 1974 was the first year (except for the LBJ landslide of 1964, arguably) in which voters elected a liberal majority to the House. And the House, the most conservative of the three elective branches (president, Senate, House), for nearly 40 years before 1974 became the most liberal of the three in the 20 years after 1974.

The class of 1974 freshmen, together with their less numerous counterparts in the classes of 1972 (Patricia Schroeder), 1976 (Dick Gephardt, Al Gore) and 1978 (Tony Coelho), dominated the House for many years. Many of them proved adept at holding onto seats which voted Republican for president and which, in open seat elections, would probably have elected Republicans. Examples: Tom Downey, first elected from a Long Island district in 1974 and reelected until he finally lost in 1992, or Dan Glickman, first elected from the Wichita, Kan., district in 1976 and reelected until he finally lost in 1994. Downey and Glickman together ran in 20 House elections and won 18. If all those contests in those districts had been open seat contests, Republicans probably would have won 16 or 17 of them. The Downeys and Glickmans, and their many similar Democratic colleagues help explain why Democrats held the House by a wide majority for the 20 years from 1974 to 1994, and why liberal Democrats had effective control for almost all that period.

But of course the class of 1974 was not going to last forever. Nor the classes of 1972, 1976, or 1978. Some were defeated; some ran for other office, many of them successfully; some of them retired or went on to other things. Time goes by. And the advantage that House Democrats held from the class of 1974 was bound to diminish with time. Today, I believe only three members of the class of 1974 still serve in the House-George Miller and Henry Waxman of California and Jim Oberstar of Minnesota.

Candidate quality. In the 1970s, as some of the names above suggest, Democrats had a huge advantage in candidate quality. If you looked at their serious challenger and open seat candidates and their Republican counterparts, the Democrats had far greater political skills and political instincts. Interestingly, this advantage for the Democrats continued through the Reagan years of the 1980s. Perhaps it's just a matter of naturally politically gifted people being more inclined to favor the party of more government than the party of less government. This is not a quantifiable factor, but over the years I've found that analysts of both parties have agreed with me on this point.

But in the early 1990s, the Democrats' edge in candidate quality seemed to diminish. Some of this may have been the work of Newt Gingrich in attracting and inspiring candidates, and of some of his politically gifted colleagues at the time-Jack Kemp, Trent Lott, Vin Weber. Looking at the candidates in the 1994 cycle, I thought Republicans for the first time had an advantage in candidate quality, or at least parity.

The South. In the 1970s and 1980s the Democrats still held a majority of House seats in the South. They were helped in holding them by the candidacies of George Wallace in 1968 and 1972 (he provided a template for saying you're a Democrat but you're different from liberal national Democrats) and of Jimmy Carter in 1976 and 1980 (Carter carried the South handily in 1976 and, though most people forget it, ran about even there in 1980). But by 1984 and 1988 most Southern districts were voting Republican for president, and Bill Clinton in 1992 had shown no special strength in the South, carrying some states but losing others.

The older conservative Southern Democrats had a sure formula for winning. They had relatively conservative voting records or, if they didn't, they could say that they chaired committees or subcommittees important to their districts. But eventually they would retire or die. And in that case Republicans had an excellent chance of picking up their districts.

This trend was already apparent in the 1992 cycle. No one noticed it much, but Republicans gained 10 seats that year (the second biggest gain for any party in the last 20 years), and for the first time since Reconstruction the Republican percentage of the popular vote for the House was higher in the South than outside the South. Redistricting was also working for Republicans in the region. The 1980s amendments to the Voting Rights Act led to a prevailing view that the Act required creation of a maximum number of majority-minority House districts. In Southern state capitals, Republicans worked with black Democrats to create new black-majority districts. Those districts removed many reliably Democratic voters from adjacent white-majority districts. That led to Republican gains in the region in 1992 and was bound to lead to greater gains in the four subsequent elections in the redistricting cycle, as old incumbents retired, etc. As it turned out the bulk of those gains came in the 1994 cycle.

Those were the long-term effects working toward the Republican takeover that finally occurred, several cycles after Newt Gingrich started predicting it, in 1994. There were also two short-term effects.

Anti-incumbent feeling. A series of scandals-the House bank, the House post office-contributed to an anti-incumbent feeling in the early 1990s that had a powerful effect on elections. At the presidential level, it helped George H.W. Bush tumble from 53 percent of the vote in 1988 to 37 percent of the vote in 1992, after a term in office that, as one looks back on it, was far short of disastrous (certainly not nearly as disastrous as that of Herbert Hoover, who had a similar fall in popular vote from 1928 to 1932). At the House level, we saw the percentages of House incumbents of both parties decline in the 1990 and 1992 cycles. This is highly unusual: Usually, if incumbent Republicans' percentages fall, incumbent Democrats' percentages climb, and vice versa. I looked back on election results going back to the 1940s and could not identify another cycle when the percentages for incumbents of both parties fell.

This hurt incumbents of both parties. I remember a lobbyist friend saying, "This is a tough year for the overdog." But it hurt Democrats more, because going into the 1990, 1992, and 1994 cycles there were more incumbent Democrats than incumbent Republicans-and because more incumbent Democrats represented Republican-leaning districts than vice versa.

The anti-Clinton feeling. Bill Clinton campaigned as a moderate Democrat and in 1993 and 1994 seemed to be governing, or trying to govern, as a liberal Democrat. Or so at least many voters believed. The Clinton healthcare plan, gun control (the Brady bill, tacked onto the 1994 crime bill), the tax increase, gays in the military. (Although ironically the Democratic Congress passed the law requiring expulsion of open gays from the military and Bill Clinton signed it, a policy that led liberal law professors to unsuccessfully seek to block military recruiters from their law schools.) This record hurt Democrats especially in the South, but also in other regions, including high-income suburbs angry at the tax increase.

Anti-incumbent feeling remained alive in 1994, and that and anti-Clinton feeling helped to make 1994 a perfect storm year for House Democrats. But as I've argued, they were likely to lose many of the seats they lost that year some time in the 1990s. What isn't determinable is whether the Republicans would ever have been able to win a majority. I'm inclined to think so, but I think you could make a plausible argument the other way.

My column is about the 2006 elections, and whether the Democrats have a chance to win back a House majority this year. My tentative answer: yes, but the odds are still against them. As one way of assessing those chances, let's compare where the Democrats stand today on the five factors I've listed above with how the Republicans stood in 1994. And remember that the Democrats only need 15 seats for a majority this year, while the Republicans needed 40 in 1994.

The class of 1994. Many of the members of the Republican class of 1994 still hold seats in the House, and their numbers must diminish as the years go by. The difference between them today and the Democrats' class of 1974 in 1994 is that none of the Republican '94ers hold seats that lean heavily to Democrats in other races (Jack Quinn of New York did, but he retired in 2004 and the seat went Democratic), and very few hold seats that lean less heavily to the Democrats. In other words, fewer pickup opportunities for Democrats this time.

The South. Democrats have been able, usually with moderate candidates, to win governorships in the South in the years since 1994; currently they hold the governorships of Virginia, West Virginia (if you consider it in the South), North Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. But when you look at House seats, there aren't very many Republican-held seats in the South that lean Democratic, if any, and few are probably vulnerable to a moderate Democratic appeal. When you run for governor in the South, you can set out your own platform; when you run for the House in the South, you have to take on the burden of voting for a San Francisco Democrat as speaker. That's the bad news for the Democrats. The bad news for the Republicans is that they have won just about all the Southern seats they can ever hope to win. They're likely to get more only after the next redistricting cycle, which is to say in the election of 2012. That means few or no Southern gains to offset losses elsewhere; and such gains were very helpful to Republicans in 1996, when the affluent suburbs of our largest non-Southern metro areas trended to Bill Clinton and the Democrats, and class of 1994 members lost seats there.

Candidate quality. My own view is that neither party has had many outstanding quality candidates in recent cycles. The House Democrats' campaign chairman this year, Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, has worked hard on recruitment and has brought forward some interesting candidates-notably several Iraq war veterans. Some of them are running in seats, which, in the political balance that prevailed between 1996 and 2004, must be considered out of reach for Democrats. But Emanuel has been proceeding on the sensible assumptions that (a) if those political contours continue to prevail, there aren't enough Democratic targets to yield a majority, (b) they may not prevail this time, (c) we don't know where and how they'll change, so (d) Democrats might as well run as many serious or interesting candidates as they can in districts which by 1996-2004 standards look unwinnable on the chance that trends will occur which will make them winnable. A smart strategy, I think. House Republicans' campaign Chairman Tom Reynolds has been twitting Emanuel on recruitment failures (Democrats filed no one against freshman Charlie Dent in Pennsylvania 15, which John Kerry carried by 726 votes). But Emanuel has had his recruiting successes too-though we won't know how many until October or November. With George W. Bush's numbers where they are, Democrats ought to have a small advantage in candidate quality this year, and I expect they will; a lot of filing dates are still ahead, so recruitment season is still on.

Anti-incumbent feeling. As many pundits have noted, usually with dismay, almost all incumbents have been getting reelected in recent cycles. Of the few exceptions in 2002 and 2004 some were the victims of redistricting, like the talented 26-year veteran Martin Frost of Texas in 2004. Poll numbers now show Congress generally with lower approval ratings than last year, and that's true also of congressional Republicans-and congressional Democrats. This year may turn out to be an anti-incumbent year like 1990, 1992, and 1994. But it's by no means clear yet that it is. Republicans are saying that their polls show incumbents still enjoying high approval in their districts. If they're blowing smoke, we'll see it in time as polls on the races come out. But no one has shown me yet what I saw, later in the cycle, in 1994-polls with incumbents running behind challengers.

The anti-Bush feeling. No question George W. Bush's job approval ratings are low; they're averaging out at 40 percent in realclearpolitics.com as I write. This is well above Richard Nixon's ratings at this point in the 1974 cycle and (I haven't researched this, but this is my recollection) a little below Bill Clinton's ratings at this point in the 1994 cycle. That's not a good sign for Republicans. But each had low ratings for different reasons: Nixon, because of Watergate ("I am not a crook"); Clinton, because of perceived policy reversals (see above) and to a lesser extent competence; Bush, primarily because he's seen as not competent on high visibility issues (Katrina, the ports deal, Iraq). Negative feelings on the president's policy, I think, are more likely to change votes at the House level than negative feelings on the president's competence-though I think reasonable people could disagree. But negative feelings on competence could depress Republican turnout-and given how narrow Republican margins have been in recent elections, which could prove crucial.

Some comments in conclusion. Examination of the above factors leads me to conclude that 2006 is not another 1994-at least not yet. But Democrats need only 15/40ths of a 1994 to win control. As I mentioned in my column, there has been an eerie, historically unusual continuity in the House vote in the last five elections, from 1996 to 2004: Republicans have won between 49 and 51 percent of the popular vote, Democrats between 46 and 48.5 percent. That's also where you'll find the percentages in the 2004 presidential race. And the regional and demographic political contours underneath them have been remarkably steady too. If those continue to prevail, a House majority is almost surely out of reach for the Democrats.

Some Democrats point to their party's big lead in the polls' generic vote questions-which party's candidate will you vote for in the House? But over the last 10 years the Democrats have been ahead in the generic vote for almost all the time, and in that same time they have been behind in popular votes and in seats won in five straight House elections. Many Democratic pollsters acknowledge that the generic vote question doesn't seem to be a good predictor of election outcomes.

One reason that it hasn't been is that polls don't reflect turnout. Current polls tend to show Democrats with a lead in party identification-37-28 percent in the CBS poll that showed Bush with 34 percent job approval. But the 2004 electorate as shown in the adjusted NEP exit poll was 37-37 percent–the most Republican electorate since the advent of random sample polling in 1935. The reason: the Republicans' brilliant and mostly unheralded, volunteer-driven and networking turnout drive in 2004. John Kerry got 16 percent more popular votes than Al Gore; George W. Bush 2004 got 23 percent more popular votes than George W. Bush 2000. That means that Republicans have a larger reservoir of potential voters to draw on in this off-year election, when turnout will inevitably be lower than in the presidential year. They also have, more or less in place, the organization that produced that turnout. That's a silent advantage for Republicans this year. It's one reason that there seems to be optimism in the vicinity of Karl Rove's office in the West Wing and Ken Mehlman's at the Republican National Committee.

But will Republicans out-turnout the Democrats in 2006? In some recent polls Bush's job approval among Republicans has fallen from his 2004 record highs. That's not a good sign for Republican turnout. Articulate conservatives have been complaining-about spending, earmarks, Harriet Miers, immigration, the ports. Also not a good sign for Republican turnout. But what of Democratic turnout? The left-wing base of the Democratic party is enthused, as it was in 2004. But that wasn't enough then. The Democrats' congressional leaders have as yet been unable to come up with a campaign theme or slogan or platform, as Newt Gingrich's House Republicans did in 1994. Leading Democrats when they have become highly visibly-as at the John Roberts and Samuel Alito hearings-have not been attractive even to many in the party base. And the Democrats are split between American exceptionalists and what Prof. Samuel Huntington calls transnationalists. It's hard to rally a party to turn out when it's split on fundamental questions.

Polls aren't good at projecting turnout. They give us at best clues-and sometimes those clues are misleading. I wrote at the end of my column that my guess is that turnout will be decisive this year. And I suggested, I think, or if I didn't I'll suggest it here, that I don't know how turnout is going to work out this year. We may get some hints from primaries-but they'll only be hints. I don't think I've seen a change in voter preference that is enough, by itself, to produce a Democratic House-although some Democrats are seeing enough of a change to plausibly put them within reach, and there are months to go in which the political balance could change. But with the margin between the parties so close, a shift in the turnout advantage could be enough to produce a different result.