Midterm Madness

MIDTERM MADNESS….Ed Kilgore picks up on an interesting point from Charlie Cook that I hadn’t especially noted:

As a general rule, election-watchers under the age of 40, regardless of their party or ideology, see the contest for control of the House as fairly close….Observers over age 40, meanwhile, tend to see a greater likelihood of sizable Republican losses. They think that the GOP could well lose more than 20 House seats and more than five Senate seats.

Hmmm. Ed, as a certified Old Guy?, puts himself in the optimist camp. “It’s hard to find any precedent for a presidential party controlling Congress in the sixth year of an administration that avoids disaster when the electorate is completely sour on the status quo.”

Conversely, Young Turk? Chris Bowers is cautious. “In my experience, with few exceptions, Republicans have consistently won elections, while Democrats have consistently lost….Most of my friends don’t really believe that we will win in November, and while I am not as pessimistic as some, I am certainly not the most optimistic forecaster out there.”

This is a little perplexing on both sides. It’s true that the midterm elections of 1966 (Vietnam) and 1974 (Watergate) were landslides, but that’s a pretty thin data set. Besides, just how sour is the electorate? They might have more to be unhappy about than in 1998, but nothing like Vietnam or Watergate. How do you calibrate that?

As for Republicans always winning elections, that just isn’t true. In the past ten elections, Democrats have gained in the House six times. During that same period they’ve won the presidency two out of five times. Granted, the last few years have been fairly grim, but it just isn’t true that Democratic activists under 40 don’t know what it’s like to win an election.

In any case, since we’re being wonkish about this I’ll toss out a chart that I think explains more than either of these theories. Up until 20 years ago, wide swings were pretty common in congressional elections. Democrats and Republicans routinely saw gains and losses of 30, 40, or even 50 seats.

But as the chart on the right shows, that all changed in the mid-80s. The House has become remarkably stable since then, with no more than ten seats changing hands each year. The sole exception was the Gingrich-led 1994 election, which I’ve always considered more a one-off tectonic shift than anything else. Basically, a bunch of conservative southern districts switched to the GOP column all at once instead of switching slowly over the course of a decade. That dynamic isn’t going to happen again and doesn’t really tell us much.

The overall trend, however, is clear: It’s really, really hard to generate a change of more than ten seats in a House election these days. That’s the reason that a 20-seat gain is going to be tough for the Democrats to pull off. It’s not impossible, especially if Dems focus like a laser beam on voter disgust with Congress (Who controls Congress? Republicans! I can’t hear you. REPUBLICANS!!!), but it’s going to take both hard work and a bit of luck.

Does that sound about right from someone who’s 47?