On the Republican side, at the very least, this may be the year for political scientists and analysts to try to forget everything that they think they know. But we still need to have some rational basis for what we’re saying, right? I mean, who can fault David Wasserman over at the Cook Political Report for using the presidential blowouts of 1964, 1972, and 1984 to try to guesstimate how a 2016 blowout might affect control of the House of Representatives? It’s as good a place to start as I can think of, so why not take a look?
Indeed, there’s nothing wrong with looking at the best precedents we have, and it can even be described as basic due diligence. But I think you have to go a little deeper than just looking at raw numbers.
To begin with, any scenario in which the Democratic Party enjoyed the benefit of the Solid South is simply not applicable to the present. The 1964 election, which came right on the heels of LBJ signing the Civil Rights Act, was pretty much the starting point of the realignment that over the next fifty years methodically flipped the South into a Republican stronghold. I’d argue that this process wasn’t really complete until the 2010 midterms, although the 2002 midterms wiped out a half dozen southern Democratic senators. It took decades for the South to stop voting for the Democratic Party on the state and local level. Even in the 1992 election where Clinton, despite some successes, lost most southern states, southern Democrats did quite well in the congressional elections. Today, this type of ticket-splitting is extremely rare.
By the time we get to the 1972 landslide, things are slightly more familiar, but it still basically holds true that the South chose Nixon for president and the Democrats in the down-ticket races. The corollary today would be the South voting uniformly for Hillary Clinton while returning almost all of their Republican senators and representatives to Congress. I don’t see that happening, although I can foresee Clinton winning a few southern states. Obama won Virginia and Florida twice, North Carolina once, and was within spitting distance in Georgia. It remains to be seen how the people of Arkansas feel about their royal family in our present climate, but I have my doubts that it will even be a competitive state.
Still, we’re talking about a hypothetical landslide election in which the Republicans nominate someone so divisive and controversial that they wind up losing supposedly safe red states. It’s probably true that in that kind of scenario, the House seats would tend to split. Senate seats would be more vulnerable, but I don’t see Richard Shelby losing in Alabama no matter how badly Trump or Cruz or Carson do at the top of the ticket.
The 1984 election seems almost modern compared to 1964 and 1972. At least the modern Democratic coalition was beginning to take form. But even in 1984 the Democrats still enjoyed a lot of stubborn southern support on the congressional level.
What’s more relevant today is the way party support has been split between urban/suburban and suburban/exurban/rural. This, in combination with aggressive (mainly Republican-controlled) gerrymandering, has resulted in very few true swing districts in Congress. It’s also resulted in a situation where the Democrats can win the overall congressional popular vote by a substantial margin and still not even come close to controlling House of Representatives.
Also interesting is just how persistent the disbelief is in the idea that Donald Trump might be the nominee. Wasserman refers to “the remoteness of a scenario in which Trump would face Hillary Clinton in a one-on-one contest.” Over at the Washington Examiner, Tim Carney assures us that Trump will lose Iowa, thereby become a “loser” himself, and wind up getting his butt handed to him in New Hampshire.
They could certainly be right, but I think they’re a little over-confident personally. I also think a landslide election is just as much of a possibility with Cruz as with Trump. And a brokered convention is a real wildcard. It could wind up preventing a landslide by cutting off the nomination of a Trump or a Cruz, but it could also be just the thing that makes a landslide possible. After all, this isn’t the year that the Republican base will tolerate having the Establishment step in and pick a nominee that they haven’t voted for.
But, it’s true. The House of Representatives is so firmly in the GOP’s hands, that even a landslide defeat on the presidential level might not be enough to wrench control away from them.
It wouldn’t hurt, though.