by Rhodes Cook
Decisive congressional election victories of the sort that the Democrats scored last week are usually produced in one of three ways — a surge in the vote for the winning party from the previous midterm election; a collapse in the vote for the losing party; or a big vote gain for the winning party that dwarfs a smaller gain for the losing party.
But this year, there was something a bit different in the turnout dynamic — a sharp increase in the Democratic House vote from 2002, coupled with a significant decline in the Republican vote.
With roughly 95% of the votes tallied so far in House races across the country, the overall partisan breakdown is 52% for Democratic candidates, 46% for Republican candidates and 2% for others. In actual votes, Democratic House candidates in 2006 have already tallied nearly 5 million more votes than they did in 2002, while the Republican tally is down more than 3 million from four years ago.
Put another way, the Democratic House vote has already grown by nearly 15% from 2002 while the Republican House vote has shrunk by nearly 10% from the first post-9/11 election. And those votes that are still outstanding, mainly on the West Coast and for unopposed incumbents, are expected to swell the Democratic total more than the Republican.
The Associated Press has forecast that when all outstanding U.S. House votes are counted this year, the total number will be about 78.7 million, or about 38% of the eligible electorate. In 2002, a total of 73.4 million votes were cast for House candidates by 37% of the eligible electorate.
An Overview of House Election Results Since 1980
In the Republicans’ 12 years of House control, they had much thinner majorities than the Democrats did in the years immediately before. The results below through the election of 2004 are based on official returns from all House races where a vote was tallied, including those where one of the major parties did not field a candidate. An asterisk (*) indicates a midterm election. A pound sign (#) indicates that the 2006 House vote is based on nearly complete but unofficial results as of Nov. 12. Several House races remain undecided. Percentages do not always add to 100 due to rounding.
Source: CQ Weekly Reports for House results from 1980 through 1992; America Votes for results from 1994 through 2004.
A Regional Rundown
As the tally of House ballots approaches completion, the Democratic congressional vote is already up this year over 2002 by more than 2 million votes in the Midwest, by more than 1 million in the Northeast, and by close to 1 million votes in both the South and West. Meanwhile, the number of votes cast thus far for Republican House candidates is down in every region from the last midterm, ranging from a falloff of more than 1 million votes in the Northeast to a decrease of at least a half million votes in the South, Midwest and West.
Republicans can argue that if the liberal bicoastal bookends of California and New York are removed — where Democrats will have 32 more House seats than the Republicans and all four Senate seats — the Republicans would still hold the edge in both chambers of Congress.
On the other hand, Democrats can argue that the GOP has been reduced to being the party of the South… but little else. In 2002, Republican House candidates won more votes than the Democrats in every region except the Northeast. In 2006, Democratic House candidates won more votes than the Republicans in every region except the South.
And Democrats consolidated their hold on the Northeast so firmly that it now provides a greater building block for the Democrats than the South provides for the GOP. To be sure, the South has more political clout in terms of raw numbers. Its 13 states (those of the old Confederacy plus Kentucky and Oklahoma) have 142 House seats, while the 12 states of the Northeast, stretching from Maine to West Virginia, have just 95 seats.
But with the rout of Republicans across the Northeast Nov. 7, the Democratic advantage in the region now approaches 45 House seats, while the GOP edge in the South is down to about 30. Meanwhile, with Democrat Jim Webb’s victory in Virginia, Democrats will hold five Senate seats from the South. That equals the number of Senate seats the Republicans will hold in the Northeast, after the defeat of Pennsylvania’s Rick Santorum and Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee. To round out their consolidation of the Northeast, Democrats gained a trio of governorships — in Maryland, Massachusetts and New York.
In the category of “how times have changed,” once Republican New England is now the cornerstone of the Democratic Northeast. Democrats picked up both of the Republican House seats in New Hampshire, the land of “Live Free or Die.” And if Republican Rep. Rob Simmons loses in Connecticut (he currently trails narrowly, but the count is not yet official) that will leave the House count in New England: 21 Democrats, 1 Republican, with Connecticut’s Christopher Shays, a 51% winner this year, the lone Republican standing.
2006 National House Vote
While there are still votes to be counted from last week’s election, it is already clear that the Democrats will finish with a much larger plurality in the nationwide House vote than President George W. Bush or congressional Republicans fashioned in 2004. As of Nov. 12, the Democratic lead in ballots cast for the House of Representatives stands at better than 4.4 million. Two years ago, Bush won the popular vote for president by barely 3 million votes, the same margin that Republicans won the overall House vote.
The current Democratic advantage in the congressional vote tally is the largest for either party since 1994, when Republicans gained control of Congress with an edge of 4.9 million votes. In the last midterm election in 2002, the GOP margin was 3.6 million, as Republicans garnered 37.4 million House votes to 33.8 million for the Democrats.
The ballots that remain to be counted this year are expected to further widen the Democrats’ lead in the House vote count. Those outstanding are mainly from the West Coast and districts where incumbents ran unopposed. The tally includes results from all races where votes were counted, including those where the winner ran without major-party opposition.
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Democratic success in 2006, though, was nationwide, as the party made inroads in all parts of the country.
In the Midwest, they picked up a pair of Senate seats (Ohio and Missouri), a governorship (Ohio), and turned a 60-40 GOP House majority in this battleground region into a virtual dead heat.
In the Mountain West, Democrats continued their inroads from 2004, gaining a critical Senate seat in Montana, a governorship in Colorado, and a trio of House seats (two in Arizona).
And in the South, Democrats made notable inroads on the fringes of the region, picking up a House seat in Louisville, two in South Florida, and dominating the Senate vote in the suburbs of Northern Virginia to the degree that Webb not only won but Democrats gained control of the Senate. For good measure, Democrats regained the Arkansas governorship and captured a western North Carolina House seat that is the home turf of evangelist Billy Graham.
There is little doubt that the results tarnish the Republicans’ reputation for voter mobilization that they have gained during the Bush II presidency. The GOP operation was clearly not strong enough to serve as a firewall in a political environment loaded with bad news for the party.
A Comparison of Presidential and Midterm House Turnouts Since 1980
Over the last quarter century, the vote cast nationwide in midterm House elections has been roughly two-thirds as large as the number cast in the previous presidential election. In that period, the largest surges in midterm turnout came in 1982 and 1994, years when the “out” party scored significant House gains. To be sure, the House vote is often several million votes below the total cast in a midterm election, since more votes traditionally are cast in gubernatorial and Senate contests than for the House. Still, House races are the only ones contested in every state in the nation in a midterm election.
Source: CQ Weekly Reports for House turnouts from 1982 through 1990; America Votes for 1994 through 2004, as well as for the number of votes cast in presidential elections since 1980. There are two turnout entries for 2006. The first is based on the number of votes counted for House candidates as of Nov. 12. The second entry is indicated by an asterisk (*) and is based on an Associated Press estimate of the final turnout for House races this year once all votes are counted. The midterm turnout rate in all cases is based on the estimated number of eligible (voting age) citizens in each midterm election year since 1982, as compiled by American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate.
Yet it is also arguable that without their well-calibrated turnout machinery, Republican losses would have been even more severe this year, particularly in the House. The GOP seat loss might have approached 50 if a number of GOP incumbents — from Shays in Connecticut to John Doolittle in California — had not been able to narrowly weather the anti-Republican tide.
Democrats scored significant gains in the House this year largely because they were able to expand the playing field of competitive races, which had shrunk dramatically in recent elections. When Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, there were nearly 100 competitive House contests (as measured by a winning percentage of less than 55% of the total vote). In 2002, that number was less than 50, and two years ago, the total of such competitive House contests fell to just 32.
But this year, based on the vote count thus far, the number of sub-55% winners has jumped to 66, the highest total in a decade. Going into the election, virtually all of these seats were held by Republicans. Coming out of the election, these seats are now divided nearly evenly — with Republicans having hung onto 35 of them but Democrats taking 31.
A Surge in Competitive House Races
Democrats went on the offensive in the 2006 campaign and the Republicans played defense, with the result: a sharp increase in the number of competitive House races. Based on nearly complete but unofficial returns, a total of 66 House contests were won this year with less than 55 percent of the total vote – more than double the number of competitive races from 2004. This year’s upswing reverses a steady decline in the number of hotly contested House races that had been evident since the early 1990s. Numbers for previous years are based on official returns.
Some of these Democratic pickups will surely be targets of opportunity for the GOP in 2008. For example, Democrats last week elected nine new House members in districts that had favored George W. Bush in 2004 by at least 10 percentage points, including those of ethically tainted Republicans such as Tom DeLay of Texas, Bob Ney of Ohio, and Don Sherwood of Pennsylvania. But often, House freshmen of both parties experience a “sophomore surge” when they run for reelection, using their newfound incumbency to vastly improve their vote percentage.
Clearly, the 2006 election was a unique one — a sharp rebuke for President Bush and his party, if not a vote of confidence in the Democrats. Yet the pro-Republican elections of 2002 and 2004, with their backdrop of war and terror, were also unusual.
Neither the Democrats or the GOP these days can portray themselves as America’s ‘party of choice’ — a reality underscored by the fact that neither party has won more than 52% of the nationwide House vote since 1990, and neither party has captured more than 51% of the popular vote for president since 1988. America may not be exactly a ’50-50′ nation, but in recent decades it has never ventured far from the center line in national elections.
Rhodes Cook is a nonpartisan election analyst and publisher of a political newsletter.