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For House Democrats: More Favorable Terrain Than '94

A Commentary By Rhodes Cook

Thursday, June 24, 2010

When the Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in 1994, one of their main problems was the political terrain on which they had to fight. While many political observers find the present electoral environment to be eerily similar with that of 1994, not nearly as many House Democrats are as exposed as they were then.

Fully half of the Democratic seats in that strongly anti-incumbent, anti-Democratic election 16 years ago were in districts that had voted for the Republican presidential ticket in one or both of the previous two presidential elections. This time, just one third of Democratic seats are in similarly problematic territory.

It is an important distinction since the vast majority of House seats that the Democrats lost in 1994 – 48 of 56, to be precise – were in “Red” or “Purple” districts. And this year, the Democrats have fewer of such districts to defend.

In short, the playing field looks much friendlier for House Democrats in 2010 than it did 16 years ago. The number of “Blue” districts they hold has risen by 43, from 128 in 1994 to 171 today, while the number of “Purple” districts they must defend has dropped by 39 (from 77 to 38). Meanwhile, the total of “Red” districts occupied by House Democrats is down this year by four from 1994 (from 51 to 47).

Arguably, the political landscape is more favorable for the Democrats this time because they are a more cohesive, top-down party than they were in 1994. Then, they were coming off a series of weak presidential showings in the 1970s and 1980s in which their standard-bearer only once could carry more than 138 of the nation’s 435 congressional districts (the exception being Jimmy Carter in 1976).

Meanwhile, at the congressional level, Democrats in the early 1990s were not nearly as powerful as their hefty Senate and House majorities would indicate. A large bloc of conservative Southern Democrats regularly joined with congressional Republicans to form what was known at the time as the “conservative coalition.”

Chart 1. House Democrats on Rougher Terrain in ‘94

In terms of political terrain, House Democrats were more exposed in 1994 than they are this year. Then, half the seats they were defending were in districts that had voted for the Republican presidential ticket in one or both of the previous two presidential elections (1988 and 1992). This year, just one third of Democratic seats are in similarly problematic terrain – an important distinction since the vast majority of House seats that the Democrats lost in 1994 were in “Red” or “Purple” districts.

 

Note:  “Blue” districts are those that voted Democratic in the previous two presidential elections (2004 and 2008 for the 2010 midterm elections; 1988 and 1992 for the 1994 midterms). “Purple” districts are those that voted Democratic and Republican once apiece in the previous two presidential contests. “Red” districts are those that voted Republican in the previous two presidential elections. This year’s Democratic House totals are as of June 21, 2010, and includes an open seat in New York that the party held before it became vacant in March.

Sources:  Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report (Nov. 19, 1994) for the data on that year’s Democratic House losses; www.swingstateproject.com for the 2004 and 2008 presidential vote by congressional district.

Now, the Democrats have the look of a much stronger party. They are coming off a string of five consecutive presidential elections since 1992 in which their candidate has swept at least 180 districts each time. The byproduct of this consistent top of the ticket success has been the creation of more hospitable “blue” districts for House Democrats than their colleagues enjoyed in 1994.

Geographically, the party’s base on the two coasts has hardened over the last decade and a half. In California, for instance, 31 of the state’s 34 House Democrats currently occupy “Blue” districts.

“Purple” district Democrats are scattered around the country, from central Florida’s pugnacious Alan Grayson to the retiring Bart Stupak in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Ironically, the largest number of these swing district Democrats can be found in Democratic New York, where there are five.

As for “Red” district Democrats, they are clustered most prominently in the South. The region was the linchpin of the Republican victory in 1994 and offers a similar opportunity for a major GOP comeback in 2010. More than half the House seats that Democrats hold across the region are in “Purple” or “Red” districts – 32 seats in all.

Virginia is home to four of these vulnerable Democrats. Freshmen Gerald Connolly of suburban Northern Virginia and Glenn Nye of the Tidewater represent “Purple” swing districts that voted for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 but backed Republican George W. Bush four years earlier. Freshman Tom Perriello of the Charlottesville area and 14-term incumbent Rick Boucher of the western panhandle’s “Fighting 9th” both represent districts that are more consistently reddish in hue.

The 1994 election did show the close correlation that can exist between the political landscape and election outcomes.

In spite of the national Republican tide, House Democrats ran very well in “Blue” districts that year. They lost barely 5% of those that voted for the party’s candidate in the previous two presidential elections.

House Democrats ran less well in “Purple” districts, which had voted Republican for president in one of the previous two elections. There, the casualty rate among Democratic representatives surpassed 25%.

And in the “Red” districts, which the GOP had carried in both of the two previous presidential elections, the Democratic carnage was considerable. They lost more than 50% of the seats they possessed in this most difficult terrain.

But in recent decades, if a “big wave” election was brewing, there were signs of it in the special House elections that preceded the fall voting. That was the case in early 1974, when Democrat John Murtha scored a special election victory for a Republican seat in western Pennsylvania that proved a precursor of huge gains for his party that fall.

It was also the case in early 1994, when Republicans picked up a pair of Democratic seats in Kentucky and Oklahoma. And it was the case again in early 2008, when Democrats peeled off a trio of Republican seats in Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi.

This election cycle, Republican Scott Brown has already scored a conspicuous special Senate election win in Massachusetts. But Republicans have been unable to post a similar high-profile breakthrough on the House side in spite of a handful of opportunities.

To be sure, Republicans did pick up a previously Democratic seat May 22 in Hawaii, where the incumbent had resigned to focus on his campaign for governor. But the victory by Republican Charles Djou was clearly a fluke. In a district that Obama had carried in 2008 with 70% of the vote, Djou prevailed with less than 40% as two major Democratic candidates divided the bulk of the remaining votes. There was no provision for a runoff election.

Much more noteworthy have been the special elections held over the last year in a trio of “Purple” districts. Republicans were unable to win any of them. Two were in upstate New York, the other Murtha’s seat in southwest Pennsylvania.

A GOP victory in the latter contest on May 18 would have been a loud reminder of 1974 – rekindling memories of how Murtha’s special election victory served as a harbinger of his party’s great success that fall.

That the vote last month was a loss for the Republicans, though, underscored the opposite – that winning a House majority this year might not be nearly as easy for the GOP as many political observers have predicted. To be sure, there are plenty of targets for the Republicans this fall. But there are not as many ripe ones as was the case in 1994.

Chart 2. House Democrats: Blue, Purple, Red Seats by Region

In recent years, the presidential and congressional base of the Democratic Party has been on the two coasts. Meanwhile, this year’s most vulnerable Democratic House seats in terms of political terrain are in the other two regions of the country – the battleground states of the Midwest plus the once solidly Democratic South, which is now almost as solidly Republican.

 

Note: “Blue” districts are those that voted Democratic in the last two presidential elections (2004 and 2008). “Purple” districts are those that voted Democratic and Republican once apiece in the last two presidential contests. “Red” districts are those that voted Republican in the last two presidential elections. This year’s Democratic House totals are as of June 21, 2010, and includes an open seat in New York that the party last held. For the purpose of this study, the regions are comprised of the following states:
 Northeast – CT, DE, MA, MD, ME, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI, VT, WV.
 West – AK, AZ, CA, CO, HI, ID, MT, NM, NV, OR, UT, WA, WY.
 Midwest – IA, IL, IN, KS, MI, MN, MO, ND, NE, OH, SD, WI.
 South – AL, AR, FL, GA, KY, LA, MS, NC, OK, SC, TN, TX, VA.

Source:  www.swingstateproject.com for the 2004 and 2008 presidential vote by congressional district.

Chart 3. 2010 House Midterms: Terrain Generally Favorable for Both Parties

Fully two thirds of the House seats that Democrats will be defending this fall are in districts that voted Democratic in the last two presidential elections. Meanwhile, more than 80% of the House seats currently held by Republicans are in districts that voted for the GOP candidate in the 2004 and 2008 presidential contests. The big disparity is the number of House seats that each party must defend in hostile terrain. As of May 21, only seven Republicans represented districts that voted Democratic for president in ‘04 and ‘08. But there are nearly 50 Democratic representatives who hold seats in districts that are similarly Republican.

 

Note:  “Blue” districts are those that voted Democratic in the last two presidential elections (2004 and 2008). “Purple” districts are those that voted Democratic and Republican once apiece in the last two presidential contests. “Red” districts are those that voted Republican in the last two presidential elections. The partisan House totals are as of June 21, 2010, and includes an open seat in New York that the Democrats last held and an open seat in Indiana that the Republicans last held.

Source:  www.swingstateproject.com for the 2004 and 2008 presidential vote by congressional district.

Rhodes Cook is a senior columnist at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia

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Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

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