Rich Lowry is dreaming of another 1994. No doubt the announcement of another Democratic retirement in AR-01 is encouraging this kind of thinking, but the number of House Democratic retirements (now at 12) is not yet even remotely close to the number of 1994 retirements. There were 28 House Democratic retirements before those midterms, and these open seats accounted for more than half of the GOP’s gains that year. To be generous, let’s assume that the GOP can once again gain twice as many seats as there are Democratic retirements. That would mean Democratic losses of 24 seats, which would be a significant GOP gain and comparable to the ’82 losses for Republicans, but it would fall far short of winning the majority. The ’82 comparison seems reasonable, but it may be a stretch when we consider that Reagan’s average approval rating throughout 1982 was noticeably lower than Obama’s rating is today.
Even Obama’s overall approval rating is misleading in a way. As Alex Massie observed a few days ago, Obama’s approval is actually very positive in every region of the country except the South:
According to one recent poll the President is popular in most of the country. In the north-east, more than 80% of voters approve of his performance. In the midwest 62% of voters have a favourable view of Obama and so do 59% of voters in the west. Only the south bucks this trend. There, 67% of the electorate has an unfavourable view of the President.
Obviously, the South is a large region and makes up a significant part of the national population, so poor ratings in the South are far from irrelevant, but the number of vulnerable Democratic seats put in jeopardy by high disapproval ratings there is actually not very great. There are 12 vulnerable Southern seats currently held by Democrats, and only five of these are open seats. If we add in Southern Democratic seats rated as “likely Democratic” to this list, that adds just nine more.
The ’94 GOP sweep was possible because so many Democrats held naturally Republican ground, particularly in the South.
What Lowry does not take into account is that the current Republican House membership is built around the gains made in 1994. Much of the “naturally Republican ground” that the GOP gained in 1994 has remained solidly Republican ground ever since with few exceptions. There are simply far fewer Democratic seats in the South to be taken away, and many of those that remain are not going to fall as easily. 1994 saw Southern voters casting their Congressional ballots for the party they had been backing at the presidential level for decades. This is what solidified the so-called “Southern captivity” of the GOP. It is reasonable to expect that the GOP will pick off some of the few remaining Democratic seats in the region, but they have already consolidated control over so many of the South’s districts that there is not much more room to improve. What distinguishes this from Democratic success in 2006 picking off Republicans in New York, Pennsylvania and New England is that Democrats were positioned to expand their majority in every region of the country. If that poll is accurate, Obama is not unpopular in the rest of the country, which distinctly limits the GOP’s chances of adding to their numbers in the House.
Lowry also discusses 1994 without paying any attention to the presidential election that preceded it. After all, 1994 was not exactly a repeat of 1966. The GOP was not rebounding from a devastating blowout, but was benefiting from a number of factors that we have not seen since then. Clinton had won just a plurality of the popular vote two years earlier, an odd independent candidate had wrapped up a fifth of the vote that was disgusted with both parties, and the election was overwhelmingly driven by the public’s disaffection with the incumbent Bush. Southern voters swung to the GOP, where they have remained since then, and evangelical turnout increased to the level where it has stayed for 16 years. Added to this, depressed Democratic turnout and organization created by dissatisfaction with the failure of health care and the passage of NAFTA compounded these difficult conditions to create a once-in-a-generation result.
Another key, obvious difference with 1994 is that the Democrats have just won the last two cycles, which were repudiations of Bush and the Republican Party. Parties that have been roundly rejected by the public in two straight elections do not come roaring back to huge gains in both houses in the third cycle. Of course the opposition party will make gains in the midterms this year, because opposition parties almost always do, but talk of regaining the majority is ridiculous. Before 1994, Republicans had not made gains of 20+ seats in midterm House elections since 1966, and Democrats had become the seemingly permanent majority party in the House. Few could remember the last time the Republicans had been in the majority, and they had been there so briefly that there wasn’t much to remember anyway. Today, the memory is all too fresh, it is very negative, and it hasn’t faded nearly as much as party leaders need for a quick turnaround. The last time the GOP was in opposition to a Democratic President elected with more than 50% of the vote, they gained 15 House seats in 1978.