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Viva La Congress?

Andrew Gelman thinks the Democrats might lose the House in 2010. Other people try to debunk him. I try not to make predictions on these things 13 months before the next election, but here's a prediction I'm comfortable making: Sometime in the next two or three election cycles, Democrats will lose one or both chambers of Congress.

That's how it goes. The midterms are traditionally bad for the incumbent party. The second set of midterms -- so 2014, if Obama holds the White House -- are traditionally really bad for incumbent party. History's pretty clear on this stuff.

The point of having a majority in Congress is not to retain your majority in Congress. It's to do as much good stuff as you can before the structural dynamics of American politics -- or the idiocies and tactical errors of your colleagues -- put an end to your reign. Coldplay had a good take on this.

Weren't expecting a Coldplay video in this post, were you? Point being, if you're going to be some former chairman chafing in the minority in a few years, better to do so with the comforting knowledge that your many legislative achievements assured your place in the history books and bettered the lives of millions of Americans.

By Ezra Klein  |  September 25, 2009; 10:01 AM ET
Categories:  Democrats  
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Next: Barney Frank vs. the Government


The odds have been beaten before. The president's party gained seats in the

Senate: 2002, 1982, 1970, 1962
House: 2002, 1998.

Posted by: tyronen | September 25, 2009 11:28 AM | Report abuse

I think a loss of the House is a major reach. Pointing to "seats won by McCain" runs into a problem of those districts where folks would vote for their local White Dem but wouldn't vote for a Black President. I would also be very interested to see the polling on Opposition Party ID in those years. Dem support is "low" largely because:

* GOP is dug in against them giving them less than 10% approval

* Dem & Indies voters want *more* from their Reps, not more GOPishness from their Reps

The GOP locks in a certain amount of the vote, but it also has increasingly been bleed as people flee it for becoming an Indy. GOP numbers remain horrible... they're freaking test patern numbers outside of the South.

The one positive that the GOP has is that they do rally the Base to vote for "their" candidate. The problem is that "their" candidate continues to get futher to the right, driving off even folks like Crist who the rest of us think of as a Conservative but is starting to be seen as an Evil Liberal to the core of the GOP.

I just don't see enough Crist types out there who are going to draw enough Indies while holding the Base that is going to win the 41 seats the GOP currently needs.

I mean... look at the special election in NY-20 back in April. Murphy was a no one. Tedisco was a major hitter the GOP rolled out. Obama barely carried it, and the special election was at a time when the economy was even worse than it had been back in November. Perfect setting for Tedisco to take it.

Murphy won.

Some of these we'll lose in 2010, and frankly it will be good to get rid of some Blue Dogs who would be in a far better election position if they led the party in a more progressive direction rather than watering down the Stim and feet dragging on Healthcare. But we'll also have quite a few that we hold like Murphy did.


Posted by: toshiaki | September 25, 2009 1:08 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, you don't define what you mean by "the incumbent party". Is that the party in control of one or both houses of Congress? Or the party of the incumbent president?

I think your confident prediction that the Democrats will lose one or both houses within two or three elections is based on nothing much, historically. After all, from the election of 1932 through that of 1976, the Democrats lost control of either house in only one election, 1946, when they lost both. They got them both back in 1948, and held them both until losing the Senate in 1980. Sure, things were different then (with the Democrats in firm control in the South) and sure, the Republicans lost the Senate again in 1986, Reagan's second midterm, but it was also when those 1980 freshman Senators weakly swept in with Reagan had to face the voters again. When the Republicans took both houses in 1994, they held them both for six election cycles, although they lost the Senate briefly due to a non-electoral party switch. In any given mid-term election where either the conventional-wisdom incumbent loss occurs, or it doesn't occur, there are always circumstances unique to that election, such as the Clinton impeachment in 1998 or the 9/11 effect in 2002, or the by-then overwhelming unpopularity of the Iraq occupation in 2006, along with Katrina and other debacles.

The Democrats won both houses in 2006 not because it was GWB's second midterm but because of his disastrous presidency and the appalling behavior of the Republican Party. I don't see the Republican Party changing much, and the Democrats have much larger majorities in both houses than the Republicans ever did during their 12-year reign of error. If the congressional Democrats can actually pull themselves together and do some of the people's business (an admittedly large if), I don't see why they shouldn't remain in the majority in both houses for a long time.

Posted by: thehersch | September 25, 2009 2:50 PM | Report abuse


I highly recommend revisiting the book 'Losers' by Michael Lewis.

The comparison between the momentum that was being built by the fringe Republican movement during the 1996 Presidential election and what is happening now is eerily similar.

1994-96: The Republican party takes back the Congress (which as you mention seems cyclical in modern politics) and beats back Clinton's health care overhaul attempt, only to get trounced in the 1996 general election. The main thrust of Lewis on this seems to be that the fringe split the party and aliented Independents to the point that killed the party in 1996. In fact, it took the Clinton scandal and religion to bring the party back together for the 2000 Presidential election (and that almost wasn't enough).

This is almost exactly what is happening now, except unlike 1994, it's reasonable to assume that a major health care initiative will pass BEFORE the mid-term elections. So, while the Republican party may gain a few seats back in 2010, the Republican party is delusional if they think a repeat of the mid-90s Congressional takeover is headed there way. Beyond that, they better starting looking for new issues to codify their party and Independents; Obama doesn't seem the kind to produce a scandal that is Clinton-esque and the religion card won't be effective again so soon in 2012.

This, combined with health care special interests, is the real reason Republicans are fighting this bill.


Posted by: burgessdd1 | September 25, 2009 4:37 PM | Report abuse

"History's pretty clear" on the fact that midterm loss hasn't been doing too well lately. There were majority-changing midterm losses in 1994 and 2006--with two midterm *gains* in between. (One should also think about how the GOP will do in the non-midterm 2012 election if Obama wins in a blowout against some hapless figure like Romney or Palin.)

Before that, when midterm loss was more consistent, the Democrats were able to hold onto the House for decades. As for the Senate, I might worry about the Dems losing control if they were not at 60 right now. There are only so many seats you can lose in a given election the Senate--no matter how strong the wave, 2/3 of all Senators are safe from it in a given year.

On top of all that is the fact that the Democrats continue to hold onto the structural advantage in party ID that has survived Reagan, Bush, Gingrich and Bush. The Dems have more voters, and younger ones, too.

I still agree with Gelman, only because the economy *could* still be very bad (or worse!) next year and then Democrats could get massacred. But this idea that the pendulum swings every 8 or 10 years or so, just through the force of history, is not sound.

Posted by: jjohn2 | September 26, 2009 12:57 AM | Report abuse

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