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How big could the GOP House wave be?

How big could the Republican wave be? AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jonathan Hayward

A headline in The Onion a few days ago blared: "Democrats could lose up to 8,000 seats in upcoming midterm election".

That may be a slight exaggeration -- we are KIDDING -- but it did get us to thinking about just how big a Republican House wave could be on election day.

While most of the focus is on whether Republicans can win the 39 seats they need to re-claim the House majority, there is a lower-profile debate going on within the ranks of party strategists regarding the ceiling for GOP gains on Nov. 2 if all the breaks go against Democrats.

In conversations with Democrats and Republicans closely monitoring the House playing field, estimates range widely from 50 seats all the way to 70 (or so) seats with most people coming down somewhere in between. "It's likely to be in the fifties, but Republicans could gain a net of up to seventy House seats," offered one Democratic strategist pessimistically.

(To be clear: Those sorts of seat losses for Democrats are based on a worst-case scenario which, as of today, remains less than likely.)

If Republican gains do approach the top end of that spectrum, however, it would mark a historic changeover of seats.

Back in 1994, Republicans made a 53 seat gain in the House. That's the largest seat change in the past 50 years of congressional elections. The only other elections that come close are 2006 (30 seat Democratic gain), 1980 (33 seat Republican gain), 1974 (43 seat Democratic gain), 1966 (39 seat Republican gain) and 1958 (48 seat Democratic gain).

At both the macro and micro level there are indications that a major wave could -- and we emphasize could -- be building. ("It's hard to say that the Democrats are facing anything less that a Category 4 hurricane," Democratic pollster Peter Hart said recently.)

Let's start at the macro.

There have been four national polls conducted in the past week or so, all of which show Republicans with a lead on the generic Congressional ballot question -- the typical barometer used by most political analysts to judge in what direction and how strongly the national winds are blowing.

The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed a generic Republican candidate taking 50 percent while a generic Democrat received 43 percent among likely voters. A Reuters/Ipsos poll put the generic ballot among likelies at 48 percent Republican, 44 percent Democratic and the Associated Press had it 50 percent Republican, 43 percent Democratic.

Gallup, which has had its ups and down this year when it comes to the generic congressional ballot question, has two different likely voter models -- neither of which look good for Democrats. In a high turnout likely voter model, Republicans have a 53 percent to 42 percent edge on the generic; in a more typical turnout likely voter model, Republicans have an even wider 56 percent to 39 percent edge on the question.

Typically, and by that we mean in a non-wave year, Democrats enjoy a mid-single digit edge on the generic ballot.

In wave Democratic years, that number bumps up considerably. In 2006, for example, Democrats held a 55 percent to 41 percent among likely voters in the Washington Post/ABC poll on Oct. 22 of that year.

And, even in past Republican wave years, the generic ballot has been more even. On Oct. 23, 1994, the Post/ABC survey showed Democrats at 49 percent to 47 percent for Republicans on the generic; eight days later -- Halloween! -- it was 48 percent Democrat, 45 percent Republican.

Given those historical numbers and the current polling, it suggests that there is a real possibility that a very strong Republican wind will be blowing across the country on election day -- a breeze that at least creates the possibility of broad-scale GOP gains.

At the micro level, too, there is evidence that a major wave could be on the way. The playing field of competitive races continues to expand nearly daily with all the additions coming in Democratic-controlled seats.

In the last week or so, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has launched ads in support of previously safe incumbents like Reps. Ed Perlmutter (Co.), Raul Grijalva (Ariz.), Heath Shuler (N.C.) and Jim Costa (Calif.) among others.

The two best political handicappers in the business -- Charlie Cook and Stu Rothenberg -- now each carry a whopping 100 districts in their competitive race charts. Each man rates 91 Democratic seats as competitive as compared to just nine for Republicans.

While it's far from certain that all -- or even a majority -- of those Democratic seats will turn over on Nov. 2, the expanding playing field does mean that if there is a wave out in the country on election day, there are enough seats in play to give Republicans a chance for major pickups.

All of that said, candidates -- and the campaigns they run over the last week and a half of this election -- do matter. Democratic strategists note that the resilience of people like targeted Reps. Tom Perriello (Va.), Betsy Markey (Colo.) and Bobby Bright (Ala.) is evidence that the hand-to-hand combat in individual races belies the seeming national trend and could keep Republicans from enjoying a dream scenario on election night.

The great thing is that we only have 12 days -- that's 288 hours (or so) -- until we get some answers.

But, looking at the micro and macro level developments in recent days there is at least a possibility -- though not a probability -- that Republicans could be in position to score gains well in excess of the 39 seats they need for the majority.

By Chris Cillizza  | October 21, 2010; 12:26 PM ET
Categories:  House, Insider Interview, Live Fix  
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