Another Perspective

Wednesday’s Headline: GOP Keeps House Majority

Democrats aren't the only creatures likely to make gains.

By 11.5.06

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What could be more fun on election night than witnessing America's faux conservatives punished for their domestic overspending and foreign overreach? How about the Invisible Woman of the 2006 campaign, Nancy Pelosi, stranded on her liberal beachhead, her gaze fixed upon a Speaker's gavel that lies within her reach but beyond her grasp?

The latter image constitutes both the nightmare Democratic scenario and a Republican wet dream. It also illustrates my think tank's projection that Republicans will retain control of the House of Representatives by the razor-slim margin of a single seat.

Without question, the Democrats are going to make impressive gains in House races on Tuesday. Nevertheless, we expect their improved position to fall just short of wresting control from the Republicans.

This projection reflects individual assessments of all 435 congressional districts based upon an array of data from each district. Our projection foresees the Republicans stumbling over the finish line with 218 seats compared to 217 seats for the Democrats, whom we expect to gain 19 new House seats across 15 states. Six of these pick-ups will occur in open Republican seats.

These newly Democratic seats will be: Arizona's 8th District (Jim Kolbe's seat); California's 11th; Connecticut's 4th (Chris Shay's district); Colorado's 7th; Florida's 5th; Illinois' 6th (Henry Hyde's fiefdom); Indiana's 8th and 9th districts; Iowa's 1st; New York's 24th and 29th districts; North Carolina's 8th and 11th districts, the latter a triumph for ex-NFL quarterback Heath Shuler; Ohio's 1st; Pennsylvania's 7th; Texas's 22nd (Tom DeLay's former seat); and Washington state's rural 5th and suburban 8th districts.

The Democrats will also win Vermont's at-large district. Technically, this constitute a pick-up, as the seat is currently held by Vermont's "Ben & Jerry's" congressman, the veteran socialist Bernie Sanders.

Such a pick-up of seats is at the low end of the forecasts of the Beltway insiders who make their living in the political prognostication business. It is, however, more than enough to safely ensconce Pelosi in the Speaker's Chair.

Where our projection differs most markedly from Washington's established seers is that we also foresee several Republican pick-ups. The good news for the GOP is that, at least on November 7th, successful Republican persuasion will occur in places other than the House pages' dorm.

The GOP's "Surprising Seven" will prove victorious in Colorado's 3rd district, Georgia's 12th, Illinois' 8th (Phil Crane's former seat), Louisiana's 3rd, New York's 27th, South Dakota's at-large district; and Texas' 17th. These pick-ups will not occur courtesy of retiring Democratic incumbents, as we do not foresee any Republican gains in open Democratic seats.

HOW DOES ONE EXPLAIN our projection's divergence from other forecasts? To begin with, the district-centered database we employed is far more extensive than the information forming the basis of most "Democrats set to gain 25 to 35 seats" headline-grabbing forecasts.

The projection is based upon the Democracy Institute's new election index rating, which weights these eight pieces of district-level data: campaign spending; candidate advertising; candidate strength; party advertising; party registration; published and private polls; voter turnout organizations; and voting history.

There are six additional reasons why all the national polls overstate the Democrats' Election Day advantage. First, the generic congressional ballot question has historically understated actual support for the Republicans at the ballot box by several points.

Second, the national polls do not break down partisan sentiment by district. The Democrats are polling especially well in districts that they won comfortably in 2004. They are also polling higher in districts that Republicans consistently win by huge margins, but not well enough to threaten many incumbents.

In this context, only a few dozen districts dotted around the country really count. Democrats are generally more (in some cases, much more) competitive in these districts than they were two years ago, but many of these races remain very tight.

Studying non-poll district-level data strongly suggests that less than half of these districts will actually change partisan hands; the majority of the competitive races are going to be held by their current officeholders.

Third, GOP candidates enjoyed a financial advantage over the final two weeks of the campaign. Democrats raised a lot of money this campaign, so the GOP's edge is not as great as it has been in the past, but many competitive Democrats still lag behind Republicans in terms of the number of campaign ads they can air during the home stretch.

The GOP's financial advantage partially explains the fourth reason for Republican confidence -- their superior ground game. Deployed to devastating effect two years ago, the Republicans' voter turnout operation delivers voters to the polls in a manner that the Democrats simply cannot match.

In blowout races, this turnout advantage will not make the difference. But in the closely contested races, it will be worth three to five (probably decisive) points.

Fifth, the most recent round of redistricting made identifying Republican voters that much easier. Thanks to a plethora of gerrymandered districts, both parties' incumbents are safer than they have ever been.

Short of retirement or indictment, many incumbents are simply undefeatable, so reliable is their financial and electoral support base. Only a national political tsunami could unseat a large number. Short of such a seismic wave, the vast majority -- most of whom are Republicans -- will be reelected.

Finally, George W. Bush is an asset to select Republican candidates in the campaign's waning days. The president and his counterterrorism policies are still well regarded in some western states and in much of the South, where he is spending the campaign's final days in a targeted attempt to bolster Republican turnout. The rhetorical ammunition provided by John Kerry's botched Iraq war joke enhanced this Bush Effect.

Think of the fun that will ensue on Capitol Hill if the Republicans win a one-seat squeaker. The three certainties are: party discipline will assume an importance akin to a parliamentary system; virtually no significant piece of legislation will be passed; and the next special election to fill a House vacancy will be a negative and expensive drama of operatic proportion. Let the gamesmanship commence.

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