There are many reasons to believe that this current environment isn’t a Republican version of 2008 or a repeat of 1994.
- Lack of large-scale retirements. Despite defending exactly the same number of seats as they did in 1994, the Democrats are facing substantially less open seat races. While there have been a few surprise high-profile retirements (Obey, Bayh, etc.), it’s not nearly the scope we saw going into 1994.
- Republicans as an unknown quantity. In 1994, only folks who remember President Eisenhower could recall what it was like when the Republicans controlled Congress (when the party was vastly different, anyways.) Think voters don’t remember the Republican Congresses from the Bush Administration? They do, and not fondly.
- Republicans as a known quantity. The GOP ticket in Ohio, particularly, are retreads (Portman, Kasich, DeWine, Stivers, Chabot.) Chabot’s five-point loss after a career of close calls was not just the result of Obama-mania. Just like the GOP was nationally an unknown alternative, many of the GOP candidates in 1994 were considered largely unknown like Frank Cremeans.
- Geopolitics is different. 1994 was the year the South completed its gradual transformation from a Dixiecrat to a GOP area. The Democrats 54-seat loss in 1994 was largely the result of holding onto Southern seats that voted Democratic for Congress, but Republican for just about everything else which gets me to…
- Party switching. As evidence of the Southern realignment into the GOP ranks, there was a high number of party switchers from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, especially in the South, before, in, and after 1994. Freshman Parker Griffin is the only Democrat in Congress to switch to the GOP (before losing his “new party’s” primary). Unlike in 1994, though, we saw a Republican incumbent, Arlen Specter, switch parties to the Democratic Party (before losing his “new party’s” primary.)
- Minority party favorability. I couldn’t find data from 1994, but in 2006, the Democratic Party had a favorability rating over 50% to the GOP’s mid-30s. Voters do not now have a more favorable opinion of the Republican Party than they do the Democrats. At best, it’s essentially even. Instead, as discussed below, Congressional Republicans have never been more unpopular.
- Generic ballot. The generic ballot, for much of the year, is essentially split. In May 2006, the minority Democrats had a seventeen point lead.
- Peaked too soon. Much has been made about a gap in voter enthusiasm. But today, PPP had a poll that explained that it’s been given too much weight:
Among voters who are ‘very excited’ about voting this fall Republicans hold a 52-40 advantage. How much that matters is up for debate though. Scott Brown led the Massachusetts Senate race 59-40 with ‘very excited’ voters but won by only 5. Chris Christie led the New Jersey Governor’s race 60-34 with ‘very excited’ voters but his final margin of victory was only 4 points. As I’ve said before unexcited voters count the same as excited ones and our polling so far this cycle has suggested the Democrats who answer our surveys vote, whether they’re excited about it or not.
The GOP presently has a substantially smaller enthusiasm gap (8 points compared to 19 for Brown and 26 for Christie) than races that only got them five to four points. In 1994, the GOP saw a last minute surge in the polls their way. 2006 seems to be that they peaked last winter.
Anyone remember the Tea Party? I live in SWO which is Tea Party Central between the Dayton and Cincinnati Tea Parties which were called the largest in the State. When was the last Tea Party rally you recall that wasn’t us talking about Sonny Thomas? Conservatives plotted to have an estate tax repeal referendum and a state constitutional amendment to “repeal” health care reform by creating a federalism conflict in an effort to turn out the Tea Party vote this fall.
Well, the health care initiative failed to meet the ballot. The estate tax effort appears to have fallen short as well:
So instead of kicking off the Labor Day general election season with a massive Tea Party effort to push an anti-Obama Care constitutional amendment and a repeal of the “death tax” to victory in November (with the GOP statewide ticket riding along) what is the Tea Party reduced to doing instead?
They’re going to an amusement park and holding a cookout. Six months ago, if you drove in my county, you’d see so many Tea Party yard signs you’d thought an election was days away. Now, that same organization hasn’t updated their website since May. The Tea Party was an overhyped organization, now there is a question whether it’s even still an organization.
While the PPP poll shows Independents favoring the GOP by seven points, that’s less than how much Independents favored the GOP going into 1994. Furthermore, the number of Obama supporters saying they’ll vote Republican in November is equal to the number of McCain voters who say they’ll vote Democratic. (Sorry, Keeling, you’re wrong again.)
Despite low approval ratings (33%), Democrats in Congress still have a substantially higher approval ratings than Congressional Republicans (20%). In case you’re wondering, that’s actually lower than the when the Republicans controlled Congress.
Will the Republicans gain seats in Congress? Sure. After two straight cycles of picking up around two dozen seats, there are hardly any competitive seats left for the Democrats to pick up that they haven’t already, and there are a bunch of Democratic seats we wouldn’t have picked up but for the political tide in our favor in 2006 & 2008. But the absence of a tide in favor of one party is not evidence of a tide in favor of the other. That is the classic misread in the political narrative in Ohio and nationally.