The evidence is piling up: President Bush’s numbers are sliding; more Americans say the country is headed “off on the wrong track”; and voters are announcing in “generic ballot tests” that they intend to vote Democratic for Congress. It’s time to ponder whether we are witnessing the early stages of a Democratic wave that could overwhelm Congressional Republicans in November.
Speaking on background, Democratic consultants I contacted recently welcomed the new political environment — but they acknowledged that the party is not yet within hailing distance of retaking the House.
Instead, party insiders are content to argue that the new landscape offers them an opportunity later this year to make substantial gains — gains they had not seriously contemplated six to eight months ago.
That seems about right to me.
While the generic ballot has not recently been as good a predictor as it once was, the movement to the Democrats is simply too strong to be ignored. That said, a number of factors make 2004 different from 1994, the year a GOP wave drowned dozens of Democrats.
Since that famous wave, another round of House reapportionment and redistricting has shrunk the number of competitive districts, making it more difficult for either party to put together a wave. And a second round of redistricting in Texas last year will surely add at least three more seats into the Republican column.
A decade ago, Democrats were hurt by open seats and untested incumbents. Republicans won 22 of 31 Democratic open seats in 1994, and 16 of the 34 incumbents who went down to defeat were making their first run for reelection, according to that year’s Congressional Quarterly Almanac. By contrast, Republican vulnerability is much more limited this year, measured both by open seats and by untested incumbents.
Republicans also benefited from open Senate seats a decade ago. This time, Democrats are defending several open seats, and most of the Senate seats in play are in the South or in other reliably Republican states. That, too, minimizes Democratic opportunities.
Most important of all, 1994 was a midterm election — not a presidential year. The only way for voters to express their dissatisfaction with then-President Bill Clinton was to use the Congressional ballot. This year, however, voters can split their tickets, and that simple fact lessens the likelihood of a wave.
And yet there is one considerable factor that points in the Democrats’ favor. In 1994, the Republicans had to put together a huge wave, since they needed to net more than three dozen House seats and seven Senate seats to gain control of Congress. This year, the Democrats need to net only a dozen House seats and one or two Senate seats to make Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) the Speaker of the House and Tom Daschle (S.D.) the Senate Majority Leader.
At this point, GOP consultants say they detect only limited evidence that downballot candidates are paying a price for public pessimism and the president’s slide in popularity.