Immediately after the 2004 election, a good friend who’s a Republican vendor of campaign-related services remarked to me of the House of Representatives, “The thing’s on autopilot now.” What he meant by that was simply an acknowledgment of the Herculean task now facing House Democrats.
A recent report by the best data-cruncher I’m aware of, Clark Bensen, puts cold, hard numbers behind my good friend’s blunt assessment.
Bensen runs POLIDATA, the source for post-election numbers crunching at the congressional district level and below (see his most recent report [PDF file]). Bensen’s number-crunching showed that President George W. Bush won a whopping 255 congressional districts in 2004. John Kerry won only 180. That in itself is a devastating indictment of a candidate with marginal appeal and a party generally relegated to the coasts, an obvious finding that the Washington Post completely missed in its analysis of this data.
Between 2000 and 2004, Bush increased the number of congressional districts he won by 27 (228 to 255). This data is difficult to compare due to redistricting, but it still demonstrates the difficult situation the Democratic party finds itself in.
The root of the Democrats’ problems can be found in two simple statistics. Bush defeated Kerry in 214 congressional districts represented by Republican lawmakers and defeated Kerry in 41 congressional districts held by Democrats. In contrast, Republicans only have 18 seats where Kerry defeated Bush, less than half as many.
In an increasingly polarized electorate, this is very, very bad news for the Democrats, because they will eventually lose a number of the 41 seats they now hold but that voted for Bush last fall. Some examples include Jim Matheson’s seat in Utah, Ike Skelton’s seat in Missouri, and Earl Pomeroy’s seat in North Dakota.
Even if Republicans and Democrats were to essentially “swap” these seats (and in the coming decades, this is a reasonable expectation), Republicans would come out much farther ahead of the Democrats.
And, even if Democrats were able to take back partisan control of the House in the next election by piecing together a bare majority, they would still find themselves with a fractured caucus made of a significant number of members occupying districts ideologically out of step with the national Democratic party. Democrats could, if they regained the House, achieve a partisan majority, but not an ideological majority.
This data gives further evidence to the notion that Republicans in the House, far from being “capped” or “tapped out,” have room to grow their majority. Sure, Republicans need to guard their 18 members who won in Kerry districts, but they have twice the potential Democrats have.
House Republicans may be tempted to play it safe, do the tit-for-tat game with the Democrats, and relax behind their electoral fortress. With a caucus composed overwhelmingly of members in districts Bush won handily, plus an improving economy, they could afford to play it safe, mute partisan differences, and hold on to power. Call it the “Democrat-lite” strategy.
But this data suggests that House Republicans should go for the knockout blow. By drawing bright distinctions between the parties in a wide assortment of the 41 Democrat districts Bush won, Republicans would be able to force the Democrats into a defensive posture that compels them to disperse their financial resources widely, increasing the odds of overall success, and giving Republicans a shot at a breakthrough cycle.
The House is indeed on “autopilot”–Republican autopilot. With a decade of control under their belt, House Republicans are in excellent political shape. But Bensen’s data suggests taking the plane off “autopilot” and charting an aggressive course that takes the president and his turnout machine into the Democratic districts he won in 2004.
–Robert Moran is a vice president at Republican polling firm Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates. He is an NRO contributor.