Tuesday, December 9, 2008

What goes up ...

Party strength goes in cycles. Right now in the U.S., the Democrats are again the dominant party. By the end of January, there will be a Democratic president, and enlarged majorities for that party in both houses of Congress. They also hold a strong position at the state government level.

But such a situation doesn't last forever.

In this post on The Fix blog on the Washington Post's website, Chris Cillizza asks whether the Republicans' comeback has already begun, in the wake of some runoff victories in the South.

Of course, it's impossible to predict now with any accuracy the results of the 2010 elections. But it's more likely than not that the Republicans will rebound. Two reasons:

  1. As a party gains seats, it reaches out into districts in which it has less of an instrinsic advantage. In 2004, Democrats won 202 House seats, their lowest total since the 1947-8 Congress. Those must have been the 202 safest Democratic seats in the country. Now, they will have at least 255 in the 2009-10 Congress. Those 53 additional districts are presumably less inclined to vote Democratic, due to demographics, economic circumstances, etc., than the 202 districts to which they were added. They elected Republicans not too long ago, and might do so again, if the tide turns.

  2. When a party is given the responsibility of governing, as is the case with the Democrats, emerging from a period in opposition, they will inevitably take actions that some voters will oppose. When a midterm election comes around, as 2010's will, many voters, including some who voted for the majority party the previous time around, will find reason(s) to cast a protest vote for the opposition. Republicans will likely benefit from some such votes, but the unanswerable question is: how many?

On the other hand, there is precedent for a party to continue to gain for quite a while. In 1928, when Herbert Hoover won a huge landslide victory, his coattails brought in a Republican House majority of 270 to 165. Then the Democrats gained seats in four consecutive elections between 1930 and 1936. By 1936, when Franklin Roosevelt won the second of his four terms, the Democrats had built up an overwhelming House majority of 339 to 88. (I'm including Farmer-Labor representatives with the Democratic total.)

After the 1936 election, the Republicans began a comeback. By 1943, the Democrats' lead had shrunk to 223 to 209. Four years later, the Republicans won a short-lived House majority.

That is in stark contrast to what happened in a more recent case. In 1964, the landslide election of Lyndon Johnson for a full term as president was accompanied by a 295-140 Democratic House majority. But just two years later, the Republicans gained 47 seats at the midterm election. They won back the presidency in 1968. But Democrats maintained their majorities (at various levels) in both houses of Congress for the following 12 years.

Trends in the Senate were roughly similar. I'm concentrating on House numbers, because they're a better indicator of trends, with the entire membership up for reelection every two years.

So is this 1932 or 1964? Of course, no two historical periods exactly parallel each other. But the point is that there is precedent for the Democratic Party, in a situation similar to its current one, to keep on gaining, and there's precedent for it to fall back to earth. I predict the latter (I'm still a Republican, despite having voted for Obama), but we'll see.

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