Published on Tuesday, November 7, 2006 by CommonDreams.org
Political “Buyers Remorse”? Or Is Our Electoral System Rigged? We’re About to Find Out
by Mitchell Rofsky
President George W. Bush and Karl Rove have been saying that the Democratic celebration of an election night victory has been premature. Boy, are they right--and you don’t have to be a Republican to think so.
American history says that the Republicans should be overwhelmed, routed, creamed. Disastrous results have engulfed the party of every president in the 6th year of his term for the past century—even the politically superlative Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan--with only one exception. That’s right: disastrous! Going back 100 years, the average 6th year loss is 28 House seats and 7 Senate seats. Certainly the Bush Administration’s misfortunes and the consequent poll numbers are consistent with such a result—and the 15 seat gain that the Democrats need to control the House of Representatives would be underperforming.
The one exception is what gives the Republicans hope. In 1998, President Bill Clinton escaped the two-term curse. That year, the Democrats lost no Senators—and actually gained 5 House seats. So shocking was the result that Newt Gingrich was forced to step down as the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Has there been a change in American politics that should give a two-term President hope?
Not a legitimate change. In fact, the focus on the 6th year actually distracts from other dynamics that affect the prospects of the President’s party in midterm elections. These factors indicate that the Democratic opportunity is understated—and the Clinton Administration is no exception!
Rather than considering just this one election, look at all of the Congressional elections that occur on a President’s watch. Three elections follow a two-term President’s first victory. Going back a century, after the third election, the opposing party has gained an average of 56 House seats and 6 Senate seats.
This “buyer’s remorse” on the part of the American electorate has been an unwavering feature of American politics. In fact, going back to the formation of the Republican Party and the beginning of the modern political era 150 years ago, no President has been able to gain House seats for his party during his two terms. Yet, the Bush Republicans are up 11 seats.
In the last century, FDR is the only President to be able to gain Senators—and only during his first two of four terms. This was an exception even for FDR: If 1946 is considered to be the last “FDR” election, the Democrats lost seats, compared to both 1940 and his very first election in 1932. Today, the President’s party is ahead 5 Senate seats from 2000.
Here’s another factor: the majority/minority status of the President’s party in the House. When in the majority, this adds another 10 losses to the House averages. (The Senate has always been controlled by the President’s party when he was first elected). After all, this is a numbers game and there is more upside potential when you are in the minority.
So, the Democrats need to pick up 77 House seats and 11 Senators just to reach historic averages.
Obviously, out of reach. What does it take to equal the worst performances by any out-of-power party during a two-term Presidency in nearly 70 years? Democrats would still need to pick up 27 House Seats and gain 13 Senate seats--equaling Reagan’s performance. This would be considered a Democratic tsunami and again, it would equal the worst performances by an out-of-power party in the Senate since 1938 and the worst performance in the House in American history. Anything less on the part of the Democrats and George Bush could be considered the greatest political President in American history. Does this make sense to you?
What's going on?
Of course, this analysis ignores the factors that are supposed to determine political outcomes: issues, the popularity of the President and his party, the state of the economy, the fact that there is a war going on, and whose political consultants are better or at least more ruthless--not to mention who has the better candidates.
Nearly all of these factors now favor the Democrats. · Presidential approval. Bush’s Republican predecessors Eisenhower and Reagan were popular in 1958 and 1986 respectively when their parties suffered significant losses. And Bush’s popularity is below Clinton’s when he lost 52 seats in 1994. · Issues. An October 8th USA Today poll reveals that the Democrats are ahead on every issue polled, including terrorism—the issue that gave Bush his margin of victory in 2004. · Corruption, which killed the Democrats in 1994, now favors the Democrats. · War, which hurt the Democrats in 1966--and didn’t even help FDR in 1942. · The economy, which is at best a toss-up for the Republicans, yet a strong economy didn’t help the Democrats in 1966, nor the Republicans keep control of the Senate in 1986.
But history indicates that little of this seems to matter. Incumbent parties generally have better candidates and more effective leaders and more money, yet they get their butts kicked in midterm elections over and over again. Voter fatigue with the incumbent party seems to determine the midterm results more than any of the factors described above.
So Democrats should be odds on win big. If they don’t, are there factors that have changed recently that could trump over 100 years of history?
As I said above, there are no legitimate changes (OK, a bit of one that only applies to the Senate—states might not swing from one party to another as in the past if liberal voters are congregating themselves in fewer states). There are several illegitimate ones, however:
Gerrymandering? If there’s one thing that most political professionals wouldn’t consider new it’s gerrymandering, a term coined in 1810 in “honor” of the Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry who drew legislative and congressional district borders to benefit his party. So while recognition of gerrymandering is nearly as old as the nation itself, few realize how much greater the impact of gerrymandering is today.
Computers have made this abuse more effective and the impact of recent gerrymandering is stark. In earlier elections, over 100 seats were usually considered vulnerable. Consider this in the context of our political past: until the 1980’s, the South was solidly Democratic. So there were 100+ vulnerable seats out of a universe of not 435, but about 335. In other words, about 33% of seats were open to change. It was not unusual for 50, 60, 70 seats to actually switch parties over two Presidential terms.
Today, the South is no longer “one party” and yet the number of vulnerable seats is considered to have dropped in half, making it much more difficult for popular will to be recognized. This is especially important as the majority party rarely holds 15% more than the seats necessary for a majority. So, gerrymandering has the potential to alter who actually controls the House of Representatives—and to do so repeatedly.
Smears? Incumbents have learned how to protect themselves better over the years: they raise a lot of money and go negative immediately, “defining” their opponents. (In the old days, they ignored the opposition, but that didn't work in the off years.) These smears are broadcast much more broadly and loudly than ever before. The last time that the Dems had a 6th year opportunity was in 1986, a period that preceded the rise of talk radio, the Internet, and Cable TV.
Money? Money always makes a difference, of course, but even though it favors the incumbents, the out of power party has consistently been able to overcome it, at least once every six years. Perhaps the vast scale of dollars is finally having an impact.
Election Manipulation? It’s difficult to embrace the theory that election machines are distorting results, as the President of Diebold can’t be doing this alone (can he?) and, it isn’t easy to keep such conspiracies secret. However, we know that voter suppression, the manipulation of the number of voting machines, and the Republican strategy of keeping minority voters off the rolls or in long lines is having an impact.
Every indication is that political buyers’ remorse has kicked in and the Democrats could/should win big. But, a modest Democratic victory—or less--requires explanation. Gerrymandering, smears, money, and election manipulation are at the top of the list of reasons. Do these lay out a sufficient case for a rigged election?
We're about to find out.
Mitchell Rofsky, formerly a public interest lobbyist in Washington DC, writes on U.S. politics. When he's not writing, he's president of Better World Club, the nation’s only socially responsible, eco-friendly auto club.