THE BLOG
01/04/2010 08:12 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Assessing the 2010 House elections

Tom Edsall quoted me in a Huffington Post article today on the 2010 elections:

There are, however, a number of factors that suggest 2010 will be quite different from the Democratic rout of 1994 -- the so-called Gingrich Revolution. "First, 1994 was the culmination of the South moving into the Republican column; there's no equivalent regional shift trending against Democrats in this cycle. Second, the GOP brand is still in terrible shape relative to 1993-1994," says Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at the University of Michigan.

For more, see this post on the 1994/2010 comparison from September. The statement about the Republican brand is a reference to this post, which shows that the GOP's net favorables in August 2009 were the worst since 1993 for an opposition party in the first year after a presidential election.

My assessment is roughly in line with the other political scientists Edsall quoted, Charles Franklin of the University of Wisconsin and Pollster.com and Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia:

"I'd say a loss of 20-30 seats, but not yet in the high 30s to make change of control a probable outcome," says University of Wisconsin political scientist Charles Franklin, who bases his prediction on historical precedents. "Presidential support needs to be in the low 40s to predict a very large loss of seats, based on post WWII data. Also, the GDP [Gross Domestic Product] per capita should be in decline or very small gains. At the latest revision of 2.2% in the third quarter, we are low but not as low as in worst midterms for parties."

The economy remains the crucial unknown: "If GDP grows at a three percent or so rate through the election, I think approval will turn up into the 50s, and that probably leads to Republican gains of 15 to 20 seats, which historically wouldn't be bad for the Democrats," Franklin says. If GDP begins to decline, "then approval will fall more and Democrats could be looking at 30-plus lost seats -- still a stretch for Republicans to gain control, but not out of reach."

..."There are several differences with 1993," says the University of Virginia's Larry Sabato. "First, Democrats then didn't believe it was possible for them to lose the House; now they know better and are more cautious." In addition, he says, there have been fewer retirements this year; the Democratic base after Obama's 53 percent win is stronger than it was when Clinton only won a 43 percent plurality in 1992; and the public image of the GOP was much better in the early 1990s than it is now.

For context, here's a lightly edited version of what I sent to Edsall:

As far as the House, I've seen nothing that would dramatically change what I wrote back in September. The Democrats will almost surely lose a significant number of seats, but at this point I still expect them to narrowly retain their majority. Also, there are two important differences between 2010 and 1994. First, 1994 was the culmination of the South moving into the Republican column; there's no equivalent regional shift trending against Democrats in this cycle. Second, the GOP brand is still in terrible shape relative to 1993-1994.

In terms of Obama's coalition, I don't think the decline so far has been especially dramatic (at least relative to my expectations). He started off with honeymoon levels of approval we haven't seen in some time, but now he's reverting toward where Reagan and Clinton were at this point in their term. We shouldn't have expected anything different -- Republicans and GOP-leaning independents were going to revert to disapproval of him as soon as he did anything controversial. Also, we expect him to (a) suffer from the poor economy (b) face a public that trends toward a preference for less government during a period of unified Democratic control and (c) lose seats in his first midterm like most recent presidents. Given all of those factors, I think he's in pretty good shape.

In related news, the Intrade futures market currently estimates the probability of the Democrats retaining control of the House at 66.5%:


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(Cross-posted to brendan-nyhan.com)